Australian Arts

Singing Shakespeare

3 July 2021

9:00 AM

3 July 2021

9:00 AM

Britain is certainly revving up when it comes to culture. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s defiance about social distancing for his new Cinderella musical seemed to be paying off which is appropriate enough for a man who is undeterred by the fact that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote a TV musical of it for Julie Andrews and the Walt Disney cartoon version probably provided the dominant image for a lot of baby boomers quite apart from Rossini’s La Cenerentola.

Opera is always a strange art form, the museum that keeps on giving. Bryn Terfel that most lustrously acclaimed bass baritone is doing Verdi’s Falstaff again which he first did in Sydney in 1999 with Simon Philips directing and Simone Young conducting.

It’s a strange case because the opera is superior to the Shakespeare it derives from. Does this relate to the weird fact that Sir John Tomlinson, another bass – but at least as eminent, he was Barenboim’s Bayreuth Wotan – is going to play King Lear? Is this as lunatic as it sounds? There’s an idea that Shakespeare always needs to be ‘sung’ in the sense that his lines, if they are to get their full emotionally spectacular impact, need to be delivered by actors who understand that the emotion is in the music, in the melody and rhythm.

But do we need actual singers? There are precedents. Paul Robeson is the most legendary of all Othellos playing the Moor in the 1930s to Peggy Ashcroft’s Desdemona and then touring America in the 1940s with Jose Ferrer as his Iago and Uta Hagen as his Desdemona. Still, Ken Tynan, the most famous critic of his day, said Robeson’s voice was too close to perfect. Trevor Nunn used a singer, Willard White – Porgy in the Simon Rattle/Peter Hall Glyndebourne Porgy and Bess – with Ian McKellen as a Mancunian Iago. Katherine Duncan-Jones, the Shakespeare scholar, praised White’s command of the verse, but who would back him against James Earl Jones, that immense voice that can encompass all the Lion Kings and Darth Vaders that can be conjured up in the massive music of a natural-born actor.

None of which is to deny that opera, on its own ground, can be great theatre, and it’s good to see that Opera Australia is set to do Otello – another Verdi homage to the Bard – in the famous production by Harry Kupfer, lockdown permitting. Tomlinson said recently that Kupfer’s Ring was notable dramatically for the quality of its movement on a sparse stage whereas these days the scenery is inclined to get in the way.

In Singapore Grip, one of the current high-class TV offerings, the visual is very much the servant of the word and it helps that this deft dramatisation of the Irish novelist J.G. Farrell’s 1978 novel about the fall of Singapore – an event as mythical to Australians of the World War II generation as the fall of France was to Britons – has been adapted by Christopher Hampton who did Dangerous Liaisons and Closer as well as the translation of Florian Zeller’s The Father which got Anthony Hopkins another Oscar this year and whose dark comedy The Truth has just opened at the MTC. Singapore Grip has a rich literate script. David Morrissey plays a wickedly venal rubber plantation owner who wants to marry his sleekly tarty and appalling daughter off to the bespectacled son and heir of Charles Dance who carks it with histrionic grace early on. However, young four-eyes – he wears the specs all the time – has lost it for the beautiful and mysterious Vera Chang. On the sidelines that notable bull of an actor Colm Meaney plays a very mild-mannered, nearly fey old English gent in a pith helmet. It’s a performance of great warmth and style and grace. So is much of Singapore Grip but it doesn’t actually fulfill its promise, largely because the plot of the novel has an imperfect dramatic shape.

That can scarcely be said of Empire of the Sun which Tom Stoppard scripted for Spielberg in 1988 from J.G. Ballard’s novel about the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. It has a staggering debut performance from Christian Bale as a child star to die for and a riveting performance by John Malkovich. It shows the compositional grandeur film allows but which television can only whistle at.

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