Sonya Yoncheva (as Desdemona, she played the scene as a woman facing death)

Dear friend and readers,

This was my first opera for this HD Metropolitan opera season, and on the whole I was glad I went. I learned that Otello is not a popular opera when it has not got spectacular stars: all around me seats were empty; the auditorium was less than half full.

It was a revelatory experience in an important way too. For the first time of any production of Otello I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a few) the key singer-actors were directed to act out the meaning of the words of their songs. I had never before realized how different is Verdi’s inward conception of Desdemona from Shakespeare’s: Verdi’s heroine is not an odd (improbable) combination of sophisticated teasing Venetian lady who rouses Othello’s jealousy with her playful ways and yet a poignantly puzzled innocent when called a whore; this Desdemona’s soliloquies in the third and fourth act are that of a woman who knows she holds a high place and is being abused by a man crazed with hatred for her; violent and murderous. In the last two songs, her song and then the final wild erotic disaster she expects death, she is waiting for it, facing it. Yoncheva was brilliant in this part of the opera. She sang beautifully too. I was very moved by the willow song and final acting out of death, grief, anguish (which words were in English subtitles).

Aleksandro Antonenko is however not a subtle actor and it was a great loss choosing a white Italian man instead of a black non-Italian so that central themes and happenings are unexplained (beyond the jealousy, why Cassio is chosen over him and he is recalled). People doing this opera must make it their business to find a black male singer for the part; look about for non-stars if their are no stars available. Perhaps you’ll find someone new and great. Or don’t do it. Blackface on a white man is an insult to black people when they are thus excluded from a part dependent on the whole penumbra he must endure as a black and old man (Othello is much older than Desdemona). But someone had instructed Antonenko to enact the meaning of his lines. There was no dignity, but there was no ludicrousness; he was scary: this was an exploration of male sexual insecurity and murderous violation.

Aleksandro Antonenko as seething within

Both he and Zeljko Lucie were acting out ruthless misogyny together, and in 2015 the allusion was to honor-killing and its milder varieties of female destruction in non-Muslim countries. The sense of Iago as this site of malignant evil, all envy, resentment did not come out, nor did anything homoerotic between them.

Zeljko Lucie as a man in a leather coat against glass boxes

It was two men in sheer destructive wrath — with a woman as their joint target. So this was another of these 21st century interpretations of an opera at the Met as about violence against women. This became and is an opera about a version of honor-killing. “It is the cause.”


When the men duel, women standing nearby are hurt by their daggers and the women gather about the wounded woman.

The rest of the experience was disconnected. Antony Tomassin (New York Times) explained this as a function of the odd sets, flat lack of activity, a lack of any original thought in the physical directing of the actor-singers; and David Salazar (Latin Post) wrote the problem came from how the actors were let to wander about, stand in crowds or mostly avoid one another. I’d add Roderigo was not acted out; he was a dull nothing, not a thug, not low class, just there; Dimitri Pittas as Cassio looked the part (gay, elegant) but he was given hardly anything to do. Emilia (Jennifer Johnson Cano)had a moment where she is abused (hit) by Iago when he snatches the handkerchief and will not return it; she is loyal and loving to Desdemona but beyond that and her beautiful dark blue outfit and lovely sonorous voice, she too was a cypher. Ditto with all the Venetians.


The sets were explained during the intermission by Es Devlin (set designer): in Boito’s letters he told Verdi that Otello was a prison in a glass-house. I’m not sure what Boito meant by that: easily shattered? an egoistic nightmare of his own making? But Devlin determined to have glass houses sliding on and off the stage against a dark stormy sky, red blood universe (matched by one of Desdemona’s 19th century style flouncy stiff dresses). I’m not sure they added anything; indeed they seemed to distract attention when the characters slinked about. Perhaps a bare stage with indications of tempest and then a few pieces of symbolic furniture would have been as effective.

I was on my own as I have now been for several of these operas. Since the audience was so sparse and people near by unfriendly. This is increasingly true in these movie-houses with HD operas or plays as the newness of the experience wears off; people have ceased applauding for the most part too. I was free to feel Jim’s absence — the silence around me — and experience Yoncheva’s scene about facing death and enduring it as what he did and what I will do in turn when my time comes.

I grieved too. Jim died with my arms around him, loving him, I will die alone. Recently I’ve had strains in my chest and my right arm grows weaker and weaker. I sometimes find a coffee cup heavy to pick up. I will not let the hospital and medical people attack me with their surgeries and then treat me with an indifference which depends on shaming me into compliance. Instead like him once he saw what the surgery was and recognized this medical establishment’s small behavior, he brought death on, faced it on his own terms. In Verdi Desdemona does not beg for life, for another moment more the way Shakespeare’s Desdemona does.

I thought had the opera just had the opening dark blue sky with its wisps of cloud (computer generated) all around that bed the scene would have scenically more meaningful. This version of Verdi’s opera when it’s most alive is about love as death. The last part is about facing and doing death.

