Monthly Archives: May 2023




Awards will be presented Tuesday, June 6 at Sardi’s Restaurant





(Wednesday, May 31, 2023) – Winners for the 67th Annual Drama Desk Awards were announced today.


The 2023 Drama Desk Awards will take place at Sardi’s Restaurant (234 W 44th Street) on June 6th from 3:00 – 6:00pm. The full list of winners will be available at the website, and below.


Tony® and Emmy Award winner Mandy Patinkin (Evita; “Homeland”) and 2-time Obie Award winner Kathryn Grody (The Marriage of Bette and BooA Mom’s Life) will host the ceremony.


In keeping with the Drama Desk‘s mission, the nominators considered shows that opened on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Off-Off Broadway during the 2022-2023 season for this year’s awards. Shows were eligible with 21 or more unique live performances. 


The Drama Desk Awards are the only major New York City theater awards for which productions on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Off-Off Broadway compete against each other in the same categories. David Barbour and Charles Wright are The Drama Desk co-presidents.


The Drama Desk Awards ceremony on June 6 is produced by Staci Levine/Groundswell Theatricals.


In accordance with a directive by the Drama Desk board of directors, all performance categories are gender-free. The updated gender-free categories are: Outstanding Lead Performance in a Play, Outstanding Lead Performance in a Musical, Outstanding Featured Performance in a Play, and Outstanding Featured Performance in a Musical. 


Each of these categories had twice as many nominees as the former gendered categories and these categories have two winners each.


“We are proud to congratulate the winners of the 67th Annual Drama Desk Awards, which celebrate all of Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway,” said Commissioner Anne del Castillo of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. “This year’s awards also honor Between Riverside and Crazy’s Stephen McKinley Henderson, the cast of Soho Rep’s Public Obscenities, and Ryan J. Haddad, creator of Dark Disabled Stories, who each represent the rich diversity and breadth of talent that define NYC as a global creative capital.”


What sets the Drama Desk Awards apart is that they are voted on and bestowed by critics, journalists, editors, and publishers covering theater. The Drama Desk Awards honor all aspects of New York’s professional theater.


About The Drama Desk

The Drama Desk was founded in 1949 to explore key issues in the theater and to bring together critics and writers in an organization to support the ongoing development of theater in New York. The organization began presenting its awards in 1955, and it is the only critics’ organization to honor achievement in the theater with competition among Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Off-Off Broadway productions in the same categories.


The 2022-2023 Drama Desk Nominating Committee is composed of: Martha Wade Steketee (Chair; freelance:, Linda Armstrong (New York Amsterdam News), Dan Dinero (Theatre is Easy), Peter Filichia (Broadway Radio), Kenji Fujishima (freelance: Theatermania), Margaret Hall (Playbill) and Charles Wright, Drama Desk co-president, ex-officio.


Follow the Drama Desk Awards: @DramaDeskAwards on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook for updates.


(winners are highlighted and starred)



