Review: As You Like It

The Lady Parts blog recently posted a casting notice for Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It which described her like so: “a saucy, sexy heroine who saves herself (and others) all while getting her man.”

….well, it’s not wrong? “Saucy” is indeed a word Rosalind uses to describe her intended behavior when she is in disguise as the shepherd boy Ganymede. Sexy… well, her lover Orlando thinks so, though in his self-centered, Petrarchan rhapsodies, he probably wouldn’t use exactly that term. But the only thing Rosalind can really be said to save anyone from is sexual frustration: the real danger lurks outside of the Forest of Arden where she, in her own words again ‘proves a busy actor’ in both the pursuit of her own desires and others’. She does get her man, though. But only after teaching him how to deserve her. 

That dangerous outer world where the play begins– the dual courts of Duke Frederick, who exiled his brother, Rosalind’s father; and that of Oliver de Boys, who has robbed his youngest brother Orlando of his inheritance– seems best characterized in the Globe’s current production by irrational hate. Oliver (William Mannering) confesses that he has no idea why he hates his brother so much, and Duke Frederick refuses to give his reasons for suddenly banishing Rosalind under pain of death. Orlando (Simon Harrison) brings traces of this fury and violence with him into the forest when he flees there, only to be quickly and easily pacified by the exiled Duke (David Beames, who also plays Frederick) and brought over to placid country living, where the only intrigues are romantic and the only violence done to deer. 

On the other hand is Rosalind, who is also forced to flee to save her life, and decides to do so disguised as a boy. I don’t know exactly how to describe what Michelle Terry does except to say that it is wholly winning. Her Rosalind shrieks and shouts and flails and makes faces and is dazzlingly clever yet utterly gobsmacked by her feelings for Orlando. It’s thrilling to watch a woman onstage behave with such lack of inhibition, and for that behavior to be framed as joyfully funny, not as laughable and worthy of mockery. And Terry’s Rosalind does not derive this abandon from her masculine guise– it is what characterizes her private games with her cousin Celia (Ellie Piercy, equally charming). Living as Ganymede simply allows her to bring all her exuberant weirdness out in public. Rosalind and Celia are perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest female friendship (the field of competition isn’t large), and director Blanche McIntyre’s greatest strength there and throughout the play (and one she also demonstrated in The Comedy of Errors) is perhaps her ability to recognize that comic characters can be absurd and human simultaneously. 

Another sterling example of this is James Garnon’s Jaques, melancholic follower of the exiled duke. I frankly tend to find Jaques insufferable, but Garnon’s depiction transformed my understanding. Rather than playing up the character’s pomposity and protestations of melancholy, his understated performance suggests something profoundly truthful about Jaques sadness, while avoiding the kind of hyper-naturalistic performance that does not work particularly well with classical texts in general, but especially not at the Globe. Oh, and he’s funny, too, and finds what seemed to me at least to be a genuinely original spin on the classic ‘All the world’s a stage…’ speech.

In a strange way, though, As You Like It could be Shakespeare’s most naturalistic play. Nothing much happens; the events are mostly structured around watching different characters encounter each other and just seeing what comes of it. It’s a testament to McIntyre’s skill that even so, the play never feels shapeless and the pace always seems brisk. It’s a delightful play about people finding themselves and each other; thankfully, this production doesn’t try to turn it into something more by making it Dark and Serious. Its ethos is perhaps best expressed (as so many things are) by Rosalind herself: “I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad.” As the first half of the play makes plain, such experiences cannot always be avoided… but As You Like It is more in the business of merrymaking. 

Review: Romeo and Juliet

I’ll just put this out there right up front: I’d never seen a good, live production of Romeo and Juliet. (Well, okay, one caveat: I saw it at OSF in I think 2007? And I remember that I liked the production, but I genuinely can’t remember a thing about it except the costumes. I also saw an hour-long, four person version, but that’s not quite the same. If I’ve seen other good ones, I can’t remember them.) I absolutely adore the play, but I forget that fact sometimes because it is being constantly misinterpreted and misrepresented.

So I’m pretty thrilled to have finally seen a truly lovely, moving Romeo and Juliet. 

