Category Archives: Shakespeare

STRATFORD FESTIVAL ON FILM: ‘KING JOHN’ ·

Stratford Festival

King John house program: https://cdscloud.stratfordfestival.ca… When the rule of a hedonistic king is questioned, rebellion ensues, culminating in the chilling attempt to commit an atrocity against a child, whose mother’s anguished grief cannot atone for her blinkered ambitions for her son. Don’t miss the rare opportunity to see Shakespeare’s King John, in this magnificent, “deliciously contemporary” production.

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After seeing this production of ‘King John’, on 6/21, Father’s Day, Bob Shuman has now seen all the plays of Shakespeare, including ‘Cardenio’.

REMAINS OF EARLIEST PURPOSE-BUILT PLAYHOUSE FOUND IN EAST LONDON ·

(Mark Brown’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/10.)

Location of the Red Lion, which predated the Globe, has been subject of debate for years

Archaeologists believe they have found remains of one of the most elusive of all known Elizabethan structures – the earliest purpose-built playhouse in Britain and a prototype for a theatre that staged plays by a young William Shakespeare.

The Red Lion is thought to have been built around 1567 and probably played host to travelling groups of players. Its precise location has been the subject of conjecture and debate for a number of years, but archaeologists are as certain as they can be that they have found its remains at a site in the East End of London where a self-storage facility once stood.

“It is not what I was expecting when I turned up to do an excavation in Whitechapel, I have to be honest,” said Stephen White, the lead archaeologist on a team from UCL Archaeology South-East. “This is one of the most extraordinary sites I’ve worked on.”

The Red Lion playhouse was created by John Brayne, who nine years later went on to construct the Theatre in Shoreditch with James Burbage, the father of the Elizabethan actor Richard Burbage. The Theatre was the first permanent home for acting troupes and staged plays by Shakespeare in 1590. After a dispute it was dismantled and its timbers used in the construction of the more famous Globe on Bankside.

Before the Globe and the Theatre, there was the Red Lion, which was in effect a prototype, said White.

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OPERA AT THE EDGE ·

Bo Skovhus as Lear and Annette Dasch as Cordelia in Aribert Reimann’s Lear at the Paris Opera

(Matthew Aucoin’s article appeared in the New York Review of Books, 5/14.)

 Lear

an opera by Aribert Reimann, at the Paris Opera, November 21–December 7, 2019

Orest

an opera by Manfred Trojahn, at the Vienna State Opera, November 14–20, 2019

Heart Chamber

an opera by Chaya Czernowin, at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, November 15–December 6, 2019

 

Bo Skovhus as Lear and Annette Dasch as Cordelia in Aribert Reimann’s Lear at the Paris Opera

Last November, having just put the final touches on Eurydice, the opera I’d been working on for several years, I paid a visit to Europe to hear operas by three fellow composers, none of whose stage works are performed in America with any regularity. In spite of the uncanny ease with which music can be distributed online, and in spite of the popular notion of music as a “universal language,” contemporary opera in America can feel like an insular endeavor: the flip side of many American opera companies’ laudable support for homegrown composers is a cautiousness that verges on xenophobia. When it comes to new works, the thinking goes, why import a challenging piece in a foreign language when a local composer could write one in English? In past centuries, American companies almost exclusively imported European works; these days, new European operas are sometimes assumed to be excessively strong meat for the teeth of American audiences.

The chaos of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has made the following essay, written before it began, feel suddenly like an artifact from a distant time. This crisis will wreak havoc in all sectors; for the world of the arts, it is already a devastation. Classical music has long been an art form centered on live performance, ever more so since the collapse of the classical recording industry, and it’s hard to imagine when music lovers will again be willing to form the human petri dish that is a concert audience.

Out of generosity, out of necessity, artists and institutions worldwide are broadcasting their work online, in many cases for free. An astonishingly rich world of music is more in evidence and more readily available than ever. It’s hard to imagine any positive side effects to our current state of emergency, but perhaps, in our newfound state of isolation, we can learn new ways to listen across borders, with open ears.

