“Now look. Is it a fact that you’re going to marry this sap, de Beaufort?”
David Niven, crashing a party, demands of the beautiful Annabella, who gazes at him through her mask.
“What is sap?”, she replies.
Niven considers for a moment, then “Sap..sap is a man who doesn’t look where he’s going”
The movie is Dinner at the Ritz (1937) and I’m watching it to get a glimpse of Vivienne Chatterton, the actress who, decades later, will play Nurse in Argo’s Romeo and Juliet. Challenged by the lack of online information about these performers, I make one final scramble to try and get some sense of who they are visually. My efforts in this case are rewarded by the knowledge that Chatterton is a large, pleasant 40ish woman with a cheerful manner. I can easily see her as Juliet’s nurse, but the effort now seems a waste of time. Research about these performers has an odd circularity about it – early on, you appreciate the quality of the casting, but ultimately you realize that you’ve learned nothing.
In some cases, almost literally nothing – Janette Richer is particularly elusive. IMDB lists some scattered film and tv credits, mostly the tiniest of bit parts and nothing to hang an impression on. Further researches, show scattered audio recordings, some theater and broadcasting credits, but still tantalizingly little.
I tell myself that the whole point of the casting in these recordings is to allow no distraction from the almighty word, hence the presence of anonymous or little-known performers rather than celebrities recreating star turns (while wishing in spite of all that I could set myself loose at a good university library for a few hours and satisfy my curiosity).
And that’s hard to get used to, especially in the case of Romeo and Juliet, a play with one theatrical set piece after another. I have to change my mindset from one of waiting to hear how Queen Mab or Gallop Apace will be performed, pulled along by the knowledge of each high point, to one of just allowing the anonymous voices to flawlessly croon blank verse as I concentrate on the meaning of the lines. Accordingly, it took a long time to get through this record.
Shakespeare’s first unquestionable masterpiece seems like something different, more somber and serious this time through. Richard Marquand, the Welsh-born undergraduate who would later become a newsreader in Japan and then, finally, attain immortality as the director of Return of the Jedi, is Romeo. He delivers the part with a fine attention to the poetry of the lines and gives Romeo enthusiasm and dignity, while Janette Richer’s Juliet, despite an oddly mature quality, is likewise sensitive and tasteful. Anthony White played Romeo when the Marlowe Society came to New York in the early 50s, and was praised for his Hamlet-like approach. As Mercutio, he seems oddly charmless – Queen Mab is spoken in hushed tones and his teasing of the Nurse is more than usually obnoxious. He is more brooding than mercurial, and never quite lets himself go. You want to be carried away by the character’s energy, but White doesn’t give that to you, just thoughtful restraint.
But why blame White? Thoughtful restraint is the overall tone of the entire production. It should be the ideal opportunity to listen to the language and let the wonders of the play reveal themselves in precise detail. I leave the play with a feeling that I’ve heard the whole thing for the first time. Yet equal to that feeling is the sense that I’ve somehow failed to pay attention. That after all that painstaking rhetorical probing, the whole thing has slipped past me and left me unmoved.
Romeo and Juliet with Richard Marquand, Janette Richer, Vivienne Chatterton, Anthony White and Tony Church