Stock Manipulations

Is It Reinventing, or Just Recycling?

A critic's an audience member, but is that all he or she is? That was the only question rattling through my mind as I watched the company that the Donmar Warehouse had assembled for Sam Mendes's farewell productions troop through its paces. Because if critics are more than simply audience members, if they're the voice of expertise or experience or deep analysis or whatever, then at least one working definition of a critic is: a person who has seen Twelfth Night and Uncle Vanya many times before, and is in no hurry to wave superlatives around when yet another rendition of these familiar and much-loved works arrives. Superlatives, at least by this definition of criticism, should be reserved for the really overpowering occasions when an actor, or a director, or a company, either shows you something you never realized about the old work, thereby making it a new work, or else shows you what you always knew to be true about it with such force that your whole sense of it is rejuvenated—another way of making it new.

As you've guessed by now, neither of these things happened to me at the Donmar Warehouse productions. This is not a condemnation; they happen very infrequently to experienced theatergoers at familiar plays. After a few encounters, even a great work may still delight but can hardly surprise you. Or so you think until the next great occasion comes along, and some artist possessed by the acumen or the fervor of a faith that you are ceasing to feel proceeds to knock your socks off with brilliance. It can happen on any occasion, and in the most improbable contexts—and I speak with the authority of one who learned to love A Doll's House again while watching Pakistani actors perform it in Urdu.

That Sam Mendes and his troupe are not the artists to make me love two plays I've seen both more often and more recently than A Doll's House is no dire reflection on them. Their work struck me as mostly moderate, honest, and not overpoweringly impressive—which is to say, a good deal better than a lot of dishonestly overpraised work brought over from England in recent years. If you had never seen Uncle Vanya or Twelfth Night, the productions made reasonable, if somewhat austere, introductions. If they are plays you encounter rarely, the productions would stand as good reminders, hinting at the greatness in the texts even if rarely touching it. There is no shame in that—certainly nothing like the ineptitude that made Adrian Noble's Royal Shakespeare Company productions such a glaring embarrassment. No regional theater in America or England would have felt awkward about offering its subscribers such productions. The awkwardness is vested in the reviewers, here and in London, who tumbled over themselves with ecstasies of praise and Olivier Award nominations, as if they and not the subscribers were the untutored theatergoers. Actually, I think the subscribers are probably wiser; certainly they know more about these plays, at least in cities where the larger resident theaters produce classic plays more regularly than commercialized New York does.

Strong and Watson in Mendes's Shakespeare: gender is the night.
photo: Stephanie Berger
Strong and Watson in Mendes's Shakespeare: gender is the night.

Details

Twelfth Night
By William Shakespeare
Uncle Vanya
By Anton Chekhov
Adapted by Brian Friel
BAM Harvey Theatre
651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn
718-636-4100

Even in resident theaters, though, the rotating-rep system has largely disappeared, and the fact that Donmar's two productions were being given on alternate nights probably added to their puzzling cachet. I probably have an unfair advantage over my colleagues here, having spent a decade and a half of my young adulthood working in rotating rep, which means I demand even more from artists who work in it, though I know the difficulties involved only too well. I also know—a point other reviewers grasped too dimly to make—that it is, for my money, the only way actors can ever season themselves to achieve greatness, and the optimal way for both actors and audiences to learn what greatness is. I grew up watching repertory companies—Eva le Gallienne's, Jean-Louis Barrault's, William Ball's ACT, the APA—and the only joy I know that improves on watching such a company at its peak is being involved with one.

In a way, Mendes's project is inimical to rep. While the normal aim of performing several plays at once is to display the company's varied skills and breadth of sensibility, the idea here, underscored by the parallel casting, is to stress the similarity of the two plays' substance. A line from Shakespeare's Sonnet 23, "O learn to read what silent love hath writ," is projected over the stage at the start of both plays, and Mendes sustains the same stark, emotionally blunt tone pretty much through both, relieved, as you might expect, by slightly more pathos in Vanya and slightly more comedy in Twelfth Night. The quotation is an odd choice. "Silent love" is certainly an important aspect of both plays, but is the injunction to "learn to read" directed at the audience or the characters? (It's also somewhat ungracious of Mendes to choose a sonnet that famously opens with the image of a flustered actor forgetting his lines.) We hardly need the cue, since both scripts constantly make us privy to the characters' unspoken feelings, and Mendes compounds the confusion by directing as if both called for the same tactics: His Chekhov is played heavily on the line, with little attention to what might be going on underneath the text—he reserves that kind of nuance for Shakespeare, adding emotionally laden pauses to what's already carefully spelled out in words.

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