Disclaimer: I received an advance reader's copy (ARC - Uncorrected Manuscript Proof) of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own, and no monetary compensation was received for this review.
(The book is due to be published on June 23, 2015; review written 06/05/2015)
I’ve always wanted to read a book like the one I’ve just read. Why? Shakespeare, great Actors and the English Language. This is the preferred triumvirate of my liking.
Stanley Well’s aim is an attempt to define what great Shakespearean roles there are, thus inviting greatness of performance. What distinguishes a great performance from a merely competent one?
I’ve written elsewhere, that in my book a great actor should be defined by the way she/he can stand still in the presence of an audience. (Great) Shakespeare acting needs stillness, i.e., the ability of the Actor to listen and to react in silence. This epitomizes what great acting is (e.g., Hermione’s motionless silence in “The Winter’s Tale” is a good example of this). The other characteristic an Actor needs is to be in full control of her/his acting voice/language. Why is this so? The western human behaves (I’m thinking Bloom here), thinks and speaks quite differently now from the days four hundred years ago when Shakespeare’s plays were contemporary. What’s the difference when I say the words "Take me for a sponge my lord?" now (Incidentally I use this line when someone is trying to sell me some bullshit…) and when someone, maybe Shakespeare, uttered it 400 years ago?
Such events are still the stuff of Shakespearean theatre as they’re still the stuff of everyday life, but the difference between contemporary theatre and Shakespeare’s theatre lies in the language that it’s used. The crux of the matter is that we’re moving further away from eons of years of oral civilization. The voice in Shakespeare’s time might have been visceral (I’m hypothesizing here) than it’s today. Today’s voice may be deprived of real emotion. Society does not allow us to express ourselves freely. The actor of nowadays, when playing Shakespeare, can only “voice” truthful feelings through our cultural and present Weltanschauung.
I’ve always thought what distinguishes great Actors from just plain ones is their ability to play the subtext and not the text, i.e., the Actor should embody the action and not just the words. That’s where “Shakespeare” is (“silence” is just one of the artifacts of this acting framework). On the face of this, the prime responsibility of Shakespearean theatre is to show us its own face so that we may reflect upon it. But art also has a responsibility to preserve the past, so that a culture may reflect upon itself in the light of its history. Great art and great performances last, and when the theatre want to re-produce its past, Actors are confronted by artistic demands very different from those posed by contemporary fare.
Well’s book was able to fully demonstrate that no matter what Actor we have in mind when thinking about what a great Shakespearean performance is, what matters is her/his ability to embody the full integration of words, emotions, intentions and actions (e.g., onomatopoeias are used a lot in plays because in Shakespeare's time there was no electricity to produce sounds artificially), because Elizabethan society spoke in a language which had a different “texture” than the one we (almost) all speak today. Hamlet, of course, tells us something about what Shakespeare wanted from his Actors:
“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines.”
What great Actors did Wells “select”? On to the numbers. 39 Anglo-saxon and one Italian:
Richard Burbage, Will Kemp, Robert Armin, Thomas Betterton, Charles Macklin, David Garrick, Sarah Siddons, George Frederick Cooke, John Philip Kemble, Dora Jordan (trivia fact: David Cameron is her descendant), Edmund Kean, William Charles Macready, Ira Aldridge, Helen Faucit, Charlotte Cushman, Edwin Booth, Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, Tommaso Salvini, Edith Evans, Sybil Thorndike, Charles Laughton, Donald Wolfit, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Peggy Ashcroft, Michael Redgrave, Paul Scofield, Donald Sinden, Richard Pasco, Ian Richardson, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen, Janet Suzman, Antony Sher, Kenneth Branagh, Simon Russell Beale.
It’s through the use of theatre critics that Wells chose to illuminate our understanding of who should be the greatest Shakespeare Actors of all time. It was an advisable decision due to the fact that the first actors did not have the “help” of sound recording and film. Using this transversal approach Wells was able to (almost) put all of his choices on the same footing. This was the only reasonable approach. Nevertheless we can discern, through the cracks, Wells’ preferences (as it should; it’s his book after all), but sometimes a little more restrain would have been advisable (e.g., regarding “The Taming of the Shrew” it’s referred en passant that feminism made the play seem unstylish or something to that effect).
As a side note, Patrick Stewart, Maggie Smith, Mark Rylance (e.g., Richard III), Zoe Caldwell, James Earl Jones, Michael Gambon, Emma Thompson and Christopher Plummer (his Macbeth was superb) didn’t make the cut. I imagine Wells had to draw the line somewhere…Tom Hiddleston and David Tennant are also still too young to be real contenders.
On another side note, I’d include our own Ruy de Carvalho. His King Lear which I saw on stage in 1998 at Teatro Nacional D. Maria II was superb.
On yet another side note, I’m also eagerly anticipating Fassbender’s Macbeth at the end of the year…Next weekend I’m watching Branagh’s Macbeth. It’s time…