Composers who adapt Shakespeare must inevitably perform surgery on the Bard’s lengthy, poetically exuberant plays: Verdi cut an entire act to turn Othello into Otello; Thomas Adès and Meredith Oakes condensed the winding rhythms of Shakespeare’s pentameter into clipped doggerel for their adaptation of The Tempest. The German composer Aribert Reimann, who composed his Lear in the late 1970s at the request of the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, performs his surgery with a sledgehammer. He and his librettist, Claus H. Henneberg, burn away nearly all traces of compassion and complexity from the play’s more sympathetic characters, including Lear, and abandon the play’s essential trajectory, of a tenuous political order unraveling into chaos, instead depicting a world that is darkly chaotic from the outset. The leveling winds of the heath blow all night through Reimann’s score.

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CLOSED THEATERS ARE NOTHING NEW. THE GOOD NEWS IS, THEY REOPEN ·

(Matt Wolf’s article appeared in The New York Times, 4/9; via Pam Green.)

LONDON — We live in unprecedented times — or so they tell us. The coronavirus lockdown, which began in Britain on March 23, has led to the cancellation of all theater performances through May 31, at least. What happens after remains to be seen.

But this is hardly the first time the city’s playhouses have been closed: During Shakespeare’s time, and then again during World War II, to name two examples, they shut their doors in response to different calamities. But they reopened in due course, affirming a heartening capacity for cultural rebirth that speaks ever more urgently to us today.

The plagues of the Shakespearean age did not allow for the contemporary comforts of social media or Zoom, but an artist’s need to create continued then as it surely is doing now: Shakespeare kept busy writing, retreating to the insular world of poetry and the comfort of home.

His theater, the Globe, not subject to the health and safety requirements of the modern age, was a vector for contagion, not to mention inflammation: It burned down in 1613 and was rebuilt, only to be shut three decades later by the Puritans, who represented an obstacle to performance of a censorious rather than viral sort. That edict was eventually lifted in 1660 when the high spirits of the Restoration ushered in a new theatrical age.

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THE PAGE’S THE THING – TAKE IT FROM SHAKESPEARE’S EARLIEST READERS ·

(Emma Smith’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/1.)

With theatres closed, now is the time to find pleasure in Shakespeare’s texts. His first fans used them for chat-up lines – and read the plays without the baggage of Bardolatry

That Shakespeare wrote for the theatre and that his plays should be enjoyed on the stage not the page has become the standard rallying cry of directors, teachers and academics. “I don’t think people should bother to read Shakespeare. They should see him in the theatre,” Sir Ian McKellen advised in 2015. And if actors bring Shakespeare to life, according to Royal Shakespeare Company director Greg Doran, the benefits are mutual: advocating a “Shakespeare gym” earlier this year, Doran suggested that without proper opportunity to perform Shakespeare, the craft of acting itself could “diminish or get lost”.

But this is a modern perspective. Powerful advocates for Shakespeare in the past were less convinced by the medium of theatre. Samuel Johnson, the great 18th-century lexicographer and editor of the plays, felt that while comedy was often better experienced in the theatre, tragedy rarely was. Charles Lamb, who with his sister Mary wrote the popular children’s Tales from Shakespeare, suggested that “the plays of Shakespeare are less calculated for performance on a stage than those of almost any other dramatist whatever”. When we watch King Lear, he suggested, we see merely the mundanely pitiful “old man tottering about the stage with a walking-stick”, but when “we read it, we see not Lear but we are Lear”. Deep engagement with the plays meant private study, not public spectacle.

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BOOK: RIOTOUS PERFORMANCES–SHAKESPEARE IN A DIVIDED AMERICA BY JAMES SHAPIRO ·

(Emma Smith’s article appeared in the Spectator, 3/6; photo: The Spectator.)

Shakespeare’s single explicit reference to America is found in The Comedy of Errors. The two Dromios are anatomizing the unseen ‘kitchen wench’ Nell, who is ‘spherical, like a globe’: ‘I could find out countries in her’, says one Syracusan brother. ‘Where America?’ asks his twin. The reply, ‘O, sir, upon her nose, all o’erembellished with rubies, carbuncles, sapphires’ embodies early colonial fantasies about the famed riches of El Dorado.

The first record of a Shakespeare text in America comes a century later, and the first known production — an amateur run of Romeo and Juliet in the Revenge Meeting House, New York — three decades after that. But by 1898 a book published in Chicago could claim not only that The Tempest, in particular, ‘has an entirely American basis and character’, but further, that ‘America made possible a Shakespeare’.

