Thursday, December 18, 2014

Repost/Essay: Cordelia's Corpse

This was quite a while ago now, but I just realized I never posted a link to the essay I wrote for the fabulous Lady Parts blog. So if you'd like, "Cordelia's Corpse," my essay on playing Shakespeare's dead girls, can be found here.

Review: Assassins

We talk a lot about the need for theatre to be challenging and transgressive, to push boundaries and all those other good things that make art feel relevant. Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Assassins had its premier in 1990, and seeing it 24 years later at the Menier Chocolate Factory, it is one of the only shows I can think of that left me feeling I'd witnessed something truly taboo, that left me wondering how on earth they ever got away with getting this show made.

To be clear, that's a good thing. 

Famously, a revival of the musical was cancelled in the wake of 9/11, though it eventually went up in 2004. The subject matter-- the crowd of misfits who attempted to assassinate presidents joined together in a bizarre kind of fairground purgatory-- was deemed much too sensitive for the times. Probably it was. But this production has plenty of events to strike chords with, too-- questions of our national obsession with violence, with choose-your-own-justice, with uncompromising individualism. Sondheim and Weidman are far from glamorizing the assassins (and would-be assassins), but the show is also careful to note that such madness does not spring from nowhere. These are the remnants when the American Dream curdles. 

In Jamie Lloyd's production, we begin at a dingy fairground, complete with wrecked bumper car and super creepy clown heads. Enter the Proprietor (Simon Lipkin, whose own clown make-up is a bit of overkill, but whose singing is lovely), who proceeds to lure the potential killers into buying the gun that will change their lives. He's soon joined, and then supplanted in this effort by the man they recognize as their "pioneer," John Wilkes Booth. Booth is the most charismatic and, frankly, most sane of the assassins, and Aaron Tveit (sounding gorgeous, as usual) endows him with a manic idealism that foregrounds Booth's extreme youth-- he was, after all, only 27 when he killed Lincoln and was subsequently killed himself. 

In the opposite corner is the Balladeer (often literally, given the alley-style stage), toting a banjo and utterly appalled by the assassins' displays. He musically narrates their doings with supreme irony, but at the same time, cannot turn away. Jamie Parker is the perfect onlooker, by turns wryly amused and profoundly disturbed. But he is not quite as able to set himself apart from the assassins as his conspiratorial glances to the audience suggest, and by the end he has succumbed to their seductive suggestion that there is another way for those who feel the promises of the country have failed them.

Beyond this, the show is more characters sketches than narrative, but the stylistic gestures (including flashing fairground likes to mark each 'hit' or 'miss,' and a truly spectacular use of red confetti when an assassin hits his mark) and crisp direction keep the show from feeling disjointed. Notable amongst the ensemble are Stewart Clarke's tremendous Giuseppe Zangara, the Italian immigrant who killed McKinley, and Carly Bawden as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, a follower of Charles Manson who attempted to kill Ford. Bawden also wins the prize for best American accent (excluding those cast members who are, you know, actually American). 

The only major misstep in structure or tone is Sondheim's own-- the penultimate number, "Something Just Broke," which was added in 2004 and is very pretty and well-performed here, but disrupts the momentum of the final moments and just doesn't work. It seems designed, perhaps, to soften the show somewhat, to hedge somewhat its otherwise relentlessly harsh (and very often funny, though never sweetly so) tone by giving voice to the 'average person,' the people like you and me who would mourn the death of a president, not rejoice at it. But that doesn't seem to me to be what the show needs, or is really about. 

As with Scottsboro Boys, I can't help but wonder what the English members of the audience were thinking. If an audience member can just sit back, and allow the play to become just an abstract indictment of some other country's fatal obsession with both violence and success, does it lose, if not its punch, perhaps its purpose? Though in this production the assassins (with the possible exception of Booth) all seem more truly mentally ill than I'd ever noticed, it is forcefully not a story about a them. The assassins want what everybody wants, have bought into the same promise for America and hope for the same returns of life, liberty, and happiness. "When you lose, what you do is try again," the Balladeer, desperation edging his frustration, tries to remind the would-be killers near the end of the play. "The country's built on dreams," he says. And the assassins nod along in agreement. That's just what they're after. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Review: The Knight of the Burning Pestle

You know that one couple at the theatre? They keep rustling their candy wrappers during serious moments, and the wife keeps asking what's going on and the husband has a lot of opinions about the subject matter and relative merits of the characters? Sometimes they kiss and you wonder where, exactly, they think they are? Well then, you've already met the heroes of Francis Beaumont's The Knight of the Burning Pestle. 

'Heroes' might be a strong word. The Citizen and his Wife recognize that they themselves are not exactly the stuff of heroic drama. But that's why they have to interrupt the new play being put on at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to insist that their apprentice, Rafe, play a present-day (present-day being roughly 1600) knight errant who will bring glory to the Grocer's Guild of London. The play is ostensibly about a company trying to put on a production of a supposed new play called The London Merchant, a fairly cliché story about the forbidden love between a merchant's daughter and the merchant's apprentice. But at George and Nell's insistence, and to the frustration of the cast, this becomes interspersed with the tale of Rafe, the Don Quixote-like knight errant who is sent on increasingly disjointed errands to please the tastes of his excitable and, we are meant to understand, profoundly middle-class master and mistress.

But the real story is about George and Nell. Those are their names, by the way. We all laughed when a professor rather indignantly pointed out that we ought to call them by their given names, but I've come to agree. 'Citizen' and 'Citizen's Wife' are such cold and dehumanizing titles, but George and Nell are the warm, beautiful heart of the play. Sure, they can barely sit still for more than the length of a scene, but the strange, comic character sketch of the grocer and his wife is much more interesting than what they players are actually trying to offer.

Because of this structure, Burning Pestle could easily suffer from what I think of as the "Pippin problem": in order for the interruptions to the very traditional form to work, you have to spend so much time establishing it that ultimately, you mostly end up watching a pretty cliche play that is only interspersed (or concluded) with moments of interesting frame-breaking. But here, director Adele Thomas has recognized that the heavily formulaic plot means that the scenes can stand a great deal of interruption and distraction without making the story completely incomprehensible. So, the 'real' actors are just as ridiculous as George and Nell, and just as much time is spent making fun of the pretensions of actors as of the citizens' complete ignorance of audience etiquette.

This is a leveling which the text does not necessarily demand, but which works tremendously. One of the most notable examples is the character Jasper, the handsome romantic lead of the comedy the players are attempting to perform, and who sticks most doggedly to trying to present the play as written. Nell takes an instant dislike to him, a funny and strangely contemporary-feeling metatheatrical comment on the fact that, were she a character in such a comedy, she would certainly be the disapproving wealthy mother sneering at a character just like Jasper, the poor suitor of her daughter. In the text of the play as I read it, there is irony in her distaste, and comedy in the audience's recognition that Nell (though she does not know it herself) has picked the "wrong" side. But instead, in this production, Jolyon Coy's Jasper is a pitch-perfect depiction of a self-centered diva, furiously indignant when anyone dares step on his big moments and fantastically greedy for applause. We are allied with Nell in our distaste for him (hilarious though he is), especially when he gleefully seizes the opportunity, under the guise of a fight scene, to 'actually' beat Rafe up.

This scene is almost the last straw for George and Nell as well.  For what pulls them through the play is partly their enthusiasm at shouting out suggestions for new scenes, and partly the comedy of their bad manners, but mostly their effusive love for Rafe. This mostly takes a comic form, of course, but Phil Daniels and Pauline McLynn so skillfully root it in something genuine that it never loses its humanity. Both George and Nell have one speech each in which they brush ever so gently against tragedy, and the acting and directing of both of these moments are some of the deftest transitions from funny to moving and back again that I have ever seen.

Matthew Needham's Rafe is the perfect object for these affections. Needham perfectly executes the very difficult task of portraying Rafe's utter guilelessness and surprise revelation of a credible talent for acting without any hint of artifice or commentary. Towering over most of the cast yet hesitant to take up space, undeterred from his performance by rest of the cast's frustration yet always obediently answering to his master and mistress's summons, Rafe is entirely and irresistibly charming, and the audience's ability to entirely share George and Nell's love for him is yet another way in which their interjections are rendered not laughable, but a game in which we are eager to join them.

