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thecrown
The ultimate symbol of power

You sleep in peace, the tyrant being slain — Richmond, Henry Tudor, RIII

Dear friends and readers,

This week I’ve been watching the BBC versions of the second season (2016) of The Hollow Crown. Three plays (Henry VI, 1-3) at one time, or for a couple of hundred years thought such juvenilia that Shakespeare did not write much of them, seen as incoherent undoable (on the stage) obscure messes, were made to speak home to us in thrilling relevant ways. A fourth (Richard III) once seen as a vehicle for almost camp histrionics, becomes a serious study of how an evil character forms and how such a man gets behind him sufficient powerful people to put him in charge and in the process becomes a haunted crazed warrior-soul. I won’t be dealing with the obvious parallels between the present dire moment in public US politics (and less frightening but still urgent parallels in other countries), but just assume my reader will see them. If you will watch these brilliant abridgments, then read Shakespeare himself (the full texts), and then watch again. If you think I am exaggerating, remember (or I need to tell you) that the wildly-popular Games of Thrones began as a free semi-fantasy adaptation of these Shakespeare’s plays by George Martin (who read them as history of “the wars of the Roses in the Middle Ages”).

A little background in recent performances will help. One scholar-critic says it was in 1953 that the four plays of the Wars of the Roses were staged fully and in sequence for the first time (Brockbank, “The Frame of Disorder”); another dates this back to 1906 (Swander, “The Rediscovery of Henry VI“). Then in 1978-79 Terry Hands staged the Henry VI trilogy (“warts and all”) and the production was a terrific success. Then the 1980s the BBC staged all four plays as closely as possible to what was written by Shakespeare as part of The Shakespeare Collection. I can vouch personally that in the 1970s Joseph Papp in the Delacorte Theater one summer did all three Henry VI plays complete followed by a complete Richard III in repertoire across the summer; on an all-night marathon all four played from 9 at night to whatever time in the morning they ended. Jim and I were there, and I know I slept through some of Henry VI Part 2 and again part of Henry VI Part 3, but saw most of the series, covered by a blanket. Why for so long were these plays not long after Shakespeare’s era thought impossible to have a success with: episodic structure, pageantry, stilted lines (let’s admit it), to say nothing of the foreignness of the story-matter?

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A father and son pair amid the carnage

But with the whirligig of time leading audiences to recognize in the deeply pessimistic content and political insight of these stories, the content attracted once again. The Tudor matter is not a barrier after it has been made so familiar by her recent resurgence of popular historical films and adaptations (especially of Henry VIII’s court). So abridgments began to emerge. A specific pattern can be seen in three compressions: a film-culture Shakespearean, Alan Dessin (Rescripting Shakespeare), was the most helpful in enabling me to understand what we see in this abridgment in his descriptions of three previous condensed abridgments: 1988 ESC by Michael Bogdanov, 1988-89 RSC by Adrian Noble, and 1991-3 OSC by Pat Patton (“Chapter 7: “Compressing Henry VI“). What’s common to them all is the three parts of Henry VI are compressed into two, with Richard III following the same trajectory as Shakespeare’s play, but made shorter, to leave room for location shots, some re-arrangements and additions taken over from the previous plays for connection (in the appearances of Margaret for example) and satisfying climax. It’s much less changed than the Henry VI plays, which may be said to be re-vamped for TV and location shooting too. That’s what we see in this new Hollow Crown, with a few important new emphases or differences. As with the first season (2012) of The Hollow Crown (Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V, a Henriad so-called), the roles of the women were not so much expanded as given full play, all the original nuances, emphases and pivotal moments played up for all they are worth. Strong women everywhere. Silent women clearly there in the scenes (Doll Tearsheet in the Henry IV plays) given plenty of pantomime. This may be history as Jane Austen suggested “the men all good for nothing,” but it’s not “hardly any women at all.”

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From the powerful memorable performance of Lindsay Duncan as Duchess of York pleading for her ne’er-do-well son’s life before the king: she does not sue to stand; she sues for pardon (from the 2012 Hollow Crown series, Richard II)

More to the point these are not “tiresome at all,” nor dull” (Austen as Catherine Morland on history, Northanger Abbey) and not exactly “made-up.” I am persuaded these marvelous Shakespeare series are the old-style BBC mini-series, brilliantly updated marvelously: they keep some of the sterling qualities of the old: lingering pace for inwardness, profound acting, extraordinary dramaturgical brilliance in staging scenes, but to this has been added the way the actors speak the lines. They talk the lines as if they were speaking today’s English and yet they make clear what they are saying by action, gesture, costume, emphasis, nuance. Ben Power, the script-writer has cut astutely, omitting, re-arranging, picking up what epitomizes, what is closest to street or ordinary talk. It’s just astonishing what they achieve by the outstanding performances, saying the speeches so naturally.

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Far shot of garden scene: where the two sides of York and Lancaster pluck the red and white rose

To this has been added, the use of the locations – the locations become actors in effect themselves, each old castle, fortress, field; these are not staged plays as in the 1970s and 80s, but figures in large picture screens where sometimes we have a staged scene but never allowed to become wholly still. The director Dominic Cooke is so alive to how to emblematize, make bodies move, and intersect with one another and yet the added action does not distract. The camera work is as sophisticated as any expensive cinema production, with zoom, medium, far shots at the right moment, and so many close-ups done at interesting angles. I wanted to watch again and again because there was so much to see — and even more in the more mature first Henriad series (which I’ll blog about this quartet eventually too).

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 01/05/2016 - Programme Name: The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses - TX: n/a - Episode: The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses (No. Henry VI Part 1) - Picture Shows: *STRICTLY NOT FOR PUBLICATION UNTIL 00:01HRS, SUNDAY 1ST MAY, 2016* Gloucester (HUGH BONNEVILLE), Talbot (PHILIP GLENISTER), Plantagenet (ADRIAN DUNBAR), Warwick (STANLEY TOWNSEND) - (C) Carnival Film & Television Ltd - Photographer: Robert Viglasky
Principal male roles: beyond Gloucester, Talbot (Philip Glenister, Plantagenet (Adrian Dunbar), Warwick (Stanley Townsend)

What else? This second series of Hollow Crown (though Shakespeare’s first) is done as a single story. All three plays (originally four) are one continuation. The abridged or compressed Henry VI Part 1 opens with death of Henry V, grief, and declaring a baby king, and then we see an intertitle to 17 years later and a scene where Mortimer, father (Michael Gambon) of the Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York (Adrian Dunbar), is dying; Mortimer tells his son, he is the rightful heir. What happened was years ago Bolingbroke wrongly took the throne from Richard II, and Mortimer and his sons were next in line. The camera cuts to Henry VI (Tom Sturridge) a well-meaning boy, with the Humphry, Duke of Gloucester (Hugh Bonneville) nearby as his protector. We then move to the symbolic scene in rose garden where the Duke of York and his followers on one side, declare the House of York should have the throne, with the Duke of Somerset Ben Miles) and his followers on the other saying they or the House of Lancaster should have inherited after Richard II. Each plucks a rose: white for York, red for Lancaster.