All the previous productions have had myriad problems, but the most utterly lethal one, every time, has been the Juliet. Time after time, directors seem to forget that Juliet is required to carry essentially the entirety of act four and most of act five by herself, and cast wispy, pretty actresses who can float around a balcony but are incapable of presenting (and, I suspect, even recognizing) Juliet’s intelligence and the steely resolve which drives her through the latter half of the play. 

Basically what I’m saying is, thank God for Cassie Layton. Her artlessly youthful, awkward, practical Juliet anchors the play, and Layton carries Juliet from giddy confusion at her first encounter with Romeo (she doesn’t quite know what’s going on, but she knows she like it) through a subtle, gradual maturation to laughingly, and convincingly declaring to the Friar, “Talk not of fear.” Her eroding innocence and complete self-assurance make it impossible to dismiss her suicide as stupid youthful impulsiveness: both she and Samuel Valentine’s Romeo carry so entirely the weight of their circumstances it is wholly possible to believe that they are left with no other choice. Romeo’s lament that he has “stain’d the childhood of our joy with blood” rang particularly strikingly– they begin as innocents, but they do not end that way. 

Co-directors Dominic Dromgoole and Tim Hoare overlap and intercut scenes, drawing extra attention to the language of fate and foreboding that pervades the play, and highlighting the repetitions of language and imagery across successive scenes. The stylized opening chorus and the very well-carried final speeches by the parents and the friar (usually interminable if they aren’t cut, here feeling vital and weighty) remind us that this is in fact a civic tragedy: the original sin that must be punished is the intolerance and hate-mongering of the parents, not their children’s daring to love each other. 

Valentine (that’s his name, I swear) imbues Romeo’s self-centered dreaminess with an endearing sweetness, and a willingness to love that’s not just limited to Juliet and the unseen Rosaline: he’s warm and affectionate with his friends and mentors (Tom Kanji as Benvolio and the Friar and Steffan Donnelly as Mercutio) and seems genuinely open to reconciling with Tybalt, though the latter (Matt Doherty) will have none of it. This Romeo’s earnest efforts to avoid violence, both with Tybalt and Paris, added an additional dimension to his near-catatonic grief at the news of his banishment: he mourns the thought of losing Juliet, certainly, but that crazed edge to his torment certainly seems to be equally borne of guilt and horror at what he has done. 

The balcony scene is suffused with genuine joy and wonder, and Dromgoole and Hoare are unafraid not only to allow the first three acts to be lighthearted, but don’t try to erase the comic moments written even into the latest scenes. Kanji and Donnelly’s drunken wanderings as Benvolio and Mercutio are very charming, and Lord Capulet (Steven Elder) emerges as surprisingly funny. He is flanked by Hannah McPake’s steely Lady Capulet and Sarah Higgins’s completely delightful Nurse, both of whom prove cannier than their sex and station allow them to openly appear. They do what Juliet cannot: push aside their own desires, lower their eyes, and surrender, after some resistance, to Lord Capulet’s demands. No wonder he is so willing to believe in Juliet’s sudden reformation. 

Atmospheric music contributes to the stylized tone, and the acts are bookended with a relatively lighthearted musical number featuring the company as the band, plus a very charming jig that frankly comes as a relief after the devastating final scene in the Capulet tomb. Dromgoole, as ever, knows exactly how to tread the line between a contemporary audience’s naturalistic expectations and the presentational, theatrical nature of Shakespeare’s actual writing. Elevating the material in this way, rather than making it stagey and artificial, grants permission to believe in everything: of course Romeo and Juliet are perfect for each other, of course it’s true love, it’s right there in the poetry.

Review: The Merchant of Venice

How do you solve a problem like Shylock? The British theatre scene is going to take several cracks at the question this season: the Almeida’s production of The Merchant of Venice ran this winter, and both Shakespeare’s Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company are presenting it this summer. I saw the Globe’s version first, and their answer to that question is compelling and simple: cast Jonathan Pryce. 

One of the reasons I hate labels like ‘romance’ or ‘problem play’ or ‘late comedy’ is because they imply a chronological progression of Shakespeare’s work that simply doesn’t exist. The Merchant of Venice was probably written in the mid 1590s, but this early comedy shares all the troubling aspects that supposedly characterize ‘late comedies’ like Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well. The relatively straightforward comic story of the debt-ridden gentleman Bassanio’s attempts to woo a wealthy heiress, Portia, can hardly hold up an air of levity when laid against the story of the Venetian merchant Antonio, whose ‘joking’ bond of a pound of his own flesh against 3000 ducats takes a turn when Antonio defaults on the debt and the Jewish moneylender Shylock becomes determined to claim his bond.

