(from Shakespeare & Beyond, February 16, 2021.)  | 

Federal Theatre Project production of Macbeth in 1936. Courtesy Library of Congress

A struggling economy. Unemployed artists. Hard-hit Black communities. It might sound like we’re talking about our present pandemic life in America, but this also describes the situation in the 1930s, during the Great Depression.

In the midst of these difficult conditions, a spectacular production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth took the stage at Lafayette Theatre in New York City, involving hundreds of Black actors, theater technicians, and supporting staff. It was financed by the Federal Theatre Project, a controversial part of the federal government’s New Deal programs to provide jobs for Americans.

This 1936 Macbeth was distinctive for a variety of reasons: the large, all-Black cast performing a classical play (extremely unusual for the time); the voodoo-infused setting in 19th-century Haiti with colorful jungle scenery; and the involvement of a 20-year-old Orson Welles, who was making his professional directorial debut.

Related: Listen to a Shakespeare Unlimited podcast episode about Orson Welles and Shakespeare

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(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/16; Photo: Slapstick and sentimental songs … Pat Kirkwood in the 1956 musical comedy Stars in Your Eyes. Photograph: networkonair.com.)

Our series on films about theatre continues with a British comedy in which variety acts face an existential threat when TV steals their audience

Theatres around the country are shutting their doors and there are scarce opportunities on stage for actors. That’s the grimly familiar scenario in the 1956 British film Stars in Your Eyes, which charts the final years of variety. But this musical comedy – received as “cheery” and “disarmingly inconsequential” when it was first reviewed – strikes a further chord in Covid times by celebrating the resilience and ingenuity of theatre’s workforce.

Northern variety stars Nat Jackley and Pat Kirkwood get top billing as Jimmy and Sally, married entertainers who see audiences dwindling on their latest tour. “Rosa was in earlier,” one of them grumbles to the other. “Rosa?” “Rows a seats.” Jimmy and Sally’s act has been eclipsed by television and, after a month on the road, their revue won’t get any further than Scunthorpe. “The only way you can fill a theatre nowadays is to take all your clothes off,” sighs their agent.

After Jimmy unsuccessfully auditions for a TV gig, the couple spot an opportunity to open their own theatre with the help of washed-up songwriter Dave (Bonar Colleano) and his estranged wife, Ann (Welsh singer Dorothy Squires, in her only film role). Nothing can stop them apart from perhaps a leaky roof, a pair of devious property developers and the public’s telly fixation.

Written by Talbot Rothwell and directed by Maurice Elvey for Adelphi Films, Stars in Your Eyes shows how the entertainment industry constantly shifts to suit changing tastes and technologies – much like Singin’ in the Rain did for Hollywood talkies a few years earlier. The film is structured as a showcase for sketches and songs, usually filmed on stage but sometimes integrated into the storyline, especially in Jimmy and Sally’s domestic life where they still operate as a kind of double act. There’s a wonderful physicality in these scenes, whether it’s the rubber-limbed Jimmy ironing his ties, and his own mug, or Sally furiously buttering her toast. A lengthy holiday camp sketch is performed by Jimmy at his screen audition, which reveals the TV industry’s nervousness about variety; after creasing up at his act, the producer uneasily declares it too broad for the small screen.

Jackley has the funny bones you get when you’re born – as he was – into a circus dynasty with several generations of stage performers. In the film, it’s Dave who comes from a family of entertainers. The venue they plan to reopen, the Majestic, is a bombed-out theatre his parents once ran. It symbolises the state and perception of variety at the time: dusty, outdated and abandoned. Watching in lockdown, it’s as poignant to see this empty, rundown playhouse as it is to see the scenes of London’s bustling streets. But before you can say “keep calm and carry on” Jimmy is sewing some costumes and Sally is giving the walls a new lick of paint.

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(from Yonhap 12/12; PHOTO: provided by Acom, shows a scene from the musical “The Last Empress.” (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

SEOUL, Feb. 12 (Yonhap) — The South Korean musical scene is elated with the resumption of onstage shows, which had been suspended for nearly two months due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, and the return of fans.

Earlier, the South Korean health authorities slightly relaxed preventive guidelines at concert halls and theaters for performing arts although the nationwide social distancing have remained at the second-highest level for another two weeks until the coming Sunday.

Under the new rules, visitors are allowed to sit together with their accompanying friend or family member, with two empty seats on each side. Previously, concert halls and performing arts theaters had to put two empty seats between every audience member in a uniform manner.

Local musical companies, which had put their projects on hold for nearly two months due to the strict two-seat-apart rule, started to stage their postponed projects and extended their runs to meet rising demand for popular shows.