**VIDEO GRABS FROM BBC PREVIEW SITE FOR MOS PICTURE DESK** THE HOLLOW CROWN, BBC SHAKESPEARE ADAPTATION. Hugh Bonneville, playing the Duke of Gloucester, gets murdered while a couple make love during the same segment of the programme. The lovers are Sophie Okonedo playing Margaret and actor Ben Miles
Promotional shot of Hugh Bonneville, as Gloucester, fleeing those intent in putting him in the tower while the couple who brought this about, Sophie Okonedo as Margaret and Ben Miles as Somerset, make love

Looked at from this vantage what we trace is the destruction of the realm under a weak if honorable king, and story of the brutal wars of the roses, starting with York and Somerset’s competition for what Henry VI and Gloucester are not strong enough to hold onto. The compressed Henry VI Part 2 ends with Henry VI, disthroned, without followers, without clothes, distressed, in a kind of nervous breakdown, having lost all his followers and his wife (and relieved to have done so), wandering in the fields looking Christ-like in undergarments (and surely they mean to evoke Ben Whisloaw who played Richard II in Henriad series of the Hollow Crown) as he is dressed closely similarly; both are filmed to look Christ-like. Both are taken to prison, both murdered: Henry VI by the Duke of York’s deformed hunchback seething son, Richard, now Duke of Gloucester (Benedict Cumberbatch just as effective as everyone says) who is (“sudden when he takes something into his head”) rides to the tower intent on killing.

A little rewind: Shakespeare wrote the Henriad, the one the BBC did four years ago first, even though chronologically the Henriad comes second. Henry VI-Richard III were written 1590-93 and more or less in a row, while Richard II, Henry IV 1-2 and Henry V were written 1595, 1597, and 1599 respectively The Henriad is the more mature, and in numerous ways the more subtle, psychologically full and philosophically suggestive and varied but its story came first. Today we’d say Shakespeare wrote a four play prequel to his successful four play trilogy. But the second four plays were written as two or three stories: the story of Richard II is so separate in feel and time from the stories of Henry IV and V, a different man played Bolingbroke who became Henry IV (Roy Kinnear in Richard II; Jeremy Irons in Henry IV). The Henriad’s hero in Richard II never comes back in the other three plays. All the important characters in Henry VI Part 1 come back in Parts 2 and 3 and Richard III (even the murdered ones as ghosts).

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 01/05/2016 - Programme Name: The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses - TX: n/a - Episode: The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses (No. Henry VI Part 1) - Picture Shows: *STRICTLY NOT FOR PUBLICATION UNTIL 00:01HRS, SUNDAY 1ST MAY, 2016* Henry VI (TOM STURRIDGE), Margaret (SOPHIE OKONEDO) - (C) Carnival Film & Television Ltd - Photographer: Robert Viglasky
Henry VI (Tom Sturridge) and Margaret (Sophie Okonedo) meet

So in this trilogy there are two major characters across all the plays: Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou (played by the terrifically effective Sophie Okonedo). Henry VI dies before the third play, Richard III begins, but his absence allows one of the Duke of York’s sons, the eldest, Edward (Geoffrey Streatfield) to take the crown. The conflict across the plays is between Henry VI and the Duke of York for the crown, with a sub-conflict between the Duke of York and Duke of Somerset. When Margaret murders after torturing and humiliating the Duke of York) towards the end of Henry VI Part 2, his place is taken by his three sons, the other two being Clarence (Sam Troughton) and Richard of Gloucester who becomes Richard III in the course of that third play. This is part of Shakespeare’s over-arching 4 plasy but the clarity with which we can see it is not.

Further clear patterns emerge from the abridgment: We see over-arching story has smaller stories within it. In Henry VI Part 1 we have the action-adventure or war tragedy of the destruction in battle of warrior-hero, Talbot (Philip Glenister) and his son played against the tragedy (and it is played that way in this rendition) of the deluded or visionary (take your choice) Joan of Arc (Laura Frances-Morgan), who first wins for Philip of France, then captured, is imprisoned, tortured and burnt at the stake. That’s the first 3/4s of Henry VI Part One. The last quarter, deeply movingly we have the downfall of the noble, innocent Humphry of Gloucester brought partly about by the ambition and crazed delusions-madness of his wife, the Duchess Eleanor (Sally Hawkins) touchingly called by him Nell. Henry VI ends with Nell taken away in chains, and Gloucester’s hacked-to-death murder in the tower. In Shakespeare’s original the murder of Gloucester comes somewhere in Henry VI Part Two.

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Keeley Hawes as the Widow Grey take with Geoffrey Streatfield as Edward, Duke of York, soon to be king

The new or compressed Henry VI Part 2 gives us the anguished romantic love of Margaret for the treacherous Somerset and his destruction in battle in the opening sequence; the quick romance of the proud widow Grey (Keely Hawes) more or less bullied by Edward into marriage near the end of the second third; and in the last Margaret taking the role of the helpless Henry VI as the lead of Henry VI’s forces against the sons of York, and her heartbreak when her son, Edward, is dismembered and killed before her very eyes by the York brothers. Shakespeare’s Richard III had the clearest original line: it is the story of how a tyrant personality takes power: inside though a smaller arc is the erotic bullying of Anne (wife of Edward) by Richard of Gloucester into a sadistic marriage in Richard III, and this is given more play by silent scenes of Anne, montages. We see Warwick change sides because Edward married beneath him, an Englishwoman, and did not let this uncle engineer an alliance with the French king’s daughter; we see the brothers’ rivalry played out, the downfall of Buckingham (captured fighting against Richard and instantly butchered).

The clarity of the patterns in the Henry VI plays especially are the product of the abridgment. They are not clearly laid out in Shakespeare’s plays, which include other stories: Jack Cade’s rebellion comes to mind. Richard III is linked in firmly to Henry VI by the use of flashbacks.

