Peter Holland, English Shakespeares: Shakespeare on the English Stage in the 1990s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). ISBN 0-521-56405-0 (HBK). ISBN 0-521-56476-X (PBK).

Review

 

English Shakespeares is an account of Shakespeare as he has been played on the English stage between 1989 and 1995. The material is largely based on Peter Holland's work as a reviewer for Shakespeare Survey and the BBC. Although one might object to the rather broad dating in the title, there is no reason to take issue with the variety that the plural use of Shakespeare's name here suggests. English Shakespeares is a book packed with information and ideas, and since a simple summary would fail to do justice to its sumptuousness, a detailed discussion of each chapter seems in order.

Holland opens his book with a chapter appropriately entitled "Measuring performance" that usefully focuses on a range of determinants that often inconspicuously affect the impact of the productions that we see in the theatre. These conditions, once identified, should enhance our appreciation and prevent us from straying in our judgement. Among other things, Holland considers as often ignored generators of meaning: the length of a given performance, the placement of its interval(s), its pace, and its pauses. He also discusses the relevance of a process of canon formation that may be due to a particular company's commercial and economic interests. A case in point is the so-called frequency cycle of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the phenomenon of exhausting the Shakespeare canon every four or five years, thus perhaps too soon creating the necessity of doing the same plays again in a way that will hopefully be original. This phenomenon increasingly yields productions of an "under-interpreted" nature, without genuine social commitment or relevance, since this might alienate and keep away potential audiences. A related matter of concern to Holland is the sway of the designer who, forced to attract sizeable audiences to Shakespeare, may be tempted to abandon the ideal of the bare stage, and mimic the elaborate stage sets of productions like Cats. Such popularizing interventions may turn a production into a box office success, but not without eclipsing the creativity and input of actors as well as directors.

In the introductory chapter, Holland also has sound things to say on the audience's experience of the text's integrity during performance, acknowledging how difficult it is, even for an experienced theatre historian, to perceive the cuts as the play unfolds on stage. In the introduction, but also throughout the book, the audience is the ultimately unmeasurable factor. The public constitute a hydra-headed monster whose composition continues to be a mystery to researchers. In stressing this fact, Holland identifies a key determinant of the actor's attitude which requires further research. It also justifies the avowedly personal nature of his account.

Covering the 1989-1990 season in the second chapter, Holland sets off the various RSC companies against ensembles in other theatres, particularly at the Royal National Theatre. Insightful here is his description of the RSC experience, with migratory actors on two-year contracts unable to develop a recognizable group identity, despite the continuing and also much appreciated voice work originally developed by Cicely Berry and continued now by Andrew Wade. In this chapter one is treated to evocative and incisive descriptions of Barry Kyle's confused All's Well that Ends Well; of Terry Hands's 1989 Coriolanus, with its director's unwillingness explicitly to confront beyond the choice of play, of course the events now called the Wende; and of Bill Alexander's Much Ado (1990), in which the emancipatory potential of Beatrice was sensed but not sufficiently or significantly explored. The chapter ends with a model comparison of the two King Lears that held the stage at the RSC and the RNT. From it, one is glad to learn that even though Holland sometimes has an axe to grind with misinformed or popularizing designers, he does not withhold praise where it is due (44).

Chapter 3 continues the survey of the 1989-1990 season and introduces the Swan Theatre productions at Stratford. Holland discusses the popularity of the new stage with reference to what he sees as the often populist work at the Main House. Perhaps, for the sake of the argument, Holland exaggerates the contrast between the two traditions. On such occasions, there is little doubt about Holland's preference for the more recent and also more politicized tradition, with the Main House criticized for its "increasing reluctance to allow the political dimensions of a play to dominate" (63). On other occasions, however, the elder statesman steps up from behind the already diplomatic reviewer, making free use of the verb that Hamlet said he did not know. Hence, "some of the RSC's main-house work seems to assume the audience to be tourists whose interest in Shakespeare is marginal" (55), "Actors at Stratford seem visibly to relax on the Swan stage" (64), and some productions at the Swan "seem almost deliberately to set out to offer projects for future academic research" (64). All this is not to say that the argument in favour of the Swan is unconvincing. Holland's terms of reference are very useful, particularly when he establishes that the Main House strives for novelty, and the Swan Theatre, by contrast, for originality. Also, the annals of theatre history would be much the poorer without this critic's gusty revival of David Thacker's "richly sensitive" Pericles, or Sam Mendes's Troilus and Cressida, produced at the Swan in 1989 and 1990 respectively.

