TEMPERANCE MAY GIVE IT SMOOTHNESS:

EDMUND IRONSIDE

BY

DE FIRMA RIEKS SWARTE

 

Ton Hoenselaars

 

Review

 

Edmund Ironside by De Firma Rieks Swarte, Haarlem, The Netherlands.

 

20 February 1996 saw the Dutch premiere of Edmund Ironside, that most curious, anonymous manuscript play which bard hack Eric Sams published as Shakespeare's Lost Play in 1985. It is difficult to list this production as a triumph for Rieks Swarte and his company. More often than not, a director's choice of "Shakespeare" automatically generates such an amount of publicity and interest that even unfavourable first-night reviews will not keep audiences away. In that sense, a Shakespeare play is much like a fancy sports car. Start the engine and people will prick up their ears. Drive, and who will not enjoy watching it roll past. Opting for "Shakespeare's lost play", however, Rieks Swarte had no easy ride at all. Sadly, the Dutch press was only too quick to pounce on his choice. Several nights before the premiere, a discussion of the play appeared in the literature section of one of the leading Dutch newspapers. In the Friday "Cultural Supplement" of NRC/Handelsblad, critic Kester Freriks made mince meat of the play. [1] Worst of all, he finished his preview with the damning (though also rather predictable) comment that if Shakespeare's "lost" play had remained lost it would have been no loss to mankind.[2]

Confronted with so many pejorative remarks about the "quality" of the play — remarks that echo the original criticism of Edmund Ironside in Great Britain during the late eighties when Eric Sams's edition occasioned the first British production of Ironside since it was first written — one is initially tempted to protect the target under fire, or, alternatively, to redress the balance somewhat. First, it is worth realizing that the post-Sams text of Edmund Ironside is treated as if it were, or at least might have been a Shakespeare play. Consequently, all of the Western world's criteria about what is "best in drama" tend to be pitted against this vulnerable script. Strange. Had it been certified as a text by a contemporary of Shakespeare's about whom we also knew that he had died of consumption at an early age, we might have hailed Edmund Ironside as the early work of a promising successor to the Bard as a writer of stage chronicles. A second point one would like to raise with regard to the issue of "quality" is that a good play never guarantees a successful production, whereas a primitive play may well prove the ideal script for a playwright in need of creative space to transform into a stage hit. For a proper evaluation of Edmund Ironside, one must judge the staged product: not the mangled text by an anonymous dramatist, but Rieks Swarte's achievement.

Edmund Ironside is a chronicle play, produced, like many other plays of its kind, by pillaging Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles for a plot. Edmund Ironside is about the troubled reign of the eponymous King Edmund some 50 years before the Norman Invasion of 1066. Ironside (played in this production by Sabri Saad el Hamus) finds his status in Britain challenged by the Danish King Canutus (acted by Frank Houtappels). As it happens, Canutus holds a certain claim to Britain, and on historical grounds his demand is partly legitimate. Both factions in the debate over single rule are, therefore, right all the time and wrong all the time. The two men's disagreement over the administration of the island repeatedly erupts into armed conflict. And since both Ironside and Canutus hold genuine claims to Britain, their armed conflict warrants the epithet of civil war. As the two contenders fight battle after battle, and the country dwindles into chaos, the coarsest and vilest of the population comes to float to the surface. In Edmund Ironside the most ignoble Briton is Edricus (played here by Ferdi Janssen). Like a true opportunist he manages to rise above his poor status to become a courtier to Ironside or Canutus, depending on who is at any chosen instant the more successful and hence more profitable to him. After numerous inconclusive military encounters, which teach Edmund Ironside and King Canutus that today's profit is tomorrow's loss, the two enemies of long standing finally to decide to end their strife and to conclude a peace. This is how the play's motto functions, a motto which would have one believe that War has made all friends. But, as anyone could guess, prolonged strife rarely leads to any form of lasting reconciliation. In Edmund Ironside, the peace agreement is immediately followed by new revelations of unmistakable discontent, dissatisfaction coming from those who had earlier sacrificed their relatives in the struggle. Edmund's thanes will not accept the idea of having sacrificed their relatives without any gain but cowardly peace. Blood, the play suggests, will have blood again. Edmund Ironside is really a Balkan story. Any peace treaty here is merely a statement of intent, which will need to be ratified at intervals of most uncertain duration.