Outstanding Play

A Case for the Existence of God, by Samuel D. Hunter, Signature Theatre

Fat Ham, by James Ijames, The Public Theater and National Black Theatre

**Leopoldstadt, by Tom Stoppard

Love, by Alexander Zeldin, Park Avenue Armory

Prima Facie, by Suzie Miller

Wish You Were Here, by Sanaz Toossi, Playwrights Horizons

Outstanding Musical

& Juliet

Between the Lines

F*ck7thGrade, The Wild Project


**Some Like it Hot

White Girl in Danger, Vineyard Theatre and Second Stage Theater


Outstanding Revival of a Play

A Raisin in the Sun, The Public Theater

Death of a Salesman

Endgame, Irish Repertory Theatre

**The Piano Lesson

Ohio State Murders

Wedding Band, Theatre for a New Audience


Outstanding Revival of a Musical

A Man of No Importance, Classic Stage Company

Into the Woods

Merrily We Roll Along, New York Theatre Workshop


Sweeney Todd


Outstanding Lead Performance in a Play

Hiran Abeysekera, Life of Pi

Kyle Beltran, A Case for the Existence of God, Signature Theatre

Will Brill, A Case for the Existence of God, Signature Theatre

Brittany Bradford, Wedding Band, Theatre for a New Audience

**Jessica Chastain, A Doll’s House

Sharon D. Clarke, Death of a Salesman

**Sean Hayes, Good Night, Oscar

Denise Manning, Amani, National Black Theatre and Rattlestick Theater

Audra McDonald, Ohio State Murders

Wendell Pierce, Death of a Salesman

John Douglas Thompson, Endgame, Irish Repertory Theatre

Kara Young, Twelfth Night, The Classical Theatre of Harlem


Outstanding Lead Performance in a Musical

**Annaleigh Ashford, Sweeney Todd

Nicholas Barasch, The Butcher Boy, Irish Repertory Theatre

Sara Bareilles, Into the Woods

Andrew Burnap, Camelot

Micaela Diamond, Parade

Andrew Durand, Shucked

Callum Francis, Kinky Boots, Stage 42

**J. Harrison Ghee, Some Like it Hot

Jonathan Groff, Merrily We Roll Along, New York Theatre Workshop

Somi Kakoma, Dreaming Zenzile, New York Theatre Workshop

Lindsay Mendez, Merrily We Roll Along, New York Theatre Workshop

Anna Uzele, New York, New York


Outstanding Featured Performance in a Play

Emily Bergl, Good Night, Oscar

Danielle Brooks, The Piano Lesson

Amelda Brown, Love, Park Avenue Armory

Ray Fisher, The Piano Lesson

K. Todd Freeman, Downstate, Playwrights Horizons

Francis Guinan, Downstate, Playwrights Horizons

Nick Holder, Love, Park Avenue Armory

Arian Moayed, A Doll’s House

Brian Quijada, Wolf Play, MCC Theater and Soho Rep

**Miriam Silverman, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, Brooklyn Academy of Music

**Brandon Uranowitz, Leopoldstadt

Kara Young, Cost of Living


Outstanding Featured Performance in a Musical

Kevin Cahoon, Shucked

**Kevin Del Aguila, Some Like it Hot

Robyn Hurder, A Beautiful Noise, The Neil Diamond Musical

Mark Jacoby, A Beautiful Noise, The Neil Diamond Musical

Tarra Conner Jones, White Girl in Danger, Vineyard Theatre and Second Stage Theater

Julia Lester, Into the Woods

**Alex Newell, Shucked

Daniel Radcliffe, Merrily We Roll Along, New York Theatre Workshop

Phillipa Soo, Into the Woods

Mare Winningham, A Man of No Importance, Classic Stage Company


Outstanding Direction of a Play

Zi Alikhan, On That Day in Amsterdam, Primary Stages

Shayok Misha Chowdhury, Public Obscenities, Soho Rep and NAATCO

Miranda Cromwell, Death of a Salesman

Adam Meggido, Peter Pan Goes Wrong

**Max Webster, Life of Pi

Alexander Zeldin, Love, Park Avenue Armory


Outstanding Direction of a Musical

Jeff Calhoun, Between the Lines

John Doyle, A Man of No Importance, Classic Stage Company

Maria Friedman, Merrily We Roll Along, New York Theatre Workshop

**Thomas Kail, Sweeney Todd

Jack O’Brien, Shucked


Outstanding Choreography

Andy Blankenbuehler, Only Gold, MCC Theater

Tislarm Bouie, the bandaged place

Edgar Godineaux, The Harder They Come, The Public Theater

**Casey Nicholaw, Some Like it Hot

Susan Stroman, New York, New York

Jennifer Weber, KPOP


Outstanding Music

**Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, Shucked

Michael R. Jackson, White Girl in Danger, Vineyard Theatre and Second Stage Theater

Tom Kitt and AnnMarie Milazzo (vocal designer), Almost Famous

Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson, Between the Lines

The Kilbanes, Weightless, WP Theater


Outstanding Lyrics

Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, Shucked

Jonathan Hogue, Stranger Sings! The Parody Musical

Michael R. Jackson, White Girl in Danger, Vineyard Theatre and Second Stage Theater

