Category Archives: Shakespeare

‘HENRY VI’ FROM THE NATIONAL ASIAN AMERICAN THEATER COMPANY (SV PICK, NY) ·

(Laura Collins-Hughes’s article appeared in The New York Times, 8/31.)

Halftime was ticking down at a marathon performance of Shakespeare’s “Henry VI” when the guys in front of me returned to their seats and I fell a little in love with them. Riffling through plot points and names of characters they vaguely remembered were coming up (“Who’s Edmund? Or am I thinking of ‘King Lear’?”), they were like soap opera fans preparing to dive back into an engrossing serial.

That’s the kind of hold that the National Asian American Theater Company exerts on spectators with its oxygenated “Henry VI” at A.R.T./New York Theaters. It’s a production that asks nearly six hours from your life (yes, you can see its two parts on different days), but it repays you handsomely.

Fast-paced and gripping, this is an unusually lucid staging of a bloody history play, whose surfeit of schemes and villainy could make a daytime-drama writer blush. Yet for all the battles and beheadings in Stephen Brown-Fried’s handsomely designed production, never does it take death lightly. That’s one of the remarkable things about it.

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Photo: William P. Steele

***** ‘PERICLES’ AT THE NATIONAL THEATRE (SV PICK, UK) ·

(Miriam Gillinson’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/30.)

Has the National Theatre ever felt as open, compassionate and heartfelt as this? Pericles can be one of Shakespeare’s more difficult plays, notoriously uneven and elusive, but this musical adaptation is a joy. It is the first production in the National Theatre’s Public Acts scheme, and boasts a community chorus of about 200 amateur actors, dancers and musicians. But what might have been a total mess turns out to be mesmerising: a giddy celebration of humanity and our endless capacity for warmth, togetherness and love.

The huge ensemble cast floods Fly Davis’s elegantly sweeping set with performers of all ages, abilities and ethnicities. Emily Lim has corralled the chorus brilliantly but she hasn’t polished the life out of them. Nervous smiles flash towards the audience and Shakespeare’s play feels so much more authentic and touching for it.

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Photo: Playbill

BOOK: ‘PERFORMING HAMLET: ACTORS IN THE MODERN AGE’ BY JONATHAN CROALL ·

(Stanley Wells’s article appeared in the Spectator, 8/23.)

Glenda Jackson might have made a magnificent Hamlet

The role of Hamlet is, Max Beerbohm famously wrote, ‘a hoop through which every eminent actor must, sooner or later, jump’. In this book, and in its online supplement, Jonathan Croall charts the flight through that hoop of pretty well all of the ‘eminent actors’ — male and female, young and not so young, white and black — who have taken the leap in British performances, from Michael Redgrave with the Old Vic company in 1950 to Andrew Scott at the Almeida in 2017.

The trajectory of the actor’s flight is of course different in every production. No play text is complete until it is performed, and every time it is performed it takes on a new identity, determined by factors such as the personalities of the actors, the place of performance, the interpretative ideas of the director, and even the weather — in a brief account of Hamlets at Elsinore, Croall records John Gielgud’s description of a performance there as resembling ‘extracts from the Lyceum production with wind and rain accompaniments’.

Moreover, even on the page Hamlet is the most fluid of texts. It’s come down to us in three versions: one corrupt (the ‘bad quarto’ of 1603) ; another printed as Shakespeare first completed it (the ‘good quarto’ of 1604–5); and a third with changes, omissions and additions made for performance, some of them of a topical and local nature (the First Folio text of 1623). If you try, as the 18th-century actor David Garrick put it, to ‘lose no drop of that immortal man’, you end up with a text of over 4,000 lines — the ‘eternity version’, as it has come to be known — rivalling in performance length the longest of Wagner’s operas. Most directors, like most editors, draw variously on the good quarto and the Folio.

View Performing Hamlet on Amazon

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Photo: Medium

***** ‘KING LEAR’ WITH IAN MCKELLEN (SV PICK, UK) ·

(Tim Walker’s article appeared in The New European, 8/14; via Pam Green.)

King Lear

 

Duke of York’s, London, until Nov 3

***** (Five stars)

Two kings, neither in full possession of their faculties, are currently holding dominion in the West End, and across the Thames, at the National Theatre. One is sublime, and the other is, quite frankly, a ridiculous pretender.

