The Play’s the Thing:
"However, my devotion to and love of Shakespeare was reconfirmed and reenergized during a 72-hour period in early August of this year"
2011 marks a personal golden anniversary of sorts for me: It is the 50th consecutive year that I have attended at least one live performance of a Shakespeare play. I have attended a number of memorable (in every sense of the word) star vehicle performances beginning with Richard Burton as Hamlet (Broadway 1964) and continuing with such productions as James Earl Jones as Lear (Shakespeare-in-the-Park 1974), Albert Finney as Macbeth (London’s National Theatre, 1978), Al Pacino as Richard III (Broadway 1979), Liev Schreiber as Henry V (Shakespeare-in- the-Park 2003), and Kevin Kline as Lear (Public Theater 2007).
I have also had the opportunity of seeing stirring regional performances such as David Ogden Stiers (Duke of Vienna) and David Schramm in "Measure for Measure" (The Acting Company at Saratoga Springs 1973), Miriam Laube as Rosalind in "As You Like It" (Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2007), and Dan Donohue as Hamlet and Susannah Flood as Ophelia (OSF 2009). Finally, I have had the good fortune of attending impeccable productions that worked on every level, including "Richard III" (Seattle’s Intiman Theater 2003) and "The Winter’s Tale" (OSF 2006).
I have lived in Santa Fe for the past 29 years and have tried to attend all local productions of Shakespeare’s plays mounted by former and current theater companies from Shakespeare in the Park to the Arden Players to Theaterwork to Santa Fe Stages to the frequent independent and touring company productions in northern New Mexico. One may have thought I would have been Barded-out and ready to spend my golden years watching less challenging fare. However, my devotion to and love of Shakespeare was reconfirmed and reenergized during a 72-hour period in early August of this year.
The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) with support from the Lincoln Center Summer Festival and Ohio State University brought five of its full productions of Shakespeare for a six-week run of 44 performances to New York City’s Park Avenue Armory. Not only did the RSC bring 41 actors (many of whom made a more than two-year commitment that culminated in this residency), 21 musicians, ten stage managers, 425 costumes and 50 crates of props, but the company also brought a “full-size replica of its new theater in Stratford-Upon-Avon,” which it assembled inside the Grand Drill Hall in the Park Avenue Armory (New York Observer, July 12, 2011). The three-leveled edifice was a 954-seat Elizabethan-style theater that thrust into the audience on three sides of the stage, creating an intimate setting in which no playgoer was more than 50 feet from the unamplified performers. Artistic Director Michael Boyd and Head of Technical Design and Construction Alan Bartlett defended the $1 million cost of transporting the pre-built theater as necessary since they had only 15 days of
pre-production in New York.
On August 2, I saw "The Winter’s Tale" (WT) (directed by David Farr) in a completely successful production that revealed all the strengths of the RSC. The clarity and intelligence of Farr’s direction of a work that was a late attempt by the mature Shakespeare to create an emotionally resonant tragic-comedy (a sub-genre wildly popular in the first decade of the 17th century) successfully accommodates the abrupt shifts in tone that reflect both the action of the play and the natural cycles of the life itself that the play evokes. The powerful and privileged ruler of Sicily Leontes (Greg Hicks) becomes obsessed by his unfounded belief that his wife Hermoine (Kelly Hunter) is cuckolding him with a close friend. As in the medieval philosophy of the humors, once a person falls out of a state of equilibrium, he suffers until balance and harmony is restored. Leontes’s jealousy so poisons him that he defies the Oracle of Apollo and orders his wife and new born daughter to be exiled and then executed. The action then shifts to Bohemia which in contrast to autocratically (and irrationally) ruled Sicily is a land of natural feeling and pastoral existence unofficially overseen by a lord of misrule Autolycus.
It is also the home of Perdita, the now 16-year old daughter of Leontes who has grown and blossomed in her new home. The play ends in a series of reversals in which the women who represent the natural moral force that was so lacking in Leontes’s Sicily triumph. The queen’s confidante Paulina (Noma Dumezweni) is both the voice and agent of reason as she restores order to the world of the play. The self-interested Autolycus is literally left out in the cold at the conclusion of WT suggesting that the happily-ever-after re-established order may be a tentative one as fallible humanity is once again left outside the gates of Sicily.
This production succeeds on all levels: The acting is uniformly superb with Hicks’ steely irrationality, Hunter’s dignified outrage, and Dumezweni’s purposeful moral re-education of the principals being impeccable interpretations of Shakespeare’s characters. Farr’s direction never falters from its intention to create recognizable emotional responses in characters and scenes that are often dismissed as one-dimensional. The production is also full of well-earned and quite salient cautionary observations about humanity.
