Arts: Where there's a Will...

Sir Peter Hall is staging Shakespeare in LA with American actors. And audiences love it.
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Back in March, when Oscar fever was at its height and Shakespeare - or at least a skimpily clad Joseph Fiennes doing his memorable tongue- in-cheek impersonation - was on everybody's mind, some wag in Hollywood ventured that if the Bard were alive today, he'd be writing screenplays and living in Bel Air.

Closer to the truth would be to say there are in fact two William Shakespeares doing the rounds in southern California. The first is indeed a scriptwriter, but his stock is somewhat uncertain in the volatile movie world. Okay, so Shakespeare in Love was a hit, but does this guy have long-term commercial potential? Hamlet and Othello have plenty of action, but can they really compete with Con Air or Armageddon?

When Kevin Kline, Calista Flockhart, Stanley Tucci and a clutch of other stars mounted a screen version of A Midsummer Night's Dream earlier this year, it died at the box-office. When The Taming of the Shrew came up for consideration, it wasn't deemed quite hip enough, so it was handed to a couple of script doctors, moved from Padua to Seattle, and retitled 10 Things I Hate About You. And even then, it was only a modest success.

The second Shakespeare about town is rather more high-minded and more unambiguously popular. This is the Bard we all know and love, unadulterated and uncut, who has taken up residence in one of Los Angeles's most prestigious theatres, the Ahmanson, courtesy of Sir Peter Hall and a clutch of talented American stage actors. The company, put together at the behest of the Ahmanson's remarkable artistic director, Gordon Davidson, has just come off a two-month run playing Measure for Measure and A Midsummer Night's Dream in rep, and the venture was so successful that it's set to become an annual fixture.

The project combines a number of audacious ideas. First, to set up a semi-permanent company of stage actors in a town where theatre is traditionally seen as a stop-gap pursuit between jobs on television or the big screen. Secondly, to create an American-flavoured Shakespeare company, in which everyone would be trained into performing in a uniform style without being squeezed artificially into the straitjacket of Queen's English. And thirdly, to offer Los Angeles some of Shakespeare's most challenging plays and so disprove once and for all that the city is uneducated, superficial and interested only in big money.

"It is pretty weird that Los Angeles has top-quality opera, but little in the way of classical drama," Peter Hall said in a phone interview from London, where he was preparing for the recent triumphant opening of Lenny. "I have always wanted to do some thoroughly American Shakespeare. And now my chance has come."

Sir Peter is revered by the American acting community, and when he first held a Shakespeare workshop in Los Angeles, with a view to setting up his repertory company, he attracted the attention of a clutch of big stars from Dustin Hoffman to Gwyneth Paltrow.

Most of the big names were forced to bow out because of other, more lucrative commitments, or because their agents would not let them. "Most LA agents do not regard the theatre as a proper job," Sir Peter commented acidly. With such a huge pool of talent to draw on, however, it was not difficult to put together a talented company for the limited three-month season of rehearsals and performances.

The plays were chosen for their contrasting approaches to a single theme - lust - and, in the case of the ferociously cerebral Measure for Measure, for the high demands they would make on cast and audience. "Gordon Davidson fought to do this for years, and insisted on doing something challenging. He said we shouldn't play safe," Sir Peter said.

The gamble paid off, with packed houses and standing ovations greeting both productions. Measure for Measure may be a difficult play about the pursuit of justice and the moral limits of regal authority, but in post- Lewinsky America, its themes of over-zealous prosecution, uncontrollable sexual urges, puritanical hypocrisy and abuse of the power struck a few chords. "There was really evil humour operating, with the audience picking up things in the play that I doubt English audiences would," Hall noted.

Much of the rehearsal time was spent teaching the actors the rhythms and correct delivery of Shakespeare's iambic pentameters - which Hall believes is essential to any remotely authentic production. "I'd never seen a group of American actors play a production in the same style. Actually, it's pretty rare in England. It's not thought necessary, but I think that's crazy," he said. "It's like having different styles of singing in the same Mozart opera."

The American flavour lent both an authenticity to the language - transatlantic speech being closer to Elizabethan English than our own more clipped delivery - and also, in Sir Peter's view, a greater emotional spontaneity. "According to our national stereotypes, an English actor will take time to be passionate and will avoid it if he possibly can. The American actor loves to let it all hang out and parades it around the stage," he said. "This is very useful and very correct for Shakespeare."

Particularly impressive were David Dukes, recently seen in London in Art, who played Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream; Brian Murray, a veteran of Peter Hall's Shakespeare productions, who played the Duke in Measure for Measure; and Hamish Linklater, who played Lysander and Claudio respectively, and is being tipped by his director for a glorious future. The attempt at American pronunciation, it must be said, was only half- successful, with many of the actors apparently intimidated by their received notions of how Shakespeare should sound and opting, at best, for a rather tame mid-Atlantic delivery.

The company will be back at the Ahmanson at the end of next year, with Christopher Plummer already down to star in King Lear and plans afoot to stage As You Like It as its comic foil. The actors appear willing to make the repeat commitment, as long as the season remains relatively short. The question is whether Los Angeles audiences are genuinely attracted to Shakespeare, or if the novelty will have worn off by then.

One problem is the Ahmanson's location in dowdy downtown LA. "People in Hollywood and Beverly Hills don't like going down there. They'd rather go to New York," Sir Peter remarked, not unjustly. That may change with the forthcoming addition of the vast Disney Music Centre and a new Roman Catholic cathedral in the area adjacent to the Ahmanson and its two fellow theatres: the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and the Mark Taper Forum. The hope is that downtown LA will undergo a similar transformation to that of London's South Bank.

As for Shakespeare's enduring appeal in southern California, Sir Peter is in no doubt. "These things go in waves," he said drily, "but I think he'll outlast Hollywood."