The Venetian Play at the Rose

“I would rather write a poem than a review. Actually I don’t do reviews.” -- James Bogan

A couple of months ago I, James Bogan, had proclaimed to my wife in the safety of the Ozarks (back of the beyond in the boondocks of Missouri): “When we are in London, I want to see a lot of Shakespeare. Just to fill up on the language, if nothing else. But I have had enough in my life of MACBETH and THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. On those two, I will take a pass.”

Not long after arriving in the ancient city on the Thames we attended KING JOHN, a rarely produced history play, with some fine speeches and many battle scenes, most of which were happily cut from the Union Theatre production under the railway tracks. Though the players indulged in the shouting Shakespeare style, it was all newly shouted Shakespeare to me and the staging was deft and surprising as five sturdy tables were manipulated into battlements, ships, walls, and tables. And then we caught Ralph Fiennes’ CORIOLANUS in a movie theatre, a place of plush seats, surrounded sound, and the divine resolution of well projected 35mm film. This submerged classic was one I knew, having in my youth been part of the cast in a production mounted in Rome in 1964. I played a drunken servant, who could not remember his lines. I remember the excitable director feuding face into face with the protagonist, and, fortunately for me, the production foundered, and I split for Smyrna, now called Izmir.

That was the last time I trod the boards, and I did learn the limits of my memory, which I mainly do not rely on, depending instead on the imagination, where I find it easier to create as I go, and just because I make it up does not mean it is not true. The filmedCORIOLANUS was bloody bloody and hand-held to convey the monstrous misery inflicted by a native son on his own state. I noted with some dismay that my small, but pivotal, part had been excised.

Last night Mary and I went off to see THE MERCHANT OF VENICE at the Rose Theatre. My willingness to sign on against my previously stated position had all to do with following the intuitions of my wife, who has an preternatural aptitude for theatre scheduling; and it would not be the first of my proclamations thrown overboard when confronted with an ambiguous opportunity. (Otherwise why would I have taken a chance on that canoe trip down the Meramec River during a blizzard?) Part of the draw is to see the play staged on the site of the Rose, which was Shakespeare’s original venue, before the Globe. Sneaky Marlowe’sDOCTOR FAUSTUS premiered there. Now it is an ongoing archaeological dig and only last week an Elizabethan buckle was unearthed. Is that why Falstaff’s pants fell down?

So we are going to the Rose and we arrive at the almost invisible entrance on a side street a long block from the old site of the Globe and the current site of the Thames in plenty of time to redeem electronic testimony into a bona-fide paper strip ticket. The vaulted lobby is pretty cold. Actually all of London is pretty cold. As a matter of fact, a week ago it snowed, while we were watching King John grovel and preen. On the way home we took time out to scare the natives with an impetuous snowball fight. Since then it has been colder than a witch’s prick, to coin a phrase.

The "new” Rose features an open-seating arrangement, so I am ready to maneuver us in best Brazilian fashion towards the front of the line, but when the doors to the theatre are opened, only seven people queue up, so we easily have our choice of 30 folding chairs to sit on, and we put our coats in the middle of the second row (of two). If the Duke and the Duchess deign to come, the places are theirs. But the cold seems to have scared off the high-faluting and the faint-hearted. The stage is miniscule, a lopsided parallelogram of old boards. Beyond a metal-pipe railing is the excavation, with dank water flooding it to the stone wall in the distance. Really cool. And damp.

Another five people show up.

The lobby was cold. The theatre space is colder. Outside is probably coldest. Probably.  Instead of the “Venetian Play,” WINTER’S TALE might be more to the freezing point.   The lights go down. THE SHOW MUST GO ON! And so must my hat and coat. The spirit of the Blitz is not dead in England. Though a big fire of bones would be welcome this night.

Antonio and Bassanio make the bizarre opening gambit of the play in the pledge of a part of Antonio’s sea-balanced wealth to fit out the eager suitor who needs to trade his bomber jacket up for a shark skin suit to make the dress requirement to qualify for the cute hand of fair Portia.  The actors’ breaths visually punctuate each phrase.  BRILLIANT BACKLIT EFFECTS! Antonio maintains a compelling gravitas in this scene and throughout the play that somehow humanizes a usually unbelievable character.

And really what a rotten play, though shot through with great bits of stunning poesia   

     The moon shines bright. In such a night as this,
     When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees
     And they did make no noise, in such a night
     Troilus methinks mounted the Troyan walls,
     And sighed his soul toward the Grecian tents
     Where Cressid lay that night.

                                     (Act V, Scene I, 1-6)

Portia and what’s her name come on eventually and I hope the hero(ine) has fleece underwear beneath that short skirt. Her Shakespearean brogue is most fluent and fetching and this girl can really act. She must be chilled as a bottle of Dom in an ice bucket, yet she reveals no sign of discomfort. Most of the other actors are wearing unseasonal scarves for a summer in Venice.

Then there is Shylock. Why is this play not called: THE TRAGEDY OF SHYLOCK???? Don’t answer that rhetorical question. Shylock is played straight. Very Jewish. Thoughtful. Revengeful. Wronged from the opening bell. I saw Dustin Hoffman get spit on repeatedly in this role on Broadway many years ago, maybe in 1984. There I was in one of the cheap seats in the front row—way far left, where I belonged. I got spit on too. (But I sure like front row at the theatre, even though in the big ones the actors pitch their stuff way over your head. Up close you can catch them in the act so to speak. And there is no intellectual basketball player plunked down in front of you to look around.) I prefer tonight’s impersonation of the sad stereotype to Dustin Hoffman’s long suffering juice man.