Susan Herbert, a salutary woman’s mockery on the nonetheless deadly Othello


There was something beyond the opera worth going to see: one of the intermission films for the first time (finally) explained the role of the man whose name has appeared as HD director for every HD Met opera I’ve seen and never heard mentioned at all: Gary Halvorson. The film was presented as “celebrating” (the mode on these broadcasts is over-speak) ten years of HD broadcast: well according to him, he marshals all the cameras and computer controllers together to photograph or film the opera from the most effective angles possible; it takes weeks of synchronizing themselves and their equipment with the slightest changes of beat, or movement or sound, several people working at once with several screens going at once. Each time a live broadcast is actually done, he begins work at 6:30 am with some of his crew there already and as the day progresses with this or that different group, during the broadcast alert at every second with the others round this tables of computer until the moment the HD broadcast ceases. The implication was that this movie-director is just an overlay; the opera itself has not been plotted so as to be cinema-shaped. I doubt that, but I don’t doubt that this is what the man literally does, what I doubt is the lack of cooperation from the “real” director implied.

THE ADVENTURES OF ELMO IN GROUCHLAND, director Gary Halvorson, on set, 1999. (c)Columbia Pictures
Gary Halvorson, previously a TV film director — very much a promotional shot

It was a cold day in Alexandria today, the first real cold this fall. I had bought myself a new soft light blue wool sweater and a woolly yet light weight jacket-coat, high neck, long sleeves. I needed them both and pulled them tight against me. I wore a light purple scarf wrapped around my head with its ends twirled about my neck, and my usual thin violet gloves. I got into my car, started it and turned on Simon Vance reading aloud Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.

In the silence.
Now again.
Typing this.
sharing my chair.


19th century illustration: Mudie’s Circulating Library

Dear friends and readers,

A full week has gone by since I posted my first report on the recent Trollope Conference held in Leuven, Belgium, at the Irish college. I covered somewhat less than half the papers given on Thursday, 17 September. As in my last report, I am giving the just gist of what was said in the talk itself. I will bring together what was said afterward the talks in a final general summary plus give some sense of what the general experience was like outside the sessions. I now conclude that first day of session; we are in mid-afternoon.

Panel 3: Psychological/Epistemological Trollope (cont’d). Robert Polhemus spoke last and on “Trollope’s Picturesque Chroniclette and John Millais’s Portrait of Sophie [Grey]” Artists as Young Swains.”

Millais’s portrait of Sophie Grey, Millais’s wife Effie’s sister

Prof Polhemus covered one of the subplots of Last Chronicle of Barset; the story of the nandsome Conway Dalrymple, a stand-in for a Pre-Raphaelite painter, and the beautiful Clara Van Siever, who is in love with him and whom Dalrymple paints in a tableau as Sisera: among others Artemisia Gentileschi painted as a dramatic vignette of Jael, a married woman driving a nail into the head of a warlord, Sisera. He had fled the successful Israelite armies of Barak and Deborah and thought found refuge in the tent of her tent. She was seen as a type of treacherous women because she did not inform her husband of what she intended to do; in Gentileschi we see a feminist reading of her as anticipating Judith, as someone killing a warlord to save her own people.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656) Jael and Sisera

Prof Polhemus placed this pictorial allusion in the context of the story in the novel where Clara is seeking liberty from a tyrant mother to marry Dalrymple, an artist whom her mother disapproves of, and whom Clara is in love with, and to Millais’s portrait of his wife’s sister presented as a deeply sensuous woman looking for a sexually fulfilled life. Millais had himself married Effie after she freed herself from the control of her first husband, Ruskin (previously a good friend to Millais) whom she claimed was impotent. Prof Polhemus found in this story as seen through these two paintings “an explosion of femininity:” although the novel’s painting is destroyed

G. W. Thomas’s vignette for the chapter

the process of painting brings Clara and Dalrymple together and enables her to enact her desire. In this parable we find Trollope transcending the usual stereotypes to defend hedonistic art. Trollope and Millais were close friends, and Trollope wrote in Orley Farm that Millais’s illustrations enabled Trollope to understand his art and characters better.

A generic image of a 19th century printing press

Panel 4: Technoscience Trollope. Richard Menke chaired and his paper, “Trollope, Mimesis, and Media Archeaology,” began with Trollope’s relationship (what he did) to the literal printing aspects of his books. He then turned to the how at the close of John Caldigate, a postal clerk, Samuel Bagwax, using the impression of a postal stamp proves that Eugenia Smith perjured herself in her testimony on the stand when she said that she had sent a letter to John Caldigate on a certain date as his wife. Trollope understand the importance of the physical book as well as metadata. Jay Clayton discussed how the technological apparatuses or incremental improvements to obtain any kind of Utopia in The Fixed Period were satirized. The novella testifies to a dream of liberty through geography, through being far away from the center of power. Mr Clayton moved to how characters in other novels, specifically Adolphus Crosbie The Small House of Allington, attempts to use technology’s ability to help him manipulate time to his advantage. But what matters for people remains love, life itself, fear of death, aging.

A Phiz illustration for Can You Forgive Her?

Tamara Ketabgian’s talk on “Sport, Technique and Late Trollope,” brought together Trollope’s drive to fox-hunt with the way cricket is presented in The Fixed Period. Both are (she said) strategic games, but hunting is not susceptible to systematizing and highly competitive play the way cricket is. Cricket links people across countries, but fox-hunting is local (it’s debatable whether it unites different classes of people as Trollope claimed). Susan Ziegler’s paper was on Trollope’s logistical subjects: she talked of how Trollope uses the ways a letter in the novels moves from place to place; how difficult it is for an intimate act in a letter to bypass or overcome impersonal systems in which commodities move. We experience Mary Thorne’s deep pain when her letter is not answered quickly; how Trollope shows us characters dwelling over when they should send a letter; the delight someone may feel in writing one, but the novels show how the logistics of our everyday life trumps our desires and takes over.

