Shakespeare in War, More Timely Than Ever by Ben Brantley

Shakespeare in War, More Timely Than Ever

LONDON — Die they do, violently and often eagerly. But old soldiers never just fade away in the world of William Shakespeare. They fall from the skies of their martial glory with the dazzle of Roman candles — blazing, sputtering, ripping the air with noise. These are the flashiest roles in the canon for actors between the ages of Hamlet and Lear. And led by Patrick Stewart, as a Mark Antony surprised by age in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Antony and Cleopatra” in Stratford-upon-Avon, their fiery death throes are casting fierce light and mortal shadows over this year’s summer of Shakespeare in England.

In addition to Mr. Stewart’s expert study in waning virility, set off by Harriet Walter’s devilishly crafty Cleopatra, the season offers two very different versions of Shakespeare’s grisliest portrait of a war-making lion in winter, “Titus Andronicus”: a stark, glacial tone poem of a production from the Ninagawa Company of Tokyo, which visited Stratford for 10 performances last month; and, at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, a fast and furious interpretation that goes straight for the guts (in more ways than one).

The vivisections aren’t only physical. Besides demonstrating that there’s more than one way to skin a corpse, these contrasting takes on “Titus” anatomize the impact of a world where slaughter and torture are everyday occurrences, and especially on those whose job is to kill. With Douglas Hodge (at the Globe) and Kotaro Yoshida (for the Ninagawa Company) offering rich and intriguingly complementary portrayals of the revenge-addled title character, both productions chillingly summon the special, painful twilight reserved for men who have lived by the sword.

The current investigations into the alleged rape and murder of civilians by American soldiers in Iraq have made such presentations tremble with inescapable timeliness. It seems fitting that Dominic Dromgoole, the new artistic director of the Globe (where he has bravely succeeded the popular Mark Rylance), should have begun his inaugural season with Lucy Bailey’s Grand Guignol staging of “Titus” and his own adrenaline-stoked production of another Roman war play by Shakespeare, “Coriolanus,” whose arrogant hero (played as if he were a spoiled soccer star by the strapping Jonathan Cake) was schooled by his mother on tales of bloody and heroic combat.

The image used in this year’s ads for the Globe — that of the infant twins Romulus and Remus, the mythic founders of Rome, suckling a she-wolf — also dominates the Ninagawa “Titus” in the form of an outsize white statue. The implication is of a race weaned on animal savagery. The same perspective, poised between numbness and outrage, even filters through the Royal Shakespeare Company’s wonderful production at Stratford of “Much Ado About Nothing,” a comedy of soldiers courting, which subtly links cruelty in love to the military mind-set.

“A fun-filled evening of violence, gore and mutilation” is how “Titus Andronicus” is introduced by a toga-wearing cast member to audiences at the Globe. This early Shakespearean work, dutifully modeled after the revenge tragedies in vogue in the late 16th century, is notorious for its gross-out quotient, featuring assorted acts of onstage amputation and climaxing with a cannibal banquet in which a mother unwittingly feasts on pies made from her dead sons. The Globe production is awash in stage blood and simulacra of severed heads and hands, while the Ninagawa Company borrows from the pristine style of vintage Peter Brook, with an all-white abstract set and red ribbons for stage blood.

But both interpretations elicit a startling psychological complexity from its barbaric title character. From the moment he makes his entrance, returning to Rome with a train of prisoners, Titus is obviously someone for whom a soldier’s instincts have become conditioned reflexes in all aspects of his life. (You may recall that within the first 10 minutes of the play he kills his own son for disobeying the newly anointed emperor.)

As Mr. Hodge plays him, Titus initially registers as a man for whom action, not words, are the customary form of communication. His speech is slow and staggered, his face glazed, as if his mind has short-circuited in trying to compute the political intricacies of the Roman court. The life he has always known is one of direct orders and an iron-forged chain of command. When, through a series of atrocities visited upon his family, Titus is forced to realize that this imperial chain is corrupt, Mr. Hodge seems to undergo internal combustion. The violence of both his behavior and his lamentations acquire a vicious, comic air of absurdity.

The Titus of the extraordinary Mr. Yoshida is more somber and ritualistic, suggesting an aged samurai warrior fighting his last battle. But the feeling of an extreme personality on the edge of disintegration is every bit as acute. Infusing both productions is a “Lear”-like sense of a world without pity, of people begging for mercy to deaf ears. “O heavens, can you hear a good man groan and not relent and compassion him?” asks a character in “Titus.” The heavens appear less to blame here than the hellish inhumanity of those who inhabit the earth.

A more civilized air of ruthlessness pervades the Royal Shakespeare Company’s riveting “Antony and Cleopatra,” directed by Gregory Doran and, like the visiting “Titus,” part of the troupe’s Complete Works Festival year. Yet it too is dominated by the warping atmosphere of a military lust for dominance.

The genius of Mr. Stewart’s poignantly drawn Antony is its evocation of a warrior who has always defined himself by his physical strength and is starting to feel his muscles go slack. When he speaks of his “dotage,” it is with sober ruefulness. This is a larger-than-life figure who is trying (and failing) to ignore a creeping awareness that he is shrinking. The process is exquisitely contrasted by the concurrent growth of the young Octavius Caesar (the excellent John Hopkins) into assured and unforgiving manhood and by Ms. Walter’s politically savvy Cleopatra. She may be a self-dramatizer, but she is also a self-preservationist, even in death. It feels appropriate that her suicide registers less as an act of heroic love than of image-conscious damage control.

The poisoned cloud of testosterone that wafts from the soldiers’ drunken revels in “Antony and Cleopatra” hovers over much of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” staged by Marianne Elliott as an uneasy idyll of Cuba on the brink of revolution. The banter between the adversarial lovers Benedick and Beatrice (Joseph Millson and Tamsin Greig, both outstanding) feels harsher than usual, rooted in a tension that is as much cultural as sexual.

And the abuse of poor, docile Hero (Morven Christie) by her fiancé, Count Claudio (Adam Rayner), and his commanding officer, Don Pedro (Patrick Robinson), is here steeped in a military machismo that turns people into strategic objects. That the women are not immune to this attitude is evident in the savagery with which Beatrice demands vengeance for Hero.

Ms. Elliott, a rising star among British directors, makes a few missteps. (The presence of a lipstick-wearing, Quentin Crisp-ish Bette Bourne as the clownish constable Dogberry, equipped with a same-sex domestic partner, is distracting in all the wrong ways.) But she pulls off the risky concept of setting “Much Ado” in Batista’s Cuba, riddled with its own Castro-like revolutionaries.

This “Much Ado” suggests that a military civilization sows the seeds of its own destruction. The show’s concluding celebratory dance is rendered as a slow-motion pipe dream, doomed to evaporate with the sounds of the next round of gunfire.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company



This entry was posted on Saturday, July 8th, 2006 at 8:48 AM and filed under Uncategorized. Follow comments here with the RSS 2.0 feed. Skip to the end and leave a response. Trackbacks are closed.

Leave a Reply

*Required (Not published)