Adam Schlesinger and Sarah Silverman, The Bedwetter, Atlantic Theater Company

**Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, Some Like it Hot


Outstanding Book of a Musical

Jonathan Hogue, Stranger Sings! The Parody Musical

Robert Horn, Shucked

**Matthew López and Amber Ruffin, Some Like it Hot

Marla Mindelle, Constantine Rousouli, and Tye Blue, Titanique

David West Read, & Juliet


Outstanding Orchestrations

Bruce Coughlin, A Man of No Importance, Classic Stage Company

Jason Howland, Shucked

**Charlie Rosen and Bryan Carter, Some Like it Hot

Kenny Seymour, The Harder They Come, The Public Theater

Daryl Waters and Sam Davis, New York, New York


Outstanding Music in a Play

Ben Edelman, Zane Pais, and Sinan Refik Zafar, Letters from Max, a ritual, Signature Theatre

Mauricio Escamilla, the bandaged place, Roundabout Theatre Company

**Suzan-Lori Parks, Plays for the Plague Year, The Public Theater

Ian Ross, Wuthering Heights, St. Ann’s Warehouse, Wise Children, National Theatre

Daniel Schlosberg, Montag, Soho Rep


Outstanding Scenic Design of a Play

Jason Ardizzone-West, Wedding Band, Theatre for a New Audience

Beowulf Boritt, Ohio State Murders

dots, Public Obscenities, Soho Rep and NAATCO

**Tim Hatley, Life of Pi

Natasha Jenkins, Love, Park Avenue Armory

John McDermott, Chains, Mint Theater Company


Outstanding Scenic Design of a Musical

**Beowulf Boritt, New York, New York

David Korins, Only Gold, MCC Theater

Scott Pask, Shucked

Walt Spangler and Brendan McCann (production props), Stranger Sings! The Parody Musical

Michael Yeargan, Camelot


Outstanding Costume Design of a Play

Kara Branch, According to the Chorus, New Light Theater Project

Enver Chakartash, Public Obscenities, Soho Rep and NAATCO

Qween Jean, Wedding Band, Theatre for a New Audience

Sarah Laux, Wish You Were Here, Playwright Horizons

**Emilio Sosa, Ain’t No Mo’

Roberto Surace, Peter Pan Goes Wrong


Outstanding Costume Design of a Musical

**Gregg Barnes, Some Like it Hot

Tilly Grimes, Shucked

Jennifer Moeller, Camelot

Clint Ramos and Sophia Choi, KPOP

Anita Yavich, Only Gold, MCC Theater

Donna Zakowska, New York, New York


Outstanding Lighting Design of a Play

Isabella Byrd, Epiphany, Lincoln Center Theater

Jiyoun Chang, The Far Country, Atlantic Theater Company

**Natasha Chivers and Willie Williams (video), Prima Facie

Allen Lee Hughes, Ohio State Murders

Cha See, On That Day in Amsterdam, Primary Stages

Japhy Weideman, The Piano Lesson


Outstanding Lighting Design of a Musical

Ken Billington, New York, New York

Jeff Croiter, Only Gold, MCC Theater

Heather Gilbert, Parade

David Grill, Bob Fosse’s Dancin’

**Natasha Katz, Sweeney Todd


Outstanding Projection and Video Design

Simon Baker, Wuthering Heights, St. Ann’s Warehouse, Wise Children, and National Theatre