The two Trollope graves in Bruges

Panel 5: Printed Trollope. David Skilton chaired this panel and how many people read and quote from Trollope’s An Autobiography, but often neglect to pay close attention to Trollope’s words. Prof Skilton suggested the book is about how Trollope came to choose his profession and his successes and failures as a professional writer. He looks to see how critics and readers reacted to his books); it’s filled with professional advice. Marysa Demoor’s talk was for me revelatory as I had not considered the effect on Trollope of his time in Bruges: she asked where did Trollope’s sense of his identity come from, and answered that for Anthony Trollope this may have been Bruges where the family fled to escape the father’s creditors, and where his brother and father died and are buried, and his mother took up seriously and continuously a money-making career as a novelist. She became Trollope’s model and introduced him to a publisher. It was after this when they returned to England (and Julians Hill) that their destinies began to form. She understood how important Ireland was, but felt we were underestimating the effect of this early first experience for Anthony outside England. The Noble Jilt, the first attempt at Alice Vavasour’s story is set in Bruges. The sad story of the family’s desperate experiences in Bruges are not retold in the novels but the effect lingered in his mind. She remarked the Trollope Society has spent money improving the gravesites at the chateau (still standing). She also mentioned Trollope’s trips to Jerusalem and many autobiographical connections of The Bertrams to Trollope.

End papers of Simon Grennan’s Dispossession: a graphic novel adaptation of John Caldigate

The day ended with Simon Grennan’s talk about his book, with a little help from Skilton (who chimed in as someone who had been on the committee to commission the book and participated in some of the shaping decisions). The team chose this novel as a less familiar one, one never adapted before. They cut the post office sections of the novel as they felt a graphic novel could not make these appealing Grennan decided he would try for pictures that projected what he thought were the aesthetic emphases of the novel. He wanted to visual equivocation, to keep readers and viewers at a distance from the characters in the way Trollope does: there would be no close-ups and even few middle distance shots and the point of view would be of a camera low-down. He was seeking a rhythmic roundtable of points of view; all the costumes reflect the way 19th century people of that decade dressed, the kinds of rooms they lived in. He did not want to use styles associated with classic comic; he wanted to capture this previous time as something strange. He developed a story of aborigines, practiced historical verisimilitude.

Pages from a graphic novel 'Dispossession' by Simon Grennan. Based on John Caldigate by Anthony Trollope

Pages from a graphic novel ‘Dispossession’ by Simon Grennan.
Based on John Caldigate by Anthony Trollope

Grennan later told me he dressed Mrs Smith so she would have been recognizable in the era as a “Dolly Varden:” she is a character in Barnaby Rudge whose coy highly-sexualized self-presentation (Dickens just salivates over her) was taken up by music hall performers — after all Mrs Smith has been and returns to the stage (though the reader never see her do this). (I admit I prefer to imagine Mrs Smith in her more somber outfits as a mature woman who confronts life and men frankly as their equal.) Simon chose dark deep rich colors (purples and browns) whereever appropriate, and reserved yellows and golden browns and greens for suggesting seasons and landscapes. There is an French edition if anyone is interested, but be warned there are very few words.

Thackeray’s self-image at the close of Vanity Fair: Trollope much admired his novels and liked the man very much

The whole cast: Carolyn Burke, Jordan De Bona, Harry Lester, Katie McManus, Carli Smith

Dear friends and readers,

Would you believe in the wilds of Falls Church (driving back you pass streets where there are no lights and sidewalks are unwanted for vast stretches), a New York song fest. In the case of the Folger Theater, one can hope the production will go elsewhere, but in this Creative Cauldron (as the stage theater produced and directed by Laura Connors Hull calls it), there is little chance precisely these five people will get together again to sing and enact this set of songs. There was no money for any fancy stage furniture, the set was a minimum. As one reviewer of the program/stage event says, this production of “The World Goes Round,” is intimate cabaret at its best — dependent on the individuals, their capacity to sing or talk a song through, a few props, a piano and saxophone and the costumes.

I thought the actor-singers conveyed a deep sense of the underlying romance of several of the songs as well at the same time as scepticism and disillusion. A wry tone colored the most upbeat songs, a sense of the necessity of putting on pizzazz. Individual numbers: “Money, money,” “cabaret,” “A Quiet Thing,” and the whimsical New York ones, “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup,” “Sara Lee” (cakes). Carolyn did “colored lights” so touchingly, Jordan as a dancing body (flexible, graceful) and can enact ironies. He does the pathos of “I don’t remember you” and its jokes (he disappears) my friend recognized “Mr Cellophane.” I never heard of it before. They do numbers as pairs, trios, women with women:


They don’t quite get the New York accents right in “Class” (“How lucky can you get”) and when they ended on “New York, New York,” they did right not to imitate Sinatra too closely. Songs from Chicago. Cabaret. Katie McManus belts out numbers Ethel Merman style; the group does exhilaration too.