Chapter 4 develops what is termed "a new taxonomy" for the productions of 1991. Introducing this new taxonomy is really a deft way of organizing the great variety of new Shakespeares on the various English stages during that year, but it is not certain that future researchers or critics will benefit much from these parameters, or from a number of those explored in other chapters. The chapter's broad geographical and generic scope is determined by the vast number of productions that Holland has to discuss, but is unrelated to any immediate concern with broader cultural patterns and developments here. The section on the so-called analogue plays here the English Shakespeare Company's productions of The Merchant of Venice and Coriolanus is especially intriguing since it reveals some of the limits to which Holland allows a production to go. With regard to the representation, in Tim Luscombe's The Merchant of Venice, of the rise of Italian fascism in the 1930s, Holland voices the contestable claim that "If the analogy is not historically true it serves no purpose" (96). The claim originates from a sense that the Shakespeare text has a certain core that must be respected at all times. For in the case of Bogdanov's analogy between Coriolanus and the dramatic events in Eastern Europe during the early 1990s, the result would have pleased Brecht, "but," Holland adds, "without going against the grain of the text" (100). This is a curious mixture of leftist predilections and textual conservatism.

Holland discusses the plays of 1992 in chapter 5, and concentrates on the productions in terms of the physical spaces they were presented in. He is highly appreciative of the Medieval Players' production of Hamlet in the Q1 text version, and of Mendes's Richard III, both with a fine use of small spaces. Holland has an obvious preference for the smaller acting areas, but this does not make his criticism of the work produced for the larger stages less incisive. He speaks of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre with its "pitiless main stage" (133). Yet, even though it gapes three times wider for actors and directors than many another locale, Holland competently recognizes the merits of Bill Alexander's Taming of the Shrew there, and of John Caird's Antony and Cleopatra, the production of which "had the measure of the play" (137). Extra large (XXXL) productions are still possible, as the Chichester Coriolanus bore out. Here, director Tim Supple displayed a truly firm and creative grasp of the crowds that are so crucial in this Roman tragedy, and also Judy Dench's Volumnia was stunning. Irony of ironies, however and here, as on many occasions, I can only agree with Holland Kenneth Branagh, though riding on an immense wave of popularity at the time, was extremely disappointing.

The discussion of the 1992-93 season in chapter six focuses on Stratford and London, with five new Shakespeare productions in each. These include the financially rewarding though artistically somewhat unsatisfying Barbican production of Adrian Noble's Hamlet, with Branagh in the leading role, using the extended, conflated text of Q2; the Northern Broadsides' Richard III, described as a highly successful instance of "cheap theatre" arriving in London from the north; the Royal Court King Lear, finding the roots of the king's behaviour in the male-oriented, public school system, and discreetly responding to events in Bosnia; Alan Howard's "simply awful" (156) rendering of the part of Macbeth at the National; and Matthew Warchus's Much Ado at Queen's Theatre, considered a healthy antidote to Branagh's film of the play with its "banal populism" (157).

The surprisingly successful season at Stratford, to Holland, vindicates the artistic line. David Thacker's work contributed to that fact, particularly his Merchant of Venice grafted onto the callous but glittering world of the international stock exchange, featuring David Calder as a sensitive Shylock, a widower with an ear for music in the privacy of his home. But of course, this season also brought an intelligent Tempest by Mendes, Ian Judge's bright but sugary Love's Labour's Lost in Edwardian garb, and Robert Stephens's chilling impersonation of Lear, his last.

In chapter 7, Holland deals with the intriguing phenomenon of multiple "histories" intersecting in a particular production. One case in point is Richard Dreyfus's Hamlet, whose Hollywood mannerisms eclipsed the director's ambition to set the action of the play in the "pre-fork" era. Another example given by Holland is the London-based Talawa Theatre Company's production of a black King Lear. Holland gives high marks to the Northern Broadsides company's production of The Merry Wives taken out of its traditional Windsor setting, as well as their Midsummer Night's Dream with its rare sympathy for the Athenian proletariat, producing "a belief in the dignity of work that was never sentimentalised" (187). None of this was Adrian Noble's objective at Stratford in his highly successful 1994 production of the play, with its apparent change of scene from Greece to England (including the climatological conditions of a wet forest where brollies large and small were indispensable). Holland further provides a noteworthy reading of Henry V (dir. Matthew Warchus) and 3 Henry VI as Henry VI: The Battle for the Throne (dir. Katie Mitchell), both of which productions creatively explored the position of religious ceremony in medieval and Renaissance culture.