The guiding principle behind the Haarlem production of Edmund Ironside was to present this war play without making it more beautiful that it was. Such was the intention as stated explicitly in the program notes. In accordance with this choice, the audience were faced with a large, square acting space, with the actors, once their parts were played, sitting around like football players in their dugout, a second audience with a vested interest in the development of the bellicose plot. Sets, including a pair of wooden gates, were meant to be functional rather than ravishing. They had a certain appeal anyway (though, apparently, this was lost on the reviewers), because the naive style of the sets, the costumes, the armour, and to a degree the actors' postures, were unmistakably indebted to the Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the history of Britain around the period of the Norman Invasion of 1066. In this production, consciously steering away from embellishment and sophistication, Rieks Swarte's pre-Conquest Britons fought with wooden swords. It was only when the play's two central contestants met in the final combat that — by means of a deft directorial device — their weapons proved to be made of shining steel. What had the appearance of a children's game all along, in the final scene turned out to have developed into a veritable killing industry. Given this metamorphosis of wooden weapons into true swords, it became credible precisely at this juncture that King Edmund and Canutus should decide on peace as the safest alternative for Britain.

In line with the simplicity that was Swarte's objective, all sounds in this production were made by the actors themselves in full view of the audience: violin, harpsichord, percussion, thunder, the sound of armies on the march. Also a dumb show, and a Punch and Judy production, served to suggest the battlefields of Britain and the carnage there. The device of the traditional children's entertainment (further supported by a brilliantly performed act with life-size dolls for the separation of Emma and her sons Alfred and Edward), of course helped the director to overcome the very limitations of the stage also mentioned in the Chorus to Shakespeare's war play Henry V. Moreover, by bringing in these forms of children's entertainment, Swarte enjoyed the additional advantage of debunking the incessant tug of war at the core of the play.

It is a laudable goal to set out presenting any play as it is, restraining oneself from making it more beautiful than it is. However, at the Haarlem Toneelschuur an attempt was made in addition to approximate the assumed acting style of the Elizabethans. On the latter score, Rieks Swarte quite wrong-headedly supposed that naivete and endearing clumsiness were the main characteristics of the then prevailing acting technique. The result was a production whose acting was marked by rhetorical gestures that were played for laughs, or "as broad farce", as Noor Hellmann had it. The entire chronicle play of Edmund Ironside, featuring the troublesome encounter between Ironside and Canute was presented like another Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. But Pyramus and Thisbe is only a play-within-a-play, and the play that it forms part of is a comedy. With the implicit acting style of the mechanicals applied to Shakespeare's lost play, Edmund Ironside became a farce with its serious political problem utterly ridiculed by its makers.

If the Rieks Swarte company so desperately aims at authenticating its stage presentation with movements and gestures, it must be valid criticism, surely, to note that of all early-modern playwrights in London few were more self-conscious about acting and acting styles than Shakespeare himself. Does not the farcical play-within-the-play in A Midsummer Night's Dream exist by virtue of an implicit and assumed acting standard to be adhered to during the rest of the play? Were it not more convincing also to interpret the use of the mechanicals as clumsy amateur actors as a means of relieving the strain on the acting profession that was beginning to take itself ever more seriously during the Elizabethan period? Moving beyond A Midsummer Night's Dream, how is one to reconcile Rieks Swarte's views on Elizabethan acting and Hamlet's advice to the strolling players who visit the court at Elsinore in Hamlet:

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 had 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 your 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 dumb shows and noise. I would have such a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant. It out-Herods Herod. Pray you avoid it.[3]

Would the same dramatist who had his Hamlet give advice on acting himself pursue the Rieks Swarte method of boisterous and seemingly unmanageable fun? Is it not obvious, and here one fortunately enjoys the support of generations of critics and theatre historians, that in Shakespeare's London one sees the English acting profession coming into its own for the very first time? Indeed, the private and the public theatres even waged a battle over the issue for a number of years around the turn of the century. Indeed, this struggle, to which the speeches on acting in Hamlet refer, has gone down into history as the War. Surely, the acting style ratified by the entire Haarlem cast for its war play was a cultural-historical faux pas of considerable proportion. And there was little in the production to make up for the error, least of all the play which, even when compared with the 900 or so plays left from the period between the mid-sixteenth century and the English Civil War, would get a remarkably low rating, however much one might wish to boost even a plausible Shakespeare product.