We do “all that jazz” at the Dance Fusion workshop most days. One night in the 1980s Jim and I woke around 2 in the morning, put the TV on and watched the movie. Here’s a montage of Fosse:

So rush out if you live within range (October 1-25), go and see and hear them, we need more of this kind of thing in the remote outposts of Fairfax county (Falls Church is alongside Fairfax county — I know it’s all confusing, but then I’m told it’s one of the richest counties in the US so why should they want anyone to know how to get about in it?). It was I who suggested to my friend, Phyllis, we go to this particular show: afterward we went back to her flat and drank wine, talked and looked at her art work — she’s a painter. I drove home by myself near midnight — the first time I’ve been out at that time of night and by myself for years, now listening to Simon Vance reading aloud mesmerizingly Mantel’s riveting Bring Up the Babies.

Jim delighted in Kander and Ebb songs at Signature and would talk of the effective voicing in their lyrics whenever they were threaded in.


Anthony Trollope as painted by Samuel Lawrence

Dear Friends and readers,

As I’ve written about too often on this blog, a conference on the occasion of Trollope’s 200th birthday was held in Leuven, Belgium from 17-19 September 2015. There was no keynote speech, and only one panel at a time presented papers. It was all held in one place: a large chapel auditorium in the Irish college. If you had the stamina you could hear every paper and get to know the people there, many of whom were among the most knowledgeable people on Trollope anywhere. One result was you could get a sense of overall trends and what was dominant in these people’s thinking. Somewhat to my surprise, I discovered one trend or prevailing attitude of mind towards Trollope’s art was not about his politics, nor was it that he was ironic, satiric (comic); rather those speaking emphasized how artful his texts are, how much autobiographical or life-writing is in them, and that his art is plangent, deeply felt, emotionally earnest, serious. Izzy (my daughter came with me) and I were not able to stay a fourth night so I could not make a record for the panels and papers occurring after 10 in the morning on Saturday, but I have a record of the gist of each paper that was delivered until that time. I offer brief summaries (these omit many details) and begin with Thursday morning.

Robert Macbeth Walker, A Rainy Day

Panel 1: Ordinary Trollope. Kate Flint chaired and gave the first paper: “Shoddy Trollope.” She suggested that Trollope in his most ordinary moments cared deeply about the workmanship of his stories, of his art, and he wanted to offer the best novel “product” he could, e.g., the clearest style (containing all the meaning he could project). Thus his work contrasted to what was seen as “shoddy” (her paper dwelt on this) by which Victorians meant cheap ill-made goods, raw poor materials, especially about cloth; Carlyle wrote an article condemning all selling of inferior, filthy, dust-laden junk-cloth; Trollope uses the word more neutrally (as do Gaskell and Eliot). Francis O’Gorman took as her topic how critics continue to praise Trollope’s depiction of capitalism in The Way We Live Now when Trollope’s portrayal of the banking business is superficial and misleading. The critics of the Times and Examiner liked the novel but said that Trollope did not know the way the financial world worked from within. By the the time of the novel there were enforced laws demanding minimum disclosure as Parliament tried to control and stamp out fraud. Melmotte in reality could not begin to cheat everyone the way he does. Claire Pettit’s “Inbetween Times” was about Trollope’s interest in psychological chronology; in TWWLN social public time is carefully plotted; a lot of things happen at the same time so Trollope develops a kind of holding pattern where he drops one story and then picks up another, leaving the first to wait. She used terms like fast forward and switch-back (rewind, anyone?) but this kind of thing is found in other older fiction too.

Walter Greaves, Chelsea Regatta (1871)

Panel 2: Political Trollope. Robert Aguirre suggested that The West Indies and the Spanish Main is a racist atavistic book whose route and business enabled Trollope to do some good: he worked to increase the speed with which letters reached people, their reach, to create long communication networks (these are crucial for empire building). Railway stations made non-places become places. Tax per letter would be replaced by tax per annum; an adhesive postage stamp would be used. In 1858 Trollope went to Suez similarly to forge agreements for mail delivery (to Australia). He was overcoming the “forces” of immobility; answering a genuine hunger in people living at great distances for intimacy. At the same time it’s just such self-communings (He had “realized”) that makes the characters come alive .Helen Small’s “Trollope at the Hustings” was about Trollope’s campaign at Beverley and its results. While Beverley was not far from his home, he knew nothing about the place as a community, which reacted with indignation as he was an outsider coming in. She contrasted politicking to hunting (which she called socially inclusive). Trollope knew he was being used, that he would not win, that Henry Edwards, the wealthy Tory, an entrepreneur was a local favorite, says his political views remained the same over his life, and yet he was bitter at the loss. Ms Small suggested that Mr Bonteen is Trollope’s portrait of a modern politician.

Lauren Goodlad chaired; her paper, “Trollopian Politics” was intended to show that the more we abandon “traditional liberalism,” the more coherent and less reactionary Trollope’s political stances become. There is a bleak political pessimism in TWWLN, Phineas Redux, Prime Minister. Commercial activities make for progress, comfort, and time (historical) alertness. Trollope kept his views on specific issues (e.g., Governor Eyre) to himself and affirms political dialectic. She covered various real politicians in the books (Turnbull, John Stuart Mill, Disraeli) with Monk representing an ideal. In 1874 the radicals were stunned by this loss. Money is altering everything. As to gender, in Barchester Towers, the Stanhopes are exceptional figures, but in this and CYFH? the men are impecunious and weak, and the women strong and rich and sought out by the men for support.