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Laura Frances-Morgan as Joan of Arc calling for battle above ramparts

Some particulars I really admired and then I’ll have done. In this new Henry VI Part One I was especially moved by the performance of Bonneville as Humphrey; the build-up of his fatherly relationship with Henry VI, Sturridge’s ability to convey what seems a disabled personality, a weakness beyond the character being a good man who is non-violent, not manipulative, so pathetically out of his depths with these people, led by his adulterous corrupt wife, Margaret to listen to evil advisers. Power arranged the script so that Dame Eleanor’s playing around with magical effigies (putting pins in dolls looking like the king) became a salient accusation in the onslaught against him. Sally Hawkins does the distraught and disturbed personality as she did Anne Elliot in Persuasion. Miles as Somerset gave off a depth of memorable sensuality; Dunbar as the Plantangenet tenaciously re-directed again and again to want to take the throne. The death of the Talbot becomes another instance of how the ambitious destroy the good (he is not given enough funds for his army by either Somerset or York (we see Somerset being massaged refusing the money). Sophie Okenedo is extraordinarily mobile from one extreme emotion to another. Finally, the way Joan of Arc is played we pity her: she does not look to any gods but faces a mirror as she begs for her life — which is startling allowed by Shakespeare’s words.

I concede Henry VI Part Two is a little in danger of being mistaken for Full Metal Jacket at times. Maybe in Shakespeare’s original with the extra stories the space of the play would not be taken up by so much brutal violence. At the same time, what made the play work (each part can be seen as an individual playlet in the way BBC mini-series usually are) is how Shakespeare here is streamlined to give coherent shape and trajectory. Power and Cooke organized the 2 hours around battles. In the first hour or half of the unit we have a series of battles where first York and Somerset’s men are at one another until these two are beheaded, Somerset is casually crushed to death, then beheaded; York by contrast killed deliberately viciously. Then in the second hour a second series of brutal encounters where York’s sons, Edward and Richard, with Clarence at first having switched sides to Henry VI and Warwick, having returned to his brothers, fighting the forces nominally around Henry VI, actually Margaret (again Odenoko terrific), Warwick, and the few older men left loyal from Henry V, Exeter (Anton Lesser) for example. (This hanger-on from a previous reign reminded me of Bush senior’s most evil men, say Cheney, having a central place in Bush, the son’s administration and today still making phone calls on behalf of Trump to pressure congressional Republicans protesting against the the head of Exxon at the head of the state department).

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Kyle Soller as Clifford

Between these two series of battles, or threaded through them are the sudden alliances, treacheries, confrontations which emblematically bring out themes. Shakespeare’s original plays and this abridgment too works by repetition and emblem: the excruciating deaths of father and son, the son dying in spite of the father’s protest, the father in effect betraying the son by having taught him to murder and seek hateful revenge. This begins in Henry VI Part 1 with the deaths of Talbot and his son together, and now in Part Two we have at least four such scenes, two close together. The one which carries across the play is that of Clifford (Kyle Soller, outstanding presence here) seeking violent revenge for his father’s death. This is Shakespeare’s anti-war allegory. War as a value destroys men who love one another; they behave in utterly counterproductive ways. The depiction of Henry V and VI does not fit this trajectory but across the Henry IV plays (1 and 2) Northumberlands treachery against Henry IV extends to manipulating his son, Hotspur, and then managing to keep from his son that Henry IV offers a truce, so that Hotspur is led to his senseless death. Hotspur might have chosen the course of action anyway as war as a way of life is what he was taught, but actual cause is a father’s betrayal and lies. The theme is developed at length and maturely in this later double play. One might say the relationship of Bolingboke as Henry IV with his recreant son, Hal (Tom Hiddleston) is a father-son comeuppance for Bolingbroke, and Hal’s choice of Henry IV as his father rather than Falstaff (treacherous and cowardly as he is, selfish, without any sense of responsibility or care for others) feels to be a tragic loss of companionship, a lesson in necessary betrayal.

One can regard as threaded in between the two sets of battles also when the Widow Grey is brought before Edward to ask that her property be returned to her son, before you know it Edward is wooing and offering to marry her when she refuses to be his whore while a delegation unknown to him is making up a French marriage, which delegation, including Warwick regards this conduct as betrayal, shameful and they move back to Henry VI’s side of the board. And so the battles begin again. Gradually too York’s youngest son, Richard emerges, Cumberbatch just electrifying as Okonedo as Margaret, steals the show each time he is on the screen. Henry VI Part 2 ends with a shot of Margaret in a dungeon in the tower, a chain around her neck, jerking madly at it, screaming I a queen, I am a queen.

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Judi Dench as the aged Duchess of York: the tragedies of this world imprinted on her face

I can’t do justice in the paragraph or so left to a few particulars of Richard III. I’ve known before through reading all the plays (yes I’ve read all of Shakespeare’s plays, and some of them a number of times, taught four: Richard II, Hamlet, Othello and The Winter’s Tale), and seen so many so many times that the great jump in ability, capacity, genius, Shakespeare makes is suddenly to throw into a full consciousness of a single man and make us stay there. He had not come near this before. It’s worth noticing fully that the consciousness he first chose was not a good man or highly intelligent thoughtful type, say Humphry of Gloucester (who is still only seen within for a couple of albeit long speeches, or Hamlet. No. A forerunner of Macbeth. It is the peculiar take in this one that all the lines that can be played up as showing deep psychological distress and disturbance and insane resentment and revenge (how hateful is revenge says Mozart in his opera play of Idomeneo) are drawn out, emphasized by the body Cumberbatch has had built around him. We can’t sympathize with this disabled unloved creature because he is so sneering, disdainful, cruel, lying in all his ways, but the lines are there. He feels a twisted remorse – or Cumberbatch makes us feel that fuelling his nonetheless attack-mode thoughts and actions. When he meets Judi Dench as his mother, the Duchess of York now grown old (Lucy Robinson plays the role in Henry VI Part 1) he does convey he is hurt she never loved him as she conveys that upon looking at his deformed body she was disgusted.

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Close-up of Cumberbatch as Richard

The action takes us through the steps by which this Richard rises to power, wins people over to him one by one (out of greed, sometimes fear) and then alienates them, one by one. Most of them he manages to murder, but not all. (Therein lies our hope, those of us who are making analogies with Trump’s rise today that not all are murdered and slowly a group emerges who find their vital interests so threatened they raise an army around Henry Tudor.) The father-son theme is brought back. At the end Stanley terrified that the son he had been forced to leave behind in order to do the right thing, flee Richard of Gloucester and enlist Richmond, Henry Tudor, this son is seen walking over the hill. A great moment of hope and joy as they hug.