**Andrzej Goulding, Life of Pi

Caite Hevner, Between the Lines, Tony Kiser Theater

Josh Higgason, White Girl in Danger, Vineyard Theatre and Second Stage Theater

Nicholas Hussong, On That Day in Amsterdam, Primary Stages

Johnny Moreno, Public Obscenities, Soho Rep and NAATCO


Outstanding Sound Design of a Play

Justin Ellington, Ohio State Murders

Tom Gibbons, Hamlet, Park Avenue Armory

Josh Anio Grigg, Love, Park Avenue Armory

Lee Kinney and Daniel Kluger, You Will Get Sick, Roundabout Theatre Company

**Ben & Max Ringham, A Doll’s House

Mikaal Sulaiman, Fat Ham, The Public Theater and National Black Theatre


Outstanding Sound Design of a Musical

Peter Hylenski, Almost Famous

**Scott Lehrer and Alex Neumann, Into the Woods

John Shivers, Shucked

Joanna Lynne Staub, Weightless, WP Theater

Jon Weston, Parade


Outstanding Wig and Hair

Campbell Young Associates, Almost Famous

Cookie Jordan, The Piano Lesson

**Mia M. Neal, Ain’t No Mo’

Earon Nealey, Twelfth Night, The Classical Theatre of Harlem

Mitsuteru Okuyama, Chushingura 47 Ronin

Luc Verschueren, A Beautiful Noise, The Neil Diamond Musical


Outstanding Solo Performance

**Jodie Comer, Prima Facie

David Greenspan, Four Saints in Three Acts, Lucille Lortel Theatre

Jessica Hendy, Walking With Bubbles, AMT Theater

Anthony Rapp, Without You

Tracy Thorne, Jack Was Kind, Irish Repertory Theatre


Unique Theatrical Experience

Asi Wind’s Inner Circle

**Peter Pan Goes Wrong

Plays for the Plague Year, The Public Theater

Zephyr, Cirque Mechanics at The New Victory Theater


Outstanding Fight Choreography

**B.H. Barry, Camelot

Rocio Mendez, Día Y Noche, LAByrinth Theater Company

Rocio Mendez, How to Defend Yourself, New York Theater Workshop

Unkledave’s Fight-House, soft, MCC Theater


Outstanding Adaptation

**A Doll’s House, by Amy Herzog

Arden of Faversham, by Jeffrey Hatcher and Kathryn Walat, Red Bull Theater

black odyssey, by Marcus Gardley, Classic Stage Company

Oresteia, by Robert Icke, Park Avenue Armory

Wuthering Heights, by Emma Rice, St. Ann’s Warehouse, Wise Children, National Theatre


Outstanding Puppetry

John Leader, Wuthering Heights, St. Ann’s Warehouse, Wise Children, National Theatre

James Ortiz (design), Kennedy Kanagawa (as Milky White), Into the Woods

**Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell, Life of Pi

Kirjan Waage, The Immortal Jellyfish Girl, Wakka Wakka and Nordland Visual Theatre at 59E59





Harold Prince Lifetime Achievement Award

Stephen McKinley Henderson has been bringing in-depth, gripping portrayals of memorable characters to the stage for over four decades. With his return to Broadway this season as Pops in Between Riverside and Crazy, which the Drama Desk previously nominated in 2015, this year’s Harold Prince Lifetime Achievement Award marks Henderson’s role in this powerful production as a celebration of his brilliant career.


Ensemble Award

The cast of Soho Rep’s Public Obscenities – Tashnuva Anan, Abrar Haque, Golam Sarwar Harun, Gargi Mukherjee, NaFis, Jakeem Dante Powell, and Debashis Roy Chowdhury – embodied the transnational world of Shayok Misha Chowdhury’s bilingual play with memorable authenticity, remarkable specificity, and extraordinary warmth.


Sam Norkin Off-Broadway Award

From his standout performance in american (tele)visions, to writing and performing the autobiographical Dark Disabled Stories, Ryan J. Haddad’s work this season has expanded on and interrogated what the idea of “accessibility” really means. Whether riding a shopping cart like a throne, or relating his experiences on a “gay, pink bus,” Haddad shared with audiences an unabashed queer fabulosity that was both unforgettable and deeply human.



Shows with multiple wins

Some Like It Hot: 8

Life of Pi: 4

A Doll’s House: 3

Sweeney Todd: 3

Ain’t No Mo’: 2

Leopoldstadt: 2

Prima Facie: 2

Shucked: 2



Follow the Drama Desk Awards 


on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook


(from Sky News, 5/24; Photo: AP.)


Tina Turner – one of rock’s great vocalists and most charismatic performers – has died aged 83, her spokesperson has confirmed.

In a statement, they said: “Tina Turner, the ‘Queen of Rock’n Roll’ has died peacefully today at the age of 83 after a long illness in her home in Kusnacht near Zurich, Switzerland.

“With her, the world loses a music legend and a role model.”

The US-born star was one of the best-loved female rock singers, known for her on-stage presence and a string of hits including The Best, Proud Mary, Private Dancer and What’s Love Got to Do With It.

Go to site



(Colette Davidson’s article appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, 5/17; Glen Stubbe Photography/Courtesy of Children’s Theatre Company.)

May 17, 2023|MINNEAPOLIS

Fievel Mousekewitz’s immigration story begins like so many others – a menacing, outside threat. The packing of bags. A tumultuous voyage at sea.

But, as the name suggests, Fievel isn’t a person, he’s a mouse. And the threat is a band of cats.