We all adjourned for lunch.

John Everett Millais, An Excluded Woman (from Irish Melodies)

Panel 3: Psychological/epistemological Trollope. Jenny Bourne Taylor chaired and she introduced the papers by quoting Amanda Anderson’s essay on depth psychology in Trollope, and talked of his interest in how we know what we know. He was one of the founding group of The Fortnightly Review where he worked with G. H. Lewes. Patrick Fassenbecker’s talk was about how Trollope characters slowly learn to shape their fates by teaching themselves to do or think this or that; we witness them overcoming earlier instincts and exerting self-control. Sometimes the characters refuse to accept beliefs that are not supported by evidence (or that are). Bad consequences ensue. The characters have a duty to be honest with themselves, and are aware others can deceive them. So we watch a form of character management. You have to learn not to let your preference for something shape your over-all view. Sophie Gilmartin’s “Trollope on the Face of It” was a discussion of Trollope’s use of language, the surface style which flows, is filled with direct and free indirect speech, narration, description; how he builds subjective sensory images which subjectivities and character’s body actions and feelings and thoughts inhabit and swirl around. The reader pauses when the data of the utterance exceeds what the scene needs, and visualization and poetic apprehension envelop the reader. She felt Trollope hardly considers how painful his scenes can become, though he is aware how he suggests what is beyond the edge of consciousness for his characters. Her examples included Alice Vavasour’s green room, her trip with Kate and George down the Rhine, Marie Melmotte’s painful subterfuges and sudden direct demands.

It was then time for coffee and in the later afternoon so I’ll stop here. Next blog report will include Robert Polhemus’s paper which took Panel 3’s general topic in a different direction and the rest of the day’s panels.

VictorianCats (Small)

Susan Herbert, Victorian Cats


Monique Barbee, Cristina Spina, Ayeje Feamster, Juliana Francis-Kelly

Dear friends and readers,

Today Izzy and I saw another text or set of texts performed which come out of Tudor Matter: the writings and what was said Elizabeth Tudor said in the form of a monologue play acted out by form women playing the Elizabeth. It lasted only an hour but it was intently mesmerizing: the way the texts were chosen and woven together, how the actresses did the parts (intensely, iconically, prosaically, wryly, emotionally, fearfully by turns). The play is part of year long festival of plays by women going on around the DC area: the music was composed by a woman, production design, costumes: and it was l’ecriture-femme; the organization was not at all chronological; motifs kept coming back cyclically; you could say we were in Elizabeth’s mind.

It’s probably too late for most people to put everything planned for tomorrow away and hurry to the Folger Shakespeare Theater to see this four-woman dramatic monologue, conceived, put together, written and directed by Karin Coonrod, with a sixth woman, Gina Lesihman, composing the music, Oana Botez designing costumes, as a production from the Compagnia de’ Colombari (originally a festival group from Orvieto, Italy, 2004). But maybe not too late to see and hear re-incarnations of this script elsewhere. And certainly not too late to go to the Folger for this year’s season. It began with the remarkably candid and brilliant production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, via their HD screening capabilities. Now they’ve moved onto a highly original adaptation of Tudor matter to the stage.

Only recently has Elizabeth R been forgiven her ability to live more successfully than most men as leader of a country she cared about, as head of an army. As Sabrina Baron says,

with a few parts of some series as exceptions (most notably the six-part Elizabeth I in 1971), the depiction of Elizabeth, a woman who was a powerful and effective leader in her day (lived long, stayed in power, overcame a number of attempts to when she was young kill her and older overturn her throne), is as a frigid jealous or humiliated sex object. Her icon in her era was manipulated to present an transcendent female figure effectively doing what men did; in the 20th century she was at first a sexualized female stereotype who failed at love and motherhood and did little of consequence. Recently she has taken over Mary Stuart’s role as an enthralled woman (by Leicester, Essex) deeply unhappy because of this. Says Baron, quite a revenge and erasure by a male hegemonic point of view and from women compensatory victimhood for them to cling to.

Not so here. Using Elizabeth R’s own words and words about her spoken or written by people close to her, Koonrod moves back and forth across the iconic and everyday events of the reign to show how she was beset from the time her mother was beheaded (by keepers, by authority figures, by what men she did discreetly involve herself with, and yet emerges, survived and knew several triumphs (the Spanish Armada). While she did not write as much as the foolhardy passionate Mary Queen of Scots, and hid her religion as Margaret of Navarre did not, Elizabeth R wrote in all the forms these two other early modern women did: poetry, speeches, letters.

These are woven in with what others reported and what scholars have unearthed. The script assumes a good knowledge of the phases of Elizabeth’s life (who she lived with during what period and what she had to adhere to to stay alive), which are divided into four movements and four games. Iconic moments include her at the tower, when her stepmother, Elizabeth Parr and her husband, Thomas Seymour (later beheaded) are said to have cut Elizabeth’s mourning dress for Anne Boleyn to shreds while they were in a garden. This one shows how little Elizabeth was regarded until she became queen; she was a woman, not entitled to her own space; the first thing that parliament did when she became queen was to ask her to marry, which they repeated periodically no matter how often Elizabeth said she was wed to England and England was better off with a single queen (like her). there was material from the death of Leicester’s wife. The Armada. The Earl of Essex’s revolt. Parliamentary conflicts. And her frivolous moments with ordinary people.