The blockbuster original musical “The Last Empress” will run until March 7 at the Seoul Arts Center in southern Seoul, extended for 10 days from its original schedule. The show was set to kick off on Jan. 19 but was delayed until Feb. 2 after a two-week suspension.

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(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/15; via Pam Green; Photo: ‘High creative aspirations’ … Claire Bloom, photographed in 2016. Photograph: Sarah Lee/the Guardian.)

The star’s long career, from her stage debut at 15 to her film, TV and literary success, reveals a shrewd talent who has risen to many a challenge

Acting must be the best rejuvenation pill on the market. If you want proof, you have only to look at the extraordinary, long-lasting career of Claire Bloom, who, somewhat incredibly, turns 90 on 15 February. She made her stage debut at the age of 15, became globally famous at 20 playing opposite Charlie Chaplin in Limelight and, in recent years, has been seen in numerous films, including The King’s Speech, and on television in Stephen Poliakoff’s Summer of Rockets. To be famous young and still working 70 years later shows not just stamina and dedication but genuine, enduring talent.

I have only met Claire Bloom once and was awestruck by her beauty. But beauty will only take one so far as an actor and from the outset Bloom clearly had enormous power in reserve: when she played Ophelia at Stratford in 1948 – opposite the alternating, radically different Hamlets of Paul Scofield and Robert Helpmann – Kenneth Tynan observed how the words “If-thou-hadst-not-come-to-my-bed” were “isolated and driven home like a coffin nail”.

Bloom’s big break came when, while she was appearing on the London stage in Jean Anouilh’s Ring Round the Moon, she was invited by Chaplin to go to New York to do a screen test for Limelight: the role was that of a young dancer who is rescued from suicide by a famous clown and who, under his tutelage, slowly regains her self-confidence. After some delay, Bloom finally got the role and has recorded her surprise at Chaplin’s working methods. “Chaplin,” she said, “was the most exacting director not because he expected you to produce wonders of your own but because he expected you to follow unquestioningly his every instruction.” For an intelligent young actor with what she termed “high creative aspirations”, this must have been daunting, but her performance is much the best thing in a sentimentally melancholic movie.

Bloom shrewdly went on to play Shakespearean lead roles at the Old Vic in the 1950s. Tynan was in raptures about her Juliet, claiming that, while the average Juliet sings the part sweetly and chants it demurely, “Miss Bloom is impatient and mettlesome, proud and defiant, and no mere blindfolded, milk-fed mite”; he went on to describe her performance as “pure gold”. While forging a career in the classics, Bloom continued to make movies, appearing in Richard III, Alexander the Great and The Brothers Karamazov. But, although she never lacked work, there was a sense that her true abilities had never been fully realised.

Far from coasting through her middle years, Bloom took on new challenges in three stage performances I was lucky enough to see. In 1973, she was Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and brought out beautifully the Viking madness of the big dance scene and the brittle hysteria induced by a life of domestic role-playing. Then in 1974 she played Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire and conveyed to perfection a woman whose aristocratic pose conceals both a genuinely poetic soul and an emotional desperation. In 1977, she played another damaged idealist, Rebecca West, in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, and, although I wanted a bit more crusading fervour, I would lay the blame on the production rather than the performer.

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(James Varney’s article appeared in The Washington Times, 2/15; via the Drudge Report.)

The crown teachers once put on Shakespeare now lies uneasy upon his head as the English playwright comes under assault from teachers who fault his un-woke attitudes regarding race, sexuality, gender and class.

For the new breed of teachers, William Shakespeare is seen less as an icon of literature and more as a tool of imperial oppression, an author who should be dissected in class or banished from the curriculum entirely.

“This is about White supremacy and colonization,” declared the teachers who founded #DisruptTexts, a group that wants staples of Western literature removed or subjected to withering criticism.

The anti-Shakespeare teachers say fans of the plays ignore the author’s problematic worldview. They say readers of Shakespeare should be required to address the “Whiteness” of their thinking.

If Shakespeare must be taught, these educators say, then it should be presented with watered-down versions of the original or supplemental texts focused on equality issues.

Elizabeth Nelson, who teaches English at Twin Cities Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota, told School Library Journal she gives her students Marxist theory when reading Shakespeare’s tragedy “Coriolanus” about the Roman leader.

Sarah Mulhern Gross told the journal that she delivered “toxic masculinity analysis” to her students reading “Romeo and Juliet” at High Technology High School in Lincroft, New Jersey.

