It is a dream of mine, as it is all actors passionate about Shakespeare, to work with the RSC. It was one of the highlights of my drama school experience to visit Stratford and work again with them, as well as witness their work on their home stages.
At the RSC we had the benefit of doing an acting workshop with one of their most experienced teachers, and tackled two speeches from Titus Andronicus; two speeches that opened the play we were to watch that evening. The challenge we were set was to convince several of our fellow actors, who were positioned both as an audience and as elder statesmen whose backs were turned. They were asked to turn and face the speaker when they felt convinced by their argument.
Noble patricians, patrons of my right,
Defend the justice of my cause with arms,
And, countrymen, my loving followers,
Plead my successive title with your swords:
I am his first-born son, that was the last
That wore the imperial diadem of Rome;
Then let my father’s honours live in me,
Nor wrong mine age with this indignity.
I was not the first to try my hand, but motivational speaking is something I have had some experience in, and a passion for inspirational speakers made me believe I could try my hand. Sure enough, where those who had gone before had gotten the odd turn or half-turn from one or two of the elder statesmen, I managed to turn every single one of them while not forgetting the ‘common’ crowd at the same time. Despite my success, there was criticism- the teacher revealed I had not stood still the entire time, and suggested I try to find the power in stillness. This for those who know me is not an acting note, it’s a life lesson.
Most pleasing was that certain choices I had made -to personify ‘this indignity’ as my opponent, for instance- were reflected by the actors in the RSC production we saw that evening.
The production was a bloody and brutal farce that found the fine line between hilarity and tragedy; the tipping point upon which the eponymous Titus stands. While stoic toward the loss of his many sons at the start of the play, when Titus can endure no more tragedy, he does not cry, he laughs. The audience laughed, and they felt a lingering discomfort and disbelief at having done so. The conclusion of the play featured explosive gouts of blood more akin to a Tarantino film, but the most affecting scene was the drawn out execution of the two brothers, hung upside down by their feet, their throats cut open.
All’s Well That Ends Well had a contrasting tone but a parallel in its confounding nature. Titus is a tragedy with comedic elements that seems cynical of cynicism, while All’s Well is a comedy with tragic elements that seems cynical of naivety. Both plays featured villainous characters who ‘turned’ on the audience’s two dimension reception of them toward the end of the play- Aaron is fierce in defence of his child and challenges race-based assumptions, while Parolles endures ritual humiliation and faces his future not with repentance, but with disarming honesty.
All’s Well felt to me like a more textured and more nuanced experiment than many of Shakespeare’s works, and confounded expectations time and again, feeling fresher for it, and a closer mirror to the experiences people go through in real life. The most intriguing message of All’s Well is that it did not, in and of itself, end well. The ambiguity of Bertram and his recalcitrance until the close of the play leaves an indelible mark on any resolution.
Watching the plays, and indeed, finding faults –though minor- in the productions, was an inspiration, and of great value to an actor with a love of Shakespeare. In both cases, the lack of a revolutionary approach felt liberating, while witnessing the pick of the RSC actors crop show such a rich spectrum of emotion and interaction (supported no doubt by text experts, voice coaches and movement directors) was most informative in developing how to address the text. It certainly supported the maxim that to make good theatre, you must watch good theatre.