All four Elizabeths were there at the same time. They began by sitting on uncomfortable high backed narrow lattice-like chairs (thrones as imprisoning). They catch each line up in turn, like a monody by four. Their silvery-grey dresses have features which suggest different eras (Elizabethan, the devil’s, the legacy left Elizabeth by her mother.) As the script veers round in time, first enacting how Elizabeth held off the demand she marry and have children, you grasp how each place is explicated or dramatized to see its relationship to Elizabeth or those close to her at that time (her sister, Anna, cousin, Mary, various male courtiers). Four movements within each a game. First up the nagging and pressuring her to marry and have children (the French Anjou and Leicester eras). Second there was an amoral actor-soldier and city life and court (anecdotes). The third movement was made up from Elizabeth’s prayers and laments, her few witty self-revealing poems. Last her last years as queen. I found the whole experience mesmerizing and stirring.

By pre-conceived scheme this blog should go on Austen reveries as being about and by women, one of more than 50 plays by women which will be staged in the DC area over the next year (until July say). I put it here so it will have more circulation. It belongs to the inexhaustible Turdor matter which I’ve been dealing with in my blogs on Anne and Mary Boleyn and Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and which I hope to add to on the 2003 Boleyn Girl by Philippa Lowthorpe (with a little help from Andrew Davies), Anne Boleyn and other early modern women destroyed, sustained over a life-time, hitherto taken out of history.


Kim and her child, poster for Miss Saigon

Mark Rylance
Mark Rylance as the king in a contemplative nervous moment

Dear friends and readers,

As with New York City, it seems to me to be in London and not go to the theater to miss out on what’s unique and deeply appealing about the city. So since during our 10 days and night travel last week, Izzy and I had three nights in London, two free, we saw two plays.

First a play I knew might seem slow or staid to her but whose content she would be sure to take an interest in, indeed know more about than me, but which I thought I’d like. All that was true of her reaction to Claire van Kampen’s play with much Baroque music, Farinelli and the King, about the mutually fulfilling relationship of an 18th century castrato, Carlo Boschi called Farinelli, and an apparently depressive and ill (he died relatively young) Spanish King, Philip V. Farinelli gave up a promising lucrative career in London to be this king’s musician-companion. Much of the barebones outline of the story is historically accurate; the queen’s love of her husband and an implicit affair with his castrato was added as audience pleaser.

Farinelli (both actor and singe, Sam Crane, Iestyn Davies)), King and Isabella his wife (Mark Rylance and Melody Grove)

I longed to see Mark Rylance live and was not disappointed by his performance. As Rachel Halliburton writes, the text is weak, there are too many resorts to easy jokes (jocularity) and creeky comic courtiers (who lose their tempers). It’s a vehicle by a husband-and-wife team (Kampen is Rylance’s wife and both worked together at the Globe as chief composer and director). Clever staging ideas livened it up. Audience members were given seats on the stage, the actors interacted with them and were here, there and everywhere in the auditorium. The characters pour over maps, astrological charts, medicines; there is much playing of 18th century instruments on stage. The king dies off-stage and the queen in the last scenes is a widow.

It’s the radiant idea at the center, that delicate beauty and mutual generosity exist and can sustain people, especially as enacted by Rylance — he was tenderly joyful — that makes it, and it’s touching, really conveyed persuasively. No small feat in such a large playhouse (the Duke of York brought back to look 19th century on the stage too), with just outside the curtained doors all the elements of a rough hard competitive commercialized city and social drinking nightlife. A little oasis of fleeting delicate happiness.


Afterwards Izzy and I talked about opera in London in the 18th century — she did her BA thesis on Handel. Jim would have enjoyed this play.

Our other choice was a famous musical which we had missed out on when Eric Schaeffer did it in our local Signature Theater and Laura went and said she thought of Jim while watching it because he would have liked Schaeffer’s sardonic production. The musical as done in London by Cameron Mackintosh (an expert in making hits) is a brassy, blaring concoction by the people who wrote Les Miserables, Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonerg. Miss Saigon had music that reminded me of Les Mis, and its over political content, a semi-cynical take on American soldiers in Vietnam. A long way from Rogers and Hammerstein’s sacarin South Pacific. As is common knowledge, it’s Madame Butterfly story where our Asian heroine, Kim, ends up giving her child by an American soldier she fell in love with and married, to him and his American wife. She kills herself and the final scene has him grieving over her body, with the wife clutching the child, and the Engineer again deprived of an opportunity to get a VISA. This coming spring she and I will go to an HD performance from the Met of Madame Butterfly — which each time I’ve seen has made me weep copiously — how they will cope with the self-effacement of Butterfly I know not.

