Easier swallowed than a flapdragon
Posted February 22, 2015on:
I should probably point out before I begin this review that I have watched the Opus Arte production of it on DVD several times, with subtitles, and it is largely thanks to the skill of the actors that I have managed to understand some of it. Trystan Gravelle as Berowne and Michelle Terry as the Princess of France are particularly brilliant.
By which I mean I can understand what they are saying.
But all the actors and actresses are excellent. I am always moved by the two songs at the end, which are sung by the whole ensemble. The actors’ voices are both clear and resonant. The harmonies are magical. But the voices and the harmonies merely carry the words and it is the words that somehow, every time I hear them, cut right through everything and stun me.
If you know the words you might think I am exaggerating. I’m not. The words are very simple but they cut very deeply.
The imagery in these songs is very clear. We see the flowers in the meadows and hear the cuckoos in the trees and we feel the fear of married men that their wives are being unfaithful. Such is the power of spring.
The imagery of winter is even more vivid. Dick, the shepherd, is blowing on his fingers, Tom is bringing in firewood, milk is frozen in the pail, Marian’s nose is red and raw, crabs are hissing in a bowl and an owl is hooting while greasy Joan “doth keel the pot.”
What a spectacular way to end a piece of entertainment that is all about the convoluted wordplay of men and women in the courts of Europe. No, it seems to say, it is not a story about kings and princesses. It is about Dick, Tom, Marian and Joan. It is about simple English folk. Yes, and Chinese ones too. It is about all of us.
In spite of all the dizzying wordplay, the message is very simple. You learn about life not from books, not from making oaths of celibacy and studying hard, but from giving yourself to life and experiencing it. Love is an especially powerful teacher for it lives not alone in the brain but courses through all our senses and gives to every power a double power.
There is hardly a scene that doesn’t celebrate love, erotic love, physical love, lust and passion.
But in the end the lovers do not win the hands of the women they love. The women make them wait. A year and a day. Which, as Berowne wryly points out, is “too long for a play.”
This is not a happy comedy. It is rueful. It is full of fear.
In this respect it is very truthful. Life is like that. Erotic love is like that. Whatever is intense is never without some element of dread, of difficulty and pain. Although, it may, while it lasts, spur us on to magnificent flights of eloquence and wit.
Parts of this play, I should add, are hilarious. I have never laughed so much at a play as I did at this one. Even though I do not understand every phrase, I find this far more enjoyable than English TV comedies. It is still, after so many years, English drama at its very best.