Let us pay court first to Sir Ian McKellen’s King Lear. The actor has played the title role in Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy several times before. I saw him in Sir Trevor Nunn’s much-hyped production of 2007, when he offered a performance of dazzling technical accomplishment. I have to say that it left me stone cold.

By contrast, his latest reprisal of the role – which he has hinted may well be his swan-song on stage – has moved me almost to the point of tears. I reacted differently for two reasons. It is, firstly, difficult now not to feel the contemporary resonance of the story of a leader who, by dint of one vain and ill-considered decision, renders asunder his kingdom and then comes to bitterly regret it. The king even stands before a Union flag in the opening scene as he rips up a map of his kingdom and hands out the pieces to his oleaginous but calculating daughters Goneril (Claire Price) and Regan (Kirsty Bushell).

Secondly, Sir Ian – nudging 80 – has grown into the part, both as a man and as an actor. He seems a lot less pre-occupied with the big, hammy gestures and vocal projection that have characterised so much of his stage work. He is finally feeling the role.

When he says “let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven,” you feel the man as much as the character speaking from the heart of his worst fear. A lot of it – and this is always the measure of great theatre – doesn’t feel like acting at all. It is as a consequence almost unbearably painful to watch.

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Photo:  Manuel Harlan

JOE PAPP AND SHAKESPEARE IN THE PARK (SHAKESPEARE UNLIMITED) ·

(from the Folger Shakespeare Library; via Pam Green.)

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 103

Joe Papp was responsible for some of modern American theater’s most iconic institutions: New York City’s free Shakespeare in the Park. The Public Theater. The whole idea of “Off-Broadway.” We spoke with Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan about Papp’s life and works, from his hardscabble childhood, through the frightening era of Joe McCarthy, to the founding of Shakespeare in the Park and The Public.

Published in 2009, Turan’s epic oral history of the early years of the New York Shakespeare Festival and The Public Theater is called Free for All: Joe Papp, the Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told. To create that book, he spent untold hours with Joe Papp and also talked with New York politicians, Broadway producers, and seemingly everyone else who helped Papp make Shakespeare in the Park a reality, including performers like James Earl Jones, George C. Scott, Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Colleen Dewhurst, Tommy Lee Jones, and a Staten Island car-wash employee who would go on to play Romeo under the stage name of Martin Sheen. Turan is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Visit Folger Shakespeare Libary

Want more? Browse our full list of Shakespeare Unlimited episodes.

Listen on iTunesGoogle PlaySoundCloudSpotifyStitcher, or NPR One. 

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published August 7, 2018. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “This Green Plot Shall Be Our Stage,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Lauren Cascio and Nick Bozzone at Formosa Commercials recording studio in Santa Monica, California.

Photo: Hamlet at the Delacorte Theater in 1961. Credit: NYC Parks.

‘WARS OF THE ROSES: HENRY VI & RICHARD III’, DIRECTED AND ADAPTED BY AUSTIN PENDLETON, AT HB STUDIO, 124 BANK STREET (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Although Queen Elizabeth, the unpretentious Johanna Leister in Austin Pendleton’s Wars of the Roses, now running at 124 Bank Street until August 19 (he co-directed with Peter Bloch), asks Richard III, “Shall I be tempted by the devil?” all the characters in this unbound adaptation of Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III might wonder the same. Each of the characters plays with evil and, because of the widened scope of bringing the two plays together (both feature Richard), their choices are horrifying and riveting, despite the fact that the bravura role of the humpbacked king (passionately played by Matt de Rogatis, in a hoodie), allows room for smaller roles to pop. Pendleton himself portrays a reticent Henry, wearing a black t-shirt with a red cross, his hand to his mouth or hand to his face—even sitting on his hands at one point.  Such are his skills that he can appear relaxed on stage, while, at the same time destroying any illusion that he is playing a role at all. Of course, going to one of his productions, whether that be in a black box, church, Lincoln  Center, on Broadway, or even the National Theatre in London, means reflecting on acting, perhaps more seriously than with work shown by virtually any other current director.  Here he seems to want the audience to reach out to the work artistically, rather than be steered by it, which, after so many busy shows–with projections and music and politics and computerized scenery changes–can take a minute to adjust to. His set, perhaps like one in a company meeting room, is made up only of chairs, a table, and a white backdrop, spattered with red to suggest blood (there isn’t even a credit for the scenic designer in the program, although the lighting is by Steven Wolf); the costumes are largely dark street clothes (Maya Luz consulted on them); and this powerful distillation and fusion, lasting three hours, with intermission, disregards pomp, coronets, or even much in the way of any props or technology. 

