These days, it's fashionable on some A-level courses to claim that character study is dead. Two contrasting productions in the RSC's Summer 2000 festival nail that assertion. A host of outstanding performances reveal how Shakespeare's characters embody the play's politics, issues and themes.
Michael Attenborough's fine production of Henry IV part 2 portrays England as a country diseased, with each character displaying some aspect of that corruption. The excellent acting makes you laugh, but simultaneously repelled by the values the characters portray.
Des Barritt's Falstaff bears the marks of disease on his body as well as in his behaviour. Pockmarked and limping, he certainly entertains as he brazenly bluffs his way out of every difficulty. But for all his attractive chutzpah, Barritt leaves no doubt that Falstaff intends malice as he exploits every situation to his own advantage.
A raddled Mistress Quickly and a Miss Havisham-like Doll Tearsheet deepen the sense of England's sickness. The tavern scenes show not only the effects of sexual disease, but how cruelly women are treated. The kick in the stomach Doll receives brutally epitomises male dominance of this society.
There's the same tension between humour and disgust in the delightfully played Gloucestershire scenes. Benjamin Whitrow is a beguilingly funny Shallow, but his connivance in the recruiting scene and his eagerness for promotion at court painfully display the rottenness of local justice in Henry's England.
The source of that corruption is evident in David Troughton's King. He may be conscence-stricken about the crooked way he seized the crown, but the cynicism of realpolitik comes out in the feverish way he advises Hal to "busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels".
Michael Boyd's Romeo and Juliet takes a very different approach. His characters challenge expectation. Mercutio and Tybalt are deliberately understated and unmenacing. The Nurse is more hardboiled than loveable, and Friar Lawrence constantly teeters on the edge of rage. The healthiest Apothecary ever to appear on stage makes a mockery of his description.
The two main characters similarly surprise. Alexandrea Gilbreath's Juliet displays a feisty, confident maturity as she spits out many of her speeches. David Tennant's Romeo is an early Hamlet, self-obsessed, excessively nervous, swinging violently from mood to mood. This Romeo intriguingly doubles as Chorus, speaking the Prologue as he wanders through a frozen moment in the opening Charleroi-like, chair-throwing brawl.
Boyd's intentions in this puzzling characterisation become increasingly clear as the play nears its end. Mercutio and Tybalt return as ghosts to play significant parts in the action, and Verona increasingly resembles the England portrayed in the Swan, diseased and corrupt. The final scene is played with all characters wearing handkerchiefs over their mouths to guard against infection, and the dead Romeo and Juliet rise from the grave to gaze accusingly at the society that killed them.
This thought-provoking production will stir heated discussion as your students explore whether such unusual character portrayals throw new light on conventional themes.
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