Kim (Eva Noblezada) and Chris (Chris Peluso) — hero and heroine

The problem with Miss Saigon is the music is not beautiful or thrilling as was Les Mis. It’s also hopelessly corny at the opening, presents American soldiers as boys at play, exhorts you to see the US as having meant well (absurd), doing what it can afterward to compensate (as if this were even in thought possible). But it also has strong satiric moments (especially over this shibboleth referred to by the words the American dream). The most effective songs and acting were by the Engineer, a pimp and nightclub owner who longs for a VISA to go to the US to make a million, performed with outstanding energy by Jon Jon Brighes (he does not do it every night, he could not).


Charles Spencer conveys the piece accurately: it even has a helicopter at the back of the stage for the iconic scene of the fall of Saigon (soldiers jumping in, leaving the Vietnam complicit people behind). It had an unexpected new resonance with the audience, as its central leads and songs are about an immigrant child and his mother. The songs on this issue drew more applause than the rest.

Both auditoriums were overflowing with people, both provided bars open at least an hour before performance with rooms for socializing. Outside the twisty turning streets (several were no cars are allowed) too were filled with people drinking, eating, talking, spilling out of restaurants and pubs.

There were other plays I wished we could have seen: at the Globe Measure for Measure alternating with a play about Nell Gwynne; not far from the Prince Edward Theater, Branagh’s A Winter’s Tale. Just before this Farinelli Hattie Morahan had stunned all with her daring perceptive performance of Beatrice-Joanna in The duchess of Malfi. but these were the two that we could get tickets for, fit into our schedule, and I could imagine Jim at with us. The playbill booklet I bought for Farinelli actually has real information about the era so I’m saving it to remember.

Photos from the production of Farinelli


The cast at the end

Laurence Gobbo (Tim Samuels), who transitions from being Shylock’s to Lorenzo’s servant — the world as dark masquerade seen in this facial make-up

Dear all,

This is the third HD film of a production of the RSC Shakespeare company that I’ve seen at the Folger Shakespeare library theater. Their Love’s Labor’s Lost was excellent as one of the first genuine attempts I’ve seen to present the play’s content seriously, but when it came to the play within a play, their concept couldn’t take in the humor or irony; unexpectedly their Love’s Labor’s Won (a retitled Much Ado About Nothing) was a disappointment: I had watched a Future Learn which focused on this production and it lead me to think it must be marvelous: it was very good but its dark or pessimistic interpretation was unable to make sense of the play’s supposed happy ending. Still both productions persuaded me that at every opportunity where a film of a live production (HD screening or encore) existed within my reach, I should go.

I am now convinced the latest phase of the RSC company is as deeply rewarding as any phase that has gone before it. For the very first time in all the productions of The Merchant of Venice that I’ve seen, in this one directed by Polly Findlay, the character of Antonio and his relationship to Bassanio makes sense. As the play opens, Antonio (Jamie Ballard) is on stage in a deep depression: the cause emerges as his love for Bassanio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) who loves Antonio in return but longs to marry Portia (Patsy Ferran), a wealthy beautiful Venetian — because Bassanio is capable of bisexuality, because he finds her attractive and compelling and to get her money. It is the deep betrayal of Antonio that this means that causes Antonio’s melancholy. Nonetheless, because he is an abject lonely man in his heart, he agrees to the bond with Shylock in order to supply Bassanio with the wherewithal to woo the rich lady of Belmont. The words of the last act which indicate intense quarreling as well as the poeticisms of heterosexual romance at the opening suddenly made ironic sense. At the close of the play Bassanio must go off to bed with his wife, and leave Antonio alone again.


The stage was a wall and floor made of golden metallic substance, all smooth and glittering. All the characters who are active in choosing their fate (servants or hangers-on like Gratiano imitate) are out for money every time. Lorenzo (James Corrigan) wants Jessica (Scarlett Brooks) for her body but were the money not here he’d not be seeking to elope with her. She has to tell him about (Shakespeare’s words are there) the jewels, the casket and money to come to excite him to act. It’s clear from words that she is regarded as inferior. The production added an enactment which made Jessica feel bad that she had deserted her father (Makram J. Khoury) and was the abject person subject to Lorenzo as we see them exit the stage.

Shylock (Makram J. Khoury)

Those (Portia in disguise) appealing to him

The production put the anti-semitism of the text in your face. Makram J. Khoury looked like a caricature of a Jew, though what was brought out was that despite Shakespeare’s clear empathy for the man, Shakespeare’s presentation of the Christians as just as mean and amoral, greedy, hard as Shylock. This the first production I’ve seen that brought out how Shylock points out to the Duke were he to ask the Venetians to treat their slaves humanely they would laugh or just ignore him. Nonetheless, this Jewish man is a hate-filled figure; he says bitingly, bitterly of Antonio that Antonio is himself getting money by his trading and why should he the Jew not do likewise where he can, and says it seethingly. Shylock’s reaction to Antonio who openly despises and actually spits on his face (which the actor does twice!), is natural but this sort of human reaction is rarely shown so clearly. We see humanity as it is, the thing in itself on both sides. Still the Christians seem more forgiving: they have one another to comfort them. Shylock had only Jessica and she fled; Tubal (Gwilym Lloyd) is a confidant but there is little emotional relation between them felt and Tubal is not there for very long.

The scene where Antonio bares his chest to be cut up functions as a trope of torture. Shylock prepares to torture Antonio before our very eyes.