On August 3, I experienced not the restoration of the natural order but the destruction of it in Shakespeare’s historical political thriller, "Julius Caesar" (JC), directed by Lucy Bailey. The play is both literally and figuratively sanguineous. From the opening prologue in which Romulus defeats Remus in a blood-spattered wrestling match to the butchery of Caesar’s assassination to the battlefields and beyond, Bailey’s JC reflects the major focus and theme of the work: “Depraved humanity gets the flawed, venal, and corrupt leaders it deserves” (Charles Isherwood, New York Times, July 31, 2011). Employing a series of digital images above the action on the stage and a chorus of actors on it to underscore the Saturnalian nature and out-of-control behavior of the Roman rabble who appear always to be on the edge of a cataclysmic explosion, Bailey is relentless in creating a poisonous environment where Caesar (Greg Hicks) as the quintessential egoist who is vulnerable to the mass appeal of a Mark Anthony (Darrell D’Silva) as the self-declared man of the people and to the manipulation of Brutus (Sam Troughton) as the ambivalent but shrewd politician. Caesar and his main adversaries are all destroyed by personal ambition wrapped in the guise of honor.
The image of politics as a take-no-prisoners blood sport pursued for private rather than public gain has relevance for the 21st century as does the creation of a self-interested, howling body politic in search for the Dionysian excesses of the latest Lupercalia (a pagan festival which begins on the Ides of February, or Feb. 13). The three male leads are all more than competent and reveal the character limitations beyond their rhetorical exteriors. (This is especially true of D’Silva’s Mark Antony); however, these characters have little depth beyond their political masks (which is, perhaps, Bailey’s main contention). Only Brutus in the one scene with his wife Portia (a role-defining performance by Hannah Young) suggests a passion that makes his later transformation into the consummate politician understandable and sadly inevitable.
Finally, on August 4, I finished my Shakespeare blitz by attending a production of my favorite Shakespeare play, "King Lear" (KL), a work that I have read over 40 times and have taught for over 30 consecutive years. My bias regarding this play is inherent in the question I always asked my students: “Agree or disagree with the proposition that KL is a “great poem but poor play.” I still find the plot unbelievable, but the performers in this production with the notable exception of the one playing Edmund revealed a depth of humanity that is often lacking in characters who are too-frequently played as either victims or victimizers. The irony, then, is that King Lear (Greg Hicks) falls short of the passion and majesty required to move this play from the level of political intrigue and domestic conflict into the realm of classical tragedy. His performance in KL is intelligent, perceptive, thoughtful, and a bit bloodless. There is plenty of anger and outrage at his treatment but little of the rage and confusion that comes from Lear’s lack of self-knowledge. It is one of the few productions where I found myself in agreement with Lear’s cry that “I am a man more sinned against than sinning.”
Again, there are memorable performances in this play, including Charles Aitken as Edgar who grows into the leadership role he accepts at the end of the play. Sophie Russell as the Fool is so overwhelmed by the irrationality of her supposed betters that I clearly understood why she crawls into the hovel and disappears from the play: once reason and logic have been banished there is no place for the Fool in such an irrational and unnatural world. Finally, Darrell D’Silva as Kent displays a rough-hewn devotion and loyalty to his retainer that is the only proof in the play of Lear’s former greatness. Farr’s direction is of a piece with Hicks’ Lear: clear, correct, and competent but lacking the fire to ignite the groundlings.
Despite my quibbles with individual performances and or production elements, my three-day immersion in the work of the Royal Shakespeare Company was an epiphany of sorts: I learned how a major theater company of skilled dramatic artists speaking the language of William Shakespeare clearly and intelligently in an intimate space with thoughtful direction can create if not theatrical magic at least an unforgettable experience in a once-in-a-lifetime setting. The three works I saw all dealt with the corrupting potential of unrestrained power. This was a particularly significant historical subject in the first decade of the 17th century as England faced a crisis in leadership on the death of Elizabeth I. A desire for uncorrupted and effective political leadership is as pertinent today as it was four hundred years ago.
Yes, the tickets were over-priced at $250 for the best seats; yes, the productions were a bit too conventional and the modern insertions, such as the digital additions in JC and the dramatic (and metaphorical) set design and changes in WT, weren’t totally successful; yes, the performances lacked the full emotional and psychological dimensions of truly transporting performances. Yet, the major response I had at the conclusion of my theater-going was a feeling of immense good fortune that I had had the opportunity to see such professional and thoughtful work. My only regret is that I didn’t see the other two productions offered by the RSC. Now I plan to turn off the computer and return to the plays themselves—the true source of Shakespeare’s lasting legacy—at least until the RSC decides to return to the colonies.
All photos by Stephanie Berger and available here and are from productions "The Winter's Tale" and "King Lear."