In an ironic twist of fate, the Fourth of July weekend marks the last chance American audiences will have for some time to see one of Britain's great theatre troupes. After its July 5 Kennedy Center performance of Cymbeline, the Royal Shakespeare Company will pack up and fly back to Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Of the five productions the RSC presented during its month-long stay at the Kennedy Center, only Cymbeline remains available for viewing. The production opened at the Eisenhower Theatre June 24.
Though the Royal Shakespeare Company of England has visited the U.S. many times, nothing matches in scope or ambition their current stay. Beginning at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and continuing at the Kennedy Center, the RSC presented five different plays in repertory, thus replicating, for the first time in America, their usual modus operandi when at home at Stratford Upon-Avon.
Two-time Olivier-Award-winning actor Alex Jennings, who was Oberon on Broadway in the 1996 RSC production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and whose boisterous Peer Gynt that same season beat out the likes of Michael Gambon and Daniel Massey for Best Actor Olivier honors, played the title role of the RSC's Hamlet.
Hamlet gave American audiences a look at Art director Matthew Warchus' approach to Shakespeare. Warchus sheared the Bard's most famous play of all political meaning, fashioning it as a fast-paced revenge drama. Thus, Fortinbras has been eliminated. Furthermore, the tragedy opens not with the traditional sighting of the ghost at the guards' watch, but on a film depicting child Hamlet happily playing with his parents. The stage action then skips to the party scene at the castle and it is there where Hamlet first sees his father's spirit. Warshus also realigned some of the action and introduced into the sound design pop songs by the British groups Oasis and The Verve. The company also takes a contemporary approach to Cymbeline. Noble has borrowed Warchus' scissors, excising 1,000 lines, and added one sentence at the play's beginning: "There once was a king called Cymbeline." That opening sets up the director's fairy-tale, Disneyesque approach to the work. The third Shakespearean offering, Henry VIII, took a more traditional approach, under the direction of Gregory Doran
The 16th century Everyman was last given a professional production in England in 1901. Here it was resurrected by Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni, members of the Theatre de Complicite, the same celebrated company which recently brought Ionesco's The Chairs to Broadway. The solemn allegorical tale of a doomed sinner is enlivened with the Complicite's usual visual flair and fleet pace.
Krapp's Last Tape was performed and co-directed (with David Hunt) by esteemed British veteran Edward Petherbridge. Theatregoers who took in all five plays saw Petherbridge as the Ghost in Hamlet and in the title role in Cymbeline. Other members of the ensemble include Paul Jessor (who will play Henry VIII), Jane Lapotaire (Queen Katherine), Ian Hogg (Wolsey), Derbhle Crotty (Ophelia), Paul Freeman (Claudius), Joanne Pearce (Imogen), William Houston (Laertes), Joseph Mydell (Everyman), and Susanna York (Gertrude).
For more information or tickets to the Washington DC performances, call (202) 467-4600.
-- By Robert Simonson