Yesterday I headed my way on a State Transit run Parramatta ferry towards the read through at the Riverside Theatres of Bob Ellis’ new idea for a play, The Gielgud Memorandum. As I climbed on the old, overcrowded, privately owned boat, as opposed to the excellent publicly owned catamarans of the past, it brought to mind a current public perception of Ellis – a man who has seen Sydney and Australia go downhill and isn’t afraid to let people know of his displeasure on his always entertaining Table Talk blog.
The evening, however, wasn’t about that Ellis. The play is a project dedicated to two giants of our theatre and especially that of the 20th Century – John Gielgud and William Shakespeare. To that end, Ellis has grabbed the treasures to be found in both and has woven out of them a manuscript that is at once very ambitious, enlightening, educational, inspirational, touching and funny. It is, however, still an incomplete weave.
One of the biggest strengths of the play is in its actors. We saw three quite different approaches to the performance of Shakespeare and had a chance to reflect on the impact of those approaches. We had the handsome, silken, confident and muscular performance of Simon Burke, who also led the singing elements of the play. His performance gave a glimpse of a younger Gielgud wowing audiences with panache and vigour. There was the soft, lilting, plain spoken and engrossing approach of Terence Clarke, whose showed us the ability of Shakespeare’s phrases to stand alone with gentle utterance. Finally, we had Bob Ellis, whose voice and presence lent itself to the more flamboyant and compelling of Shakespeare’s characters like Falstaff and Shylock. In that, a highlight of the evening was the interaction between Burke as Prince Hal against Ellis’ Falstaff. Another highlight along those lines was to hear the “Too Too Solid Flesh” soliloquy of Hamlet broken up and performed in the distinctive styles of all three actors, showing how each style could bring new insights into oft heard phrases. One could quite happily pay to see these three actors saying these lines alone – they all captured beautifully the hues of the Shakespearean language – but that isn’t necessarily going to sustain a full production.
The ambition of Ellis seems to be that the audience can share and delight in the life and words of Gielgud framing an exploration of Shakespeare and the resonances in certain key scenes of his plays. In essence, however, at the moment, it does have a feel of, in Ellis’ own words, “Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits” – resembling those musicals with highly tenuous storylines that are really just there to lead into yet another Queen or Abba song. That is especially the case in the first half, where the words and life of Gielgud didn’t feature as much as they should – it left us a bit muddled and confused as to the direction and unifying point of all these beautiful sounding words and phrases. The second half was more successful in this regard – it started clearly with pieces about the life of Gielgud and then matched the Shakespeare excerpts with those pieces, speculating well upon how the texts might have related to Gielgud’s life and philosophies.
This raises the question of what this play is about, what is its purpose, other than just a night of listening to well acted Shakespeare – and perhaps how it could achieve a greater unity as a whole. Two strong motifs emerged from play – the first being the story of an actor engaging with his society and the cultural context of the different eras in which he lived. What makes this work is that Gielgud himself comes across as a modest, humble, proud, intelligent, slightly wicked man who could drop choice one liners and provide insight into the plays he did, as well as the vibrant life of a man who genuinely loved the life of a working actor. The other motif that emerged was an exploration of the way Shakespeare – and play scripts in general – are performed. We were shown a glimpse of how certain styles – such as Gielgud’s – wane in appeal, maybe unfairly. Ellis’ excellent verbal invocation of the Gielgud style illustrated this idea well. What helped with this motif was the choice of an excerpt from the filmed Julius Caesar, where we saw Gielgud’s approach captured through his “lean and hungry” Cassius. Perhaps another film excerpt would help with that aim of revealing his style.
At the moment, however, the play gives incomplete glimpses of these motifs and not quite realising what meaning the evening could deliver to audiences. After the play, actor Grant Dodwell – who was recording the production – provided two excellent suggestions for the improvement and strengthening of the idea of Gielgud as the core of the production. One was that there needed to be reflections of Gielgud’s life in plays outside Shakespeare – especially his association with Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (If for no other reason than to see and hear Ellis play Lady Bracknell.) The other suggestion was that there could be the inclusion of Gielgud’s dabbling with popular cinema, such as both Arthur films – which would yield some entertaining anecdotes and provide more insight into the world of actors who can’t and won’t always do the great words of Shakespeare. Audiences would appreciate that insight – as well as the lightened tone the words from Wilde and Arthur would provide the play. I would go a step further and suggest that there could also be mention of Gielgud’s film with Michael Caine, the potboiler spy thriller movie, The Whistleblower – in order to highlight the differences between Gielgud’s approach to the career of acting and that taken by Michael Caine. A side benefit would be that Michael Caine impersonations are always fun for audiences.
Ultimately, Claire and I thoroughly enjoyed the evening – the play is brimming with great potential. I also noted the reactions of some of the audience members, especially the group of Gen Y twitter people from Sydney who came out to Parramatta who mostly knew only the Ellis of Table Talk. They were there not for Shakespeare, but to make fun and spin a yarn at the pub with their other twitter friends afterwards. The rich and sonorous world created by Clarke, Burke and Ellis produced such a jarring contrast with the dizzying pace of their social media world that they could only watch about 10 minutes of the show. For me, though, it was a welcoming contrast to Twitter. This was an evening of listening to the sound of Shakespeare being brought to life in a way we don’t see as often as we did in the past.
This is why I like Ellis’ idea that the play be performed in a theatre where the patrons see the play first, then partake in a feast afterwards. That is a mode of performance and interaction that isn’t all that common and would be an ideal fit. I also believe, however, that this could also be an excellent radio play. One of the regrets we feel in Ellis’ play is that we don’t have enough recordings of the Gielgud style and approach to theatre and giving life to the words of Shakespeare. It would be a pity if we didn’t have recordings of the talents of these three actors breathing three different kinds of vigour into the words of Shakespeare and into the life of Gielgud. A radio play would bring that into the homes of those who couldn’t make into Sin City. Having said that, a radio play wouldn’t have Ellis’ visible mirth at the more racy bon mots of Gielgud’s, nor the hunched figure of Ellis’ Falstaff being visibly smashed by the eviscerations of Prince Hal. More should see and hear the fully realised version of this play by Sydney’s Falstaff. It’s a good night’s entertainment at the moment – with some polishing though, it will also help people to see more in Shakespeare – and the life of Gielgud – than just words, words, words said in a beautifully mellifluous voice.