Director Jonathan Munby creates a convincingly dangerous Venice, filled with drunken, thoughtless aristocrats whose revels– as we see in an extended masquerade sequence at the beginning of the play– are capable of seamlessly devolving into anti-Semitic violence. Dominic Mafham’s apparently mild-mannered Antonio, pining away with unrequited love for Daniel Lapaine’s particularly dense Bassanio, displays virulent bigotry against Shylock. Its suddenness and violence, combined with the sharp, charming intelligence of Pryce’s asides, weights the play at once in Shylock’s favor without falling into either of the most dangerous traps: turning him into a comic caricature, or portraying him as a nebbish victim whose later retaliatory violence seems to have no cause. 

Despite his many early asides, Pryce’s Shylock is ultimately opaque: when he says the bond will only be a joke, and laughingly insists to Bassanio that he would gain nothing by actually claiming Antonio’s flesh, it is unclear if he is setting up a long game, or really intends to make peace. Either way, the elopement of his daughter Jessica with Antonio and Bassanio’s friend Lorenzo becomes an essential hinge, granted particular weight in this production by allowing the love between Jessica and Lorenzo to be genuine rather than, as is so often the case, cynical and bleak. Ben Lamb plays Lorenzo as staunchly well-meaning, though increasingly aware that there are more differences than he expected between himself and his canny, converted wife. Phoebe Pryce (surely an awkward role to be playing opposite your actual father) is an active presence even in silence: her Jessica is always watching, and unlike so many portrayals, she rejects an overly simplistic understanding of Jessica’s situation. Ms. Pryce not only seems to understand, but is able to wonderfully subtly depict Jessica’s simultaneous love for Lorenzo, confusion and isolation in her new culture, dislike for her father’s repressive household, and affection for the man himself. 

The richness and depth of the Pryces’ characterizations makes it difficult for the Portia and Bassanio’s half of the story to rebalance the scales, though some of the wittier secondary characters– Gratiano (David Sturzaker), Nerissa (Dorothea Myer-Bennett), and the clown Lancelot Gobbo (Stefan Adegbola) in particular– really shine. 

It seems fairly obvious that the sudden and alarming rise of anti-Semitic violence in Europe is why everyone has decided to put on The Merchant of Venice this year, though none of the theatres in question have actually said so thus far. But the questions this production– and particularly its trial scene– raised for me were about power more broadly. The horror of the trial, for me, lay in the ease with which the law was turned against Shylock. We witness the full power of the state come bearing down on him, and the glee with which Portia, Antonio, and the Duke of Venice himself see it happen. They will do anything to turn the law against him. 

The margins of The Merchant of Venice seethe with otherness: a Moroccan prince, a ‘Moorish’ maid servant, Portia’s complaints about suitors who cannot speak Italian– even Adegbola’s increasingly cheerfully rebellious Lancelot, as an emissary from the lower class, contributes to the continual battering of the facade of homogeneity that the rich, white, Christian central characters seem so determined to preserve. While this production only faintly raises the specter of this power, perhaps that is correct: it shifts on the sides and underneath. Shylock can only impotently rage at the society that oppresses him, that steals his daughter from him– and against this backdrop, is vicious vengeance is rendered, if not good, certainly not nonsensical. 

Review: The Broken Heart

After a point, it must have gotten difficult for Jacobean dramatists. Revenge-filled bloodbaths are in, and sooner or later, your audience isn’t going to bat an eye at your traditional stabbings, stranglings, or poison-coated objects. You need to come up with something really odd.

Luckily, John Ford was ready to deliver. 

The Sam Wanamaker’s latest revenge tragedy in a season full of them, Ford’s The Broken Heart (directed by Caroline Steinbeis) concludes with some of the most bizarre and upsetting methods of death the new theatre has seen so far. And remember they also did Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. 