I was encouraged by the woman at the box office to splurge on a ticket in the pit-- which is obviously her job, but also sound advice. The sense of community participation were palpable where I was sitting, but I have a feeling the infectious joyfulness would not have spread quite the same way in the upper galleries, where you're not near enough for Nell to pass you a grape, or George to wander over during one of the short musical interludes and strike up a chat (both of which happened to me). By the end, the pit and lower galleries at least had become remarkably vocal, with gasps and cheers to match what I've sometimes experienced in the yard of the Globe-- but with the increased feeling of unity as a single audience that comes from a very intimate space.

The costumes (gorgeous, as always, and designed by Hannah Clark) are basically of the period, but the use of the Wanamaker's lighting is not: lights from the voms and from under the seats are used in most instances to supplement the candlelight, and occasionally to provide colored lighting effects. This works well-- however bright the chandeliers would have seemed to a Jacobean audience, the candlelight is just too dim to seem fitting for a comedy today. Plus, candles alone would not sufficiently light George and Nell, who are seated in the pit, rather than on stools on the stage as they are in the text.

In its time, The Knight of the Burning Pestle was a pretty massive flop-- possibly because audiences just didn't know what to make of its fourth-wall-shattering metatheatricality. Or possibly because the audience was a little too full of exactly the kind of middle-class theatergoers that the script was designed to mock. But this production insists that there is pride in being allied with George and Nell, in laughing at stupid slapstick comedy and cheering for impassioned pre-battle speeches (no matter how completely detached from the narrative) and just wanting them to skip all the boring bits and bring your favorite character back onstage. There's something quite cheerfully subversive, in fact, about what the play ultimately offers: permission to engage sincerely-- loudly, quietly, however you please, but without etiquette or pretension or artifice-- with the theatre. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Experiment: "Bad" Quarto Hamlet

One of the many examples of how I'm learning that everything theatre school teaches you about Shakespeare is wrong is the case of Hamlet's first "bad" quarto, or Q1. I'd been told many times that it was a faulty memorial reconstruction by an actor, probably the one playing Marcellus and maybe some other small roles. It's choppy. It's weird. The order and character names are wrong and the actor remembering it sort of seems to lose steam and start phoning it in at the end. It makes for a funny theatrical history anecdote.

It's only this year that I've learned that the memorial reconstruction theory is far from accepted fact. And the more I start thinking about the instability of all Shakespeare texts, the questions of collaboration between writer and company, not to mention the alterations (purposeful and otherwise) made by the printers, the more I wonder if, whatever its provenance, Q1 ought to be considered an equally valid Hamlet to the rest.

After all, what we have of Pericles is basically just a bad quarto. But it gets in  because we don't have anything better. Admittedly, if this was the only Hamlet we had, it probably wouldn't be quite so famous. But even if it isn't the best of the Hamlets we have, it doesn't seem fair to ransack a few useful stage directions and then toss the rest as invalid.

Given Q1's rumored provenance and the theories that it's not a corrupted version, but a shortened text for touring-- or at least poorly-remembered hints at the cuts that were made to Hamlet's far-too-long full version for regular performance-- maybe the most useful question would be, is this text performable?

So, given free rein of the Globe stage for a night, my class decided to perform it. Here are a few of my major takeaways.

- The biggest argument for me in favor of Q1 being a corrupted text rather than a performance text is that some pretty essential exposition is left out. Horatio's explanation of Rosencranz and Guildenstern (or Rossencraft and Guilderstone, as they're called here) being killed by the English doesn't really make any sense, nor is the mission of the English ambassador who shows up with Fortenbras explained at all. Laertes and Hamlet's fight at the grave is weirdly truncated: Hamlet insists that he never wronged Laertes, but Laertes hasn't actually accused him of anything. Most vitally, Laertes and Claudius's poison plot is never actually elaborated. The fact that the sword and cup are poisoned is mentioned in the final duel as if the audience already knows, but the scene where it was explained-- and where, for that matter, the pair decided to stage the duel-- seems to have been lost. 

- I read Horatio, so I spent the most time thinking about him, inevitably. When we were talking about Q1 in class a couple weeks ago, someone brought up the fact that Horatio in Q1 is the only character who can't be doubled with anyone else (I think this is also true in Q2 and Folio, but I haven't checked-- I think he could possibly double as Fortinbras' soldier, but then of course he couldn't reenter in that role at the end). This points to an interesting sense of Horatio as universal spectator. He is, after all, the person who is charged at the end of the play with telling the story. But in Q1, he actually sees much less: he does not seem aware of Ophelia's madness, though in the other versions he strangely seems to be tasked with keeping an eye on her. He is present for less of Hamlet's fake madness, and fewer of his exchanges with Rosencranz and Guildenstern. 

(Side note: Where the hell is Horatio from? This bugs me across all three texts. In the first half, the text seems to imply that Horatio is not Danish: his presence at Elsinore seems unexpected to Hamlet, he doesn't know about the custom of carousing, and "Oh day and night, but this is wondrous strange."/"And therefore as a stranger give it welcome" seems to pretty explicitly suggest that he is not from Denmark. But on the other hand, he's the only person who knows why the watch has been strengthened, and he both recognizes the King and knows all about his history with Fortinbras. And, of course, at the end he is "more an antique Roman than a Dane." But then why draw so much attention to his apparent foreignness in the early scenes? Anyway, this has driven me crazy for years and I noticed it again while reading through Q1. Perhaps it relates to his role as observer? Is he better qualified to witness and report as a fellow Dane, or as an outsider?) 

- Rosencranz, Guildenstern, and Horatio also feature (at least in part) in the only scene that is completely different from anything that appears in Q2 or F. Right before the gravediggers scene, Horatio tells Gertrude about Hamlet's escape from England and return to Denmark and, as mentioned above, offers the unclear explanation about R & G's deaths. This scene is fascinating, because it places Gertrude explicitly in the pro-Hamlet, anti-Claudius camp. It also excises the quiet but, in my opinion, crucial moment where Horatio seems to question the morality of Hamlet's choices. His shock over R&G's murder, prompting Hamlet's callous reaction, is gone.

- The King tells it like it is. He had so many hilariously blunt lines and I loved it. 

- The play was almost exactly "two hours' traffic." If this is a corruption rather than a theatrical cut, it's a pretty perfectly timed one. 

My over all impression, admittedly a useless one, is that it doesn't not work. Everyone dies literally over the course of a page at the end, but it doesn't look quite as ridiculous onstage as it does on the page... and it looks pretty ridiculous in the real thing too. What you lose in Q1 is a lot of the apparent psychological complexity and character relationships that we as modern readers value so highly... but one has to wonder if that necessarily means that an early modern audience would have done so. I think so much of our understanding of Hamlet's enduring appeal stems from the fact that it contains gestures towards a naturalistic psychology that we can recognize... that is, we like it because it looks more than most other Elizabethan plays like the kind of play we would write today. But that may very well have absolutely nothing to do with why Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences liked it. So (logistical issues mentioned above aside) it doesn't seem fair to assume that what we see as shortcomings in terms of depth are proof that it would not have been performed in this form then. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Review: Henry IV Part 1

Strangely, Henry IV Part 1 may be the Shakespeare play I've seen the most. Even if it's not quite the top in viewings, I think it's unquestionably the play I know best, and one that I've spent a truly ridiculous amount of time thinking about. So it's very exciting to me when a production can offer ideas about it that I've never seen or thought of before. While far from a perfect production, the Royal Shakespeare Company's Henry IV Part 1 offers a lot to think about, including particularly compelling takes on Prince Hal and Hotspur. 

It opens, however, with a direct call-back to last year's Richard II starring David Tennant. Up on a platform, a figure (face shadowed) dressed in Richard's long white robes and long brown hair looks down on the man who deposed him, King Henry IV, abject and repentant in a church. The design matches last year, too: medieval costumes, a wood set with galleries that echoes the architecture of the RSC's stage, a healthy dose of Christian imagery. King Henry's frequently religious language is leaned into heavily: the only two places he is ever seen are in a church or on a battlefield. He crosses himself a lot. And most importantly, he seems to take fairly literally his own conjecture that his wayward son, Prince Hal, has been sent by God "to punish [his] mistreadings." His frustration and impatience, even in the face of Hal's attempts to reform, create an interesting father-son relationship that is the inverse of the usual: Alex Hassell's oddly earnest Hal just wants to impress daddy, but his father will not be convinced. 

