Thursday 24th May: A Late Spring Evening’s Snooze

It is that time of year again when the International Theatre Company London tours Japan and we in Hiroshima get a welcome opportunity to see a Shakespeare performance free of charge, courtesy of Jogakuin University.

In the expectation that quite a few would attend the performance, I spent the past fortnight introducing or recapitulating the play to all sorts and levels of students, and all ages withal, from a four-year-old who was enchanted by Kevin Kline’s performance as “Bottom” (or “Oshiri-san” as she calls him) in Michael Hoffman’s film version, to a hale and hearty eighty four year old who dutifully attempted to keep track with the meanderings of the plot.

So by the time I flopped into my seat towards the back of the auditorium I was ready for a pleasant snooze.

This year two screens had been set up on either side of the stage and PowerPoint subtitles were flashed onto them as the play progressed. Well intentioned I grant, but rather distracting when instead of getting the script we got the Microsoft default screensaver – you know, the ubiquitous rolling field beneath a blue, cloud studded sky, and not a tree – let alone a forest – in site. Dr M, who joined me during the interval, had much to say about how if he’d wanted to see subtitles he would have stayed at home and watched the Michael Hoffman’s version on DVD.

The play began with the “back story” of the battle of the Amazons that is the prelude to the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta, a typically contemporary offering in which some miserable vermicular fellow was bullied and prodded about a bit by a vixen brandishing a spear. Then along came the King of Athens (no less!) and promptly announced for some reason best known to himself that he was rather fond of the vixen and, forsooth, the vixen and he were soon to be married.

“Well, my good Sir,” I thought to myself, “That’s your funeral.”

The ITCL are past masters at presenting Shakespeare in a way that is entertaining for Japanese audiences and this year’s play was no exception. For many in the audience, especially the school and university students, it was probably their first experience of seeing Shakespeare and it is chiefly for them that the production is aimed – a busy performance in which six actors share the divers parts amongst themselves. The emphasis is firmly on the visual and the physical, the overdrawn gesture to convey an essential point so that everybody can get something from the performance.

Here are some comments offered as feedback by some students of Shikoku University which suggest that the ITCL has got the right idea for their Japan tour.

The content of Midsummer Night’s Dream was very difficult for me, but gesture and voice was very big, so I was very fun.””I watch such a play for the first time. The songs were very beautiful.” “Performers used big movements, especially Hermia. She was short and pretty. And I found the donkey head man very interesting. Last of all, I was happy the story had a happy end.” “I could not understand what they said, but I was so moved and so excited by just seeing their act. And when I could understand only a few words, I was so glad!!

Dr M also affirmed over a few beers after the show that the physicality of the performance had made it intelligible to him and that he particularly enjoyed the second half of the play.

But the emphasis on the motion and gesture does have its not insignificant drawbacks. The timbre and range of the voice suffers; the subtlety of poetic expression is lost. Add to that the contemporary and seemingly irresistible tendency to play the women as chippy, grievance-laden victims and the loss shadow and tone is as complete on the stage as it is from off the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

My beef is not just with the ITCL; Hoffman’s film version also suffers from the inadequate expression of female indignity. What is needed is some method of developing a greater vocal range, an ability to convey the subtleties of the verse, a better way for young actresses to learn how to convey the anger of their character’s hearts without resorting to the strained and grating voice, the bent-backed gesture, the handbags-and-fingernails atmosphere of nightclub chavs.

Elizabeth Taylor got it right when she played Kate to Richard Burton’s Petruchio in the immortal Zeffirelli’s film version of The Taming of the Shrew. What a wonderful shrew she made; a shrew worthy to pursue indeed! To have to marry anything else would be neither a dream nor a comedy but the mother of all farcical nightmares…

David Hurley