Words, words, words…

(From Dec. 2016) To the Smoke to see the all-women Julius Caesar. At least, unlike Lear the other day, the words of this swift-moving play were audible and given their proper emphasis. The gender thing worked fine – I stopped noticing after a while – and the quality of acting was high; but as with little old Glenda Jackson as Lear, little “getting on” Harriet Walter just hadn’t the physical presence to play Brutus meaningfully. She acted excellently, as per, but she lacked the bodily stature and the strength of voice of our Ideal of A Hero. And there were anomalies, such as a distinctly adipose Cassius being described without a trace of irony as having a lean and hungry look. 

And the rationale for the play-within-a-play of its being set in a women’s prison defeats me. Why a Shakespeare play can’t simply stand alone these days without having all sorts of distracting visual and audible garbage tacked on to it God knows. JC wasn’t, happily, as poxed in this regard as the bells and whistles and naked genitals of Lear. But I anticipate with dread King John on the northbound platform of the Metropolitan Line at Baker Street, or Othello set daringly in the headquarters of the BNP. Maybe The Boar’s Head, Eastcheap will become The Frog & Nightgown, Peckham – “Bring me a cup of Tequila Slammer”. Heaven knows I thought my all-time nadir had been reached when the Young Vic’s Macbeth (“Visceral, luminous, bold”), set earlier this year in a corridor of many doors à la Alice, had Burnham Wood come to Dunsinane in an ear-splitting din of Grunge with accompanying and appropriate prancing.

So it’s with relief that I can say that Antony Sher as Falstaff, doing nothing more than act superbly, in a deeply traditional production of Henry IV offering fine characterisation from the entire ensemble (correctly cast according to gender), sat squarely in the proper settings within a beautiful theatre, and with the words given their proper top billing – Mr Sher gave me the performance of the year. Rubicund, rumbustuous, roaring, rotund; funny, touching, repugnant, sly, drunk, lovable. I’ve never seen a better Falstaff in 50 years of play-going. I’ve never seen a better Henry IV, come to that.

Are my grandchildren doomed to directors offering distraction and irrelevance in order to make a point and sod the acting and the text? Or do too many women directors feel they have to do something different because they’re not men?