The next chapter, on the 1994-95 season, adopts a comparative line, discussing side by side Peter Hall's Hamlet (starring Stephen Dillane), and Jonathan Kent's with Ralph Fiennes in the lead; Adrian Noble's Romeo and Juliet for the RSC, and Neil Bartlett's production for the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith; and two 1994-95 Tempests, by David Thacker (RSC) and Silviu Purcarete (Nottingham Playhouse) respectively. The comparative approach of this chapter, though, becomes truly inspiring when Holland atypically juxtaposes Peter Hall's Julius Caesar and Barrie Rutter's Antony and Cleopatra; or the experimental Taming of the Shrew (dir. Gale Edwards) and Richard III (Stephen Pimlott) on the Main House stage at Stratford. Holland saves the best until the end: a superlative account of Deborah Warner's much praised, elegiac Richard II at the Cottesloe Theatre with the actress Fiona Shaw in the role of the eponymous king, and David Threlfall as an unusually temperate Bolingbroke. Holland tops his discussion of the play with a conclusion that states more clearly than anything, perhaps, his criteria, or, perhaps, one should say, his poetics as a reviewer:

Deborah Warner's Richard II sums up all the virtues of Shakespeare production that I have tried to value highly throughout. Its consistent intelligence, its refusal to accept tradition for its own sake, its creation of a particular and flexible space for actors and audience to share, and, above all, its unfailing understanding of and respect for the complexity and power of Shakespeare's writing, all these strengths exemplify the very best in English productions of Shakespeare.

Interestingly, although Holland has here reached the date post quem non, the book does not stop here. There is an additional chapter on foreign productions of Shakespeare on the London stage during the "Everybody's Shakespeare" Festival. Holland points up the curious xenophobic response to the productions from other countries, favouring the opportunity for interaction with interpretations that carry their own unique national or cultural stamp. With his sympathetic account of productions from the United States, Japan, Russia, Germany, and France, Holland manoeuvres his book alongside Dennis Kennedy's rightly lauded Foreign Shakespeare (Cambridge UP, 1993). Ironically, it is this growing interest in Shakespearean theatre practice beyond England and the British Isles, which, like the proverbial tail, would seem to be wagging Holland's title.

This is a lucidly written book, produced at a time when the Shakespeare industry is more buoyant than ever, and expanding further into the area of theatre practice. Holland is truly competent at evoking the feel of a production, making the reader an appreciative audience member after the fact, or a theatre goer grateful to have Holland's memorial reconstruction after the event. Holland gives detailed production accounts, but he also skilfully rolls a production's merits or flaws into a single memorable verdict sentence. The book's occasionally chatty tone might not be pleasing to all of the students and theatre researchers to which it addresses itself. Also, the author's irritation with Barry Kyle's All's Well tends to scapegoat the production unduly in the course of the book as in the review of Ian McKellan's Richard III, or Peter Hall's All's Well as though Shakespeare productions in England themselves provided their own and also the only frame of reference for a discussion of them. With the apparent scapegoating at the back of one's mind, doesn't one perhaps also detect a mild note of retaliation in the sentence: "After my earlier strictures on the gloomy work of other lighting designers whose names I have left as covered in obscurity as their work left the plays I end with praise for Alan Burrett's subtle lighting for these productions [of Henry IV]" (111-12)?

In the final analysis, the thematic approach to the plays, suggestive of a degree of organization, is disappointing. The themes are suggestive, but few are worth pursuing by others. On occasion, the author does not move beyond the statement of a theme in the introductory paragraph to a chapter, only to return to it in the concluding remarks at the end. Chapter 6 zooms in on the geographical divide between London and Stratford, not on any distance that might be properly measured in cultural or economic terms.

It is very likely that Holland's detailed survey of the early 1990s will boost the popularity of Shakespeare in years to come while at the same time enabling the audience of the future that he inspires, intelligently to reflect on the theatrical experience on the morning after its night out.

This is not a book to be read at a single sitting. Its careful and witty prose might make one forget that this is really a rather rich source of reference to return to time and again, as we read, teach, or write about a Shakespeare play, or need to review one ourselves, and sense the need to enhance the experience by a reliable account of its stage potential.

Few, if any, reviewers will have seen all the productions that Holland has seen. The book, therefore, is a treat, but a bitter-sweet one. Nevertheless, comparing my experience of the twenty or so of these plays that I myself have attended, I must admit that Holland conjures up the various productions in a most authentic fashion. The lengthy account of Robert Stephens's moving Lear is a case in point. We need not always subscribe to Holland's hypotheses, but there is no need to doubt this reviewer's eye for detail or the accuracy of his pen when it comes to capturing that detail on paper.

Ton Hoenselaars

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