English Shakespeare Company

International Theatre Festival

at the Blackstone Theatre

Seeing the English Shakespeare Company’s Twelfth Night is a sharp reminder of just how awful the Goodman Theatre’s production of the same play this season was. Yet the ESC show, running through this weekend as part of the International Theatre Festival of Chicago, also gives one respect for the intention behind, if not the execution of, British director Neil Bartlett’s renegade version. Bartlett’s aim, with his cross-gender casting and scattershot verbal and visual jokes, was to shoot some new energy into the playing of the classics; if the ESC’s repertory renditions of Twelfth Night and Macbeth exemplify state-of-the-art British Shakespeare these days, the Bard could use a little brushing off.

Directed by ESC founders Michael Pennington and Michael Bogdanov respectively, Twelfth Night and Macbeth have many virtues to attract a traditionalist Anglophile audience. Played with elegant and sometimes beautiful articulation and handsome, precise gestures, the plays move swiftly and surely through their paces. The shorter, morally simpler Macbeth fares the better of the two, with its battle scenes and bloodshed and raging rants of poetry and prophecy; but there’s a comic-book superficiality to all the proceedings that keeps tragic catharsis at bay. In Twelfth Night ESC has cleanly ordered the emotionally jumbled, sexually ambivalent plot for maximum clarity. But eliminating the ambiguity that makes the script interesting results in a show that’s, well, a little dull.

That dullness is reinforced by ESC’s style, which in only a few short years–the troupe was founded in 1986–has become not just patented but pat. Guided by a taste for eclectic anachronism, ESC accessorizes an essentially modern dress and design scheme with occasional period touches and dramaturgically well-informed references to Shakespearean and contemporary politics; meanwhile the actors combine musicianly eloquence and high-pressure forcefulness in the manner associated with actors like Olivier, Gielgud, and Burton.

When the ESC appeared at the 1988 International Theatre Festival, the effect was provocative and often stunning; the company’s “Wars of the Roses” cycle, tracing English history through assorted Richards and Henrys, was brilliant, thrilling, and revelatory. The current shows, however, seem mostly to coast on this formula.

The setting of Twelfth Night is Illyria, across the Adriatic from Italy and a region that Shakespeare chose, as he did most of his locales, for its presumed exoticism. ESC’s Illyria is a rather drab place, dotted with tall, thatched metal towers–an allusion, perhaps, to the dreary British architecture against which Prince Charles has railed. It’s a wan, gray world in need of new blood–which it gets when the twin siblings Viola and Sebastian are shipwrecked there. Each assumes the other is dead, and the twins go their separate ways (Viola masquerading as a man); the sexual deceptions of the main plot come about when they meet with local aristocrats whose love lives have been at a standstill. In a secondary narrative a gang of fun-loving fools–the drunken Sir Toby Belch, the gaga Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and the sardonic jester Feste–connive against the ill-tempered butler Malvolio by convincing him that his lady employer would love him if he’d behave in a certain ridiculous way.

Pennington’s staging keeps the various narrative strands in crisply comprehensible order; his actors distinguish their characters’ pronounced and conflicting emotional states with force and clarity–but without much inspiration or credibility. Jenny Quayle as Viola and Michael Mueller as her beloved Orsino are engaging and passionately spoken (in her close-cropped boy’s haircut, Quayle looks very much like her late father, Sir Anthony Quayle, might have looked as a lad); and the clowns are rather fun. Colin Farrell’s Feste seems to have stepped out of an old “Carry On” movie, and the inebriated interplay between Derek Smith’s Belch and James Hayes’s Aguecheek is reminiscent of the work of Lionel Jeffries and Ian Carmichael in some of the Boulting brothers’ 1960s film comedies. Timothy Davies’s tall, haughty Malvolio looks like T.S. Eliot as played by Fred Gwynne and behaves like a restrained John Cleese, especially in the show’s most inventive moment: Malvolio presides over the dismantling of the set, like a Puritan closing down the theaters a few decades after Shakespeare’s death, or a modern Tory bureaucrat cutting off arts funding (a parallel suggested by Pennington’s slightly paranoid program note). But they’re actors, that’s all, and we never believe them to be anything more. Terry Mortimer’s sadly sweet musical score, by turns Spanish and Celtic in style, brings considerable resonance to a play greatly concerned with love and music.

John Leonard’s electronic music in Macbeth, by contrast, is clangorous and atonal. That’s in keeping with the industrial-age motif of Claire Lyth’s sets and Chris Ellis’s lighting, against which Michael Pennington’s crafty, cornered Macbeth seems a captain of industry–the kind of guy who may don formal wear for banquets but is really more comfortable down in the fire and grease of the factories.

When he visits the witches, for example, Macbeth jumps right into the cauldron with them–it’s a huge, smoking iron vat, over which a mirrored disk hovers ready to seal up the toxic contents. He rides to them on a long, metal ladder like you’d see on the back of a fire truck; on other occasions the same ladder is a deus ex machina–the ghost of Banquo descends on it to accuse Macbeth of murdering him, and Malcolm, the rightful king, uses it as a war machine, leading his men into battle against the murderous usurper.

The battle scenes themselves are pure ESC: lumbering sword fights augmented by bursts of light to simulate bombs, waves of stage smoke (enough to cause a few coughing fits in the front rows), and the sounds of airplane engines and automatic weapons fire. This mix of medieval and modern, a recurrent feature of ESC’s “Wars of the Roses,” is still effective in making a contemporary audience appreciate the life-and-death stakes of a centuries-old story.

But the production and performances here seem mechanical–a matter of technique, not passion. Pennington’s musical phrasing of Macbeth’s most famous speeches–“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow . . . ,” “Is this a dagger I see before me . . . ?”–impresses with its superb breath technique and vocal placement, but it doesn’t move with its mournful meaning. Jenny Quayle’s Lady Macbeth–looking remarkably like the late Sandy Dennis, with her lip-quivering, lip-chewing air of anxiety and her slightly unkempt long brown hair–is energetic and intense as she pushes and prods her husband to bloody ambitious deeds; but her downfall doesn’t touch the despairing depths needed to make her story more than a historical curiosity. The famous mad scene seems over before it’s begun; so, really, does the lady’s whole story on this stage.

Perhaps the droop in ESC’s excitement level is due to a change in personnel; almost all of the actors who came to Chicago with the troupe in 1988 are gone, and no one in the current ensemble begins to approach the emotional fire of, say, John Castle or Andrew Jarvis or June Watson or Paul Brennen in the earlier company. Perhaps the sag is a passing phase in what is still a young troupe. Certainly it’s not fatal; the shows the company is offering here are tolerably good, either as an introduction to young audiences or as a pacifier to theatergoers who like their Bard of Avon thoroughly English, if you please. But as ESC itself has proved in the past, Shakespeare can be so much more.