Institutions, from Hollywood to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, strengthened this reciprocal bond. Whenthe showman P.T Barnum sent an agent to Stratford-upon-Avon ‘armed with the cash and full powers to buy Shakespeare’s house, if possible, and to have it carefully taken down, packed in boxes and shipped to New York’, America’s possessive embrace of Shakespeare seemed complete.

James Shapiro’s expert and readable intervention in this long history is organized around defining moments and themes in American life. He shows how, for example, apparently literary arguments over Desdemona’s relationship with Othello mediated toxic disputes about interracial marriage in the early 19th century. He explores how Civil War attitudes to Caesar’s assassination influenced John Wilkes Booth to cast himself as an American Brutus murdering the tyrannical Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre. Kiss Me Kate offers Shapiro a lens to analyze the changing role of women in the workplace and in marriage after World War Two. Harvey Weinstein’s creepy off-screen influence on the plot of Shakespeare in Love places this blockbuster fictional biography of the playwright at the heart of the #MeToo movement.

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CURSING CORIOLANUS ·

(Lauren Shook’s article appeared in Shakespeare and Beyond, 1/7; via Pam Green.)

In 1608, famine plagued England. Preachers responded with sermons begging the gentry to show compassion for the poor, King James I responded with royal proclamations against grain hoarding, and Shakespeare responded with Coriolanus, a Roman revenge-tragedy.

Likely composed in 1608 and staged c. 1609-1610, Coriolanus opens with starving citizens storming the stage with rakes, pikes, and clubs, demanding that the Roman government release corn (a catch-all term for grain) to them. Within the first 20 lines, the citizens plan to “kill” Caius Martius, the play’s hero, whom they deem the “chief enemy to the people.” They believe Martius has been hoarding corn and that killing him would secure “corn at [their] own price” (1.1.7-11). The citizens also target the Roman government. They believe that their “leanness,” “misery,” and “sufferance” benefits both Martius and the Roman elite. “Let us revenge this,” exclaims one citizen, “with our pikes ere we become rakes; for the gods know I speak this in hunger for bread, not in thirst for revenge” (1.1.19-24). The citizens are a dangerous bunch. For an early modern audience, revolt against the government and threatened murder of Rome’s famed warrior Martius are treasonous acts.

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IN HAMLET AND IN LIFE, RUTH NEGGA DOES NOT HOLD BACK ·

(Robert Ito’s article appeared in The New York Times, 1/17; via Pam Green.)

The Ethiopian-Irish actress returns to a “completely destroying” stage role. Next: a film adaptation of a 1920s novel about passing for white.

LOS ANGELES — What stage actor wouldn’t jump at the chance to play Hamlet? Ruth Negga, for one. When she was offered the role at Dublin’s Gate Theater in 2018, her first impulse was to say thanks, but no. Too tough, too daunting, “too much,” she said. In 2010, Negga had tackled Ophelia at the National Theater in London — surely that experience would give her a leg up?

Nothing helps you play Hamlet,” she laughed.

Negga ultimately took the role, however, earning rave reviews. The Guardian praised her “priceless ability to savor the language,” while the Irish edition of The Times of London called her performance “a stunning gift for Irish theatergoers.”

If she made it all look easy, however, it was anything but. “It nearly killed me,” said Negga, who is perhaps best known for her Oscar-nominated turn in the 2016 biopic “Loving,” in which she played a woman who endures jail time and exile for the then-crime of being married to a white man in 1950s Virginia. “If you ask anyone who’s played Hamlet, it’s completely destroying,” she said. “It cracks you open, and you feel like you’re this mass of nerves and open skin.”

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Credit…Chantal Anderson for The New York Times

MAKING SHAKESPEARE SING: ON VERDI: CREATING “OTELLO” AND “FALSTAFF”—HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE RICORDI ARCHIVE ·

(Matthew Aucoin’s article appeared in the New York of Books 12/19.)