The production add an enactments (gesture as well as Shakespeare’s words) which insisted on Shylock’s hurt at the loss of this daughter and her betrayal of him (as well as the loss of the ducats and jewels), but the bare cruelty and greed of the man was undeniable. The play’s text exposes him when he turns to ask for his money when he can’t have his pound of flesh without blood. When it is required of him by Antonio that in return from keeping one-half of his money until he dies and it goes to Lorenzo, he become a Christian, he grovels. This is the play. In the 21st century the gov’t of Israel has acted according to Shakespeare’s conception of how an ostracized alienated person, a Jew, would act.

Lorenzo and the (rightly) insecure Jessica

The money angle of the play is important. In Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell tells Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, the world is not run from war sites or by swords but from Antwerp and by money transactions of bankers. In his mesmerizing series of lectures for Future Learn on Shakespeare’s plays, Jonathan Bate included a long section on the function of interest (usury) in making the Renaissance happen and talked of money and usury and Venice in his comments on this play. Love & friendship and money are the focuses of this play.

I was not surprized to hear a number of audience members talking during the intermission as if in shock; and while the theater was packed as the film began, after the intermission, sufficient numbers of people had left to reconfigure the way people were seated so new people were sitting up front (where I was). Those who left couldn’t take it, didn’t like it? Not only was the Shylock too hard, but perhaps when Antonio and Bassanio kissed so passionately and made it clear they were the true lovers, audience members were also turned off. None of Shakespeare’s words were changed and I heard no one say that what was being shown was not in the play. I love when art is hard and candid in this way, shows you what you are or could be, shows what people hide because of socially acceptable pious norms. Were the production not equally hard on the Christians, I would castigate it, but it is as hard on them. I have not mentioned that Gobbo impregnates Portia’s servant (as Shakespeare’s words imply) but does not want to marry her – she has no money. The first two suitors, Morocco (Ken Nwosu) and Aragon (Brian Protheroe) are jackasses. The male cronies of Antonio and Bassanio unscrupulous roughs. Gratiano (Ken Nwosu again) is funny because he is so unguarded.

The RSC has turned The Merchant of Venice into the unsentimental tragedy it is, and demonstrated to me why 18th and 19th century critics and readers kept saying how real much real human nature Shakespeare’s plays enact. They came out on stage as a group but they did not (as is so common nowadays) break into a happy dance at the end. Even enactments of the tragedies sometimes end this way. I was glad they did not.

People seem to want to forget that Shakespeare’s plays are plays meant to be read. Reading plays have existed since there were written down plays and exist still. The text also offers profound meditative material on law, justice, mercy, pardon (forgiveness) and (just as important) learning to turn a blind eye on what’s in front of you in order to carry on. Patsy Ferran carries or pulls off this difficult content superbly well. The business of “the ring” at the end of the play shows Portia that Antonio is Bassanio’s preferred love. It inheres especially of course in her fully-emotive and eloquent treatment of the several phases of Portia’s appeal to Shylock (the famous speech about mercy). When he will not yield, she turns on him to show him how words may be interpreted against him so easily. Never depend on your bond, your contract. Who has the hegemonic powe is the person who wins out in public life — public life shapes the private. And as a Christian male (who hides his homosexuality from everyone but Bassanio) it’s Antonio who holds public trumps. The point of the first scene where Antonio refuses to say why he is sad is to show him hiding what he knows is the reason for his sadness from his male buddies. He does not win in private life, but then Shylock does not either. I’ve wondered before if the title refers to both Antonio and Shylock, making them parallel. Both outsiders.

The Merchant of Venice Royal Shakespeare Company 2015 handout ....
Portia and Nerissa — note how intwined they are, how they need one another’s support

Perhaps the production sought to disquiet and disturb complacencies beyond what is in Shakespeare’s text. The actress playing Nerissa, Portia’s servant, Rina Mahoney has had one of her arms amputated or it was lost in some dreadful accident above the elbow. She did not wear a prosthetic so that again and again the audience was confronted with the stub of an arm. Mahoney is small in comparison to Nwosu (Gratiano) and he swung her around in ways that suggested when out of sight of Portia, Nerissa would not be able to enact an imitation of Portia’s power. Samuels’ behavior as Gobbo put me in mind of Roy Kinnear as the bizarrely heartless theatrical Common Man in Robert Bolt’s play of A Man for all Seasons (as filmed in the Charleton Heston production).

There is a new style of acting or delivery of Shakespeare’s lines afoot in all 3 productions I’ve seen: at top speed which imitates psychological reality and yet each word or phrase super-clearly heard so as to try to reach 21st century audiences who may never have read any Shakespeare play; there are editions of Shakespeare’s plays for students where on one side is Shakespeare’s English and the other a modern paraphrase, as if this were a dual-language text. I find this style acceptable to working well — though it must be said the mode relies on artifice of delivery which takes away from in-depth psychological presences. The only actor performing in the old style somehow more naturalistic way (stylized but differently, in this case wittily) was Protheroe, an older man playing Aragon, the second suitor who chooses the silver casket. Protheroe spoke more slowly, and it was a sort of relief to have this less demanding kind of projection.

This is a courageous and intelligent production of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, demonstrating again (as if we needed to be taught this) that William Shakespeare’s almost preternatural intelligence left us plays audiences and readers have not yet been able to come to terms with. The RSC is trying to lead the way.



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