Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

A Reader’s Diary, 26 February 2014

Productions of Shakespeare are to directors as fashion shows are to designers. The pressure is on to do something different and get noticed. I saw a production of Othello earlier this month in which, not only was the text drastically cut, but the cast also doubled as a string ensemble, playing violin or cello during or between their own and each other’s speeches. The oddity of this interpretation led me to think about the difference between directors and conductors. The musical equivalent would be for a conductor of, say, Beethoven’s 5th to rearrange the score for different instruments and tell the musicians to recite poetry when they were not playing, or even when they were.

Why do theatre directors feel at liberty to make cuts, when orchestral conductors adhere faithfully to the score, even in some cases using period instruments to make the sound as authentic as possible? Why do we accept in the theatre something to which we would object strongly in the concert hall? We want our music to sound like it did when it was written, but plays have to be made relevant to the modern age.

Fear of directors wanting to make their mark must be what has led modern dramatists to embellish their scripts with the equivalent of the composer’s fortes and pianos, andantes and allegros. Even without them, a director with an ear for poetry and a cast able to speak it should be able to give us Shakespeare’s lines exactly as he wanted them to be heard. I would be happy if every production of Othello was exactly the same, so long as it was the Othello that Shakespeare intended.

I read Othello for myself the following night and enjoyed it far more than I did in the theatre the night before. I have read more of Shakespeare’s plays than I have seen performed. Opportunities for most people to see plays at all are limited by time, money and opportunity, so we should read them instead. Little is lost by reading and sometimes a lot can be gained. Playwrights would do well to cultivate a reading audience, not only as an additional income stream, but as a way of developing their craft. Writing to be read is the same as writing to be heard. The unadorned word on the page should be able to survive without set, costumes or even actors. If it can’t, the play will have a short life.

A play, whether read at home or seen in the theatre, is a life lived in an evening. After Shakespeare, I turned to another dramatist whose plays I have rarely seen but often read, Eugene O’Neill. I read Desire Under the Elms, which I had read before, but so long ago that I had forgotten it. O’Neill has whole pages of stage directions and character descriptions. Reading one of his plays is not unlike reading a novella with a lot of dialogue. The script begins with a description of the set (‘Exterior of the farm-house. It is sunset of a day at the beginning of summer in the year 1850. There is no wind and everything is still.’) then of the first character to come on stage (‘A door opens and Eben Cabot comes to the end of the porch and stands looking down the road to the right. He has a large bell in his hand and this he swings mechanically, awakening a deafening clangour.’) whom O’Neill goes on to describe not just in terms of appearance, but of character and temperament too (‘His defiant dark eyes remind one of a wild animal’s in captivity. Each day is a cage in which he finds himself trapped, but inwardly subdued.’) before taking him offstage again (‘He spits on the ground with intense disgust, turns and goes back into the house.’) having so far given him only one line, a line which he ‘blurts out with halting appreciation’ while standing with his hands on his hips, looking up at the sky and sighing ‘with a puzzled awe’: “God! Purty!”

O’Neill’s stage directions help you to hear the voices, nearly every line being preceded by the equivalent of a presto or lento. From the second page alone come the following: grudgingly, suddenly, with indifferent finality, vaguely, growing excited, with sardonic bitterness. But there remains, for an English reader, the problem of the American accent. What accent should I be hearing? I have in my head only the all-purpose accent that passes for American over here and this, I am sure, is not what I should be hearing from farmers in mid-nineteenth century New England. I tried it without an accent of any kind, but that was unsatisfactory. The line spoken with sardonic bitterness needs a genuine voice to make it work, to bring out the poetry: “Here – it’s stones atop o’ the ground – stones atop o’ stones – makin’ stone walls – year atop o’ year – him ’n’ yew ’n’ me ’n’ then Eben – makin’ stone walls fur him to fence us in!” When I was some way into the play, still feeling dissatisfied with the voice I was hearing, I tried hearing it in Welsh. Surprisingly, it worked, and since I only had myself to please, that was how I went on reading it. Desire in the Valleys. If I were French or German or Dutch, reading it in translation, I would hear it in whatever rural accent I had in my head. So why not in English, which bears only a superficial resemblance to the language O’Neill wrote in? His farmhouse in New England could be mine in Glamorgan.

icarus theatre 02

Next week’s post, on 5 March, will be about banker and children’s author, Kenneth Grahame.

The next entry in my Readers’ Diary will be published on 12 March.

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This entry was posted on February 26, 2014 by in Literature and tagged , , , , , , .
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