Actually, The Broken Heart has occasional echoes of ‘Tis Pity: its central character (at least at first) is Orgilus, a young man whose engagement was abruptly broken off by the lady’s brother, Ithocles, who gave his sister away to someone else (someone else who, at one point, becomes convinced that his new bride, Penthea, is sleeping with her brother, among others). Orgilus has been driven frantic by his loss, and busies himself with obsessing over his own sister’s chastity and disguising himself as a monk. Ithocles, meanwhile, has returned from war and is showered with praise, titles, and rewards from the King– but finds that all this is worth nothing, because he has fallen in love. This is a source of twofold pain: he is in love with Princess Calantha, whom he can never hope to wed, and his new understanding of the pain of thwarted affection has caused him to feel unassuageable remorse for what he did to Orgilus and Penthea. 

What’s most fascinating about the play overall is its gestures towards a very modern-feeling psychological complexity. Ithocles, for example, has undergone a genuine change of heart that Orgilus refuses to acknowledge. Luke Thompson’s dynamic and compelling Ithocles, by turns glowing with youthful arrogance and staggered by the weight of his own guilt, could almost be the hero of a play written 300 years later. Unfortunately for him, in Brian Ferguson’s manic Orgilus, he’s matched with an old-style revenger, and their clash seems almost to be as much stylistic as moral: Orgilus cannot believe that Ithocles can possibly have truly changed. It seems at the last that Ithocles can’t wholly believe it, either. 

Equally well-drawn by Ford and well-performed are the ladies, Amy Morgan dominating the first half as Penthea and Sarah MacRae’s Calantha bursting center stage in the second. The play flits from perspective to perspective, allowing many characters– the women included– to take control of the story at different moments. It’s not until late in the second act that the familiar steps of the revenge tragedy are set into motion, and by then it’s abundantly clear that these characters will not conform quietly to their traditional roles– though there still are, as mentioned above, plenty of deaths carried out in spectacularly bizarre manners. 

Steinbeis’s production joins Jacobean and steampunk-Spartan in costuming combinations that don’t always make complete sense, but are unquestionably striking. She wisely allows the tone to be frequently comical, especially in scenes with Pentha’s husband Bassanes (Owen Teale), the King of Argos (Joe Jameson), and even Orgilus and Ithocles. A favorite gesture is letting all the courtiers awkwardly laugh at the king’s bad jokes. However, everyone is treated fairly– which seems like a strange thing to say. But the complexities of Ford’s characterizations could easily be smoothed over by an inattentive director; similarly, the blurring of comic and tragic could allow the ending to descend into violent farce, as was somewhat the case with ‘Tis Pity earlier this season. Steinbeis and the actors, however, allow all the characters the dignity of their complications.

The Broken Heart is the only extant early modern play set in Sparta, and fittingly, the dominant note for most of its characters is stoicism: excessive displays of emotion are roundly mocked, impeccable self control the highest form of honor. I’m still not entirely convinced as to how a revenge tragedy was meant to make one feel– not genuinely sorrowful, surely? The admirable resolve with which every character faces their demise makes it difficult to feel sad, exactly. Or have we just lost the ability to connect to such stylized emotions? But this production comes closer than most– not that its characters would want you to admit it. 

Some Thoughts: Othello

I had the opportunity to see Playing Shakespeare’s Othello at the Globe, their educational performance that is being presented for free to secondary schools in London. Though I feel like I’ve seen about a hundred Othellos recently, this production illuminated some things in interesting ways that seem worth highlighting.

Othello himself (played by the preposterously handsome and very talented Lloyd Everitt) is presented as more explicitly foreign than I’ve previously scene: he speaks with what I believe is a West Indian accent, though I’m not entirely sure. While quoting Othello in the scene before we’ve actually met him, Iago (Jamie Beamish, whose magnetic and mercurial Iago’s finest hour is when he extravagantly decries honesty in favor of wisdom in order to regain Othello’s trust) imitates this accent, leaving us unsure until the next scene if this is actually a trait of his, or just exaggerated racism on Iago’s part. In the text, Othello is of course specified as being not only racially other, but foreign as well– he’s not just a black Venetian. The accent is a useful reminder of this double difference, and draws attention to Iago’s many references to Othello perhaps not being acquainted with the customs of the country… which helps make Othello’s belief in Iago’s lies still more credible. 