Fievel’s tale – “An American Tail” – is a story of loss, hope, rebuilding, and family. It is a story shared by many Americans, some recently, some in generations past.


A story focused on


Generations of American kids grew up on the story of Fievel Mousekewitz. At a time when roughly a quarter of Americans are satisfied with immigration levels, a new play looks at what it means to come to America.

Now, the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis is revisiting the 1986 film classic in dramatic form, in a world premiere from Tony-winning playwright Itamar Moses and Obie-winning director Taibi Magar. The tale of Fievel and his Jewish family’s traumatic uprooting from 19th-century Russia – in what is now Ukraine – to the boroughs of New York City is one that members of Generation X will remember from the animated film and a new generation can learn from.

In the opening act, the family of mice sing, “There are no cats in America, and the streets are paved with cheese!” The puns are abundant, but the lessons are universal.

“America is a patchwork of arrivals, but how do we welcome each new wave?” says Mr. Moses in an interview. “There are threats. But if we can work together, a better version of ourselves is always somewhere out there.”

Ultimately, “An American Tail” harks back to an era when immigration was romanticized, not politicized, in films like “West Side Story” (1961) or “Coming to America” (1988). This February, a Gallup Poll showed that Americans’ satisfaction with the country’s level of immigration had dropped to 28%, its lowest in a decade.

“This is reaching back to a happier time, a vision of immigration when it was seen simply as a part of the way this country worked,” says David Itzkowitz, a St. Paul-based historian. “Now, antisemitism is back in the media. … Immigration has become a race issue.”

(Read more)



(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/16, 2023; Photo: The Greek theatre in Syracuse. Photograph: Gaspare Urso’ )

Playing in the vast ancient amphitheatre, imaginative new productions of Euripides and Aeschylus find fresh nuance even in this huge space

How best to stage the great Greek classics? The fashion in Britain is for intimacy. But there are other alternatives, as I found on a visit to the ancient Greek theatre in Sicily’s Syracuse where everything is on a massive scale. The auditorium, carved out of a hillside, seats 5,000. The stage is 27 metres wide and 44 deep; acting, direction and design are correspondingly epic. Yet I discovered, in the two productions I saw, that psychological detail is still achievable even in this vast arena.

Seasons of the Greek classics began in Syracuse in 1914, continued spasmodically but only became annual events in this century. Scanning the records, you find that many famous directors, including Peter SteinLuca RonconiYannis Kokkos and Irene Papas, have worked there. Among the translators, the name of Pier Paolo Pasolini stands out. Each eight-week season blends a well-known title with others less familiar. This year Medea and Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound kicked off the programme, with Peace by Aristophanes and a multi-media spectacle about Ulysses still to come. After July, selected productions will go on tour around Italy.

This is all the impressive work of the Istituto Nazionale Del Dramma Antico (National Institute of Ancient Drama) but I was relieved to find that a respect for the past was matched by a regard for the present. On a basic level, non-Italian speakers are offered an earpiece translation and a text in English. But my first discovery at Medea was a brilliant essay in the programme-book by the play’s translator, Massimo Fusillo, which suggests that Euripides pioneered the use of the inner monologue allowing us to get inside the protagonist’s head. Fusillo argues that this leads ultimately to Macbeth, Milton’s Satan and modern TV series such as Breaking Bad and Gomorrah. The play’s director, Federico Tiezzi, goes further by saying he sees Medea as “a clash between an archaic society and a post-industrial society” and compares Jason to the “great boisterous Ibsen titans from John Gabriel Borkman to Torvald Helmer in A Doll’s House”.

All this is heady stuff but how does it work in practice? Tiezzi goes out of his way to stress the symbolic nature of the conflict in which Medea is told that she will be forced to leave Corinth never to see Jason or her children again. Medea initially sports a fearsome bird-like headpiece, her children wear fluffy rabbit-heads and Creon, the king of Corinth, a crocodile-mask. The female chorus, meanwhile, are blue-clad skivvies with pails and scrubbing-brushes. But the great revelation comes in the relationship between Medea and Jason.

(Read more)


(Chis Wiegand’s article appeaed in the Guardian, 5/5; via Pam Green; Photo: On tomorrow and tomorrow … David Tennant in a publicity shot for the Donmar’s forthcoming Macbeth. Photograph: Charlie Gray.)