This sometimes forces Jasper Britton to play against the sense of his lines as King Henry, but it also sets up Hal and Hotspur (a manic Trevor White) less as polar opposites than as kindred spirits forced onto opposing paths. Hotspur, too, looks often for approval to his father and uncle, who are both just as likely to respond with a blow as with paternal advice. Hotspur in turn vents his hurt and frustrations on his wife, the absent (but, you get the sense, ever-present at the back of his mind) Hal, or anyone else he can reach. I was aware more than ever of the hollowness of the rebellion, and of Hotspur's twin betrayals by the very family members who have put him up to leading it. 

Likewise, there doesn't seem to be much method to Hal's madness. He's certainly no Machiavelli (unless Machiavelli was a frat-boy douchebag, in which case... yeah, maybe), and his drunken revels with Falstaff and the others are clearly a means of distracting himself from his own feelings of failure; his explanation to the audience (for which the house lights, interestingly but somewhat awkwardly, were fully raised for the only time in the show) rings mostly as a desperate rationalization. He seems to realize only as he jokingly says it that someday, he will have to leave Falstaff and the rest behind. Antony Sher's Falstaff is very much in the vein of Simon Russell Beale's TV portrayal of the character, leaning more into his advanced age than his irrepressible life force. 

The sense of both Hal and Hotspur as basically good-hearted but badly misguided and mistreated made me dread their inevitable clash as I never have before. Usually, they seem like emissaries from different worlds, their perspectives on honor and politics completely incompatible, the victory of one over the other somehow necessary to the coherent functioning of the kingdom. Here, however, one almost wishes they could just get along, and work together to overthrow their guilt-ridden and self-centered parents. But at least if they have to fight, the choreography of their final encounter (fights by Terry King) is some of the best I've seen in a long time, involving at one point a total of four (!) swords. Though it wasn't as meticulously narrative as the duel sometimes can be, this was more than balanced by the sheer thrill of it, especially at a chance to finally see Hotspur doing what he does best, and reveling in it. 

The marketing for this production leans primarily on Falstaff and King Henry. The former makes sense, it being not only Falstaff, but Antony Sher; but the choice of Henry over Hal or even Hotspur is interesting. It matches the title, of course, and allows more direct continuity with Richard II. And, as the first scene makes explicit, the RSC is interested in presenting their history plays as a direct series of sequels. But try as one might, Henry IV Part 1 just isn't about King Henry. He has only three scenes in the first three acts, and he's present in act two only in the form of Hal and Falstaff's burlesqued versions of him. Admittedly, he has more to do in Part 2, but at least for this half, the production did not manage to justify its marketing choice. 

Another gesture towards continuity is the interesting inclusion of a scene from The Famous Victories of Henry V, an anonymous play from which Shakespeare seems to have borrowed liberally when structuring his own plays about the youth of the future Henry V. I was very skeptical when I heard about this, as Famous Victories is more or less terrible. But the scene, an encounter between Hal and the Lord Chief Justice who becomes a major player in Part 2, actually works very nicely in setting up the identity of the Chief Justice rather than having him suddenly appear as he does in Shakespeare's text, and by letting us see the tense relationship between him and Hal that is otherwise only talked about. 

In some ways, King Henry's arrogant fears about his son in this production aren't entirely wrong: Hal is a rebuke, not sent by God, but borne of Henry's own self-centered paranoia and guilt. That is the staggering challenge these plays offer to the doctrine of divine right. King Henry can never be truly legitimate because he overthrew an anointed monarch-- but somehow, the son of a usurper can grow up to be one of England's greatest kings. One feels that the only thing standing between that future and this Prince Hal is not Falstaff's temptations, but his father's example.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Review: Original Pronunciation Macbeth

In Shakespeare plays I've worked on, we've collectively gotten a completely inappropriate amount of comic mileage from the fact that some words don't rhyme anymore. Bottom as Pyramus's "Thy mantle good,/What, stain'd with blood!" comes to mind, or a one Touchstone's dry recitation of Orlando's execrable love poetry, ending with the couplet, "Heaven would that she these gifts should have,/And I to live and die her slave." Or, one of my very favorites, and one that is definitely not meant to be as funny as I find it, the dialogue of the three witches:

      1: Where the place? 
      2:                            Upon the heath.
      3: There to meet with Macbeth. 

In Passion in Practice's production of Macbeth, however, these lines rhyme. Founder Ben Crystal and his father David are the foremost experts in the theory of original pronunciation, a system of using textual clues to reconstruct what an Elizabethan English dialect may have sounded like. 

A "fun fact" that I've heard floating around is that Elizabethan English sounded more like an American Southern accent than present-day RP. I think it sounds more like some kind of demented Irish pirate. And yes, 'heath' and 'Macbeth' rhyme (they both sound like 'beth').
What's more interesting is, in spite of the understandable focus on OP in the marketing, how quickly the pronunciation disappears-- and what's left is a very solid production of Macbeth. 

The fluidity with which the ensemble works together and the coherency of the storytelling is even more remarkable considering the other theory Passion in Practice tests: the idea that, because of their massive reparatory, actors in Shakespeare's day would have learned parts on their own, and then performed essentially without rehearsal. So that is how this Macbeth was created: the actors met for brief workshops, but actually performed the play together for the first time on the night of the first performance. But the actors here seemed more confident in their delivery and more clear in their scene-to-scene storytelling than in plenty of productions I've seen that have rehearsed for weeks or months. 

Crystal's Macbeth is high-strung and cerebral, turning frequently to the audience to express his disbelief or fury at events that are unfolding, one gets the sense, just a little too quickly for him to catch hold of. Lady Macbeth (Emma Pallant) is initially the more bloody minded, but when Macbeth cannot stop with just the murder of Duncan, she becomes increasingly frightened by what she has unleashed, and ultimately unhinged by this fear. 

Overall, character choices leaned heavily towards the naturalistically psychological, and textual cuts and conflations of characters often aided in this by cobbling together emotional arcs for the likes of Lennox, Ross, and even to some degree Fleance. This turned the final two acts into an interesting puzzle of alliances, and underscored Macbeth's tyranny by allowing us to more closely track and connect to the defections of his lords. 

In a class recently, we had a lengthy discussion about the actual name of the three witches: modern editions have long emended it to the "weird sisters," but in the actual text it is only ever spelled "weyard" or "weyward." These words have very different implications: weird obviously suggests the supernatural, and matches Banquo and Macbeth's descriptions of the women as unnatural and eerie. But weyward calls to mind the types of real women who were accused of witchcraft in the period: often older, single, living alone, or otherwise marginalized. This production of course does not amend to 'weird' (the program bills them as the "Weyward Sisters"), and though the actresses are all quite young and pretty, their half-shifty half-giddy witches seem more like unruly human women dabbling in powers that even they are slightly frightened of than the pure supernatural might of Hecate (who this production retains, the first time I've gotten to see her). 

Fear, in fact, might be the major emotional current of this production overall. It oddly becomes, in fact, a kind of explanation for how Macbeth gets as far as he does: after overcoming the horror of his murders of Duncan and Banquo, he enters a manic state of fearlessness, while the rest of the country descends into confusion and terror. His fate catches up to him at last, but by then he is more than ready to meet it. 

I realize it's odd to talk about a director's curtain speech, but I was refreshed by the lack of pretension in Crystal's explanation of the project and its aims. They don't claim perfect authenticity, or that their work is somehow better because it's 'correct'-- only that it's interesting, which it is. OP and original rehearsals are tools with which to explore the text. The play is still the thing. 

Also, fleetest Fleance (my friend Nick who I didn't know was in the show until I got there) ever. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Review: Charles III

One year in middle school, my very liberal social studies teacher (the same one who went on periodic rants about how Andrew Jackson should be taken off the twenty-- which he should be, by the way) taught us about the odd little laws encoded in some of our state's land use and real estate legislation, including fun little tidbits like it being illegal to sell certain pieces of land to African Americans. Obviously these were eventually superseded by civil rights legislation, but that's also why they remained on the books, inactive. It's amusing and in some sense slightly chilling to realize that there are arcane little bits of retrograde weirdness lying dormant within our legal system, perhaps just waiting for someone who is sufficiently clever and bigoted to find a way to carve them out.

In England, of course, that vestigial legal oddity is hidden in plain sight: the monarchy. It's still there. It sucks up massive amounts of taxpayer money. They have no power, but because England lacks a written constitution, that fact is maybe more of a gentleman's agreement than a law. At least, that's the tenuous situation that Mike Bartlett's fabulous King Charles III, now on the West End after opening last spring at the Almeida, proposes.