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Cumberbatch as the warrior Richard

At the end when the army which has gathered round Henry Tudor marching forth against the army Richard III can still amass, we have yet another of these ferocious brutal set-too between men hauling axes, clubs, broadswords, dirks (is that the term), and not far away others shooting dead arrows, the blood and guts and horror of the scene is obscured by rain and mud. It comes down to someone unseating Richard from his powerful horse (and we are made to feel how important being high up on a horse is) lands him in the mud. (In the Making of the Hollow Crown the filming of this part was discussed as very hard on the actors.) As they battle it out, and Henry Tudor wins, partly because Richard III is exhausted after his nights of harassment from ghosts and his own tormented mind, Henry Tudor downs him –- with help from Margaret who is suddenly there with a small mirror which shines a light blinding Richard’s eyes for the important few seconds. “My horse my horse a kingdom for a horse” is shouted coarsely and hoarsely, not as irony (Laurence Oliver’s take) but as a man in desperate need of a horse. Tudor comes from the back and hacks, and when the man lies prostrate, pushes a sword through his body, and blood squirts all over the mud and rain. The declaration is then: the tyrant is dead. Now we can all sleep in peace. (Well we here in the US and perhaps across the world can no longer sleep in peace. I’m sure I’m not the only one whose sleep has been ruined by hideously poisoned tweets.)

The film does not actually end on him, and there is a penultimate beautiful coronation ceremony where once again this iconic cleaned up hero is married to an iconic blonde, this time her grim mother (Keeley Hawes) standing to the side.
And then the final scene: the mad Margaret, impoverished, filthy, crazed, lookin down at the grave in which all the bodies are being thrown.

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Margaret among the hundreds of dead — final closing stills of Hollow Crown

I felt astonishing how dark Shakespeare is at the very outset of his career. This quartet made into a trilogy are his first known plays. People so rarely today (they used to in the later 19th century when biographical criticism of Shakespeare was common) talk of his relationship to his plays: but here he is at the beginning of his career emphasizing the tragedy of sensitive good people (he develops Hamlet out of that), and the attack on the ambitious, power-hungry as deeply untrustworthy (Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra say) stays throughout the career.

Ellen

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Anthony Sher as Lear, David Troughton as Gloucester

The worst returns us to laughter — Edgar, a moment where the production’s clear speaking made a line shine through which is relevant to what is happening center stage in US newspapers on Trump’s “team” today

Dear friends and readers,

Last night I was privileged to watch an HD screening of a production of King Lear from Stratford-upon-Avon at the Folger Shakespeare library. It’s the fifth HD-screening of a Shakespeare play for me, and I take the occasion to praise the Folger for this program and hope aloud to others the library continues to to participate in these screenings. Each one of the five has provided me and those in the audience with a renewed contemporary dramatic realization of Shakespeare: particularly alive and deeply instructive have been the Love Labor’s Lost and Merchant of Venice. I did learn that Lily James is a great actress from Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet (“a few good experiences” — scroll down, just a bit). I still lament I had to miss Kenneth Branagh’s Winter’s Tale with Judy Dench as Paulina. The Folger itself on average is staging at most two plays by Shakespeare a year (the others are often modern adaptations of Shakespeare or some other supposedly related contemporary play). So by screening say three productions from the UK Shakespeare himself is kept before us.

It’s an occasion because Gregory Doran’s Lear (he was the director) is getting more attention than many RSC productions. These occur regularly and why this one is singled out I don’t know. One review from TLS will do, partly because Abell does not say much about the production except that it has to cope with the bombast of the play. There was magnificence in the way the play’s hieratic and crazed excruciating lunatic scenes were done, the scenes as a whole as living emblems before us, a dignity was maintained even in the most intimate moments

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Sher with Graham Turner as the fool

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Natalie Simpson as Cordelia and Anthony Byrne as Kent leading Lear away after she and he have made up

But the experience was not as deeply moving for me in the way it has been before. I usually weep, occasionally almost uncontrollably, and and didn’t at all this time. They were too controlled, too aware of themselves as enacting the super-respected Tragedy. The actors all seemed so delighted to have been given their part.

A case in point was the opening scene: it is hieratic, and let us tell truths (dismiss adulation even for Shakespeare), and admit the scene resembles the static and wooden hieratic scenes in other of Shakespeare’s dramas, e.g., Merchant of Venice (the casket), the one in Pericles (where the suitor is in danger of his life).

Two reviews of an Old Vic production with an 80 year old Glenda Jackson making another astonishingly effective performance (recalling her first appearances as Charlotte Corday in Marat/Sade so many years ago) as Lear suggest the route taken there was quite different: a Samuel Beckett stripped down modernity (Fintan O’Toole in the NYRB; Matt Wolf in the NYTimes; Susannah Clapp in The Guardian).

The problem (as I see it) might be a lack of courage (or originality of interpretation), a fear of the audience, a reverence for the place they were playing in, too much self- and audience regard.

Shakespeare means to show us the mean pathologies of family life taken to a frightening ferocity, with each “child” a step along that road. Simpson is even worse: she hardly breaks her serenity across the play. Simpson played Cordelia so blandly: if she is not given some anger or resentment in the opening scene (as she was not), there is no psychological sense to what has happened. I’ve seen this reluctance before. The conventional Cordelia never not loves the old man. Then why did she refuse him at the opening?

I felt Turner was going through the motions of the fool’s speeches, not meaning them, careful lest we not get all the words. The wicked sisters were wholly unoriginal. Most of all there was nothing abandoned about Oliver Johnstone as the broken, abandoned, utterly distrusted betrayed child in Edgar; he was too studied.

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The director and costumer reinforced the play’s artificiality as a kind of compensation, a guarded wall of costume.

Some intriguing moments: It was interesting to see Edmund so underplayed, understated by Paapa Essieddu, almost semi-comic, but it didn’t fit in at all. Nia Gwynne as Goneril needed to be in another melodramatically emotional production: she was effective, but, except for a moment where Lear seems to hug her so tightly he is trying to destroy her uterus or chest, she had no match anywhere. It’s a testament to the vivid thereness of a long career that Sher managed to give Lear a feel of a real individual looking out of his eyes. The best moments were where he was permitted to react naturally in an intimate or direct way to another presence on stage (with Gloucester, with Goneril).

