5 ways to enjoy comedy by Shakespeare and his mates
Richard Inverne visits Straford-upon-Avon in search of some Shakespearean Comedy.
1) The First Way
The FIRST way to enjoy a Shakespeare comedy… is the play has to be put on! What might seem obvious simply wasn’t the case on Tuesday 19 July when arriving in Stratford-upon-Avon for a handful of plays, including three comedies and Hamlet, which isn’t very funny in the end, no matter how we might laugh at Polonius and the Gravedigger.
That day the Midlands sweltered at 35 degrees and both performances (The Swan and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre) had to be cancelled when the cooling systems broke down! It was ironically comic to be part of a huge and disappointed crowd who – at 7.25pm – were told to go home. Someone shouted “I came all the way from Devon” Then another “Well, I came from Las Vegas [Top that]”.
It would have been very disappointing to miss Ben Jonson’s starkly funny and harshly-modernistic 1610 hit The Alchemist, referred to by Bruce Lawson as ‘a cross between a heist movie and a farce’. Fortunately, I managed to get tickets for the otherwise sold-out performance on the following evening.
2) The Second Way
The SECOND way to enjoy comedies of this early-Jacobean period is to find out the next day that this performance was also under the axe –would they fix the air-con in time… or not? They did and I’m going to add a distinctly un-academic ‘Yay’ to this article! ‘Yay’ because there’s nothing better to aid the appreciation of a play like being on a roller-coaster of “will they – won’t they?” all day long…and then having it happen!
3) The Third Way
This brings me to the THIRD way to enjoy this kind of comedy – perhaps not that easy when some members of the audience are struggling with what might be perceived as “difficult” language. The play must arise from the text; that means that every actor must have clear diction and make sure that the plot, including all the action and some of the more obscure jokes, goes shooting laser-like straight from stage to audience. This did not happen in Maria Aberg’s interesting, inventive yet ultimately disappointing production of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus; not a comedy but containing several comic scenes. Some of the diction – including that of Oliver Ryan as Faustus himself, was sloppy and unclear.
I know the play well and I sometimes found myself saying “What was that?” out loud (apologies to my neighbours in the theatre!) Some of the comedy was simply not funny – the Seven Deadly Sins sequence comes to mind, full of cliché. Been there; done that. Comedy writers and performers will tell us that funny often equals snappy, gut-reaction laughs, as well as more deeply-rooted humour to be more subtly brought-out. Early 17th Century playwrights knew this (just look at the texts) and there’s a lesson to be learned here by some of today’s directors. This was one such.
However, Polly Findlay’s period production (quite unusual at Stratford these days) of The Alchemist was clear, concise, a riot and full of simple, rollicking good fun! The acting company, led by Ken Nwosu, Siobhan McSweeney and Mark Lockyer, ensured that the whole show (and that’s JONSON’s show as much as Findlay’s) was ‘a hit, a very palpable hit!’…
…Talking of Hamlet, Shakespeare writes a surprising amount of comedy into a play which, with a body-count of about eleven -including the Player King and Yorick…that’s the famous skull in case you’ve never heard anyone say “Alas, poor Yorick!”- can most definitely be deemed, in capital letters, A TRAGEDY.
Simon Godwin’s modern production, innovatively set in an African state with a mainly black cast, allowed many of his actors to find comic moments within – on the page – a mainly serious and intense text. This included the visual as well as verbal, as when the visiting – and obviously English – Rosencrantz (complete with camera) and Guildenstern presented the King and Queen with a brightly-coloured teapot and shortbread.
4) The Fourth Way
Cyril Nri found much comedy in Polonius whilst retaining the slightly-sinister nature of this ageing but still-astute politician. Ewart James Walters was a deeply-amusing yet thoughtful Gravedigger with almost “stand-up” qualities, bringing his earlier, chilling assumption of the Ghost into sharp relief. Even the fabulous new Hamlet of Paapa Essiedu discovered much comedy in his pretended mad sequences, whilst rightly giving prominence to the great moments – you could have heard a pin drop in the large RST during the ‘What a piece of work is a man’ speech. Godwin and the cast’s fine balance between the tragic and the comic can certainly be considered to be a FOURTH way of making these plays more approachable and enjoyable for a modern audience.
Melly Still, directing Cymbeline which I saw the following night, reversed that balance and was equally triumphant. This is a challenging late-comedy with many serious parts – and we should not forget that ‘comedy’ in the Elizabethan-Jacobean period simply means (as Harold Bloom tells us) the acceptance –or perhaps restoration- of the status quo at the end of the play; not necessarily laugh-out-loud material.
The director played the comic scenes with gusto yet with everything drawn from the text; the hilarious initial Roman scene –played in Italian with surtitles flashed on the taverna wall!- comes to mind. Complete with modern nightclub song-and-dance sequence, the scene was comic theatre at its very best…yet painted a picture of a modern, wealthy Rome in direct contrast with a darker, more-ancient (but roughly 20th-Century) Britain. It’s all in the text and Melly Still balanced the serious scenes perfectly with the comic. The fine cast –headed by Gillian Bevan, Bethan Cullinane and Marcus Griffiths as a bullishly-funny yet moving Cloten…that balance again- did the play proud.
5) The Fifth Way
So that was my visit to Stratford this summer. And the FIFTH way to enjoy a comedy by Shakespeare, Jonson, Marston, Massinger, Dekker et al –oh, yes, and Shakespeare- is simply not to be scared of the genre. If well-performed, the language and style will be quite clear…and you don’t actually have to understand every word. Have a quick look at the synopsis before you go, either on the web, the theatre’s website or in the programme itself, both of which are usually very helpful, and “you’re away”.
If my 5 year-old daughter –a few years ago- could understand much of a television production of the very not-funny King Lear [“It’s about a silly Daddy King who gives his kingdom to his wicked little girls who are horrible to their sister and there’s this Mister Gloucester who’s got a nice son and a wicked one and why do I have to go to bed now Daddy I want to see what Mister Cornwall does to the nice man …”] then anyone can manage a good, solid piece of Elizabethan-Jacobean comedy. After all, why are they still being performed 400 years later? There must be a good reason – and it’s because they are funny!
Richard Inverne is Senior Lecturer in Acting and Performance at Southampton Solent University and for over four years was Course Leader of Comedy Writing and Performance. He specialises in history, theory and analysis of the Performing Arts. Richard ran his own theatre company and headed a children’s theatre for many years, as well as owning and running a video production firm, specialising in commercial, promotional, training and educational projects. For several years was music and theatre critic for Plays and Players magazine. Occasionally guest-lectures at University of Southampton on stage and screen subjects. He was invited to contribute an article for The Historian magazine on Shakespeare’s Henry V on screen, specifically for the Agincourt celebratory issue. Richard is currently investigating the dynamic between Shakespeare in live performance versus its ‘Live in HD’ counterpart.