The setting is World War I, which some people are probably totally sick of this year, but I think works really well for the play. It allows for the explicitly military setting that I’m increasingly viewing as an essential element of the play, along with rigidly divided and traditionally signified class differences that are equally important and sometimes a little too blurred in a contemporary setting. 

The play is only an hour and 50 minutes with no interval, and some of the heaviest cuts are to Desdemona’s speeches, including entirely excising her speech about following Othello to the wars. Obviously, I am usually hugely opposed to the all-too-common impulse to cut female characters’ lines just because they don’t seem very important (they are!!!), but in this case, it has a really interesting effect that I definitely didn’t hate. Stripped of most of her speech at the beginning of the play, Desdemona (Bethan Cullinane) becomes much more of a cypher, and it then becomes strangely easier to believe in Othello’s suspicion because she is so constantly cheerful, polite, and performative in her sweetness. It is easy to imagine her lying to her father, and I was very aware, when she denies to Othello that the handkerchief is missing, that she instantly resorts to cheerful lying rather than just telling the truth. Only after Othello is fully convinced of her adultery do we begin to see Desdemona’s real character– and therefore, her innocence. It strengthens Othello’s character without ultimately depriving hers of too much depth. (But in general I think we should just let ladies have all the lines they can get.)

The scene where Iago gets Cassio drunk is rapidly becoming one of my favorites, and has often proved to be a really excellent moment of crystallization for a lot of a given production’s ideas, especially about class. In this case, the soldiers sing and play a drinking game to which Cassio only vaguely knew the rules, and which quickly devolves into a gleefully seized chance for the enlisted men to haze their officer. In response, Cassio drunkenly attempts to salvage his dignity with a flash of rage, which leads smoothly into his attack on Roderigo. Freddie Stewart’s is a more openly self-interested Cassio than many I’ve seen lately, more completely disdainful of Bianca, and hinting at a genuine interest in Desdemona early on. 

The violence is all very sharp and well-handled, some of the best hand-to-hand combat I’ve seen in a while, particularly a chillingly intimate moment (and a nice foreshadowing of what was to immediately follow) in the penultimate scene when Roderigo attacks Cassio and Iago wounds him. As Roderigo stumbles away, Iago comes up directly behind Cassio and covers his eyes with his hand. Cassio manages at first to block Iago’s thrust (which, unlike many where he hastily goes for the hamstring, is clearly intended to be a killing blow) and they grapple there for a few moments before Iago manages to redirect and go for the leg.  

Obviously this production is after something much different than most things I talk about on here, but I appreciated that the director (Bill Buckhurst) and team clearly did not decide that being an educational production meant that they didn’t need to bother clearly thinking through a concept or trying to achieve nuanced and well-conceived performances. In fact, though the style is often more declamatory and outward-facing than I’ve gotten used to seeing lately in the Sam Wanamaker, I think in many ways the scenes that more completely eschew naturalism in this way are the most successful, and a useful reminder of the style of performance the space demands. 

Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

I sometimes think that the most effective plays invite an audience to step into the mind and heart of someone whose point of view the have never previously had cause to consider; to spend an evening looking through someone else’s eyes. This is what The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, adapted from Mark Haddon’s novel by Simon Stephens, achieves. 

Masterfully directed by Marianne Elliott, Curious Incident sees the world through the eyes of Christopher Boone, a fifteen-year-old boy who is somewhere on the autism spectrum, confused by people but brilliant at mathematics, and determined to set the world to right when he finds his neighbor’s dog stabbed with a rake in her garden. Graham Butler presents Christopher with complete, guileless sincerity and impressive physical control. Elliott and her designers create a technological dreamscape: a black box of a set intersected with a light-up grid, projections of mathematical equations, numbers, drawings, and noises, roiling ensemble movement by Frantic Assembly’s Vicki Manderson– and Christopher at the center of it all, whose alternating coldness and intensity, when cast against this depiction of his elaborate and confusing perspective on the world, become perfectly understandable. Christopher sees his journey as an epic quest or a Sherlock Holmes adventure, and the play itself never mocks him by reminding us to think of it otherwise. 

