Year of Shakespeare: ForestsAdaptationYear of Shakespeare

  • Kate McLuskie
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This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.

Forests, dir. Calixto Bieito,  with dramaturgy from Marc Rosich,  with the Birmingham Rep, Barcelona Internacional Teatre, and the RSC, 31 August 2012 at the Old Rep Theatre, Birmingham

By Kate McLuskie, Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham

On a damp, ‘last day of summer’ evening, the historic Birmingham Rep, home to Barry Jackson’s pioneering modernism, was dwarfed by the towering, never-to-be-completed project of the dystopian city-centre. The desire for the forest, the heath, the open-land where humans might face unaccomodated nature made complete sense. But Nature, for us, is always out of reach, always at once obscured and re-lit by other people’s writing: William Golding, Tennyson, Sam Beckett and, of course, Shakespeare.

The opening impressions (designed by Rebecca Ringst) made the contrast clear: a brightly lit but hazy, art gallery set housed a single tree, high on a wicker box plinth; a long man in a deep fur-collared coat slumped against it. Asleep? Dead? Certainly channelling Waiting for Godot. Elegantly dressed visitors drifted in, contemplating the art work. A tall young woman with a guitar, a Joni Mitchell figure, began to sing the lyrical Orpheus song from Henry VIII that slid into a triumphant anthem: ‘To liberty and not to banishment!’ The visitors, who had made the glancing eye-contact and tentative smiles of gallery behaviour, began to play, first with a ball and a bucket, thrown to the audience and exchanged for sweets, then throwing off their street clothes to show children’s dresses and open shirts, free movement and close contact.

Nature was a festival: Glastonbury or Shambala. There was, to begin with, no rain and mud; but the lighting changed for each speech, and the wind that brought down a forest of white paper strips drew us through the contradictions of even the most benign of Shakespeare’s forest speeches, spoken and sung in English or Catalan backed by the fantastic eclectic styles of  Maika Makovsky’s music:  ‘Sweet are the uses of adversity’; ‘there is a willow grows aslant a brook’; ‘He hath my lord, of late made many tenders/Of his affection to me’.

In the first section the forest was a place of love: joyfully consummated on stage, crossed dressed, lost and heartbreaking, the impulse for wild, funny and terrifying madness. A Jaques figure (George Costigan) – sometimes the Twelfth Night  Orlando or Touchstone or Polonius – gave the fragmentary scenes some anchorage. He spoke the Seven Ages of Man speech to console the sobbing, abandoned woman (Phoebe?) as her erstwhile lovers made out next to them. He watched while ‘Rosalind’ and ‘Orlando’ swapped clothes on stage; he marvelled at meeting ‘a fool in the forest’ and acted as the grown-up to the crazy children. The man in the fur coat, the Catalan actor, Josep Maria Pou, was a more elusive and possibly more sinister presence. He ended the ‘love’ sequence with Jaques’s lament for the deer; no longer a familiar set speech, but an enraged denunciation of nature’s destruction by careless humans.

Pou’s fury signalled the end of the party: the children cleared up and the theme song turned to Sonnet 30: ‘When to the sessions of sweet silent though’ and its echo of Proust’s ‘remembrance of things past’. The box that had contained the gallery tree was destroyed and its dark earth strewn by the actors across the stage as one spoke Macbeth’s lines: ‘I do begin to grow a-weary of the sun’. The forest scene was now from Titus with all its Ovidian ambiguity: its Bacchic wildness ended when the prey became the old man’s little dog, pinned to the wall by a dagger. The rape of Lavinia was executed by the cross dressed Rosalind (Katy Stephens). She fixed Lavinia (Hayley Carmichael) to the wall with the chilling thump of a staple gun; she rolled up her little-girl frock, pulled her knickers to her ankles and force-fed her the neck-tie she had secured round her waist in the first, innocent, cross-dressing exchange with Orlando (Christopher Simpson)

This was the forestof Timon, Lear, and 3 Henry VI. It rehearsed the vision from Troilus and Cressida of a world un-tuned by any kind of order: King Henry counting his flock did nothing to soften the horror of the son who loots his father’s body or the father who searches his son’s body for the gold that might recompense his ‘hundred blows’. The visceral violence – some of it from Shakespeare, some from Tarantino – was often unmitigated by speech. The music became a single drum-beat and a scraping of a single violin string. Even the music maker was stifled in a sado-masochistic game underscored by Claudio’s call to ‘be absolute for death’ as a woman was buried by the mound of earth, like Beckett’s Winnie from O Les Beaux Jours (Happy Days).

And then it was over. The lights came up; the bloody mass pulled from one woman’s body became a double hand-full of red balloons, blown up and tied to the tree as the sound-track played Handel’s most orderly and counterpointed music.  Only the death-marked theme of the spoken sonnets’ longing for death and oblivion pulled the ironies back into view.

The whole effect was of Shakespeare Our Contemporary: the Shakespeare of Jan Kott and Peter Brook, of the theatre of cruelty and the absurd where performers were forced to expose themselves ‘to feel what wretches (and lovers) feel’ and then communicate it with complete focus and control. The actors were unprotected by consistent character with an imagined back story: they turned in an instant from excitement to grief and horror. There was no consoling story of tragedy or comedy or political analogy to tell. It was Shakespeare without his narrative; Shakespeare as experience without meaning and a Shakespeare whose unfamiliar familiarity needs to be returned to again and again.

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To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

Author: Kate McLuskie

Kate McLuskie is Professor Emerita at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. Her principle research interest is the role of theatre and drama in early-modern culture and the impact of that drama on our own time.