Damsels and Dames


One of Susannah York’s earliest Shakespearean roles was that of Puck, the hobgoblin who wreaks erotic mayhem on the lovers of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. York, only a teenager then, went on to become Hollywood’s go-to gal for roles requiring a combination of the alluring and the unhinged (Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and Robert Altman’s Images).

Now the actress is back on the boards with a gallery of speeches by Shakespeare’s most celebrated heroines. Yet she remains intriguingly puckish—her restless, androgynous energy ever the core of her charisma.

York declares her overall focus to be the many ways in which Shakespearean women voice love for paramours, children, justice, etc. But it’s a theme surveyed rather than explored, since the show lacks any analysis of how language reveals character (a feature that made Ian McKellan’s Acting Shakespeare so satisfying). The moment we’re reminded of Juliet’s rich and strange personifications of night, we’re on to Hermia’s lowbrow comic tantrum. The juxtaposition would carry more power if York took the time to reflect on it.

That said, York’s best when doing less. Her big gestures can feel ungrounded, her vocal stresses sometimes more operatic than operative. She fails to convince as any of Shakespeare’s giddy ingenues (this can be considered a compliment). But when simply inhabiting a scene, she offers a harrowing portrait of Iago’s wife, Emilia; a Cleopatra riven by solitude; and a Lady Macbeth who could make the most diffident of men screw his courage to the sticking place (or anywhere else for that matter). As the evening unfolds, York appears most at home with the gender-neutral sonnets (several are exquisitely rendered toward the close of the show). This actress’s singular appeal unsexes her in the best of ways: She needs no feminine endings to make poetry.