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Very effective Shakespeare’s drive down to utter degradation, misery, writhing madness in the scenes on the heath and in the hovel — not so much the individual (which is all I have promotional photos of) but the scene as a whole, the larger stage conceptions. I felt also that the age of the two men, aging itself, its vulnerability, its needs were central to what was moving in the experience of this production. But then I am old myself and identified as an aging parent. I would have loved to be able to see Glenda Jackson as Lear (photo from NYRB):

Glenda Jackson as Lear and Morfydd Clark as Cordelia in the Old Vic’s production of King Lear

Glenda Jackson as Lear and Morfydd Clark as Cordelia in the Old Vic’s production of King Lear

Shakespeare often carries himself in less alive or good productions, and that happened here too. Who can deny the horror of plucking out Gloucester’s eyes. You just need to do it feelingly. The long passage spoken by Edgar recreating a frightening height when well-spoken is evocative poetry. About a quarter of the Folger audience missed these scenes because they occurred after the intermission. It is a curious phenomenon how audiences seek to or just automatically respond to something immediately contemporary. So the least reference to corrupt politicians or anything that smacked of moronic or mindless hypocrisy got a laugh. The play’s real themes about say the importance of one’s status and respect of others, as in the famous bellowing of Lear over the putting of Kent into the stocks seemed to fall on blankness.

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As a lover of Shakespeare I enjoyed the production almost as a dramatic reading. Only once in all the 45 years or so I have been going to Shakespeare plays (I began at age 17 when I went to the Papp productions for free in Central Park, NYC) have I left a production. So, I encourage all who read this to go and have written this to bring out into the discussably open the danger that these “screening around the world” productions do not succumb to self-censorship or the self-puffery of praise they will get automatically from some reviewers.

A feature for the intermission of the HD-screening was about the super-expensive gilded costume made for Goneril in the opening scene. Much money was doubtless spent. You can glimpse the dress in this enlarged photo:

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Other wonderful photos of on the RSC site.

I am worried by the (in effect) advertisement for the coming HD-screened production of The Tempest with the great actor Simone Russell Beale as Prospero when we were shown the technological marvel of the blue mask that will be part of his costume. For this reason I have written this critical blog.

Ellen

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Shylock (Matthew Boston) about to extract his pound of flesh from Antoine (Craig Wallace)

Dear friends and readers,

Although Izzy and I got to Aaron Posner’s District Merchants, a daring adaptation of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice directed by Michael John Garces, at the end of its run, I write a brief review to recommend going to any revivals, or other productions of this new play you might hear of. It’s a triumph made out of indictment, empathy and humor.

Posner has taken up the challenge of a play whose plot-design is anti-semitic, by making the anti-semitism of all the characters but Shylock’s daughter an explicit issue: Shylock self-consciously argues his rage comes out of an alienation forced on him, reinforced by his hurt at how his daughter has been taken from him.

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Shylock’s refusal to allow Jessica to go out among non-Jews estranges her

He is thus given more specific reason for resentment as he believes there was a conspiracy among these characters to remove his daughter from him — as well as take the money he relies on to live. Posner sets the play in the District of Columbia during re-construction (Ulysses S. Grant is president) and re-imagines all characters’ interactions and personalities along analogous lines so as to dramatize equally unjustifiable racism, class snobbery and disdain, and by extension hatred of the other in whatever form cruel emotional violence may take. Antony is now Antoine, a free black and prosperous businessman.

I found myself wishing Posner could have made one of the character a stray Islamic person. I was also puzzled as to why he did not include homosexuality as in fact Shakespeare’s play not so hidden text is the displacement of a semi-betray of Antony’s love by Bassanio so as to get enough money to court and marry the richly endowed Portia. The RSC production of The Merchant last year brought this out. The new play is clearly not bothered anachronistic thought, so why erase the original play’s depiction of thwarted repressed homosexuality?

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A choral moment with Lancelot (Akeen Davis) to the fore

Still, given the recent massacre at Orlando (which included hatred of gays, of latinos, a man who abused his wife and was himself Muslim), it’s a remarkably timely re-write, and part of the strong response the audience gave to the play came out of the whipping up of hatred and fear we’ve seen in present political campaigns in the US and UK. There was even an unintended frisson in the theater when Lancelot become an ex-slave servant of Shylock, after having been asked by Jessica to help her run away from her father and steal his money and jewels (very dangerous for him) asks himself the question, “To leave or not to leave.” Posner could not have foreseen how that would resonate just after Brexit. Ryan Taylor wrote of how heartening such a production feels.

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There is a star-gazing scene where two different levels of time are brought together: Bassanio (Seth Rue) and Portia Maren Bush) at the back, Jessica (Dani Stoller) and Lorenzo (William Vaughan) at the front

I don’t want to give the impression the play was simplistic rhetoric or even crude; except towards the end when Posner seemed not to know how to end his play, and had too many soliloquys of hurt, distress, anger, the experience is not preach-y. Like a number of the appropriations of Jane Austen novels into films set elsewhere and in modern times I’ve seen, he follows closely the outline of Shakespeare’s play where he can, omitting excrescences like the choice of caskets ritual, and developing much further the meeting, courting, and wooing scenes between Jessica and Lorenzo become a southern country boy on the make.

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Jessica and Lorenzo

We see Portia growing up under a kind of tutelage by Nessa (Celeste Jones)

Portia and Nessa

Scenes of funny (and painful) wit when Bassanio overcome by honesty in his love for Portia, tells her he has been passing for white and is half-black. She herself has been training as a lawyer at Harvard (in Boston) by dressing as a man.

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Bassanio proposes to Portia, blurts out the truth about himself, Nessa looking on …

The different characters are given depth by having them as the play unfolds tell us their pasts. Chris Klimek found the whole mix “marvelous” and sobering. Jeannette Quick does justice to the complexity of what’s satirized (for example, lip-service to progressivism) and the way the different levels of memory, story, and interaction veer between “ridiculous hilarity and despondency.”

It makes us rightly criticize Shakespeare’s play. Posner probably means it as a sort of correction. We see Shakespeare’s Shylock from this renewed humane angle, from the world seen from below (except for Portia all identify as potentially and really outcast, powerless, reviled). At the same time I have to admit that after all when Posner does include Shakespeare’s lines, they stand out as having more purchase on why we must renounce insensibility to the sufferings of others, for our own sake show how dangerous is sowing mistrust, wrong and dangerous violence for violence. We must be merciful to expect mercy:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes

Shylock’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech is hurled at the audience. Lines from Shakespeare here and there raise and complicate the play’s perspectives. I especially liked how Antoine refused to accept rescue through a quibble — because he reminded me of Trollope’s Mr Harding who wanted to be morally right and justified. So Shylock could have killed Antoine, but at the last moment, the stage goes dark, and we learn at its close Shylock suddenly turned and walked away.

Quick and Barbara Mackay describe the suggestive symbolic setting (Tony Cisek) : an attempt was made to make us feel a civilization and place under make-shift construction, with columns (one still wrapped), ropes with hooks (suggesting ships). There was a real attempt to give a feel of what DC was like in the later 19th century: mud, much of it empty; that it had been a place where free black people lived before the war. I found the costumes a fun combination of musical-hall stage 1890s, accurate women’s dress and today’s fashions. Lots of music: a banjo, percussion, spirituals. Life has charm, it is good.