Shortly after the death of his mother but before his own official coronation, now-King Charles is growing anxious and perhaps (as Camilla says) a bit angsty about the end of his long wait and his imminent rise to... well, not power, exactly. Anxious to make the monarchy meaningful, and spurred on by some dubious politicians, Charles declines to sign a bill into law, setting off a chain of events that seem as if they might plunge the country into civil war.

Also it's written entirely in iambic pentameter.

King Charles III is Shakespearean not only in its language and scope, but in its approach to the question of power. Prince Harry raises what I sometimes see as the central question of Shakespeare's historical tragedies: can't bring a modern prince mean not having to give away your soul? Charles himself has very much the air of Richard II-- petulant, power-hungry, and increasingly bordering on madness-- yet also undeniably appealing in his bumbling yearning for self-definition and winning candor with the audience. Tim Pigott-Smith's marvelous performance keeps the character from flying off into caricature, rooting him soundly in something touching and human.

The other characters privileged to speak to the audience are William (Oliver Chris) and Kate (Lydia Wilson), the latter of whom nearly steals the show with the revelation of an iron will and powerful ambition. There are gestures towards Lady Macbeth as she none-too-subtly steers the somewhat hapless William towards power, but Kate's masterful command of the trappings of modern-day royalty are unparalleled in the play, and she's ultimately too canny to just condemn.

The one major misstep is Prince Harry's strangely underdeveloped subplot. Disillusioned in a Prince Hal-ish fashion with life and royalty, he falls in love with a commoner, a flat Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose dearth of personality leaves their storyline nowhere to go. It's a shame, as Richard Goulding's tortured Harry serves, when he is alone, as a neat parallel to his father's crisis of self, and as mentioned above, the potential for Shakespearean-inspired exploration and allusion is rich (director Rupert Goold pointed out Harry's similarities to Hal in an interview) But Bartlett ultimately seems to lose track of the thread, tying it off in an abrupt but not unexpected manner. But this is basically the only false note in an otherwise masterfully orchestrated piece.

The morning after seeing King Charles III, I woke up to the latest from Ferguson, MO, and the grand jury's failure to indict the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. On the one hand, this seems to exist on an incomparably different scale from an often silly British political drama. But the question in both cases is the dangerous ease with which our democratic systems can collapse in the face of someone determined to ignore the unwritten rules, or to lean too heavily on the letter of a law we thought we'd all agreed to ignore. One of Barlett's most brilliant choices is to make Charles basically right: the bill he declines to sign is a draconian-sounding privacy law that would curtail the freedom of the press. But, as the Prime Minister in the play says again and again, the question at hand is not the content of the bill, but the principle behind Charles's action. It's not a monarch's role to dictate policy by omission any more than it seems fair for a prosecutor to manipulate an indictment.

And in this, Charles' fears and his rebellious subjects' fears are one and the same: the fear of loss of control, of society suddenly ceasing the function the way you always thought it did. That after a lifetime of waiting and preparing, it turns out there's nothing at the end of it after all. The heart of the play is deeply human, and in this Bartlett is Shakespearean once again: somehow, the stories of kings always seem to end up as tragedies.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Review: Our Town

It feels arrogant to even try to write a review of David Cromer's production of Our Town, previously at the Barrow Street Theater in New York and now at the Almeida. The fact is that it's basically perfect. David Cromer understands Our Town, and translates that understanding into a deeply moving and perfectly simple production.

Our Town is a play that I lose track of sometimes. Like Romeo and Juliet, it starts to feel so over-discussed, so misinterpreted, so easy to over-simplify, that I find myself just riding the waves of what I'm pretty sure I know about it and forgetting what's actually there. Yes, it's a play I was utterly desperate to act in when I was about 14 and saw it as pretty much a vehicle for a super-sad monologue-- but it's more than that.

It's also a play that I think tends to take a beating when it comes to the question of "The Canon"-- because how much more insular and privileged can you get than a play that, apparently, is all about nostalgia for the good old days when everyone was Christian and white and married their high school sweetheart?

But a really good production, like this one, is a reminder that the play is more than that, too. I'm sure you can find plenty of things written by people much smarter than me about the cracks in the veneer-- Mrs. Gibbs' never-realized dream to see Paris, Simon Stimpson's drinking, all that death. But I think also there is the fact that nostalgia demands a homogeneity of audience that the play both assumes and rejects. On the one hand, the stage manager always addresses the audience with a homey, 'we're in this together,' feel. He says 'you know,' and 'you know what I'm talking about' a lot. We're assumed to be familiar with life in places like Grover's Corners, in theory.

But does that assumption spring from the fact that Thornton Wilder is assuming we, too, lived in somewhere like Grovers' Corners? Or just that we would recognize it, even if we're peering in from the outside? I found myself thinking this time through that maybe we're meant to bring the contradictions in with us. My ancestors sure as hell didn't live in Grover's Corners, they were busy on Ellis Island. But the play doesn't have to point it out for me to know it.

And, of course, none of these actors would live in Grover's Corners, either. All of the actors (American David Cromer as the Stage Manager included) employ their native accents, they are fairly racially diverse. They wear contemporary clothes. It's not about seeing yourself in them, or any pretense of universality. It's just a story.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Thoughts: Miss Saigon

Last year, it was the 10th anniversary of the musical Wicked on Broadway, and I had the opportunity to see it for free during the anniversary week-- so, of course, I went. It probably goes without saying that I was absolutely obsessed with Wicked when I was a kid. I saw it on an eighth grade trip to New York, and was completely and utterly blown away. I followed all the cast changes on Broadway obsessively for about a year. It was a go-to playlist for longer than that. But I hadn't thought about it or listened to it in a rather long time when I saw it last October. 

Obviously, I was not quite as wowed as I had been at thirteen. I didn't sob through all of "Defying Gravity." But I recognized that this was a still a very well written, very well constructed piece of theatre. And, more interestingly, I could still identify all of the things that had so moved me, and could still understand why they had done so. The person I was then was someone I could still clearly see and understand, even if I couldn't quite experience the show through her eyes. 

Eighth grade was probably the year I was most obsessed with musical theatre, and the show that started it all was Les Misèrables. Perhaps inevitably, from there, I eventually ended up at Miss Saigon, which I listened to more or less on repeat for a good couple of months. Unlike Les Mis, I never had a chance to see it... until the current London production. 

For those of you who weren't obsessed with 80s mega-musicals, Miss Saigon is essentially Madame Butterfly reset in the Vietnam War. American soldier Chris meets and (apparently) falls in love with Vietnamese prostitute Kim, only for them to become separated during the evacuation of Saigon. Three years later he finds her again in Bangkok: she has his son, he has a wife, and tragedy ensues. 

Despite my enduring love for Les Mis, I wasn't necessarily expecting the tale of Chris and Kim's tragic, doomed love to age particularly well. But was most surprising and jarring was that, as I watched the musical, though I enjoyed it well enough, I had absolutely no idea what I had once loved about it. I couldn't pick out what thirteen-year-old-Hailey must have identified with, or felt moved by, or laughed at.

In fact, the only thing I remembered clearly from my listening habits as a kid was that I skipped over all of the Engineer's songs because I thought they were boring. Now, I came away thinking that he was the only interesting character in the play. Which suggests that I was drawn to the Chris/Kim romance, but that doesn't ring true. I was melodramatic and angsty as an early teenager, sure, but my favorite parts of Les Mis weren't (and aren't) Marius and Eponine, they were the scenes in Paris and with the rebel students. I liked "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" much better than "On My Own." 

It's strange to feel so separate from my younger self. Unlike with Wicked, the girl who loved Miss Saigon is someone so very different from me, so separate, I can't even recognize or remember her. I was never good at keeping journals, and even if I had been, I doubt I would have bothered to write about why I listened to "The Heat Is On In Saigon" over and over. 

Maybe I only think that Wicked and Les Mis are still good because they are both shows I had the opportunity to see at the height of my love for and identification with them. Now, maybe, they are bound up in that experience of seeing and loving them, and those positive associations will never entirely go away. Maybe if I'd seen Miss Saigon as a freshman in high school, I'd be writing a different post about it now. That was most of what I felt while watching it: I wish I could be seeing this at age fourteen. I wish I could be the sixteen-year-old girl down the row from us (who looked appalled at our decrepitude when we told her we were both twenty-four) who sobbed through the entire second half. 