The action is complemented by narration ‘written’ by Christopher and read out by one of his teachers, Miss Siobhan (Sarah Woodward). From her, as well as Christopher’s neighbors and parents, we get glimpses of the workings of the world outside Christopher’s mind. We see or overhear only the conversations and exchanges that Christopher does, but often we receive information from them that he does not. It’s a really remarkable and effective layering of Christopher’s subjectivity and our position as outsiders looking into his world; we are never fully pushed away from our alliance with him, but we simultaneously can fill in richer details about the ‘real’ world that all rush to the forefront in the beautiful final moments of the play. 

Curious Incident takes full advantage of the opportunities presented by live theatre (at one point literally declaring its intention of doing so) and revels in the limitations. I never thought that this might make a good movie (a far-too-rare feeling with new plays, in my opinion) and more significantly for an adaptation, I never found myself wondering about the novel. Not that I’m not curious to read it now, as I’m sure it’s very good, but the storytelling and even the narration never left me picturing words on the page, or wondering how a scene would have been illustrated with prose. The story felt not like prose slightly twisted to fit onstage, but essentially theatrical. 

The success of such an unusual story in both London and New York probably speaks for itself, at this point. But it’s always exciting to experience such a moving, well-crafted evening at the theatre. 

Review: Othello

There are a lot of factors, of course, but I think one of the reasons that West Side Story worked, and continues to work so well is because gangs are one of the last areas in contemporary life where audiences will readily accept that murderous violence can spring up at the drop of a hat. Frantic Assembly’s Othello, running at the Lyric Hammersmith, adopts this setting, and the feel does remind one of West Side Story, but it manages to achieve its startlingly contemporary feel with Shakespeare’s original language. 

Said language is, admittedly, in a shortened form– 100 minutes with no interval, though the scenes were adapted masterfully and nothing essential felt lost– and delivered in heavy Northern accents that had the London A-levels students sitting around us giggling for about the first quarter of the play. Boys and girls alike have track pants and trainers, the ladies in crop tops and the boys in hoodies. They smoke and drink and play the slots machine in the corner, the ‘Turkish fleet’ consists of unseen honking cars and a brick thrown through a bar window, and lieutenancy is conferred by passing along custody of a baseball bat. Scenes are supplemented with long, silent sequences of dynamic, hip-hop inflected dance that tells the story as clearly as any of the dialogue. 

Othello’s (Mark Ebulue) difference is marked in many ways besides his race: he’s more obviously muscular than other men, southern-accented, and calm and steady in contrast to the impulsive exuberance of the others– which makes the change that Steven Miller’s temperamental Iago is able to work in him so sinister. This is not an Iago who is able to think ten steps ahead– we see him working it all out in the moment, sometimes almost a beat too slowly (as when Roderigo threatens to expose him)– and the excitement and tension of watching this process is at least as compelling as more composed Iagos playing ringmaster. 

Kirsty Oswald’s Desdemona is perhaps my favorite I’ve ever seen: spirited and defiant not just to her father, but throughout. She does not cry for the entirety of the final two acts, as so many Desdemonas unfortunately do, but teases, flirts, and fights for her life. She’s no chaste angel, but it is equally clear that she would never betray the man she loves. One of the most interesting examples of director Scott Graham’s adaptation is the rearrangement of scenes and entrances to allow Desdemona and Othello to have an early scene alone. I’d never before realized that they are, in the original text, never left by themselves before he kills her. Here, they are allowed a moment of intimacy and private tenderness that grounds their love in more than just public protestations. Desdemona’s friendship with Emilia (Leila Crerar) is one of equals, and the latter’s desperate loyalty comes from a form of friendly love that is much more recognizable to a modern audience than the mistress/servant relationship. After shrinking from Iago’s cruelty and allowing herself to be casually groped by most of the others, Emilia blazes to life in the final third of the play, and when she finally seizes the right to speak for herself, she is fearless and formidable. 

The set (design by Laura Hopkins) moves seamlessly from very dingy bar to back alley, but even when safely indoors the walls will undulate to underscore the characters’ uncertainty and distress– as Cassio (a charming Ryan Fletcher) is getting wasted, for example, or Iago is panicking about how to plant the handkerchief on him. Though the excellent dance/movement sequences peter off towards the end of the play, the final moments of violence are viscerally shocking in a way that such well-trodden tragedies often cannot quite manage. I was most aware, during the final moments, of how young everybody seemed to be– and that unlike the glooming peace that ends many versions of Othello, the cycle of violence here has no end in sight. 

