Friday, October 15, 2010

Theatre: R & J as performed by William Shakespeare and the Earl of Southhampton

by John Aitken
Directed by John Senczuk
Featuring Ethan Tomas and Lauchlan Bain
Until 23 Oct

John Aitken loves poets and playwrights, musicians and composers, and many of his many plays attempt to illuminate their hidden lives. A case in point is his story of Shostakovich and Stalin, Music From The Whirlwind, a fine, muscular piece whose main achievement was stirring interest in the composer and the regime he served and subverted (and this was well before the private lives of the Stalinist oligarchs became popular bedtime reading). Aitken has had greater or lesser success with dozens of similar subjects and themes over his long career. 
This time, though, Aitken travels into very dangerous waters. The world and his wife have been pounding away at the life of William Shakespeare through his mighty body of work and tiny shards of hard evidence since April 23, 1616. It’s as if his famous funerary entreaty and curse “ Good frend for Iesvs sake forbeare / To digg the dvst encloased heare / Bleste be ye man yt spares thes stones / And cvrst be he yt moves my bones” applied as much to his life as his remains.
 While many have ventured into this huge biographical void –and the box office and best-seller lists prove that the public eagerly follow them there – the question has to be, as none of them can be right, or at least proved right, about Shakespeare, what is it they seek to achieve? The answer must be the revealed image of a man;
the man for all ages,
as Dr Johnson described him. All the other figures of his age, even kings and queens, merely strut their hour upon the stage, because we either know them sufficiently, or have no need to know them at all.
 So it is with the Earl of Southampton, the other character in this play. While there’s little upon which to base the relationship between the aristocrat and the poet, Southampton was clearly a talented, handsome, vicious and almost certainly bisexual young man when Shakespeare was in his orbit, and Aitken may have captured him perfectly, or not. As performed by Lauchlan Bain in a fine turn he is both attractive and repellent, as he should be. But who cares?
It’s Shakespeare (played by Ethan Tomas) we care about, and hope to know better, and here I think Aitken’s characterisation falls away badly. His Shakespeare is forlorn, unsure and, except in recitations of his written words, depressingly inarticulate. Above all, he lacks the quality most noted by those who knew him or study him: he is not masterful. Aitken (and he’s far from the only one) over-reads the passions and torments in the sonnets; Shakespeare, as always, is the great reporter of the emotions, but to ascribe those of the sonnets to him personally is as valid as to suggest he was as mad as Ophelia or demented as Lear. Shakespeare was always master of his words, and nothing in them suggests he was not also master of his world as well.
All of which leaves Tomas’s performance incapable of success. Frankly, I hated every moment of it, but that’s not his fault. His William Shakespeare, John Aitken’s Shakespeare, could not have written those plays and those poems. And without that, the performance, and the play, founders.   

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