The war against Shakespeare did not begin in 2021. Last December marked the fifth anniversary of students at the University of Pennsylvania removing a portrait of the Bard from their Ivy League halls.

The organizers behind #DisruptTexts put Shakespeare in the social justice crosshairs in October 2018.

The School Library Journal, which describes itself as “the premier publication for librarians and information specialists who work with children and teens,” joined the fight early this year and offered young adult novels as alternatives to Shakespeare.

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(Nobuko Tanaka’s article appeared in The Japan Times, 2/10; Photo: Behind closed doors: Playwright J.T. Rogers’ drama, “Oslo,” is based on the true-life clandestine meetings that took place leading up to the Oslo Accords, which sought to set up a framework toward peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Photo: Japan Times.)

He may live in New York, but playwright J.T. Rogers has spent a lot of time in Japan over the past few years, and it’s not just because he loves the food here (“especially the white sliced bread,” he says). One reason is that he’s the creator of an upcoming HBO series based on “Tokyo Vice,” a 2009 memoir by long-time Japan-based journalist and Japan Times columnist Jake Adelstein. Another is that his Tony award-winning drama, “Oslo,” opened recently with an all-Japanese cast at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, where it runs through Feb. 23.

“Jake and I have been friends since high school in Missouri,” Rogers, 53, says, “and I’d always wanted to make a show inspired by him creating a new life here as a crime reporter — because, you know, the stakes aren’t like covering insurance,” he adds, referring to Adelstein’s work covering Japan’s yakuza.

But moving on to his more immediate project, Rogers notes that “Oslo” also has dark undercurrents, as it focuses on the clandestine talks that led to the Oslo Accords, in which the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) recognized the State of Israel and Israel recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people. The play tells the true story of the diplomats and delegates who met outside Oslo in 1993 to work toward peace.

“If the Palestinians were discovered to be doing that, they would be killed; while if the Israeli people were exposed, the government would fall,” Rogers explains in a recent interview.

Rather than presenting a history of the discussions, Rogers’ play — directed by foreign drama specialist Satoshi Kamimura — mixes facts and fiction to dramatize the discussions themselves and show how a Norwegian diplomat couple, Mona Juul (played by Kei Aran) and Terje Rod-Larsen (Masayuki Sakamoto), played key roles in making them happen.

“Rod-Larsen came to New York to see my play ‘Blood and Gifts’ about CIA spies in Afghanistan,” Rogers says. “He loved it, especially how it’s authentic about diplomacy and what he calls the ‘double gaming’ you have in politics, chess and with spies — there’s what you see and something underneath that you don’t.

“So we had a drink together, and though I didn’t know him and never met him before, he told me the story of the Oslo Accords from his point of view.”

Rogers says that like most Americans he’d thought President Clinton’s administration was responsible for the landmark agreement, but he was astonished to learn then that there was much more to the story than what was presented in history books.

Instantly fascinated, Rogers thought: “That’s a play I want to write — it’s not a play with a message; it’s a more exciting and thrilling story about politics and people’s passion — and it has humor.”

Soon after, he flew to Norway to interview Rod-Larsen, Juul and others who were involved.

“Rod-Larsen told me that he, his wife and other Norwegian diplomats came up with the idea to secretly bring PLO and Israeli government representatives to a mansion in the middle of the woods to drink Scotch and talk about their families and try to make peace,” he says.

Hence, “Oslo” is what Rogers describes as “historically true fiction.

“What I mean is though the main events in the play actually happened, all the dialogue and characters are invented by me but based on real people,” he says. Some of the characters even very closely resemble their real-life counterparts.

As a dramatist, Rogers says that it was the “super-high tension” surrounding the whole chain of events that appealed to him.

“It was like an actual thriller. People secretly coming into a country. It would be like a revelation that North Korea and South Korea were secretly meeting to end the war. That’s how dangerous these meetings were — but when you write a play, you want the stakes to be high,” he says.

“Also, I was very moved by a story about adversaries who had the courage to come into a room, talk to each other and treat each other not as enemies, animals or evil people, but as human beings. In other words, saying ‘I hate your ideas, but I acknowledge that you are a person and I have learned to like you.’ The play is about how people are changed by seeing the humanity in others.”

Regarding the practicalities of fashioning this “historically true fiction,” Rogers says he usually makes rules when he’s creating a story so he doesn’t “get lost with too many options.”

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(Seán Hewitt’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 2/13; Illustration: JM Synge: For many years, his drama was too close to home.)