Adaptations: Into the Woods

All in all, Into the Woods is– fine. The cast are all good to great, everything looks very pretty. But frustratingly, I think if a little more time had been spent thinking not about just putting the musical onto the screen, but adapting it to the screen, it could have been a truly great musical movie. 

What I mean by this is, Into the Woods‘ jokes, subversions, and structure are built on top of theatrical tropes, not least the device of the intermission itself. It’s a musical that’s made to be cut in half, and its structure within the acts– especially the first– relies on repetitions, reprises, montage-esque group numbers, and direct address. Rob Marshall did not grapple with how to translate any of these devices to film, beyond cut-away montages for the group numbers and changing some direct-address songs to be delivered to other characters. But more than the slight awkwardness of these choices, it’s missing the point: Into the Woods riffs not just on fairy tales, but on the way those stories are told in the theatre. I don’t know what cinematic devices could replace things like the false ending before intermission, but I’m sure such tropes exist, and utilizing them to turn Into the Woods into a movie that comments on film in the same way the play comments on theatre would have pushed it, in my opinion, over the line into becoming the movie musical that finally cracks the code. This might also have forced the filmmakers to think harder about the story they were telling, and pushed them away from some cuts and changes that ultimately left the second half, which is supposed to be the weighty one, feeling a bit bloodless. 

This hinges, in part, on a decision that I thought I would hate but instead found almost worked: actual kids playing Jack and Little Red Ridinghood. After Little Red’s number, I was firmly in the “no” camp– the song lost all of its hesitant glances towards impending adulthood, and the sexual elements just felt like an unfortunate implication. But after both her and Jack (who I felt straddled the becoming-an-adult line better than Red) delivered their songs to the Baker, I began to be intrigued by the idea of the Baker becoming a sort of semi-unwilling receptacle for children’s stories, and hoped it would maybe replace stepping into his father/narrator’s shoes as a reason for becoming a storyteller himself at the end. It also made me look anew at the progression of the lessons learned, seeing more clearly that in the first half, the children (and to a great extent, the Baker and his Wife, and the Witch as well, are still like children) come of age and learn their expected lessons. And then in the second half, the adults realize that the lessons don’t stop now that you’re grown. Unfortunately, that’s not quite what happened. 

Yes, they don’t kill Rapunzel. And it doesn’t work. The Witch learning that you have to let your children go is easy and boring; the Witch finally being proven right that the world is dangerous, but finding only loss in the victory is complicated and interesting and much sadder. Losing the reprise of “Agony” also doesn’t work, and not just because it clearly would have been amazing– but because you lose not only the comedy, but the weight behind the Prince’s later confession that he thought marriage would mean an end to longing. And finally, while losing “No More” almost works, it’s just a huge shame, and makes the Baker’s decision to return feel far too quick and easy. All of these choices combined to make the problems of the second half feel much simpler and shallower than those of the first– which is, of course, the opposite of how it ought to feel. 

There’s a lot of good too, mostly in the performances– which might be a first in 21st century movie musicals. I was completely enamored with James Cordon and Emily Blunt’s Baker and Wife, and I thought the decision to have Cordon narrate was the best thing you can do if you can’t have the narrator visible. They had fantastic chemistry and the exactly right sense of partnership. I only wish that Lapine hadn’t felt the apparent need to water down their prickliness from his original script: they never really fight here, never snap or get angry, and there’s something lost (particularly in “Moments in the Woods”) when their fantastic teamwork isn’t paired with reminders that their marriage is also difficult, and they don’t always get along. But Emily Blunt escapes Joanna Gleason’s long shadow, and James Cordon made me badly wish I could have seen his rendition of “No More.” 

 Anna Kendrick is utterly charming, though Cinderella probably suffered most from the oddly quick and shallow feel of what would be act two. Aside from my total shock that Chris Pine can sing, there’s nothing to say about “Agony.” You just have to see it.

And the film itself is unquestionably worth seeing. But I suspect those who are encountering Into the Woods for the first time on screen will need to look to the stage to understand what has made it an enduring classic of musical theatre.