Plays read and seen

July 26, 2009

I’ve recently been thinking about the medium of theatre, and how some plays are more successful read than seen, or seen than read.

After a long interest in mid-century American drama, I finally bought Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which is one of the hardest plays I’ve ever read (emotionally, I mean).  My edition has an introduction by Mr. Bloom, in which he says that O’Neill’s reputation for dialogue is undeserved – that the genius of the play is actually in the (long and detailed) stage directions, rather than the action or dialogue. And I think Harold’s got it right…there is so much going on in those stage directions, what’s left unsaid and undone, that it would take the most spectacular production to capture the essence of the play (I understand that there was one with Bill Hutt, Martha Henry, Martha Burns, Tom McCamus and Pete Donaldson that met this standard at Stratford in recent years). Better read than seen, in most circumstances, I would think.

Then I read Macbeth, because I hadn’t since highschool (since I learned how to read, and think, I think, which was 3rd year university).  And I was disappointed. It didn’t strike me as incomplete – I felt the motivations and movement / action in the play were all clear – but it seemed somehow…incohesive. Transitions between speeches and scenes were…strained. In talk with others we came up with some reasons: the theory that Middleton wrote some of it, or, more basically, that they were producing so many plays so fast that we can’t expect all of them to be great.

Which is why I was thrilled to see Stratford’s production (I know others have been less impressed, but I haven’t read any of the reviews yet). Macbeth is a play that was meant to be watched.  The abrupt / awkward transitions in the written play lent themselves to a performance that felt new and fast-paced.

Colm Feore was excellent as the lost soldier; some of our favourites from recent years at Stratford were also very strong (Timothy D. Stickney struck me both in Caesar and Cleopatra last year and as Banquo, here). Yanna McIntosh, whom I saw in Obsidian’s production of Colleen Wagner’s The Monument, was a fantastic Lady M. (I do wish that Stratford’s young men –  Lear‘s Edgars, Hamlet‘s Fortinbras’, Macbeth‘s Malcolms – were stronger.)

As always, I found the production thoughtful and impressive. The introduction of 2 monitors in the 2nd half brought out the themes of surveillance and insecurity, the role of the media in modern war, and reminded the audience of the supernatural element in the play. The music and effects were movie-like (a strength or weakness, I suppose, depending on your perspective, but I found they strengthened the production); and the play concluded with an image as ominous as anything we had seen till then – the bringing in of the Union Jack.

Then a flash of Macbeth’s screaming face on the monitors and black-out. Shakespeare’s action movie, really well-done.