The actor will take to the stage as the Scottish king in December, in the last production of the London theatre’s 30th-anniversary season

Hot on the heels of the news that Ralph Fiennes will play Macbeth in a tour of repurposed UK warehouses comes the announcement that David Tennant will also star as the Scottish king at London’s Donmar Warehouse.

It is the Scottish actor’s first Shakespearean stage role since he played Richard II for the Royal Shakespeare Company, on and off, from 2013 to 2016. In 2022 he was Macbeth in a two-part BBC Radio 4 broadcast. The Donmar production will be directed by Max Webster and will conclude the 30th-anniversary season for the London theatre, which was previously home to a banana-ripening warehouse.

(Read more)


(from Radio Free Europe, 5/10; Photo: Nikolai Daineko.)

Visit Radio Free Europe 

A Moscow court has sentenced a poet to four years in prison for publicly reciting verses condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Tver district court sentenced Nikolai Daineko on May 10 after finding him guilty of “inciting hatred and calling for anti-state activities.” Daineko, who agreed to cooperate with investigators, was arrested along with two other poets, Artyom Kamardin and Yegor Shtovba, in September after they presented their anti-war verses in public. Kamardin’s girlfriend has accused police of subjecting the poet to sexual violence during his apprehension. Kamardin and Shtovba will be tried separately. 


(Philipp Jedicke’s article appeared on DW, 5/5; Photo: DW.)

“Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror” is about a fictional circus troupe during the Third Reich. This tale of humanity in inhumane times is told by disabled and non-disabled people.

British playwright Hattie Naylor had originally wanted to tell a very different story from the one currently touring successfully through Britain. Her initial plan was for a play based on the cult 1932 horror film “Freaks” by US director Tod Browning, a movie that had made a big impact on her.

“What’s really special about it is that disabled people are the heroes in the film,” said Naylor. But the copyright situation was problematic, and the deeper Naylor delved into the history of circuses of the early 20th century, the more a very different story formed in her imagination — one that would become the musical “Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror.”

During her research, Naylor encountered numerous stories of circuses that employed disabled people, both before and during the Nazi regime. She read about people of short stature working as acrobats and clowns, about Jewish circus directors, and about Adolf Althoff, a non-Jewish German circus director who took in the Bento family of Jewish acrobats, hiding them and giving them work. And Naylor learned how several people were able to save themselves from certain death in extermination camps with touring and connections with international circuses. 

Extermination of disabled people

During the Second World War, the Nazis murdered more than 250,000 disabled people. Disabled people were mercilessly persecuted or even turned in by their own relatives. They often met their deaths only after inhumane experiments were performed on them — as in the case of Lya Graf, a world-renowned short-statured circus star who perished in Auschwitz in 1941.

Naylor was especially horrified to read that the “Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Diseased Offspring” was one of the first enacted by Adolf Hitler just six months after he seized power in January 1933. In his racist fantasy of omnipotence, German children were to be “nimble as greyhounds, tough as leather, hard as Krupp steel.” That law was only the beginning.

Under the Nazi dictatorship, thousands of disabled or short-statured people and those with psychiatric illnesses were forcibly sterilized, with the aim of “keeping the German national body pure.” Those people were as undesirable to the Nazis as JewsSinti and Romahomosexuals, non-conformist artists or political opponents.

The speed with which the measures were implemented in the 1930s convinced Naylor of the importance of telling these stories today. “I am really aware of the rise of fascism in Europe again, and in my own country, and very dubious national and international movements,” she said.

(Read more)


(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/6; via Pam Green; Photo: Adjoa Andoh as Shakepeare’s Richard III. Photograph: Manuel Harlan.)

An inspiring analysis of Shakespeare and race restores his reputation as a playwright for all

There is a vivid moment in Farah Karim-Cooper’s new book where she reflects on the image of the nation’s pre-eminent playwright – how unfathomable he has seemed to artists and how his face has been conjured from a historical blur. She compares portraits and discerns a marked shift in the 18th century when he seems to become “more beautiful, symmetrical, and whiter in complexion”.

If visual art has hitherto seemed like a peripheral detail in the appraisal of his work, Karim-Cooper, a professor of Shakespeare studies, connects this paled image to a metaphorical whitewashing: the man we celebrate today is not the one who lived and worked in Elizabethan England but a reconstructed fantasy, built to serve as an emblem of white excellence and imperial Englishness.

