Matinee. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, on tour. Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts. War Memorial Auditorium, Holyoke. Dir. by Dominic Dromgoole. 2 hrs. 45 mins.
The Globe Theater company goes on tour when the London Globe Theatre is closed. Their season opens in London on April 23 and continues into October. For much of the rest of the time they are out of London. This year for the first time they are in Holyoke, Massachusetts, as part of the M.I.F.A. From the opening minutes of this production it was clear that this company is not a second string touring company but a troupe composed of first rate, highly competent if still young (most of them) actors. This point was brought home to us early on when the four regal ladies from France, headed by the Princess of France, made their entrance. For the Princess of France was played by none other than Michelle Terry, whom we had seen earlier this year in a HD broadcast of a wonderful National Theatre production of All’s Well That Ends Well, in which she played Helena. In this role of the Princess she had the same remarkable, intense stage presence that she exhibited in the previous play, along with the same fine sense of timing and clear, perfectly pitched voice. Michelle Terry is a fine comic actress who has gone far already and will predictably go much farther. (Is she a descendant of the famous Ellen Terry?)
The rest of the company were her equal, or almost, with the result that this production of Shakespeare’s witty, sparkling comedy with its surprise somber ending was a complete delight. The Globe appears to specialize in doing Shakespeare in original Elizabethan-Jacobean costume, and they brought their open stage with them. The stage was placed on the floor of the War Memorial Auditorium, something under a foot off the floor itself; folding-chair seating was arranged on three sides of the stage on risers. Everyone had a clear view. Upstage, a central wide two-door entrance opened in the upstage direction on cue; two other, smaller entrances were masked as need be by curtains. Above this, there was a musicians’ gallery with entrances, unseen, behind but with access provided also by a ladder against the superstructure. This, plus an occasional prop that could function as a bench or something else as necessary, along with a lectern for the opening scene (in which the King of Navarre lays down the laws of his new “academe”), were all the stage furniture they needed. Moreover, there were every bit as many musicians, it seemed, as there were actors, and playing musical instruments original to Shakespeare’s period.
This is one of the more difficult Shakespearean comedies to perform. The actors must have a truly firm command of language and an excellent technique for making it appear simultaneously natural, coherent, and articulate for the audience. Pace and timing are crucial; just as important is having fun with the play. It is a delicious comedy, about what most Shakespearean comedies are about: the sure folly of self-aggrandizement and pretense, which is sure to be overcome or outwitted by a genuine appeal to human nature. In this particular play, Ferdinand, King of Navarre, comes up with the foolish scheme of constructing an ideal academic world within the limits of his own domain, a world in which the participants will abjure all sight of women, fast one day a week, get no more than three hours sleep a night, and devote their days and energies to learning. This is a sure recipe for failure. One of the four aristocratic participants, Berowne, almost counts himself out at the start when he is called on to swear, like the others, obedience to these rules for a three-year period. At last he gives in, but with great misgivings. His worries about whether this will all work out are confirmed when the four regal ladies from France make their appearance. After much wonderfully versified hemming and hawing, the four are all discovered having written sonnets to the mistress of their eye. This scene in the middle of the play features a telling speech from Berowne, who from the beginning had been denying his own practical wisdom. In it he explains that the only thing for it is to perjure themselves, to scrap their oaths, and to be themselves. In comedy, the first axiom is that nature will suffer no denial. And so it is here as well.
Thus chastened, this quartet of newly self-realized young men decides on a much more pleasant course: the pursuit of the four beauties who have come their way. They decide to put on a show. The rest of the characters are pressed into action: the schoolmaster, the curate, the constable, the rustic, and the dairy maid, along with that wonderful Spanish braggart, Don Adriano. Sustained hilarity is the result. And then things start to turn into chaos. I have never seen a full-stage food fight before; in this one, multiple loaves of French bread are torn into small pieces and used as missiles. The fight goes on and on, longer than you might have thought, and even when the rest of the fighters have run out of ammunition the Princess of France goes on with it. And then, suddenly, we are aware that, standing in the midst, is someone we have not seen before. It is an emissary from the French court, and he has sad news to impart. Shakespeare’s dialogue here could not be more economical. The emissary says, “Madame, your father is…” “Dead?” replies the princess. “Even so,” says the emissary. “My tale is done.”
The impact of the announcement is all the greater for its brevity. The matrimonials that seemed to be in the offing must now be postponed. The princess and her entourage must return immediately to the court, leaving their lovers bereft and disappointed. May they count on happiness in time? The princess is brutally frank in her answer. Each of them, during her year of mourning for her lost father, must conduct an appropriate penance of their own. Each is told what he must do — visit the sick, tell jokes to people confined to hospitals, practice abstinence, and so on — and what they must do sounds all too ominously like the kind of self-denial that the King of Navarre had originally prescribed for himself and his fellows. But instead of being an abstract, fanciful exercise, a grotesque kind of self-indulgence, it is now a way of establishing a genuine engagement with the world, the world where lives end in death. If they fulfill their promise, the princess explains, then the four of them can come courting her and her ladies once again after the year is up.
And so the comic premise asserts itself once more: excess of any sort can be seen as a sign of bountiful life, but it can lead to mistakes, to error, however well-intentioned, to disruption in the community that prevents the world from staying on an even keel; and so it must be reined in, brought to terms, and set on a more rational and, above all, healthy new course. One of the things that the play does so well is to exemplify excess of the most basic kind. This is done with that delightful pair of characters, Costard, the rustic, and Jaquenetta, the dairy maid. The second scene of the play shows us Costard taken in tow by the constable for having gotten Jaquenetta pregnant. Somehow, because this is a comedy, Costard is allowed to produce much low comedy at the expense of a proper punishment. For her part, Jaquenetta is so head-over-heels enamored of Costard that she doesn’t seem to mind in the least that he has taken her virginity and left his calling card behind. And so, excess of high and low kinds, intellectual and physical, comes in for that thorough reining in that the ethos of comedy always in the end exacts. It happens in this case with much humor and laughter, but also at the end with an unusually sobering turn, leaving the audience vastly pleased and yet unusually thoughtful. They have, after all, just been required to confront their own mortality. It doesn’t happen very often at the end of a comedy, Shakespearean or otherwise. But it happens here.