07/04/2014 at 3:50 pm Leave a comment

Three microphones, three male voices, a tale of a time gone yet just within grasp of living memory, and by making this reach we might peer further back into the years before, centuries perhaps, of Hamlets, MacBeths, Bottoms, Falstaves and Cassieia. This kind of theatrical telescope into the past can reveal all manner of insight into the word as spoken – alive again in the prism of Gielgud’s particular vocal method.

The text is by arrangement of Bob Ellis, weaving the anecdotal with the classical, the casual aside with the musical, and the historical with the modern. It is easy to cast yourself adrift in the sea of pentameter in this whistlestop steamboat cruise, a sampling plate of Elizabethan delights.Yet just as this rhythm starts to wash across there will be a change in tone or shift in tempo, or a phrase out-of-time to crash you back into the experience anew. The passing comment comparing Henry VIII’s brutal treatment of adulterers with the Taliban springs to mind – such is Ellis’s turn of phrase he perhaps matches the mentor for imagery, without letting his careful segues take the limelight from through some of the Bard’s most memorable characters and the scenes which some lucky actors might carve their likeness into the sandy shores betwixt the tides of time.

For as we well know theatre is such an elusive game, and only the rarest of us have ever caught Sir Gielgud in full recital mode (I am not one such creature) – but this might be as close as you can get, three voices in carefully trained mimicry of his style, each finding their own truth or bouncing off the other. It is a stark contrast with the Shakespeare of today and such an important historic counterpoint that is a must-hear for any student of the craft to fully comprehend the significance of the shift toward the conversational tones that are du jour. There is a cultural memory here -or perhaps one from watching BBC dramas in discontented wintry schoolrooms – but the marked and pointed vocality of Sir Gielgud is a kind of lightning rod for today’s casual emphasis toward the everyday. It’s highlighted with some archival footage of one such black and white film – a monologue of the lean and hungry Cassius, imbued with such epic intensity, barely a facial twitch with cross the screen, it is all in his eyes, and that voice – one cannot help but submit to be slain by the voice.

Gielgud cuts a fragile enough figure onscreen and is thus difficult to picture in the kind of commanding presences we have come to expect of today’s romantic casting we will often see in leading roles. There exists no footage of his stagecraft (not even for ready money) so one must imagine, and with a little help from the talents of Messrs Clarke, Burke and Ellis, now one can. The staging is of such simplicity our imaginations are forced into the kind of overdrive Shakespeare’s language will dictate. No flourishing sets or modernist imprimatur – Ellis remarked in a post-show conversation this is a “counter-revolution” against the kind of auteur Shakespeare we have come to know of late. And we enjoy as much, but to fully comprehend what we have won with such expressionistic leaps and bounds one must also take account of what we have lost. Which is, sadly, Gielgud’s particular emphatic approach to each and every word, then in sequence to the grander epic emotional reality of the world he would inhabit. To have glimpsed it is a revelation in itself.

Part rehearsed-read, part archaeological archive; “Anthology Theatre” is the term being used for this approach to a nostalgic review of a theatre icon – in homage to his muse William Shakespeare and fascinating vignette into the style with which Sir John Gielgud approached his immortal words, and such, his life. For the serious theatre historian, student or casual listener it is a vital piece of the tenuous lineage now some several thousand years in the make, for the art of live performance is one best handed on face-to-face. It is the second such arrangement of these scenes and fragments of note, the first in 2013 being The Word Before Shakespeare down at The Bondi Pavillion some windy Tuesday eve. My understanding is there are several more in process, all similarly themed or named from hitherto unheard of Ludlum Trilogies; The Olivier Expansion, The Shaw Revolution, The Beckett Tautology, The Milligan Conundrum, The Scott Morrison Dancing Bear Show
And So On…

The performances are intermittent so keep an ear out. The next reading for Gielgud is this Sunday April 13th at the Hughes Gallery Sydney. Further details here. Featuring Simon Burke, Terry Clarke and Bob Ellis. Recommended.

Entry filed under: Sydney THEATRE.


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