Efforts to decolonise Shakespeare have been fiercely contested in the past and as co-director of education at the Globe theatre, Karim-Cooper navigated her own storm when she organised a series of webinars on anti-racism in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Far from being cowed by the experience, she has produced a book-length study of the bard through the lens of race theory.

It is a thorough analysis but also a kind of love letter. Karim-Cooper felt an instant connection to Shakespeare at the age of 15, during an English lesson on Romeo and Juliet. But in order to love him, she argues, we have to know him fully, and not only his genius but the darker aspects of his legacy.

Karim-Cooper’s broader sociopolitical scope makes us see certain lines and characters afresh

It is a clever deployment of Shakespearean wisdom on how to love without a distorting “fancy bred in the eye”. The great white bard of the title is just that type of idealised cultural construct, she suggests. “I am a foreign, brown woman – and I feel seen and heard in Shakespeare’s plays,” Karim-Cooper asserts and this chimes with her book’s broader aim: to restore the swan of Avon as a playwright for all.

Close readings of the texts produce concrete examples of racial prejudice, antisemitism and colonial subjugation in works such as Othello, The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and The Tempest. Some of this is familiar, but Karim-Cooper’s broader sociopolitical scope makes us see certain lines and characters afresh. She also bypasses charges of unfairly applying 21st-century definitions of racism and white supremacy by calibrating her analysis to the values of the Tudor era, or subsequent centuries.

We are taken from original stagings in black- and brown-face to the trauma carried in roles such as Othello for contemporary Black actors. Karim-Cooper makes some rather creative connections between Shakespeare’s world and ours: a discussion on inter-racial couples such as Othello and Desdemona and Titus Andronicus’s Aaron and Tamora segues into an analysis of the present day ambivalence towards Prince Harry and Meghan Markle; she draws on the cultural theorist bell hooks’s idea of political resistance through self-love, hailing Aaron’s eloquent defence of his blackness (“Coal-black is better than another hue / in that it scorns to bear another hue”) as “the first ever black power speech”.

Historians including Miranda Kaufmann and David Olusoga have supplied ample examples of diversity in Tudor Britain, and Karim-Cooper sees Shakespeare as holding a mirror to this society, with his plays interrogating live issues around race, identity and the colonial enterprise. Her critique is at its most absorbing and original when she shows how complicated his approach was. “Shakespeare often challenges us to hold two contradictory views simultaneously – it was how his mind worked,” she writes, and demonstrates how figures such as Shylock and Aaron were both defined by stereotypes as well as undermining them. Her arguments, cumulatively, come to feel essential and should be absorbed by every theatre director, writer, critic, interested in finding new ways into the work.

(Read more)


(Mark Lawson’s article appeared in the guardian, 5/4;Photo:  Peter De Jersey as Cymbeline. Photograph: Ellie Kurttz.)

Royal Shakespeare theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Departing artistic director Greg Doran reinvigorates this tale of a royal family in crisis with clarity and intelligence

The president of the Royal Shakespeare Company, King Charles III, may be bemused by the company premiering, pre-Coronation, a play about an English king in a contentious second marriage and in which an “oath of loyalty” becomes an issue. Republican mischief seems unlikely: Cymbeline was scheduled as the RSC farewell to departing artistic director Greg Doran, who is finally staging the only Shakespeare play to elude him.

As a second leaving present, Doran has published a tremendous textbook-memoir, My Shakespeare, explaining how rehearsals start with the cast paraphrasing each line in modern speech, sealing meanings to be revealed in verse. That must have been tough with Cymbeline, a very late play with knotted poetry and a plot so convoluted that some productions add an onstage narrator.

A triumph for Doran’s method is that there is never doubt about who is or pretending to be whom. And his scholarly attention to text is shown by an unusual division into three sections. In The Wager, the exiled Posthumus accepts in Italy a creepy challenge that his England-held wife Imogen will not succumb to an attempted seduction by nobleman Iachimo. The second section, Wales, features the sex bet’s consequences, comic and gruesome, around a Milford Haven cave. The War somehow coheres the bizarre last six scenes where, through human confusion or divine intervention (dazzling gilded design by Stephen Brimson Lewis), identities flip and the “dead” wed.

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