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Another proposal scene

Posner has done this kind of adaptation twice before: the “excellent Stupid F—ing Bird (an adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull) debuted Woolly Mammoth in 2013); Life Sucks (or the Present Ridiculous Situation (an adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, in 2015).

I had not thought until writing this review how appropriate this play was as a choice near Independence Day, July 4th, and will now link in Frederick Douglas’s famous speech: “What to the Slave is the fourth of July,” as read by James Earl Jones.

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Antoine remembers his past too

Ellen

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Italian Recreation by Antoine Watteau

Dear friends and readers,

Last night The Folger Consort, put on a truly enjoyable concert of 18th century music appropriate for the winter season, “The Season Bids Us.” It consisted of four pictorial (in the 19th century way of music) Four Seasons (Scherzi Armonici sopra le Quattro Stagioni dell’Anno) by an early 18th century French composer variously called Antonio or Mr Antonio at the time. The Folger gave his name as Giovanni Antonio Guido; born 1675, from Genoa, studied violin in Naples from 1683; was employed at the city’s Conservatory, paid as a copyist, a violinist in the Royal Chapel and moved to Paris in 1702. There he became successful enough to end the head of the Duke of Orleans’s musical establishment. He was painted by Watteau.

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Antonio by Watteau

The four movements of Four Seasons, each have subheadings which suggests a story, and the Folger Consort group printed four French poems (with facing English translations) which correspond to the changes of story line in the music. You can follow along from mood descriptions of the season, to events occurring in the natural world among animals and people (including a fierce hunt where the poor stag is destroyed no matter how hard he tries to escape).

The consort used to consist just of four older (white) men; it’s now about 10-12 people, some young, women, African American. The older men are still playing their harpsichords, recorders, older violins, cellos, and period instruments I can’t name; the new people have older instruments too, but also modern violins, cellos, horns.

For this concert and I can see those coming next year each time a “star” instrument performer is hired. This time it was the stunningly good Julien Chauvin. He can play that instrument wildly and it becomes alive with feeling. They also had a soprano with a beautiful voice, Rosa Lamoreaux. Between the first two seasons she sung carols using the Christian mythic story by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, a French composer active in Paris in the middle to later 17th century.

Born in 1643, Charpentier’s father was a scribe, and he spent time studying in Italy under the composer, Carissimi. He too ended patronized by the French aristocracy, given an apartment by Marie of Lorraine in the Hotel de Guise. As wikipedia says, “prolific, versatile,” he is said to have “produced compositions of the highest quality” in many genres, among these oratorios, motets — and Christmas pastorals. He is best known for music composed for Moliere’s plays and company of actors. He kept his autographs and they are now in the Bibliotheque National so his work is known. He was music director at a Gothic style chapel Sainte-Chapelle for six years where he is said to be buried, but there is no marker. The program notes quoted him from near the end of his life:

I was a musician, considered good by the good ones, scorned as ignorant by the ignorant … since those who scorned me were more numerous than those who lauded me, music became to me a small honor and a heavy burden. and just as at my birth I took nothing into this world, I took nothing from it at my death.

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Charpentier

The consort matched traditional carol words to some of his melodies, with deft dance rhythms, folk tunes. The songs are playful; one ruefully feels sorry for the apparently cuckolded Joseph. Another is universal in spirit about the new year. Some of the translations were very Baroque in imagery and feel; others influenced by William Cowper-style verse:

From Spring: there was a shepherd and shepherdess song:

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The Shepherds by Watteau

From Summer

The air sets fire to itself: Phoebus in his brilliant course
Has already met Leo in wrath.
Zephyr disappears, the burning countryside
Leaves no birds to sing excepts the cuckoos …

The stag, horrified, sees no escape.
He flies, attempting in vain to escape death.
His power leaves him, he cries of his defeat,
He surrenders to the conquerors who deny him mercy

From Winter

The season of freezing fog saddens Nature,
The weakened sun escapes before our eyes
To the animals, the soil offers in place of grass
Only snow and icicles that are found in every place.

You can find read the program and all the songs on line here:

The whole thing was done so unprentiously, without pomposity, people coming in, setting themselves up, playing and singing, and taking a few bows after that I wish my one on-line YouTube about it didn’t have the bit too much hype (or ad stuff here and assertions about this ritual time) but since I am not good at describing muisc, you do see the group, hear a bit of it, the soprano and the main violinist:

Pericles is still on at the Folger theater and the audience was probably too large for the Folger Theater, so it was held in a church across the street, the American Lutheran Church of the Reformation. The main nave is beautiful: simple, very Renaissance in the use of wood decoration, the forms across the ceiling reminded me of women’s headdresses. Four Christmas tree with white lights, wreaths without any ornaments.

Most of the time Jim and I did not go to the consort because (he said rightly) they were dull about 10 years ago or so, the four men just using religiously the instruments of the time, sticking to the way a song might have been done. Once in a while though they would break out. I remember seeing a delightful rendition in the small Folger theater itself of Milton’s apparently stern Comus: it’s a play meant to be done in an aristocratic house by children. For that they did hire actors, and had extra more modern instruments — after all it was mid-17th century, 100 years after the “official” Renaissance.

I see coming up in spring, “Playing with Fire,” a consort similarly inventingly combining different kinds of instruments and players: made up of fanstasias, dances and and tunes from Shakespeare’s plays; and in late Spring, Shakespeare and Purcell; music from the Fairy Queen and surely other works will include Dido’s song, “Rememember me but forget my fate,” and settings of Shakespeare by Purcell.

My neighbor-friend, Sybille, was with me. She is also a widow, her husband also taken by the cancer epidemic (in his case a devouring pancreatic cancer). Downstairs they had had mulled wine and various sweetbreads. We’d had some, and since she brought her car, it was an easy drive home. I would not have gone but for her.

I was much moved because this is the first time since Jim died I found myself having the kind of theater and music experience Jim used to find out for us regularly. I came home near tears and write this morning to record this renewal of dear memories through an experience. Also to tell of what this Consort has now become.

