Can we Irish do justice to Shakespeare?


CULTURE SHOCK:THERE’S AN odd moment in Jason Byrne’s enjoyably energetic production of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errorsat the Abbey. Byrne leans heavily on the Reeves and Mortimer variety of post-ironic knowingness. All the characters are flagrantly aware of the absurdity of the plot in which they’re trapped.

All the excruciating puns are underlined with exaggerated gestures and canned laughter, making the play the equivalent of the bad sitcom in which Ricky Gervais’s character stars in Extras. But there’s one very obviously resonant joke that is skipped over, almost in embarrassment.

The moment comes in the third act. Dromio of Syracuse has been mistaken for his identical twin, Dromio of Ephesus, and pursued by the latter’s lusty lover, the fat kitchen maid Nell. Horrified, he launches into a topographical description of Nell’s body, for his master Antipholus. “She is spherical like a globe. I could find out countries in her.” Antipholus, warming to the theme, asks “In what part of her body stands Ireland?” Dromio replies “Marry, sir, in her buttocks. I found it out by the bogs.”

You would expect a production as knowing as Byrne’s to make something of a joke that pokes through the fourth wall with a sharp edge of good old-fashioned anti-Irish prejudice. That the moment is allowed to pass suggests the slight but unmistakable air of discomfort that still hangs over the whole project of which this production of The Comedy of Errorsis a part. It is the third in a series of productions by Byrne aimed at naturalising Shakespeare on the Abbey stage.

There is something rather poignant about the way, after 400 years, we’re still wondering whether Shakespeare belongs in the Irish theatre. As the reference to Ireland in The Comedy of Errorsreminds us, this island is very much a part of the context in which Shakespeare wrote. (Even Hamlet swears by St Patrick, after all.) At least since the 18th century, Irish scholars, directors and actors (Edmund Malone, Edward Dowden, Tyrone Guthrie, James Quin, Charles Macklin, Spranger Barry, Peg Woffington, Thomas Sheridan, Mary Robinson) have been hugely influential in the mainstream of Shakespeare interpretation. How come, in the 21st century, there’s still something tentative and experimental in the Abbey’s efforts to make Shakespeare a normal part of Irish theatre? The answer, I suppose, lies in the boast by James Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Nightthat, in order to become a proper Shakespearean actor, he “got rid of an Irish brogue you could cut with a knife”. There’s the rub. In what kind of Irish voice can those great lines of iambic pentameter be spoken? At one level, the question is ridiculous. We can only guess at the accents used by the original actors at the Globe, but it’s pretty clear that they sounded nothing like Laurence Olivier. But the patterns of speech established by Rada and the RSC have a powerfully intimidating effect, not just on Irish actors, but also on Americans. In the US, actors often seem unsure whether to go for a neutralised version of the English cadences or to speak in their own accents, and sometimes end up veering unhappily between the two approaches. The same can be true in Ireland. At heart, though, this question is much more about voice than accent.

Behind the uncertainties about accent lies a much larger, and more genuine, problem. Shakespeare can’t be spoken “naturally”. His language is superbly theatrical, but it is also highly artificial. For all its muscularity and directness, it is closer to song than speech. And it is therefore no more possible to really perform that language without training than it is for someone who sings at parties to take on an operatic aria. In whatever accent the lines are spoken, the actor has to have a big, flexible, powerful voice that can project without strain and move through a range of modes (intimate, semi-public, declamatory) with apparent ease.

It’s striking in Byrne’s Comedy of Errorsthat there’s a comfort with the movement, with the physicality, with the use of space, with the pitching of a tone that acknowledges the darkness within the farce. What’s not comfortable is the speech. There’s still a range of approaches and achievements. John Kavanagh’s Egeon is a fine example of an Irish version of the English voice – a confident, lucid, technically adept and almost entirely neutral tone. Almost everyone else falls within a range of relatively naturalistic Irish speech, adapting Shakespeare’s rhythms to the normal flow of the actor’s own voice and underplaying the scale and sonority of the language. One actor can’t really project the lines at all and subsides into a distant murmur. This unevenness comes down to the rather brutal matter of technique.

There’s an assumption that Irish actors are bred on the poetic dialogue of Synge and O’Casey and can therefore handle Shakespeare’s highly charged language with ease. This may have been true 25 years ago, but not any more.

The ability to stay in the saddle while iambics preen and wheel, stall and gallop doesn’t come naturally. It has to be learned, and it’s not clear that this learning is being done in a coherent way.

The big gap in the Abbey’s commendable project is continuity. If a technical command is to be built, there has to be something like a rough repertory company working together, however intermittently, over a number of productions. This continuity is lacking in the Abbey’s effort. A few of the actors in The Comedy of Errorsplayed in one or other of Byrne’s previous productions of Julius Caesarand Romeo and Juliet.None, so far as I can recall, has been in both, and most have been in neither.

Those productions have been more than good enough to justify the belief that, over time, a serious Shakespeare ensemble could emerge. But that won’t happen without having an ensemble in the first place.