So we grow out of things. It would probably be more worrisome if we didn't. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Review: Scottsboro Boys

When, after the show, a friend described The Scottsboro Boys as "Just so Kander and Ebb," I found myself first agreeing, and only after considering what exactly that meant. She was referring of course to John Kander and Fred Ebb, the composer and lyricist of The Scottsboro Boys, and who are famous for Cabaret and Chicago. I admit these are the only other musicals of theirs that I'm familiar with, so I can't speak for their style as a whole, but the structural and stylistic parallels between these three shows are quite clear. All are framed stylistically as offshoots of vaudeville: something close to a traditional vaudeville for Chicago, the eponymous Cabaret, and for Scottsboro Boys, a minstrel show. These frames compliment and ironize, emphasize and undercut the stories they are telling, and most of all they use their roots in popular culture and infectious entertainment to pull the audience deep into complicity in the atrocities that all three musicals (in varying levels of directness) depict. 

Directed for Broadway, then the Young Vic, and finally the West End by Susan Stroman, The Scottsboro Boys opens with a white man who identifies himself as The Interlocutor (Julian Glover). He is the MC, as it were, of the minstrel show where, assisted by Mr. Bones (Colman Domingo) and Mr. Tambo (Forrest McClendon)--whose names probably make their identities plain-- and nine other black actors, the story of the nine young men falsely accused of and imprisoned for rape in 1930s Alabama will be told through song and dance. It's not a music/content marriage that was found universally happy by American critics. 

It certainly doesn't make for an easy watching experience, either. There came a point fairly early in the play where clapping for the grotesquely cheery numbers began to feel just plain wrong... but at the same time, not clapping felt like an appalling breach of theatre etiquette and an insult to the fabulous performers. I settled on an awkward golf-clap after most numbers. You could practically feel the audience's relief at numbers that hit a note of satire that felt appropriate to fully clap at-- both, not coincidentally, numbers at the expense of well-meaning but desperately misguided white characters (all of whom, except for the judges and the governor of Alabama, were played by members of the black ensemble).  

The most powerful element of Scottsboro Boys is one that it is possibly the most awkward to explain, so let's just go for it: it recognizes that, as a musical (and one which had its debut at the Vineyard and then moved to Broadway), its audience is almost certainly predominantly white. So often, when plays try to force a sense of 'complicity' on the audience, I find it frustrating and heavy-handed, unjust in its broad sweep. But in this case, the use of theatrical etiquette, and indeed the very fact that the audience was present watching the show-- like, as I mentioned above, the need to clap-- to force the audience into an awareness of the role of society broadly in the tragedy of the Scottsboro Boys' lives and deaths felt perfectly suited. Perhaps this was also because it did not feel accusatory: this is not a show that begs for you to offer tribute of your white, liberal guilt, but rather to witness and acknowledge the story it is telling. 

The history is loosely told, the compression of events and time facilitated by focusing in on the prisoners' perspectives and glossing over some of the more complex legal maneuvering that was going on while they waited in jail. Haywood Patterson (Brandon Victor Dixon) emerges as the central Scottsboro boy, his fierce resistance to accepting defeat shaping the major arc of the story. Dixon is wonderful, his voice stunning. The whole cast is wonderful, all true triple-threats, as is to be expected in a show created by director-choreographer Susan Stroman. 

The marriage of satire and pathos, minstrelsy and dark American history was not one that all reviews of the Broadway production found happy. I thought that the blend was almost perfectly pitched to elicit just the right amount of entertainment tempered with just the right amount of horror. The only serious misstep is the ghostly presence of a mostly-mute female character (Dawn Hope), who hovers at the edges of the action and whose identity, when its revealed in the final moments of the play, I found to be a disappointment. 

Mr. Tambo, Mr. Bones, and Haywood are all played by American actors; Domingo and McClendon have followed the show since Broadway, Dixon starred at the original Vineyard production. This seems to be a wise choice. I found myself wondering what the British actors made of performing the infamous blackface number-- it feels important that Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo in particular be presented by actors with a more profound knowledge of the racist history they are embodying. I did wonder if others in the theatre had the same experience as I did, if the fascination and discomfort and willingness to embrace the blame that the play offers are not as accessible to a British audience. I'm fascinated by whoever had the idea to bring it to London in the first place. But I'm happy that someone did. Everything else aside, it's too rare to see a new musical that feels created by masters of the form. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

I Must Learn English: Women's History Plays

I'd venture that I'm in the same boat as most 20-something Americans when I say that going into Here Lies Love (I saw it at the National Theatre, though it originated at the Public Theater), the only thing I knew about Imelda Marcos was the thing with the shoes. And judging by the people I overheard leaving the show, I was also not alone in the need for some intense post-play Wikipedia searching. When you're making a 90-minute rock musical that covers over 40 years of history, obviously things and people are going to get left out. But Wikipedia (so, you know, intensive research) revealed an omission that I found very striking, and it got me thinking about how we tell stories about history.

The introduction to Jean Howard and Phyllis Rackin's book about Shakespeare's history plays, Engendering a Nation, talks in part about how continued study of Shakespeare's history plays is worthwhile because he's the one who taught us, as English-speakers, how to tell our histories. Obviously you can argue about who started the genre and who did it more and who did it best, but when talking about what we've come to copy through the ages, I think Shakespeare's prominence matters more than precedence. There is no such thing as an objective history, and the things we've learned to take as such, as 'correct' or 'neutral' ways of narrating events are really just cultural inheritances. And a lot of them are from Shakespeare, and a moment when England was first learning how to tell its own stories in dramatic form.

So back to Here Lies Love. My favorite character (besides Imelda herself) was Ninoy Aquino, about whom I knew absolutely nothing, so of course afterwards I had to look him up. And in my ignorance, I was shocked to learn that after his death, his leadership of the liberal opposition in the Philippines was taken up by his wife Corazon Aquino, who ran for and became president after Marcos was toppled, making her the first female president in Asia. The contested election between her and Marcos was what sparked the People Power Revolution that Here Lies Love depicts. So it's not as if we're dealing with events outside of the musical's purview. But instead of even mentioning Corazon, Ninoy's death is followed by a solo from his previously-unseen mother Aurora, who then disappears as the revolution begins. The mourning mother is a perfectly moving and expected theatrical response to an assassination. The politically activated wife, less so.

There are only about four major characters in Here Lies Love, so of course I'm not complaining about the fact that figures and events had to be excised and compressed. But the nature of this omission-- removing the figurehead of a revolution and recasting the movement as one that was catalyzed by a male character's assassination and then given emotional but apolitical voice by a more stereotypically feminine character type-- that, I find very interesting. 

The morning after I saw Here Lies Love, I watched a video of Dominic Dromgoole's Globe Theatre production of Henry V, a play which features what I find to be one of Shakespeare's strangest scenes. It's a scene between Princess Katherine of France and her waiting gentlewoman Alice, and it takes place entirely in French. I don't think there is any comparable scene in Shakespeare. The other French characters speak what we hear as English, even though we understand that they are in theory speaking French to one another, but Katherine and Alice comically labor to name body parts "en Anglois." It's the only all-female scene in the entire cycle of history plays depicting the rise of King Henry IV and his son Henry V. Women shout from the sidelines throughout the preceding plays-- Lady Percy begs her father-in-law not to go to war, Queen Isabelle tries to go to prison with King Richard II-- but Katherine and Alice are the first ones who get the time and space onstage to really speak. But they don't know the language. 

The scene begins with Katherine asking Alice for an English lesson, because Alice has lived in England and "tu parles bien le langage... il faut que j'apprenne a parler." It is necessary that I learn to speak [English]. Katherine, apparently, already knows how this war with England will end-- at least for her. In his production, Dromgoole underlines the connection between Katherine's English lessons and her inevitable political role by having the scene periodically interrupted by the sounds of cannon fire, drums, and trumpets. Alice and Katherine can play a game, but Dromgoole makes sure the audience does not forget what Katherine and Alice clearly never lose sight of: that "il faut"-- it is necessary-- that begins the scene. 

Throughout Henry V (and sort of dramatic history generally), good guys are manly and bad guys are girly. In the case of this play, that means that the manly ones are English, and effeminate ones are French. The English march all night in the mud and close the walls up with their English dead; the French write sonnets to their horses and boast about the shiny stars that decorate their armor. And the most feminine world of all-- that of Katherine and Alice-- is also the Frenchest, the only place where only French is spoken. If Katherine wants to join the men's world, to join the winning side, to join history, she has to learn to speak English. And the English she learns is the names of body parts, a list that devolves into bilingual puns about female genitalia. What Katherine has to offer to the course of history is her body, and the sons she will ideally bear. 

