Susannah York inThe Loves of Shakespeare's Women(Photo © Roger Llewellyn)
Susannah York in
The Loves of Shakespeare's Women
(Photo © Roger Llewellyn)
When Susannah York was introduced to movie audiences in The Greengage Summer, it was 1961 and she was a fresh-faced English model of youth and promise. She had a touch of the hoyden in her and more than a touch of intelligence. That she was blonde and English-rose pretty and that her wide smile was the kind that cameras dote on explains her immediate success. Before long, she was acting in the best '60s and '70s films with many of the world's best actors; she received an Oscar nomination for her performance in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969).

Not a bad record, but it had its down side -- as York explains in her solo show, The Loves of Shakespeare's Women. The demanding film schedule kept her from stage assignments and, in particular, it ruled out the Bard. This was a woe to her, as she was enamored of seeing and being in Shakespeare's plays from the time she was cast as Puck in a student production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at her Scotland public school.

York recently vowed to make up for lost time and opportunity; she returned to the stage and to the Royal Shakespeare Company, where she could wallow in Shakespeare to her heart's content, and she organized the solo show to include excerpts of roles that she is now either too old to play or has yet to be offered. It's a pleasure to experience her radiance live and in person -- and, considering most of the venues that she's probably been visiting with her program, at close range. Wearing first a white tunic and trousers that make her look like Pierrette, then a mottled red version of the same outfit, York is lithe and appears ready for the figurative trampoline that her format puts her on. In addition to her good looks, she's mastered the speaking of Shakespeare's language. York admits that she'd become rusty, but the efforts she's put in recently have helped make her delivery authoritative. She's schooled herself in Shakespeare to the point where she can lecture meaningfully on the contents of the plays -- and she does. (By the way, isn't "York" an excellent name for a Shakespearean?)

When at the peak of her form, York embodies Beatrice, Lady Macbeth, Gertrude, and Constance. Beatrice, mocking men to her chum Hero, is caustic and sly. Lady M. approaches power-madness as she goads Macbeth to order Duncan's murder. Gertrude reports the death of Ophelia with such sorrow that she might be describing her own daughter's demise. Constance -- rarely encountered, because The Life and Death of King John is so rarely produced -- is mourning her son's death and is heartbreakingly undone by it.

But York isn't always at the peak of her form in this outing. Talking about her quest to find a "Shakespeare voice" for the sonnets, she comments that she eventually concluded "you just say the words, you just mean them." A wise lesson, and not far from Hamlet's advice about delivering lines "trippingly on the tongue." Yet York doesn't always stick to her code, nor does she heed some of Hamlet's other no-nos about mouthing the words or sawing the air with the hands. I suspect that, since she's been doing the show on and off for a few years now, she occasionally goes on automatic pilot. I also suspect a more complicated problem: As York switches from character to character more or less on a dime, she must feel pressure to differentiate these women as much as she can. To that end, she imposes voices and gestures on, for instance, Juliet and Rosalind that she would quite likely forego were she doing an entire play and feeling safe enough simply to say the words and mean them.

Decades back, John Gielgud pioneered this sort of program with his Ages of Man. A highlight of Gielgud's technique was making it seem as if he were surrounded by other actors, though he was alone on stage. He accomplished this feat through the precision with which he directed words, phrases, and even syllables in specific directions. York, who acknowledges a debt to the late Sir John, has taken care with this aspect of her performing. In scenes where she's supposedly addressing one or more figures, she places them in such a way that the audience can almost see them -- yet it's not the same thing as acting and reacting with others, receiving stimuli that fires emotions. Shakespeare's understanding of human relationships was deep; an endeavor like York's removes or at least under-emphasizes that aspect of the Bard's work and, as a result, becomes more of a stunt than the performer probably intended.

Nevertheless, The Loves of Shakespeare's Women offers a wonderful chance for the actress to show off -- a motive that she freely confesses is also behind the 80-minute turn. And shen someone has this much to show off, why shouldn't she? For an encore, the actress speaks Rosalind's As You Like It epilogue: "My way is to conjure you," she says, meaning "to win over by magic." Susannah York is never less than a seductive conjurer.