Wars of the Roses doesn’t offer much in the way of role models, either, unless one wants to sharpen his or her Machiavellian skills. In The Stranger, Camus writes about cinemagoers leaving the theatre, after an American movie, walking like John Wayne. Here, because the characters are compromised, the reflection on them must run deep and does not encourage imitation. The ensemble of fifteen (some play multiple roles), examine the dark characters intensely.  Debra Lass’s Queen Margaret is a strong, almost Nordic or Teutonic, warrior queen, a “she-wolf,” wearing a studded motorcycle jacket, her hair in a braid down the back; Pete McElligott’s real tears, as the imprisoned Clarence, are indicative of the inner truth this production is striving to reveal—and, while discussing eyes, watch the mourning, mesmerizing ones of Carolyn Groves, playing the Duchess of YorkGreg Pragel delivers his lines with speed, pacing, and command—and he can be humorous, too—although his rebuff by de Rogatis, with a prayer book (into his face), is swift and malicious.  Michael Villastrigo has found the manner of an assertive young king (Edward) and Adam Dodway (Tyrell and Ratcliffe), because of his naturalness on the stage, makes an impressive appearance.  Rachel Marcus is a strong, intelligent actress, forced to make sense of Richard’s mystifying behavior, finally succumbing to him (like Ophelia must do with Hamlet).  Excellence is also seen in Jim Broaddus’s York, Milton Elliott’s Warwick and Murderer,  John L. Payne’s Backenbury and Catesby,  Tomas Russo’s Rutland and Dorset,  and  John Constantine’s Prince Edward and Murderer, twirling a chair. 

During intermission, one gentleman, several rows back, stood to describe Wars of the Roses as “intimate,” which seems appropriate but also recalls Strindberg’s theatre.  Because of this production’s smaller scale, lack of castle scenery, for example, military action, and smoky battlefields that playwright seems to be watching over The Wars of the Roses, maybe more closely than even Shakespeare. The three imprisoned women (Lass, Leister, and Groves) mourning their lives, turning into mummies, might be part of The Ghost Sonata—and even Richard has a counterpart in Hummel, the handicapped man in that chamber play.  Both works examine cycles of suffering in communities—one explosive moment of pain, for example, in Wars of the Roses comes with Richard’s shocking kiss of Elizabeth, who has been asked to make her daughter a queen.  She is being hounded by a recognizable devil: part Weinstein, part Moonves, part Spacey.

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

The playing schedule for THE ROSES: HENRY VI & RICHARD III is as follows: Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7PM, with Sunday matinees at 3PM through August 19th.  Tickets are $25 and can be purchased by visiting  www.proveavillain.com

Press: Glenna Freedman PR.

Photos: de Rogatis: Chris Loupos; Pendleton: Playbill.

 

AMERICAN SHAKESPEARE ·

(Ralph Berry’s article appeared in Chronicles, 7/12.)

Letter From England

Shakespeare contains the cultural history of America.  From first to last, Shakespeare is the graph of evolving American values.  He early made the transatlantic crossing: It is thought that Cotton Mather was the first in America to acquire a First Folio.  Richard III was performed in New York in 1750, and in 1752 the governor entertained the emperor and empress of the Cherokee nation at a performance of Othello in Williamsburg, Virginia.  The American revolutionaries seized on Julius Caesar as a parable of tyrannicide, with Brutus as the hero of liberty.  Shakespeare was always an honored presence, and became absorbed into the growing pains of the young nation.

The archetypal tourist was Washington Irving, whose charming sketches of visits to Eastcheap and Stratford-upon-Avon are still highly readable.  He thought he had seen Shakespeare’s dust, in a vault that laborers had dug adjoining Shakespeare’s.  But soon this kind of deferential tourism ran into the growing calls for cultural independence.  Whitman thought that “The comedies are altogether unacceptable to America and Democracy.”  These calls for an end to the cultural cringe marked a genuine American Renaissance.