Shakespeare has at least one woman who takes a more active view of her own historical role, but she appears in his first group of history plays, depicting the reigns of King Henry VI and Richard III. Like Imelda Marcos, she's initially a trophy wife who soon realizes that her husband is too weak to handle affairs, and so takes matters into her own hands. For Queen Margaret, this includes personally leading soldiers to battle and getting her hands quite literally dirty in seeing to the death of a political rival. She is fabulous and fascinating and irresistible, but Shakespeare tends to make it quite clear that what she is doing is, at its heart, wrong. Both sets of Shakespeare's history plays are very concerned with the legitimacy of power, especially when it is power wrested from an anointed king. But, as Howard and Rackin write, power in a woman is always illegitimate in early modern plays. For Shakespeare, debating Margaret's right or lack of right to seize power as queen consort isn't the point. She's a woman. She shouldn't be in charge. Though her claims are rooted in her roles as wife and mother, Margaret's actual gestures of power are very pointedly masculine: she leads armies, she commands lords, she stabs somebody. She very forcefully invades the masculine sphere, and is universally loathed (at least by other characters) for it. 

So on one side, we have a woman who grabs power with both hands, who is compelling and intoxicating and ultimately vicious... that is, Imelda Marcos. And on the other, we've got the woman who lives in a different world, who speaks a different language, and who recognizes that while she will have a role to play, it is one that will be predicated not on violence or politics, but on her place as a woman and mother... so, Aurora Aquino. And Corazon Aquino falls somewhere in between. 

It would be nice to dismiss this female in power=bad/female as mother=good dichotomy as a remnant of a backwards, pre-feminist culture, of which Here Lies Love is only an accidental echo... but the more I thought about it, I realized that these poles of depicting female power are everywhere, in history and fiction. Look at Game of Thrones: Cersei Lannister basically is Queen Margaret, Danaerys Targaryen's reckless conquests crumble; Margaery Tyrell, Catlyn and Sansa Stark, and Talisa Maegyr know that their best bet is to stay safely within the boundaries of wife, daughter, mother. In what seems to be an obvious and major exception to this dichotomy, everyone loves Arya Stark and Brienne of Tarth (myself included!), who both very pointedly adopt masculine clothes and lifestyles. But they are also nowhere near positions of power. In fact, only one woman in the book series comes close to legitimately seizing what seems to be well-deserved rulership, and that storyline is showing all signs of being excised from the television show (plus, she doesn't actually succeed).

Look at another large-scale HBO drama, Rome: when major female characters Atia and Servilia (the lovers of Mark Antony and Julius Caesar, respectively) face brutal downfalls, it is not because of their casual cruelty or their sexual promiscuity or their relentless manipulation of their own children: they are crushed when they attempt to actively intervene in politics. 

Heck, look at The Lord of the Rings. The evil, titular ring seduces elf-queen Galadriel with the promise of power; she wins and "remains Galadriel" when she accepts the idea of retreating to the lands beyond the sea and fading away. When Eowyn (who previously yearned for a glorious death in battle and disguised herself as a man to achieve this) finds peace and happiness, she must first, in her own words, "no longer desire to be a Queen." 

(Those were all rather nerdy examples. But I struggled to think of recent examples of films or shows based on history that included women in or near power in the first place.) 

The model of depicting history that we've inherited from Shakespeare makes it very difficult to accommodate legitimate power in a woman. It's one of the things that's so interesting about Rona Munro's recent Scottish history play James III: its depiction of a woman legitimately, peacefully taking control, to universal acceptance and even acclaim-- though, of course, we don't actually see her doing any ruling. 

The idea that women are tangential to history is one that seems to make perfect sense. After all, women were subjugated and excluded from participating in the sort of decision-making and empire-building that we recognize as the narrative of history, at least in our western European tradition. In Henry V this is made very literal: the women actually cannot speak or understand the words that the men use to shape events (this is even basically true of Mistress Quickly, the only English-speaking woman in the play, who speaks mostly in malapropisms and never understands her fellow clowns' sexual jokes). But it's easy to forget that even in the most 'objective' or 'neutral' histories, we choose which stories to tell, and how to tell them. History is not inherently defined as 'war and treaties and things that men do.' But we have a lot less practice learning to value women's contributions. They're off to the side-- in French, because we don't understand their relevance, or quietly replaced with a model of woman that's more emotional, more maternal, more ordinary. 

My point is not to say what David Byrne and the creative team of Here Lies Love should have done, but only to take notice of something that none of the reviews I've read or word-of-mouth that I've heard seems to talk about. Maybe because it fits so neatly into the kinds of histories we've learned to tell. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Review: Henry IV

I admit that I'm one of what seems to be many who wish that Phyllida Lloyd didn't think she needed a framing device to justify her all-female productions of Shakespeare-- in 2012, Julius Caesar, and now her version of both parts of Henry IV follows suit in being set in a women's prison, a play being put on by the prisoners. It leads to some moments that mimicking Caesar in ways I found jarring, including an almost identical third-act break from the play when the prisoner-actors go too far with a bullying joke, though it's a different kind of violence than the actual beating of Cinna the Poet in Caesar

The stark, institutional lighting and prison rec room set (the Donmar Warehouse looks so much more convincingly like a prison than St. Ann's, where I saw Caesar, managed to) make a certain element of lighthearted fun within the text impossible. The tavern where Prince Hal (Clare Dunne) and Falstaff (Ashley McGuire) spend their days feels as gritty, bleak, and downright nasty as the rest of the prison. McGuire, understated, is funny but never riotously hilarious, nor is Lloyd trying to make her be. 

But the blurred space between play and actor-playing-prisoner fits both plays equally well. I found myself imagining the Percys scheming in a cell block named "Wales," picturing the form that King Henry's (Harriet Walter, magnificent) usurpation must have taken. The political scenes all fit the frame nicely, and are about as clear and engaging as I have ever seen them. This is partly because the powerhouse actors are almost all in the rebel camp: Jade Anouka's Hotspur and Ann Ogbomo's Worcester are particularly tremendous. The uncle-nephew duo echo each other nicely, both passionate and physical, but Worcester weighed down by weary experience, the likes of which would sully Hotspur's gleaming, irresistible purity, but might also save his life. She also may be the best Hotspur I've ever seen. 

Their political rivals are the two Harrys: King Henry, and Prince Hal, both of whom seem perfectly aware that they lack the rebels' charisma and appeal. Walter's King wears his power effortlessly in public, but the strain of his illegitimate claim and wayward son sometimes break through. Thanks to the nature of Lloyd's cut, Dunne's Hal is more reckless than most, and his famous first soliloquy reads as little more than hollow boasting, as do most of his promises of reformation. In most scenes, off-stage actors lurk on the sidelines, watching or just sitting, heads ducked. But whenever Hotspur is onstage, Dunne watches intently. 

There's been so much said about the plain fact of the female ensemble, but it deserves saying. I want to remark on the diversity of the cast, which is even more extreme than I remember in Caesar, both racially and in terms of body type. As Jenji Kohan taught us, apparently the only way to get black, white, brown, fat, tall, women all in a story together is to put them in prison. But at least it's being done. 

I realize that this post is comparably quite short. I find this production very difficult to talk about. I didn't agree with all of its choices, but I left feeling like something had happened to me through watching it. And I agree so strongly with its political, artistic intentions, to talk about liking or not liking, enjoying or not enjoying feels too reductive. My enjoyment is beside the point-- but I did enjoy it-- but I also felt a little like I'd been hit with a brick afterwards-- but that's definitely a good thing. Much as I hate to use the dreaded A-word, I feel like somewhere inside my frustratingly tangled mix of responses is exactly what art is supposed to do. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Review: James III

The subtitle of James III is The True Mirror, which is taken rather more literally than you might expect. There is an actual mirror, of-- as King James III explains-- special Venetian make, more accurate than any mirror ever created before. It sets off one of the most striking sequences in the entire play, a series of characters seeing themselves clearly, literally, for the first time. What one is capable of doing with this knowledge seems to be the root question of the third and final installment of the National Theatre's James Plays. 