In the year of the dramatist’s 150th anniversary, his work continues to demonstrate the importance of wildness, resistance and imagination

The artist Jack B Yeats, a close friend and collaborator of JM Synge’s, wrote a letter to the dramatist in the wake of the riots that greeted the Abbey Theatre’s premiere of The Playboy of the Western World in late January 1907. He also drew a small cartoon.

In the first scene, a man, holding his hat behind him, his knees touched together in a posture of nervous modesty, leans against a window to talk with a young woman, a small bird perched on his arm. “Will it be mild as milk?” Yeats writes, “or will it be…”

In the second scene, a jeering audience with raised fists watch the man being tossed off a high cliff into the sea. The man is upside-down, mid-air, his hat flying off into a tall wave.

As his career had progressed among the fraught cultural conditions of the Irish Revival, Synge increasingly gravitated towards the second option. His literary output began with a bucolic Romanticism, taking a turn of experiments through Decadence and symbolism. But it was the pressures of a modernising Ireland that urged him into what the scholar Mary Burke has recently called a form of “modernist provocation”.

Synge moved to Germany as a young man, and then to Paris. The riots over the first performance of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1896), an avant-garde play considered to be an assault on the audience, would certainly have come to Synge’s attention. In fact, Jarry’s collapsing of the distinction between noble and ignoble, between “primitive” and civilised, finds a striking afterlife in Synge’s own riot-inducing masterpiece just over a decade later.

Synge’s fantasy, imagination and lyric flights of poetry were the tender side of his vision; but for every sweet word there was a sharp, brutal undercurrent, a violence and earthiness that all poetry, and all life, should be rooted in. This was at the heart of his work.

Whereas some writers and audiences wanted a “purely fantastic, unmodern, ideal, spring-dayish, Cuchulanoid National Theatre”, what Synge valued most in the life of the peasantry was what he saw as their savage, ironic humour, their imaginative freedom, and their brutality. This, he saw, was their chief challenge to the homogenising tendencies of modernisation; their alterity was in their opposition to the values of the imperial project and also to the values of the middle classes, who were “an ungodly ruck of fat-faced, sweaty headed swine”. If he was to hold a mirror up to the nation, it would not be while the people were “going to Mass on a fine… Sunday morning”.

This year marks 150 years since Synge was born in Rathfarnham, Co Dublin, into a wealthy Protestant family with long-held connections to the gentry and to the Church of Ireland. Members of the Plymouth Brethren, the Synge family were led by their mother, Kathleen.

Early on, Johnny (as he was known to his relatives) was uncomfortable with the practices of his Anglo-Irish family. In 1885 his brother Edward began evicting tenants in Cavan. Johnny, at the age of just 14, argued strongly with his mother about the rights of the tenants, until she asked him: “What would become of us if our tenants… stopped paying their rents?”

He did manage some small victories, among them was convincing his mother to change the family subscription from the Daily Express to the more liberal Irish Times, which she nevertheless considered “a rebel paper”.

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(from France 24, 2/13; Photo: France 24; via the Drudge Report.)

French-Iranian Rana Gorgani, 37, used to think of whirling as something that should remain behind closed doors JOEL SAGET AFP

One of the world’s few female whirling dervishes, Rana Gorgani has opened up Sufism to a wider audience, and is now making surprising spiritual connections over Zoom thanks to the pandemic.

French-Iranian Gorgani, 37, used to think of whirling — a sort of “moving meditation” through which Sufis seek to commune with the divine — as something that should remain behind closed doors.

Despite growing up in France, she was initiated into the practice while visiting Iran, a place where Sufis often face persecution by the authorities and dancing in general is frowned upon.

She had never intended to perform the whirling in public — that was something normally reserved for men.

But a decade ago, she decided she wanted to share its beauty with a festival audience in Montpellier.

“After some minutes, I panicked and stopped for a few seconds. It felt like I was breaking some rule,” she recalled. “But I started turning again, and heard a roar of applause, and I told myself ‘everything is OK’.”

When people came up to her after the show, with tears in their eyes, to thank her — she realised this was something she wanted to pursue full-time.

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(Keith C. Burris’s article appeared in the Journal Inquirer, 2/8.)

I have known, in my life, many men who thought of themselves as “great,” and were anything but. And I have known a precious few who were exceptionally skilled at what they did and also became magnificent human beings — my definition of greatness.

And none, interestingly, considered themselves special. If they considered themselves at all, which they tried not to do, they saw their own folly — the cracks in everything, but especially themselves.

The actor Hal Holbrook, who died Jan. 23 at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., at 95, and whose death was announced last week by his family, was such a man.

I was lucky enough to know him and call myself a friend during the last 20 years or so of his life.

