Branagh’s ‘A Winter’s Tale’ 2016: It’s Not Your Fault
I’ve studied Shakespeare for nearly 10 years, but I still have a hard time following it in performance. I’ve felt ashamed. We all have. But the truth is, it’s not your fault if you don’t understand Shakespeare in performance. You’re not supposed to.
The language is beautiful, but it is archaic.
The play’s value and enjoyment is in the story, not in translating the language. They were written to be understood. But you can’t enjoy the story if you can’t follow it. You can’t fall in love with the ideas if they fly over your head. But we sit there and pretend to enjoy it. It’s like insisting that we watch Kurosawa’s films without subtitles.
Why? It’s a chance for us to pat ourselves on the back, to feel cultured and educated.
But it misses the point. It’s a shame, really.
Every Shakespeare play is a treasure chest of human drama and enchanting ideas. But language gets in the way of the drama, and delivery gets in the way of the idea.
The language is full of beautiful metaphors and biting observations. These ideas can cut through you, open your eyes, make you gasp. For this to happen, the audience just has to understand the idea, whether they hear it in the play or read it on a cubicle wall. The idea is all it takes. But the audience will have a hard time grasping the idea if the actor feels the need to interpret the line in a nuanced or personal way. Sure, it gives the illusion of depth and accomplishment to the actor, but the idea is lost behind the delivery.
My humble advice is this: Sometimes, all you need to do is say the line. Don’t dress it up.
And if you think we’re the only ones struggling to piece the story together, think again. The actors and producers have the same problem. That’s why Shakespearean performances are so god damn hammy. They’re desperate to show off their command of the material, which has taken weeks of study. Study the audience hasn’t done. The director, on the other hand, is desperate to give the audience a fighting chance of understanding the story.
What does this add up to? Exaggerated performances that make no sense in the real world.
Plays are stories that are written to be performed, but when the performance doesn’t ring true, neither does the story. History has taught us that drama reaches its highest heights when the players commit fiercely to their cause in the story. Nothing more, nothing less.
But the only cause these performers are committed to is their review. This leads to the theatrical phenomenon of playing weak.
At some point it because fashionable to play every character as weak, unstable, breaking-up, teary eyed, unable to cope. Much weaker than the man on the street. For some weird reason it’s seen as a test of acting ability, and I guess on the surface it creates the impression of drama. But it takes all the drive out of the story.
We want to slap the actor and tell them to pull themselves together.
But we don’t, because if we did people would think that we don’t appreciate good acting.
It looks dramatic, but it is not dramatic.
There were rare moments when Branagh and Dench played strong. Branagh chose power over tantrum, and Dench chose fierce over flustered. These moments made the hair on my neck stand up. I wriggled in my seat. But judging by the rest of the show, they were just happy accidents.
I’ll sum it up with this quote, which most professionals in the theatre seem to have forgotten.
Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this
special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature:
for any thing so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose
end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ‘twere the
mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own
image, and the very age and body of the time his form and
pressure. Now this overdone or come tardy off, though it make the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve, the censure of the which one must in your allowance o’erweigh a whole theatre of others.