American writers took the challenge to Shakespeare much further.  It is no accident (as Marxists used to say, and probably still do) that the land of bardolatry gave birth to serious anti-Stratfordism.  The first great heretic was Delia Bacon, a monomaniac who, seduced by the accident of her surname, strove to prove that the works of Shakespeare were written by Francis Bacon.  To this heresy Mark Twain and Henry James subscribed, with partial support from Nathaniel Hawthorne.  The same parricidal urge, linked with a nostalgic desire for aristocratic kinship, continued as Oxfordism into the 20th century—overcoming the objection that the Earl of Oxford died in 1604, 12 years before Shakespeare’s death.

Anti-Stratfordism yielded to, and was marginalized by, the immense pressures to create a Shakespeare of anterior superiority.  Wealthy individuals (Huntington, Folger) acquired the sacred texts for their libraries.  These texts—quartos and folios—became an asset class like impressionist paintings.  Across America, Shakespeare was staged with persistent success.  The all-embracing doctrine was “He is ours as he is yours, by common inheritance.”

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Photo: Big Think

PATERSON JOSEPH: JULIUS CAESAR AND ME  (FOLGER, SHAKESPEARE UNLIMITED) ·

(from the Folger Shakespeare Library; via Pam Green.)


 Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 98

In 2012 the Royal Shakespeare Company staged the first-ever, high-profile, all-black British Shakespeare production, Julius Caesar, set in Africa. The actor who played Brutus, Paterson Joseph, recently wrote a book about the experience called Julius Caesar and Me: Exploring Shakespeare’s African Play.

Paterson Joseph in Julius Caesar. Photo by Kwame Lestrade © RSC

On this podcast episode, he also talks about his early work, his thoughts about race in the British theater, about the proper way to play Brutus, and much more. Paterson Joseph is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Listen on iTunesGoogle PlaySoundCloud, or NPR One.

BLIND TO RACE, GENDER AND DISABILITY, SHAKESPEARE’S GLOBE GOES A NEW WAY ·

(Matt Wolf’s article appeared in The New York Times, 5/31; via Pam Green.)

LONDON — Shakespeare’s Globe may have had a spring cleaning, but don’t for a second think that the deservedly popular playhouse is playing it safe.

You could be forgiven for expecting a conservative, back-to-basics approach following the controversial artistic tenure of Emma Rice, who parted company with the theater in 2017 after only two years. But if “As You Like It” and “Hamlet,” the opening productions by the new artistic director, Michelle Terry, are any gauge, the Globe looks poised to continue provoking — albeit in new ways. Already, Ms. Terry’s tenure promises to throw norms to the wind by casting without regard to gender, race or ethnicity. Eyebrows have been raised, but there has been hefty applause as well.

Ms. Rice had ruffled feathers by modernizing a space that Globe hard-liners defend fiercely. They took issue with her use of amplification, contemporary lighting rigs and a pop aesthetic that introduced Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” for instance, into her Bollywood-inflected “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Her “Twelfth Night” included the London drag artist Le Gateau Chocolat as a disco diva Feste.

No less provocative was Ms. Rice’s candid admission that she found Shakespeare difficult — a sentiment she expressed in her first news conference as artistic director and in various interviews.

Ms. Terry, by contrast, has spoken from the outset of an apprenticeship to Shakespeare that began when she was a child. And because she, unlike Ms. Rice, is an actress — and an Olivier Award-winning one at that — she comes to her current position steeped in the playwright’s work. The result is that you feel at every turn a direct engagement with a dramatist whom Ms. Rice, by contrast, sometimes seemed at odds with, as if the verse were an irritation to be overcome.

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Photo: Virgin Experience Days

 

WAR OF THE ROSES: MARGARET OF ANJOU ·

Margaret of Anjou

Listen

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of the most remarkable queens of the Middle Ages who took control when her husband, Henry VI, was incapable. Margaret of Anjou (1430-1482) wanted Henry to stay in power for the sake of their son, the heir to the throne, and her refusal to back down led to the great dynastic struggle of the Wars of the Roses.

The image above is from the Talbot Shrewsbury Book, showing John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, presenting Margaret with that book on her betrothal to Henry

With

Katherine Lewis

James Ross

and

Joanna Laynesmith

Producer: Simon Tillotson.