Of course, even a rambling play like Edmund Ironside has its redeeming features. One wonders, therefore, why a director with such a difficult play on his hands did not exploit these to the full. At the very centre of Edmund Ironside stands a long soliloquy. It features the villain Edricus, the uneducated peasant who, due to the turmoil in Britain between its two contending rulers, has floated to the surface by fawning on both Canutus and Ironside. Now Edricus is desperately trying to write a letter to Ironside, quill in hand, but cannot find the right words. One could imagine that in a play whose literary merits do not compare well with the best, a scene about writing and the writer's lack of inspiration would be an ideal means of communicating to the audience some ideas about the difficulty of less inspired texts:

Ah, fool, how hard it is to write for life!
Had I now written for my mistress' love
I could have filled my pen and raised my speech
unto the highest step of flattery.
Had I now written for another man
to save his life or get him into grace
why all the world might have given place to me
for sugar'd lines and phrases past compare.
Had I been now in favour with the king
and had endeavouréd to flatter him
my pen would have distilléd golden drops
and varied terms enchanting Cerberus.
But now I know not how or what to write.[4]

To play the entire soliloquy of nearly sixty lines in a serious vein could have given the production a serious core on the topic of writing, style, eloquence, and persuasion — precisely the properties on which Edmund Ironside was generally found wanting by the critics. Swarte eschewed that option. Instead, he changed the soliloquy into a considerably shorter monologue spoken by Edricus with his servant, the Clown Stitch (played by the versatile comedian Laus Steenbeeke of Dutch children's TV fame), present on stage to share grimaces with the audience at those points where the text was in danger of becoming more serious than mere slapstick. If at any point in this production the representation of events was wilfully at odds with the play, it was during this particular scene.[5]

Finally, it must be acknowledged that not all critics crushed the play and the players. Audience response during and after the play was generally favourable. And Haarlem critic Margriet Prinssen was obviously touched by the production's "contagious" fun.[6] She prized the simplicity of Swarte's approach, his sense of humour, and his sprightly imagination. The cannonades of insults were mouth-watering. This delight, Prinssen argued, heightened the terror of the civil war. For the 1996 season, Swarte opted for a controversial play, and his production of it made the play no less controversial. It was rather heavy-handed of Hein Janssen to suggest that Rieks Swarte reconsider his career in the theatre; but it does not seem unfair to remark that the much-vaunted objective of an "authentic" production has not been conducive to any more widespread appreciation of Edmund Ironside in the Low Countries. A reassessment of that objective, therefore, seems overdue.

 

NOTES

1 "Bekvechtende vrouwen: een `verloren stuk' van Shakespeare", in NRC/Handelsblad, 16 February 1996.

2 Critic Noor Hellmann noted: "In brief, the entire cast tried desperately to turn the play into a lively spectacle, but all these efforts could not conceal the fact that Edmund Ironside, discovered suddenly and dusted off, is hardly an great asset to the dramatic canon." See "Verloren `Shakespeare' als klucht", in NRC/Handelsblad, 23 February 1996. Pieter Bots, after seeing Edmund Ironside, asked himself the question: "Dare we still attribute the play to the English Bard?". See "Is het wel Shakespeare?", in Parool, 23 February 1996. Hein Janssen was devastating: "Bad play, flat, plotless — much ado about nothing" (de Volkskrant, 24 February 1996).

3 Hamlet, in The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988), 3.2.1-14.

4 Shakespeare's Lost Play: "Edmund Ironside", ed. Eric Sams (London: Fourth Estate, 1985), Act 3, scene 5 (= lines 1178-90).

5 It would appear that Swarte included Edricus's speech in the number of "endless soliloquies" typical of the early, inexperienced Shakespeare. See Hans Kottmann, "Rieks Swarte brengt onbekende `tragedie van bloed' van Shakespeare: `Theater ontstaat in hoofden van mensen'", Noord-Hollands Dagblad, 8 February 1996.

6 Margriet Prinssen, "Aanstekelijk spelplezier in Swarte's Shakespeare", in Haarlems Dagblad, 23 February 1996.

 

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