JOYCE McMILLAN on THE WINTER’S TALE at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh; HAMLET at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, and RUPTURE at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 28.9.07
The Winter’s Tale 3 stars ***
Hamlet 3 stars ****
Rupture 3 stars ***
IT MAY NOT BE FASHIONABLE TO say so, but directing Shakespeare well, under 21st century conditions, is a task that requires major intellectual fire-power. It’s not only that directors need a thorough understanding of the plays themselves. It’s that they need a vision, and a quality of engagement with their own society, that enables them to develop a powerful and original idea about why it matters that that particular play should be performed now; and then they need the skill to express that idea, through the work of a huge team of artists. Too strong a vision can distort and destroy a great play, of course. But without that sense of sharp contemporary response to the original text, productions tend to flounder shapelessly into life, and to lack the driving communicative energy of really great theatre.
And that, I’m afraid, is the fate of both major Shakespeare productions current playing in Scotland, at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh and the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow. At the Royal Lyceum, Mark Thomson assembles an outstanding Scottish cast for his production of Shakespeare’s bold, breathtaking and problematic late romance The Winter’s Tale, about a ferocious firestorm of marital jealousy that costs many innocent lives, and comes close to destroying a kingdom; and at first – as the lights go up on designer Robin Don’s bright, bare stage, with a mighty crack running across the rear wall, and the dust of a major building collapse smeared across the shoulders of the courtiers – it looks as though Thomson may have some powerful, consistent interpretation in mind.
No such luck, though; for just as the dust, in this initial image, bafflingly predates the explosion of jealousy that blows apart the world of the Sicilian king Leontes and his beautiful pregnant queen Hermione, so the whole production is punctuated by ideas that seem potentially interesting, but are never developed in any coherent way – a tendency that reaches its low point in a bizarre post-interval attempt to use a Stephen-Hawing-style dummy in a wheelchair to reflect on Shakespeare’s attitude to time.
Under discouraging circumstances, Liam Brennan gives a sensitive if underpowered performance as Leontes, as though he had assembled all the emotional and technical tools for the job, but had never quite been able to put them together; and the great Una McLean, at an unbelievable 77, almost acts the rest of the company off the stage in the magnificent, role of Hermione’s waiting-woman Paulina, part witch, part redeeming angel. But given the wealth of contemporary sexual themes touched on in this play, from the insecurity of men over the paternity of their own children, to the awesome power of women when they decide to take fate into their own hands, this is a disappointing production, as pretentious as it is shapeless; and it seems astonishing that it should be left to an actress of almost 80 to give the show what contemporary edge it has, and to invest the drama with a real sense of urgency.
Over at the Citizens’ Theatre, meanwhile, joint artistic director Guy Hollands makes a slightly livelier job of the theatre’s latest revival of Hamlet, although only by adopting a more humble and open attitude to a play he never pretends to master. Jason Southgate’s set creates a dark, bronze-toned Elsinore, part battlement, part dank Nordic quayside; behind, the castle visibly totters under the weight of corruption in the state. The acting is variable, particularly in John Kazek’s strange now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t performance as the usurping King Claudius, all gabbling vocal mannerisms he urgently needs to drop; and some of the arbitrary visual effects are more comic than tragic, notably the crinoline-like skirt of fabric flames in which the ghost of old Hamlet rises from purgatory.
In the end, though, Hollands’s production has a powerful, youthful theatrical spirit, a sense of pleasure in the drama that at least allows the vitality of the play to shine through. And in Andrew Clark, it boasts a fine, ragged, hell-for-leather Hamlet, who seizes on this greatest of Shakespearean roles with a tremendous virile energy and intelligence, shakes it by the throat, and – while missing the odd meditative subtlety – improves by thrilling leaps and bounds on the recent fashion for presenting Hamlet as a whimpering teenage wimp, and no kind of hero at all.
The atmosphere is at least as dark, and much less vibrant, in Davey Anderson’s Rupture, the latest in the series of urban-noir dramas he began so convincingly two years ago with his briliant tower-block nightmare, Snuff. Presented as a co-production between the Traverse and the National Theatre of Scotland Workshop, where Anderson is currently director-in-residence, Rupture has been devised with the acting company during rehearsal, rather than scripted in advance. The result is a show that often drifts towards contemporary television-drama cliche, both in its storyline – which involves the usual modern-underworld mess of people-trafficking, corruption and exploitation – and in its acting style, which sadly never rises much above a dreary baseline of River City naturalism.
The show has its finer points, notably an eloquent, rangy, filmic staging across the whole breadth and depth of the Traverse 1 stage. It also has a fine, complex central character in the shape of a young Polish cleaner, Monika, played with real force by rising star Agnieszka Bresler. In the end, though – and despite some brave work by Black Watch star Brian Ferguson as a lovestruck security guard – this show lacks the energy that comes from real originality, and a new tale to tell; and while that’s a hazard that comes with the territory in staging classics like Hamlet, it’s slightly worrying when it begins to affect what should be the most exciting brand-new work Scottish theatre has to offer.
The Winter’s Tale at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 20 October. Hamlet at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until 13 October. Rupture at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until 6 October.