On the one hand, there's King James III, who has taken from the violent death of his father and his over-protective mother the inflated sense of his self worth and God-given right to rule that rarely ends well for kings. Then there's his queen consort, Margaret of Denmark, who probably deserves to be the title character. The third in Rona Munro's line of foreign Queens of Scots finding their way amongst a suspicious people and occasionally feckless husbands, Margaret is faced with the most extreme version of this situation: an utterly hopeless, useless King and the opportunity to prevent civil war between father and son by seizing power for herself. 

Much more deliberately paced than the previous two parts, the action doesn't really kick in until the second act here. James III's indolent court looks like that of so many bad kings through history: lavish, broke, littered with favorites with whose relationship with James may or may not be entirely platonic. If James I and James II had to learn to sacrifice their souls, James III has avoided the problem by deciding to seize all the perks of being a king and none of the responsibilities. It is, frankly, a less interesting question than that posed by the previous two plays. 

The title points to James, but the real story arc seems to lie with Margaret, resulting in what feels like torn loyalties in the creative team between telling the real story here (Margaret's, or perhaps her son's, heir apparent Prince Jamie) and staying true to the "James Plays" conceit. Director Laurie Sansom departs sharply from the aesthetics of the previous two plays with a flashy, modern look-- I wished at times that Munro had been equally willing to depart structurally from the preceding plays as well. After all, Shakespeare named a play Henry VI even though the titular monarch doesn't appear until halfway through. 

The ending is very exciting, though, and it contains some of the most visually arresting moments of staging in the entire trilogy. The final scene was moving, and I can easily imagine that it would be an utter gut-punch coming at the end of a three-show marathon day.  

I'm excited about the sudden prevalence of history plays here (and also with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's American Revolutions project, which seems to be supplying most of the American history plays that are appearing in New York City and elsewhere). Obviously this is partly because of my own tastes-- I just love historical fiction-- but I'm also happy that the theatre seems to be re-embracing a genre that is uniquely suited to our capabilities. It's very difficult for a play to be as timely as a newscast or a sketch show can be. But a history play can be thoughtful, slow to create, and incisively political all at once, as long as it's in the hands of a clever playwright. The murmurings and mumblings that each James Play would occasionally provoke seem good proof of that: the audience was plainly alive to references and allusions and ideas in a way that I, admittedly, could not be, as neither a Brit nor someone well-versed in Scottish history. 

So, I'm excited in turn by the James Plays' success: because they're history plays; because they're long, dense, political works that have found commercial and popular acclaim; because I hope they are only one stop in a much bigger trend. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Review: James I and James II

For the record, the title of the first two parts of The James Plays at the National Theatre are The Key Will Keep the Lock and Day of The Innocents, respectively. I could not for the life of me remember either of these all day, and in fact misremembered the second play's title the first time I typed it out. But you're in good shape when the only uninteresting thing about your play is the title. The first two of the three James Plays are sharp, exciting, and moving contemporary versions of a Shakespearean history play. 

It's quite exciting to see, for once, a history play in which I knew absolutely none of the history. Admittedly, this came to result in some missed moments (is a lord furiously declaring to his king that his people will hate him forever prophetic, or ironic?), but it also made it easy to accept Rona Munro's plays as the exciting dramas-- I would even go so far as to say tragedies-- that they are. 

Some of Shakespeare's history plays, including Richard III and King John, were variously billed as histories and tragedies, which reflects the uncertain place this emergent dramatic form held in the early modern period. But it also draws attention to how often a history play-- especially a history play centered around a single figure-- can look very similar to a fictional tragedy. At least in the first two parts of the James Plays, Munro seems to be suggesting that you cannot tell a story about a king that is not a tragedy. As Shakespeare himself explored before her, it seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that becoming a good king (or a good political ruler of any kind, for that matter) means selling part of your soul. 

There is something really striking about seeing such self-consciously Shakespearean plays telling Scottish history in the same year as an independence referendum. The ghost of Shakespeare is, in some ways, addressed head on in the first scene of James I, where the first king to enter and speak is not James himself, but King Henry V (Jamie Sives, who returns as James III), here portrayed as a blustering, swearing bully who nevertheless makes good use of his short reign. It's also a useful warning shot: the titles and structures may suggest Shakespeare's histories, but this is a place where his heroes are turned upside down, the saviors and villains of the history of the British Isles inverted.  

At the beginning of James I, King James I has spent 18 years as a captive in the courts of Henry V and Henry IV, and has passed the years studying history and writing love poetry (some of which is used as lyrics in the very lovely songs-- performed by  ensemble member Fiona Wood and composed by Paul Leonard-Morgan-- interspersed throughout the play). The tremendously good James McArdle is stammering, unassuming, and easily cowed by the forceful Henry, who humiliates him in front of a band of aristocratic Scottish prisoners, then orders him to return to Scotland for the first time in his adult life to secure English interests there, including forcing peace on the borders and raising the money for his own ransom. 

Aside from various modern stylistic choices, and of course a modern vocabulary of expletives, one of the ways Munro diverges most strikingly from a Shakespearean model-- and indeed, from the pattern of historical films and plays today-- is her dedication to creating a place for female characters. A sequence in which a battlefield and childbed are simultaneously present onstage exemplifies Munro's insistence that the devalued roles of women are equally historically important as the battles and treaties guided by men. In James I, this is displayed primarily by her sensitive portrayal of Joan (Stephanie Hyam), James's 17-year-old English consort. 

From King Henry's opening attempts to instruct James on how to be a ruthless king like himself, to the gradual revelation of the real reasons behind James's imprisonment, Munro expertly weaves James's life story in and over on itself, each incident and episode echoing alongside what we've heard and learned and seen and been warned until it culminates at last in a truly moving final battle against an unexpected enemy I have no wish to spoil. It was in this sequence that my lack of knowledge of history was most exciting: I had no idea what was going to happen, and only Munro's excellently crafted framework to guide my expectations. 

James II moves at a blistering pace, feeling rather shorter than James I, even though it clocked in ten minutes longer at our performance. Though no Englishmen appear, I couldn't help but think about Shakespeare's 1 Henry IV, as it too tells the parallel stories of a prince and a nobleman's son, one learning to come into his own and the other apparently destined to be a disappointment. But unlike Prince Hal and Hotspur, King James II and William Douglas are best friends from childhood-- which we learn through a fascinating flashback/dream sequence that mixes light, dance, and puppetry to tell the blood-soaked story of James II's childhood and accession to the throne at age 6. 

James II (Andrew Rothney), marked by a vibrant wine-stain birthmark on his face and still controlled by a regency government at age 19, is lively but unstable, plagued by violent nightmares of his past and unable to control the acts his regents undertake in his name. Meanwhile, William (Mark Rowley) is a drinking, raiding, high-spirited disgrace to his physically and verbally abusive father, whom we have seen connive his way from the simpering, landless Balvenie in James I into the Earl of Douglas (Peter Forbes).

James II is less tightly constructed than its predecessor-- the fascinating nightmare sequences drop away, and in the second act overall it feels as if important steps on James and William's emotional journeys have been elided. But it all ties together in the end, if not quite as perfectly as James I, as resonantly and in a more viscerally shocking way. 

Munro and director Laurie Sansom draw neat lines between the first two parts, both in lines that echo each other across plays and in clever double-casting-- Henry V and James III, as mentioned above, but also Stephanie Hyam as both James's foreign wives, Andrew Rothney as a rebellious lordling in James I, and Gordon Kennedy as a pair of very different regents. I expect more will emerge in part three. 

Judging by other critics, who insist that the plays be taken as a trilogy, it seems inappropriate to say anything conclusively until I've seen James III. So all I will say is that I'm looking forward to it very much. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Review: Julius Caesar

There are just so many quotable lines in Julius Caesar. For a play that's done relatively infrequently, it's really remarkable how fast and thick the memorable moments come: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves," "Cowards die many times before their deaths, the valiant never taste of death but once," "Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears," "Et tu, Brute?" and so many more. And it can be hard to stay focused on a play, and what the actor is actually doing in the moment, when the lines keep setting off little pings of recognition in the back of your head. 

But the Globe's current production goes a long way towards making one forget all that. Of course you're never really going to stop thinking that "the noblest Roman of them all" sounds really familiar, but Dominic Dromgoole's dynamic, continually engaging production, and especially its charismatic central performances, will at least keep you from thinking about it for too long. 