Verdi: Creating “Otello” and “Falstaff”—Highlights from the Ricordi Archive

an exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City, September 6, 2019–January 5, 2020

Osbert Lancaster/De Agostini/Bridgeman Images/© Clare Hastings

Scenography by Osbert Lancaster for a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff at the Edinburgh Festival, 1955

The process of adapting a play into an opera is a little like forcing the original text to drink a concoction out of Alice in Wonderland: some aspects of it will shrink or evaporate, others are magnified to unrecognizable dimensions, and the whole thing falls through music’s rabbit hole into a parallel world where very different laws apply. This fraught alchemy has bewildered many a composer. Sources that seem unimpeachably strong (classic plays, beloved movies, Great American Novels) can wilt or fail to catch fire when set to music, while material that might seem slight, simplistic, or impractical can, in the hands of an inventive composer, reveal unsuspected power and hidden depths. Sometimes, if seldom, one has the sense that a play, a novel, or even a real-life incident came into being mainly so that it could be reincarnated as an opera.

Giuseppe Verdi’s last two operas, the Shakespearean diptych of Otello and Falstaff, together constitute my favorite case study in what happens when a play is made to stand up and sing. Both the source material and the musical adaptations are works of singular beauty and power. To study these operas alongside their sources is to see what is gained and what is lost, what remains intact and what is transformed, when a complex human drama is adapted from speech into song. Otello is an exceedingly rare breed, practically a unicorn: a masterpiece based on a masterpiece. And Falstaff, a long-pent-up belly laugh of a piece that Verdi unleashed on the world after a lifetime of composing tragedies, achieves something rarer still: it is a love letter to Shakespeare that expands on Shakespeare’s work, putting Sir John Falstaff center stage in a work that’s big and bold enough for his irrepressible, irresponsible spirit.

These two operas are the subject of “Verdi: Creating Otello and Falstaff,” a gem of an exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum. Curated by Gabriele Dotto, the former director of publishing at Ricordi, Verdi’s publishing house, it affords an engrossing glimpse of the vast collaborative effort required to bring an opera into the world. By the time he wrote Otello and Falstaff, Verdi was a national icon, as famous and familiar as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and it is touching to see evidence of the care that a huge team—engravers, printers, costume designers, painters—put into the creation of this old man’s uncannily youthful last works.

Verdi loved Shakespeare throughout his life, but it took decades for his music to become Shakespearean. He came of age during what has become known as the bel canto period of Italian opera, during which the glorification of the human voice was composers’ fundamental priority; bel canto literally means “beautiful song” or “beautiful singing.” Works from this era—by composers such as Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti—are distinguished by long, sensuously unspooling melodies and passages of fast, florid vocal gymnastics; the harmonic palette is simple and the harmonic progressions few and familiar. An aesthetic whose central focus is the wonder of the beautifully produced voice inevitably lets some other aspects of the art form fall by the wayside: one generally doesn’t turn to a bel canto opera for an evening of taut, seamless drama.

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Photo: Osbert Lancaster/De Agostini/Bridgeman Images/© Clare Hastings

Visit the Morgan Library online  

SHAKESPEARE COOKIES FOR THE HOLIDAYS ·

(Marissa Nicosia’s article appeared in Folger’s Shakespeare Library’s Shakespeare Plus, 12/3; via Pam Green.)

Knots, cookies, and women’s skill

A plate of beautifully baked cookies is a wonderful thing. It is a welcoming gesture for guests, it signifies a holiday or a special meal, and it is a demonstration of a baker’s skill at making something pleasing to the eye and the palate. In Shakespeare’s England, bakers in elite households prepared sugar sculptures, confectionary, marzipan, and sweet doughs shaped into knots, twists, and letters.

Sweets were an occasion for British women to not only show that they were excellent bakers, but that they were masters of other handicrafts such as sewing and writing. In her book Pens and Needles: Women’s Textualities in Early Modern England, Susan Frye explores the deep and pervasive connection between sewing and writing in Renaissance culture. She writes, “Women from a variety of backgrounds created needlework pieces that placed accepted subjects in every room, that helped to clothe themselves and their families, and that declared the family’s social status, even as they may be read as personal and political expressions” (116). A woman’s style of knotting thread and creating samplers, or needlework pictures, was an indication of her class and taste. It was as individualized as handwriting. Likewise, as Wendy Wall shows in her book Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen, handwriting and needlework were connected to culinary skill. Although elite women employed cooks in their households, the lady of the house might personally participate in the preparation of finely shaped delicacies. Recipes that instructed cooks to shape soft dough or marzipan into “knots,” asked bakers to draw on their experience knotting thread as well as writing “knots,” meaning elaborate circular flourishes or majuscule and miniscule letterforms (Wall 143).

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