The servant bits are suitably mincing and funny. Damn, if the villain does not single me out of the meager audience with a look and a jibe! The other half dozen productions I have been subjected to have not been nearly as funny. And under such Siberian conditions too. When we were still deciding on what to do with this evening, I did allow as it would be a trial to endure the interminable choose-the-casket scene again. “Oh, I’ll take the Gold door! Give me the Silver door! Let it be the Lead door! Perhaps we should catch THE MOUSETRAP before it closes,” I plied…. As it turned out the tedious casket scene was a riot. I forgot I was shivering as the Prince of Morocco punked and prattled and lurched his broad way through the part, followed by the lisping, be-monocled Prince of Aragon, who would win no awards for political correctness, but then again neither would Bill Shakspear for the screenplay. And Aragon (who doubled as Antonio) did not beat a dead horse with the monocle shtick, though he did wedge it in to the point of animal cruelty… Bassanio made a blessedly quick choice of the Lead casket with the Portia-prize within. I verily enjoyed the scene I most feared and maybe this play is better than I thought, but now:

IT’S HALFTIME—AT LAMBEAU FIELD EAST!

How about a coffee! How about some whiskey in the coffee! But first Mary heads off to the Globe for the nearest Ladies' Room. I make due with an alley, which was legal in Elizabethan England for sure and still is in Chicago. I note two fugitive figures, bundled and behatted, hustling up a stairwell brick-built into the viaduct. Whether it is blues bar or an ancient theatre, the reprobates are always looking for a protected outside spot at the interval and so do I. As I round the bend in the stairwell, here are Antonio in a long coat and Gratiano, I think, as the latter is partly disguised by a pullover cap. And they are smoking—tobacco—the miscreants. And the smoke rises with the alternate vaporous breath and I say to them: “Gentlemen! This is the most edifying performance I have attended in my near biblical life-span. It was the immortal Milton said: ‘Fit audience find, though few…’ And your whole cast is each one going on all eight cylinders, in a focused wonder playing as if to a full house of 888 in the well heated Royal Haymarket. I would take my hat off to you, if it were not so dang cold.” For a second I think they are rehearsing the response of the guards to the Senior Hamlet's ghost, but then they smile, but stop short of "Aw,shucks." And I go topside to see what I can see. And all that I can see is an empty expanse of city street stretching to the other side of the river. The fitfully lighted offices of the Financial Times loom across the road, where the great abstractions of our era are fitfully monitored. No Moon this night to be seen.

Back down the stairs and into the theatre. Mary is in place and I do jumping jacks to stimulate blood flow. Blankets have been issued making it look even more like a football crowd in Green Bay. And, mirabile visu, NO ONE HAS ABSCONDED. The tough tribe of twelve is holding to its magic number. The lights go down and up and there is Antonio sans coat without his pullover cap and enunciating his lines in double-crisp delivery:

     I do oppose
     My patience to the Jew's fury, and am armed
     To suffer with a quietness of spirit
     The very tyranny and rage of his.
                                     (IV.i.10-13)

In the second half of the play Shakespeare does well by the women and the women do well by him. The “quality of mercy” speech is not strained. The impersonations and gender-mending of Portia and what-was-her-name are paired with ravishing rhetoric and the hoisting of gentlemen on their collective petards. Actually this being a modern dress piece, there was not a petard in sight.

Shylock gets his stacked deck come-uppance, as he is undone in the applications of fine discrimination. And he is whipped into an unseemly submission by the further application of mercy that only requires him to become a “Christian.” Like an untutored groundling with a Sephardic past, I groan aloud at the sentence. Sick unto death, Shylock shuffles offstage. Compassion comes only in adaptations that grant him suicide.

The lights go down and the cast comes out guided by red-LED lights in the floor…The applause is bolstered by this opportunity of warming exercise. And if ever an audience merited the applause of the cast, this was the one. A second round of applause follows on the first and that’s that. I have never witnessed a more remarkable performance, excepting Donal McCann and Company in a matinee of the Servant of Christendom Upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre in 2003. That audience numbered about 35. I wept.

There is no encore, but the old Tom's a-cold scene from King Lear could have been easily conjured.

I poke around a bit and notice the guy at the mixing board. I tell him that I thought the lighting was wonderfully well done and deceptively simple seeming. And the bit about it being edifying, truly professional, to present the play so well for so few. Anyway, we shake hands. His fingers are freezing. Many are cold but few are frozen! I cannot help it.

And here comes Portia. I express my delight. Ibid. “Where are you from?” she asks. To keep it simple and elude the part about being run out of Lawrence, Kansas, by General Hershey and that I have hid out in the wilderness of the Ozarks for forty years, I just say: “Chicago.”

“Oh, I am from New Jersey.”

“Well, you sure fooled me.”

Into the night. Colder yet and the prospect of the hike to the nearest tube station, which is not near, is daunting., so I make a command decision and raise my arm into the air to an empty street… St. Anthony be praised, around a far corner comes a cab with his light on. Eventually the capacious London cab pulls over at our cold feet.

“Where to?”

Well could we just stay here for 15 minutes to warm up?”

“Righto, Governor.”

****

Tomorrow night we are on for MACBETH.

James Bogan
8 February 2012
London