July 8th, 2012

Simon Russell Beale's Falstaff

Was Falstaff ever funny? Well, of course he was. That's why the Elizabethan's couldn't get enough of him. He was the Homer Simpson of his day- an utterly reprehensible character you couldn't help but love. 

I've never seen him played for laughs. I suppose it can be done. Contrary to the received wisdom, Shakespeare can be very funny if you know how to hit the right notes. It's just that we see something else in the fat knight. We see the pathos, the wisdom. Orson Welles pushed this to the limits by claiming he was Shakespeare's portrait of a thoroughly "good man". 

Siomon Russell Beale is a little chap. I wasn't prepared for that. And the voice is light and musical, not basso profundo. His Falstaff is a decayed gentleman living on his wits, a barfly with the graces and social confidence of the class he's tumbled out of- who survives by flashing his privilege. He would like to clamber back where he came from but you know he's never going to because- liar though he is- he's not enough of one to play at chivalry. His lies are preposterously innocent, designed to be found out. How can he fool others when he knows himself so well? And who wants honour, anyway, at the price you have to pay for it- at the price Hotspur pays, at the rather different price that Hal is paying? If it comes easy- as a gift from a patron- that's another matter. Also he's afraid. It's there in the eyes-  big, expressive,rolling eyes; desperation is their normal register,  rising to panic and stunned misery. There's no smile in them. No humour. He doesn't like you; he doesn't like himself. Eastcheap is his bolt hole. If this man wasn't so rotound he'd be ratty.