At the center of it all is Tom McKay's Brutus, a sensitive and thoughtful Roman senator who has come to the painful realization that his close friend and political ally, Julius Caesar, has just gotten a bit too powerful. His Brutus strikes all the right notes: compelling, compassionate, outwardly stoic but deeply feeling, and just a little too good for the sordid world he's living in. 

The two primary champions of the grimy politics and utilitarianism that Brutus can barely conceive, much less embrace, are Cassius and Mark Antony. Anthony Howell's Cassius is fierce and proud, and plainly unskilled at masking his thoughts in the way that success in politics demands. He is more than eager, though, to goad Brutus into spearheading a movement he knows he himself cannot lead. At the other pole is Mark Antony, charmingly played by Luke Thompson, who embraces the grinning irreverence that causes Brutus and the other conspirators (with Cassius the notable and vocal exception) to dismiss Mark Antony out of hand. But as soon as he has the opportunity to seize some power of his own, Thompson masterfully flips the switch to swelling rage and genuine sorrow... though not so genuine that he's unable or unwilling to deploy his tears for strategic political use. 

Antony can hide anything-- Brutus and Cassius, nothing. Though their final clash is on the battlefield, in the world of politics, it seems clear who is destined to succeed. 

The man himself is played by George Irving, whose occasionally comic pomposity falls away in tantalizing flashes of humanity with his wife, with Antony, and of course in his final moments. The conspirators don't necessarily seem wrong to suspect this Caesar of harboring delusions of godhood, but the brutality of his murder (and, indeed, of all the violence in the show) robs the republicans of any moral high ground they may have had. 

Julius Caesar is the longest of the Globe's currently running shows, but the pace and energy never flag. Every scene feels essential in a way that Caesar's somewhat episodic interludes, especially in the second act, sometimes do not. Worthy of mention are the murder of William Mannering's Cinna the poet, which prompted actual screams from the audience; Joe Jameson as Octavius Caesar, whose undisguised disdain nicely foreshadows the future breakdown of his and Antony's alliance; Christopher Logan's Casca revealing that he only plays the fool; and Dromgoole's haunting use of music and three Fate-like women (who of whom also play Portia and Calphurnia) who appear to herald important deaths. 

Dromgoole and the cast keep a constant eye on their interactions with the audience, with adds an essential current of energy to a play that is so much about the characters' relationships with the people of Rome. The groundlings especially are perfectly placed to join in the Lupercal celebrations of the first scene, to become Antony and Brutus's wavering crowds. It is this electric connection that helps to keep the play so exciting, and generates a feeling of intimate, personal involvement with the events onstage. 

In general, Dromgoole makes perfect use of the unique space on offer, not only with the way the actors engage the audience and often move through them, but in quick and seamless transitions that keep the scenes in constant motion. He veers seamlessly between realistic violence and impressionistic music (composed by Claire van Kampen) and battle scenes. 

I've complained before, and heard it said, that Julius Caesar is a broken-backed play: everything cool happens in the first three acts, and the last two feel extraneous. Not here. James Shapiro writes in A Year In the Life of Shakespeare: 1599 how the civil strife of acts 4 and 5 would have seemed, to an Elizabethan audience, a natural and necessary extension of the assassination of act 3, whereas a modern audience member or reader is perhaps more inclined to see an assassination as one event and the war as another. Dromgoole and his excellent cast pull taut emotional lines through the play, and the relationship between Brutus and Cassius becomes the spine around which everything else coalesces. The play could not possibly feel complete without following these two to the bitter end. 

As a wanna-be scholar, I know I'm supposed to be skeptical of claims of Shakespeare's timelessness. But there is something that feels terribly contemporary about the questions of love, friendship, and politics swimming around in this very exciting, very refreshing production. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Review: Pitcairn

A familiarity with playwright Richard Bean's transatlantic hit One Man, Two Guvnors will do more than you might expect to prepare you for his new play Pitcairn (now at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre via Chichester, and soon to be off to various other locations) a violent historical drama about the famous mutineers of the Bounty and the utopia they attempted to form on Pitcairn Island once the mutiny was done. At first it seemed like a fairly huge leap from a cheeky Goldoni rewrite to a slice of obscure colonial history (with some biting social satire in the middle with Great Britain, which transferred from the National Theatre to the West End and which I haven't yet seen). But what these plays share is a sense of the chaos that lies just beneath the surface in any society, no matter how idealistic or how polished. In One Man, Two Guvnors, this took the form of the barely controlled chaos of Francis's attempted deception and the fantastically melodramatic efforts of the various lovers to find each other. Pitcairn, on the other hand, turns on more troubling questions of what, exactly, apparently unjust laws and social hierarchies are designed to hold in check. 

This is a pretty pessimistic view of human nature. But no one comes out terribly well in 18th century history, do they. As if mutiny and murder weren't enough to contend with, there's the entrenched classism, racism, sexism, and slavery, too. And on Pitcairn, all of these are forced into the crucible of a one-mile by two-mile island populated by just a handful of British sailors and Tahitian men and women. As Richard Bean noted repeatedly in the pre-show talk that I attended, beyond that, no one really knows what happened on Pitcairn. Only one participant in the mutiny was alive by the time the inhabitants of Pitcairn were discovered, and his accounts of what took place were inconsistent. And as the conclusion of Bean's play emphasizes, it's more than likely that he would have had good reason to be dishonest about what he saw and did. 

Bean's Fletcher Christian (only in his mid-twenties at the time of the mutiny, played by a splendid Tom Morely) is an idealist, equally convinced of the doctrines of social equality gaining currency at the time, and that their former captain, Bligh, did not die when they left him out at sea, and will be returning to see him hanged. The parallel currents of passion and paranoia undermine Christian's visions of utopia from the start. 

In the pre-show talk, Bean said that once he learned that the play would be performed at the Globe, he made some rewrites, including the addition of two characters who function as narrators and interact directly with the audience. Director Max Stafford-Clark sends them out into the audience to speak to the groundlings, asking questions and demanding actual answers. Hiti (Eben Figuelredo) is a Tubayan teenager who longs to join the sexual utopia the British have promised. Mata (Cassie Layton) is the Tahitian wife of Christian's fellow officer Ned Young (Ash Hunter), stolen from Tahiti in the dead of night. Her early delight with what the English soldiers have to offer quickly fades as she and Hiti bring us through a series of episodic incidents that illustrate the downfall of society on Pitcairn. 

Hiti and Mata are never quite able to use their nuanced narrative voices in the actual scenes, which are unquestionably dominated by the Englishmen. The group of wives, led by the two women who had been upper-caste back on Tahiti, stage interesting debates about who they are and where they belong, but they become a chorus of dissenting and agreeing voices, and few distinct pictures of actual characters emerge from among them. The same is largely true of the English, however, with Fletcher Christian the most obvious exception, at least until his eleventh hour scheme forces us to wonder how well we have really known him at all. This is all perhaps a necessary sacrifice when working with such a large cast, and it does not make the unfolding of events any less compelling. 

There are many tonal similarities between this and the Globe's other current contemporary play, Doctor Scroggy's War. Pitcairn is also frequently very funny, though the cards are laid out on the table very early: Hiti explains in one of his early monologues that "good days are life, and bad days are history," and he is here to tell us history. 

But what is history, anyway? Pitcairn is framed by the discovery of the island and its inhabitants by some Royal Navy officers many years after the mutineers land, when only one man is left alive in the aftermath of the carnage we subsequently witness, and he immediately starts telling stories about what has happened. Hiti and Mata tell different stories, and Fletcher Christian more, including railing against the power of the Bible to force men into submission to unjust authority. The stories they tell-- and the languages they tell them in, as highlighted by the warring use of English, Tahitian (though spoken onstage in English, but identified as Tahitian by changed accents and the men's responses to hearing it) and even the medium of the women's ritualized dances-- carry the power to create and destroy marriages, shape the future of their community, and sanction murder. 

Watching what he believed to be objective truths about human nature and society's potential dissolve before him, Christian seems to go slowly mad. But is it really because of wrecked idealism, or is it due to love? Are betrayals between the men rooted in classism and racism, or as revenge for long-ago slights on the Bounty? The what and the why prove equally fluid, and the constant and never-resolved urge to seek answers to those questions is a large part of what makes the play so engaging. As one of the women asks early on, "Are we in England or Tahiti?" Or Eden? Or Hell? Whose narrative will dominate? 

Bean's narrative comes out in the end with a strange kind of hope, not necessarily for human goodness, but at least for human resilience. If nothing else, people do seem to survive.