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.