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.