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Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750, Netherlands — to represent the later 17th century)

Ellen

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Pericles (Wayne T Carr) and Thais (Brooke Parks), tempest-tost, he grieving, she dead (Shakespeare’s Pericles, directed by Joseph Haj, scenic design Jan Chambers, Folger 2015)

… your present kindness/makes my past miseries sport … (Pericles)

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Anita (Natascia Diaz) and Maria (Mary-Joanne Grisso (from this season’s West Side Story by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, choreographer Parker Esse, directed by Matthew Gardiner, Signature 2015)

Friends and readers,

Any one who comes to this blog regularly could come to the conclusion that here in the Washington DC area we’ve had a spate of politically-atune, actuated, effective films and stage plays from Antigone to Trumbo, or this blogger is obsessively seeking these out and writing about them. Where I went has of course not been pure serendipity, nor do I deny enjoying telling others what I’ve seen and recommending what’s significant. Nevertheless I have here mirrored without making any effort the reality that the last few months in DC and Virginia have seen staged and screened as many or more relevant, pertinent, and grounded as deeply in human psyches and family and socially pressured-dramas as in any time I’ve been here over a few years (or in New York City, where I came from in 1980).

This year’s Pericles and West Side Story are en rapport too. Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre was not written with the refugee exodus from the Middle East into Europe of 2015 in mind; Sondheim and Bernstein’s West Side Story was written and a stupendous hit more than 40 years before the endless war abroad, spread of guns with daily massacres, whipped up hatred for “the other” in the last year or so of the Republicans running for President. But effortlessly the first was made to speak to us about powerless wandering individuals in a vast world of treachery, betrayal, exploitation and nature’s indifference, and the second couldn’t help but show us the same violence intrinsic to American male culture as is found in the Oxbow Incident (for example), or city streets then and movie theaters (or agencies, stores, malls, wherever today), the power of the gun to kill so easily, and ethnic hatred.

My desire to demonstrate the moving marvel that is the Oregon production of Pericles re-created here at the Folger is made easy for me by directing the reader to Susan Galbraith’s A Magical Pericles, DC Theater Scene. If you don’t believe her, Kate Wingfield is grudging; I’ve read the play several times (I once planned to write my dissertation on one of Shakespeare’s late tragic romances, of which this is the first, the others Cymbeline, Winter’s Tale, The Tempest) and was re-persuaded the first two acts are by him but from a very bad or corrupt quarto where what we have is half-remembered scenes (the man is trying hard): many lines here and there his, passages, the fishermen’s language jokes, e.g.,

    The blind mole casts
Copped hills towards heaven, to tell the earth is thronged
By man’s oppression, and the poor worm doth die for’t …

They say they’re half fish, half flesh. A plague on them! They ne’re come but I look to be washed. I marvel how the fishes live in the sea … Why, as men do a-land — the great ones eat up the little ones …

Die, koth-a? Now gods forbid’t, an I have a gown here, come put it on; keep thee warm … a handsome fellow … we’ll have flesh for holidays, fish for fasting days, and moreo’er puddingg and flapjacks

    the rough seas, that spares not any man,
Took it in rage — though, calmed, have given’t again
I thank three for’t.

The which hath fire in darkness, none in light,
Whereby I see that Time’s the king of men;
He’s both their parent,and he is their grave,
And gives them what he will, not what they want.

the whole conception his, reminding me of The Merchant of Venice and as a first full run of the motifs of the late romances.

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The production turns into self-reflexive parodic comedy (with an unacknowledged wink) some of the more stilted passages, and into semi-dumb show the paradigmatic moments, investing what adult emotion fairy tales allow until the moment Shakespeare’s text emerges at the first great tempest. Carr is up to it:

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The god of this great vast, rebuke these surges,
Which wash both heaven and hell; and thou that hast
Upon the winds command, bind them in brass,
Having called them from the deep! O, still
Thy deaf’ning dreadful thunders; gently quench
Thy nimble sulphurous flashes! — O, how, Lychorida,
How does my queen? — Thou stormest venomously;
Wilt thou spit all thyself? The seaman’s whistle
Is as a whisper in the ears of death,
Unheard — (III:1)

Pamela Roberts also is eloquent and makes detail about the production by me unnecessary. I should add the use of computer-generated movie-like images in across the walls (as seas, stars, islands) worked beautifully (as these did in Antigone earlier this year).

In addition, the Folger team has had the intelligence to put on-line stills from some of the more wondrous, narrative:

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Amando Duran as Gower comes from the grave and ancient (even to Shakespeare) poetry to play narrator —

tragic and funny moments from the play.

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The three fishermen, in the center Michael J Hume who also plays Pericles’s wise moral mentor, Helicanus, and then turns into the vamp-bawd, of Mytilene:

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U. Jonathan Toppo one of the fishermen, now her sidekick pimp, Boult.

It’s more than a wondrous production. I saw something as deeply uplifting from Pericles at the Delacorte with Jim in the 1970s. It taught me what I know about books: years later the same work speaks to you in a way consonant with your life in a new time. This time watching people who died or were thought to be dead brought back, death conquered, I was brought to tears. Pericles is Lear in reverse. When Pericles says to his daughter, Marino, now found , “Thou beget’st him that did beget thee,” and “This is rare dream that e’er dull sleep/Did mock sad fools” (V:1) I thought of Jim he appears to me in my dreams. If you want to have your spirits cheered for this winter solstice, and live in the DC area or can get there, you can do no better.

But I also liked how they managed to do (as in The Tempest and Cymbeline) capture the malice, envy, indifference to suffering, sale of souls and bodies that is the world in other of the scenes, from hired assassins, to fishermen, to pimps:

Marine: “Thou hold’st a place for which the pain’st fiend/Of hell would not in reputation change/Thou are a damned doorkeeper …
Boult: “What would you have me do? go to the wars, would you? where a man may serve seven years for the loss of a leg, and have not money enough in the end to buy him a wooden one (IV:6)

I wish I could find as accurate reviews of Eric Shaffaer’s most recent Sondheim (he is ever in charge, and this was his choice for the Christmas mainstream-enough program). I can find none. Nor are they generous with photos (foolish). Esse and Gardiner do little that is original or different or especially inspired. They try to follow the original Broadway production, with the difference that they have a lot less to work with (props, space, dancers, money for supremely good dancers and minor roles). They also alter some of the silent staging so that Tony and Maria are seen to go to bed together the one night they are together, and the white gang just about rapes Anita when she comes to warn Tony that Chino has a gun. I assume my reader knows the story and characters of this adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet story.

The decision which seemed to me most right was to turn the production as much as possible into sheer dance and song. The story and characters became part of an expressionist dance.

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The white male gang

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Anita (Natascia Diaz was the strongest performer on stage, she exhilarated the audience as no one else did)

But (as with Shakespeare), the work can carry itself if everyone will but try, and that’s what happens in this production. The crowd of dancers, actors, singers are there in front of you interacting in visceral ways.

