13 February 2011

Tearing passions to tatters

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it
as many of your players do, I had as lief the
town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air
too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently;
for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say
the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it
offends me to the soul to hear a robustious
periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to
very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who
for the most part are capable of nothing but
inexplicable dumbshows and noise: I would have such
a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant; it
out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it. - III,ii,2

Of course, these are Hamlet’s well-known lines to the players who have come to Elsinore.
Shakespeare knew his theater and his acting.  And of late I believe that American actors should think again about Hamlet’s advice, for too many performances that I have seen of late on the American stage by American companies are too full of actors mouthing lines, declaiming in a torrent and a tempest and tearing a passion to tatters, to very rags to split the ears of the groundlings.
The new production of The Winter’s Tale suffers from this serious flaw. The actors lack subtlety in their performance: emotion is exhibited by an increase in volume and not by an intelligent and refined expressive reading of the script. Not emotion but declamation. The characters have two emotions, loud and soft, and the entire emotional range of human complexity is expressed by those two modulations of volume. Leontes and Polixenes, whatever one thinks of the characterization Shakespeare provides, are not simple characters, and to give this romance substance requires a sophisticated understanding of their potential depths. But in this production there is no temperance acquired in the whirlwind of their passion that gives the torrent and tempest a smoothness. As a romance, this tale for a winter’s night must transcend the diurnal world, but the acting was too full of noise and not magic. Autolycous, a Shakespearean clown, is characterized here as a crude comedian in a cheap night club whose failure to intrigue his audience leads him simply to speak louder and louder, as if the increase in volume signals the appearance of humor.
I wonder whether our acting styles have been influenced by the violence of our society epitomized especially in football and hockey, (but certainly evident in the social/political world) where the harder one hits he opponent the more successful one feels. The beauty of movement that might exist in the sport (alas, in football I have never understood and certainly never seen it), remains absent and all that is left is the dangerous sounds of bodies crashing against immoving and immovable obstacles. I suppose the skating in hockey might have some aesthetic value, but the checking and high sticking and other aggressively violent behaviours of the players too soon despoil the potential beauty in the activity.
Though I must say the The Winter’s Tale produced at Spring Green in 2009 was subtle and superb. Perhaps it is the Guthrie, I think, that prefers o’erdoing Termagant and out-heroding Herod. 


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15 February, 2011 18:55  

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