Holbrook really had three careers, which intersected and sometimes overshadowed each other. One was his career as Mark Twain, which deserves its own accounting and tribute. He did his one-man show — “Mark Twain Tonight!” — from 1954 to 2017, never missing a year, though in some years did only a few shows. He performed it 2,344 times, still doing 20 shows a year into his 90s.

Holbrook’s Twain was the longest-running show in American theatrical history. But, far more important, it taught the country about one of its most important, and original, writers. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Hal Holbrook jump-started the popular and scholarly interest in Mark Twain, showing us that he was not primarily a humorist or an author of children’s books, but the font of American satire, and, along with Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, Lincoln and others, founder of a distinctly American literary form and tone. It is hard to imagine Tom Wolfe without Twain. Or Ernest Hemingway.

Hal Holbrook gave us back Mark Twain — the real, unvarnished, bitter Twain.

Holbrook loved the man. His was an almost 70-year love affair, in which the two men seemed, in some lucky and strange way, to finally merge into one.

Holbrook took it as his mission to bring Twain to the heartland and the midsize cities of the USA — to let America hear one of its truest voices. He took the show to all 50 states, as well as to Europe, including behind the Iron Curtain when it still stood.

He was not a scholar, he insisted upon that, but he approached Twain as a scholar — digging into his writing anew each time he went on the road and expanding his store of performable material. The show was 90 minutes, but Holbrook had 16 hours of interchangeable material by the end. All of it was committed to memory, of course. All of it was original — only Twain’s own words were used. Nothing was updated for the times. No transitional scripting was added.

I saw the Twain show eight times, usually in the company of one or two of my children. It was never the same show twice.

Holbrook had a second career — in television and film. TV was in a sort of second golden age in the 1970s and Holbrook was a major star and staple of what was then called the TV movie. He chose projects that meant something — from the first TV film about environmental pollution, to the first one about a gay male couple, to one about the Pueblo incident. My favorite from this period was a short-lived series called “The Senator.” This was an extraordinarily well-acted and well-written show about an idealistic senator who was also trying to legislate and lead — sort of a cross between Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. The show took on topics like the Kent State shootings, the right to dissent, and the political clout of the mafia.

Hal told me that when it was canceled he learned an important lesson: Show business is a business. Commerce trumps art every time.

He continued to do significant things in television — from “The Sopranos” to “The West Wing” to “The Sons of Anarchy” — into his 10th decade. His last appearance on the small screen was as a doctor who could not save his dying wife, on “Grey’s Anatomy.” He said once that it took him decades to learn how to act on film. You just have to “be” before the camera, he said, not really act at all. That performance was a clinic in being.

And that’s exactly what he did in his later movie roles. The most notable of which was his Oscar-nominated performance as Ron Franz in “Into the Wild.”

But I wish more people could see “That Evening Sun,” in which 60-some years of acting and 80-some of living are brought fully to bear. He should have won acting’s highest honor for those two roles, if not for his body of work.

He did, of course, win the Emmy (for TV), several times as well as the Tony (for theater). After his great success with Twain in the 1960s (the cover of “Life” magazine and 30 million people tuning in to watch the show on CBS in 1967), he joined a repertory company to hone his theater chops and play as many kinds of parts as he could. And not to be trapped by his first love — Twain. He figured that would diminish them both.

Holbrook always went back to the theater, in addition to Twain. This was his third career. After the financing of a film he was to direct collapsed, in his later years, he resolved to always do at least one new play a year. And he did. Just as he played every conceivable character in film, from country doctor to murderous cop, he played in every kind of stage work — from Shakespeare to Arthur Miller to David Mamet to “Man of La Mancha.”

I met him for the first time when he came to Hartford, Conn., where I then lived, to do Twain for one night. A pre-show interview had been arranged and we were to talk 15 to 20 minutes. We talked 90 minutes. He knew everyone in Hollywood and had worked with many. But he wanted to discuss two big things that day — national politics and Shakespeare.

The second time we met, he was in town to do a regional stage production of “Our Town.” He’d already done the play, and the part of the stage manager, both on stage and on film. But he was unhappy with his past performances. On film he felt his character had been too far removed from the other characters and the pathos of the play itself. This was another chance to get it right. Besides, he loved the play.

We met over black coffees and he had the play with him. We actually went over text together. He was at pains to show me how unsentimental and stark the play was; how its greatness was in the playwright’s cold eye, and how the warm, fuzzy feelings mined in every high school production were wrong. It’s a totally misunderstood play, he said. His performance, at Hartford Stage Company, was at once simple, transparent and majestic, as I imagine his rendering of Willy Loman was, though I was not lucky enough to see that.

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