You also see what makes for a lasting classic: the older work gets new electric relevancy when it’s redone in another era. When Chino gets a gun and kills Tony the meaning now is different: we see how much easier it is to kill. They had Maria take the gun from Chino and her words cursing it had a new resonance. Also the speech of Doc against whipped up hatred. There is no place for these lovers and their ideals. This is one not to miss this year too.

Haj says in his program notes that Pericles is a play of survival, loss, maturation, and reconciliation. There’s not much to reconcile. Shakespeare opened with a cruel incestuous king and his daughter; Pericles left his baby, Marina, with a queen out of Snow White; having buried his beloved wife, he wanders griefstruck, alone. When the gods or fortune are finished playing their games with him, he exhibits acceptance, resignation, expansive relief. Gower has told us again and again what we are seeing is “in the old story” if you cannot believe. If it is all improbable, including several abandonments, the actors on the stage filled the roles with an intense enough identfication from somewhere.

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A balancing act on a swing

The program notes for West Side Story tell of the 1950s gangs in NYC, the immigration into the northern cities of the US from the south, and into NYC in particular, hispanic people from Latin and South America (listen to Juan Gonzalez about Puerto Rico’s position as a century-old colony), the destitution and poverty of the slums, the violence resorted to by the males excluded from economic hope. We all know homicides, racism, inequality, violence is as intrinsic to American experience today as it was then. Signature sees this musical as “plea for tolerance, acceptance and love.” I was impressed by how it ended on another widow — like Natalie Wood in the movie, Mary-Joanna Grisso who gives the most moving performance of the ensemble, genuinely convincing, plangent, trembling, leaves the stage swathed in a widow’s cape and shawl. Her brother, lover and fiancee all dead, Anita last seen racing away in a seething rage for having tried to forgive, and been near raped for her efforts.

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No lack of women in widow’s scarves today

Ellen

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The cast at the end

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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.

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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.

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Shylock (Makram J. Khoury)

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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.

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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.

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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.

Ellen

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Poster
Poster for Happy Few The Winter’s Tale

Dear friends and readers,

I went for a third year to a We Happy Few production: 3 years ago they managed to present a remarkable take on Hamlet in 90 minutes; last year a sophisticated modern-feeling Webster’s Duchess of Malfi. I can’t say that this year’s The Winter’s Tale is memorable for a uniquely perceptive view of the play. The play’s two parts (as cut), joyfully lightly transgressive comedy (Act 4 in Shakespeare) sandwiched between wild (Acts 1 & 2) tragedy and redemptive (Act 5) fairy tale does not leave a lot of room for psychological nuance (see Morgan Halvorsen’s review). Hannah Todd’s director’s notes in the pamphlet that serves a ticket and program showed she only came up with the idea this play is faery tale material we are supposed to believe in. An opportunity lost.

Still, they held the audience’s attention — it was a small area, they were very close to us, and they cleverly handed people sitting in the first seats props to make us all part of play. I held a tambourine for a while. The actors all had strong moments, but Nathan Bennett as Leontes, Raven Bonniwell as Hermione, Katy Carkuff as Paulina, Kerry McGee as Autolyclus (trying hard to be amoral but since she was also Perdita, not quite distinguishing the role clearly), and Kiernan McGowen Antigonus, with William Vaughn as Clown and Florizel provided the most effective ones.

Antigonus
MGowan as Antigonus having brought the baby in a basket to a far away seashore feels the coming tempest and hears the hungry bear

What was most striking was how six people jumped in and out of at least 18 different roles, but while in each maintained strongly projected full-blooded acting. They also had such minimal costumes, the same scarves and capes were whisked about doing duty for several garments in tandem. Laughter came easier, and the actors played for laughs where they could; it therefore seemed more spontaneous than pity, which we were not given much time for. If you were listening to what Leontes and Polixenes threatened to do to others at the turn of a coin, and remembered that monarchs could torture, kill, starve, and make a life excruciating if they pleased and sometimes did so in Shakespeare’s period, there was more to the content than manipulative metamorphorsis. There is real terror in Shakespeare’s words, real anguish and now and again this came out, especially I think from Raven Bonniwell as Hermione.

Juliet-RavenBonniwell-findsherromeo
Bonnwell as Juliet in the final moments of Happy Few’s Romeo and Juliet (I could not find any photos of her in this Winter’s Tale; she doubled as Camillo and there were none of her as Camillo either)

Since I’ve been reading and listening to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, I was again struck by the parallels between Henry and Leontes and Hermione and both Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, especially his sexual anxiety and distrust towards the latter precisely because she held him off (humiliatingly) and then showed she knew sexual acts that he could not believe a virgin would figure out herself. Shakespeare’s Henry VIII is a bold portrait of the tyrant Tudor in old age and nowadays I’m thinking that instead of placing WT with the dramatic romances from Greek stories, chronicles, and poetry (Pericles, Cymbeline, The Tempest), we ought to see it done as a pair with Henry VIII the second half. Have the same actor play Leontes and Henry, the same Hermione and Catherine.

Leontes
Nathaniel Bennett in one of Leontes’s wild murderous moods

Unfortunately, there is only one performance left but (sadly) unlike the previous two years, it seemed half the seats were empty. In the previous years, there was not one empty seat both times. I felt the actors felt this lack of people, especially given how hard they were working to make too few props and costumes go very far. So if you read this tonight and live in the DC area, consider this one. Unlike too many of this year’s events, it is located in a place in the city close to a Metro stop so you really can get there by public transportation and on foot! There was no hope of my reaching Gallaudet College I now know. I would have seen the Guillotine Theater do an adaptation of Middleton’s Second Maiden’s Tragedy as Cold as Death, but (like It’s What We Do A Play about the Occupation), it appears to have been under-rehearsed.

The move of the festival to real fringe areas of DC, with venues where there is no nearby Metro stop or frequent bus, and more scattered hurts the festival feel that a center with people selling tickets, socializing, late night cabarets gives. Maybe for those going to the cabarets and musical events on Florida Avenue (in the Brookland area of DC) the experience is as good

Fringe Preview Party at the Baldacchino Tent 6/28/2013 Capital Fringe Festival 2013
Two years ago (2013) on a preview party was held in Baldacchino Tent on H Street

Two of the plays I went to and a third and fourth I couldn’t manage but was told about as awkwardly performed by a friend (Shakespeare’s The Life of King John, done as goofy comedy) seemed more minimally staged and costumed than previous years. In early years the venues were in condemned spaces with no air-conditioning; I hope I am wrong but this year has seemed more strapped for funds than the previous couple.

So for me ends my second year of going to the Fringe Festival on my own. I enjoyed this play and Ellouise Schoettler’s The Hello Girls.

Ellen

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