"This . . . is London": "Searching for Shakespeare" at the Novello, the National Portrait Gallery, and on My iPod

Well, I hardly need to travel all the way down to London to go in search of him. After all, the man—or a stained-glass likeness of him—looks over my shoulder each time I fetch a volume from my bookshelves. His raised eyebrow and faint smile seem to say, “Come now, there must be something else beside radio drama to pique your interest.” For some time now, Shakespeare’s works, along with those of many other acknowledged topnotchers of western prose and poetry, have been relegated to the shelves upstairs to make room for my growing collection of books on American broadcasting and radio dramatics. Yet the bard need not consider himself debarred; even on American radio, he enjoyed a prominent position.

The Radio Guild, the first major American drama anthology for the airwaves, chose Romeo and Juliet for its premiere back in 1929. Subsequently, Orson Welles brought his acclaimed production of Julius Caesar to radio’s Mercury Theater (as discussed here), the irreverent Norman Corwin invited audiences to “[s]tand by to hear a Dane evaporate” as he faded out a production of Hamlet, and the CBS Radio Workshop went so far as to stage an interview with the playwright to investigate just “who wrote the works of William Shakespeare?”

As has often been argued, few dramatic works are as radiogenic as Shakespeare’s plays. They were written for the “wooden O” of an almost bare stage and, though hardly without action, rely much more on the spoken word than the elaborate masques, pantomimes, and melodramas of subsequent generations of playwrights. When Shakespeare is translated for the contemporary boards, for big screen or small, text is often in competition and at times at odds with context, as costumes and stagecraft conspire to make the spoken word sound dated or the settings seem anachronistic. On the other hand, producers who opt for the blank canvas of a stripped stage in an effort to let Shakespeare’s words speak for themselves, give the eye so little to play with or feast on that they might as well lead us to the theater of the mind by handing out headphones and recordings.

The Royal Shakespeare Company production of As You Like It, now playing at the newly refurbished Novello Theatre in London’s West End, reduces the forest of Arden (or Ardenne) to a single tree. Yet it proves entirely sufficient to suggest a pastoral setting, to allow for some hide and seek among lovers, and to give poor Orlando, pining for his Rosalind, the requisite branches on which to pin his clumsy (and double entendre peppered) verse:

If a hart do lack a hind,
Let him seek out Rosalind.
If the cat will after kind,
So, be sure, will Rosalind.
Wintered garments must be lined,
So must slender Rosalind.
They that reap must sheaf and bind,
Then to cart with Rosalind.
“Sweetest nut hath sourest rind,”
Such a nut is Rosalind.
He that sweetest rose will find
Must find love’s prick, and Rosalind.

Orlando, of course, doesn’t altogether mind the prick of Rosalind (charmingly portrayed by a somewhat Ellen DeGeneresque Nia Williams); professing to cure his aching heart, she makes love to him while disguised as Ganymede, a simulated shepherd whose name spells boytoy of the gods. To be sure, the gender illusions of dramas designed for an all-male cast play out differently for today’s audiences (unless those of the all-male Propeller Company, whose production of The Winter’s Tale I saw last December). It is in these explorations of gender that radio can be more sophisticated and mature by being less provoking.

Non-visual theater can either obscure differences and tone down what may strike some as Charley’s Auntics and encourage us to look past gender markers like skirts and trousers to discover the humanity underneath. As cross-dressing all but fades into thin air, the sexual confusions take on a new subtlety, however drastic the cuts and unfortunate the synopsizing. Hear for yourself in Margaret Webster’s soundstaging of As You Like It, which was produced by the Columbia Workshop on 7 December 1939, and in which Webster gives her vocal chords a winningly understated if all too brief Victor/Victoria workout.

Regrettably, the single-trunk woods where Orlando woos Rosalind will be felled this weekend, when the Novello will stoop so low as to present an adaptation of the faux ’60s musical Footloose. If you care to go “Searching for Shakespeare” elsewhere, there is an exhibition of artifacts and portraits on display at the nearby National Portrait Gallery, my impressions of which I shall share tomorrow.

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