Back to the Source

I’ve finally started reading some of the older Elizabethan history plays I probably should have read a long time ago. I’ve read some Holinshed and the other chronicle sources that have been identified as Shakespeare’s source material, but it’s instructive to see that some of his strongest influences were really earlier plays.

The case that has intrigued me most– in large part because it’s one I’ve barely seen discussed– is Shakespeare’s King John and its predecessor/maybe-source, The Troublesome Reign of King John. 

I fully recognize that this has almost certainly been discussed at length in scholarly literature I haven’t yet read, but I’m equally interested in the fact that while Shakespeare’s relationship to predecessor plays like The Famous Victories of Henry V and The True Tragedy of Richard III is common knowledge, this one doesn’t seem to be. Which is particularly interesting because some of the most famous features of the play– ones that Shakespeare gets a lot of credit for– actually derive from this earlier play.

Mostly, I’m talking about the Bastard.

He’s frequently correctly credited as Shakespeare’s only wholly fictional main character, but in such a way that also tends to give Shakespeare credit for making him up. But The Troublesome Reign of King John makes it plain that, fictional or not, he was an established aspect of the King John story that Shakespeare was adapting. So is the prominence of Queen Eleanor and Constance, and their sudden disappearance partway through the play, a structural feature I’ve seen frequently puzzled over.

While it’s not quite an answer just to say “it happens because he was copying his source play,” it does shed some light. We can’t fully understand what Shakespeare is doing in a play if we incorrectly believe he has originated characters and ideas that in fact he has borrowed from others. And it obscures what Shakespeare did innovate– in this case, for example, the deep ambivalence of the Bastard character, or Constance’s effusive mourning. And what he didn’t: the abrupt disappearance of Elinor and Constance.

It highlights the problems with only considering Shakespeare in isolation. Not only can it paint an inaccurate picture of the theatrical scene as a whole, it can create misleading assumptions about the plays themselves.

 

 

Thoughts: King Lear & Much Ado

Over the weekend, over the course of two productions, I had my first chance to see the Globe Theatre’s controversial new lighting rig and sound system, which it has been all but confirmed will be departing the space along with artistic director Emma Rice. The shows were King Lear, directed by Nancy Meckler, and Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Matthew Dunster. Both were matinees, which turned out to be a key element of my experience.

I could tell that both Lear and Much Ado had a lighting design because I could see the bulbs flashing on and off, see them changing colors, but I couldn’t actually see the effects of the lighting onstage. Because of course, in the daytime, the Globe’s only possible lighting plot is… the sun. You can’t see lighting design without darkness to contrast against. Neither show was noticeably harmed by this omission. If there was something important or particularly interesting that I missed because of the daylight, then frankly, that’s bad design. Because nearly half the performances at the Globe are matinees, and if nearly half your performances are missing an essential element, that’s a problem. And on the other hand, if the lighting matters so little that matinees aren’t materially harmed by not having it… then why have it? Why should the full experience of a show only be possible in half the performances?

This is an element of the controversy I haven’t seen discussed, and which hadn’t occurred to me before I experienced it firsthand. But having seen it, it feels essential. In many respects, the Globe is best approached not as a normal theatre, but a site specific performance space. If a show isn’t going to work with the physical conditions that the Globe imposes, then there’s not really any point in performing that show there. Similarly, if a design is just going to attempt to erase or fight against the facts of the space, then it doesn’t belong. A fact of the space is that matinees will take place in natural daylight, mostly during the summer. Yes, it’s England, and I was blessed with two particularly sunny days, but there aren’t that many summer afternoons where it’s going to be as dark as nighttime at 2pm.

Theatre is unpredictable, and every performance is different. But a design that demands such a fundamental difference between daytime and evening shows can’t really be waved off as merely a quirk of live performance. I don’t think any lighting designer would accept an argument that their work matters so little that it’s just fine if a large percentage of audiences just don’t see it. Setting aside questions of authenticity or historical accuracy or popularity, the simplest fact is that the lighting rig at the Globe Theatre, in the very literal sense of functioning correctly in order to perform its intended artistic role in a production, actually doesn’t work.

 

 

Justice for Ellen (and the women of Will)

(this post contains spoilers)

We’re four episodes into TNT’s new Shakespeare drama Will before we learn Ellen Burbage’s first name.

Between the boy players and Shakespeare’s absent wife and, you know, the general sexism of 16th century England, it’s easy to create stories about the early days of English drama that include no women at all. So Will deserves credit for its inclusion of James Burbage’s wife Ellen as a clearly integral part of the day-to-day running of the Theatre. But she’s Mistress Burbage, and Richard and Alice’s mum, and it’s not until four episodes in that anyone actually bothers to identify her by her first name.

It’s a little thing, but emblematic of Will’s not-quite-there treatment of its female characters. The show comes so close to finding a space for women in the tale of the early modern English theatre that it’s all the more frustrating that it falls short. The desire for interesting, important female characters is obvious, but the show stumbles in the execution, falling back on tired and disempowering period drama tropes.

Take Ellen Burbage. One of the best episodes gives her props as the power behind the throne, the real manager of her husband’s playhouse– but we never really see her doing this, and the idea is never quite mentioned again. Her real role is to alternately nag and support her family– and, in classic period drama mama fashion, push her daughter towards a sensible but loveless marriage and become furious when she refuses it.

It’s not nearly as bad as poor Anne Shakespeare, who of course Shakespeare does not love, and spends most of the series cheating on. Her role is only to realize that she is a fool for wishing her husband would be sensible and make money and help their three children, and instead must recognize his genius and– in her own words– “leave [him] free to succeed.” That is literally what she says. Literally. We’ll return to this idea.

Will gets points for including Emilia Bassano (and for casting her with a black actress), and loses them again for how she is used. There are a few striking scenes– and parallel scenes earlier, with Alice– in which Emilia makes key suggestions about the shape of Shakespeare’s works-in-progress. It might be an exciting example of someone finally depicting the collaborative nature of early modern playwriting– but it’s not. Shakespeare happily absorbs Emilia and Alice’s ideas without expectation of credit or acknowledgement on either side. He’s the writer, of course they have no use for their words or ideas (though Emilia’s own poetry is referenced, once) except to give them to him.

Obviously this is a slightly uncharitable reading– any writer knows that friends offer ideas and you duly steal them all the time. But it’s the positioning of both these women, both of whom claim to be artistic and ambitious in their own right, as having no real function except to serve Shakespeare. One suspects the writers think they are paying the women their due by having them make major contributions to famous works like Richard III, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and lines that will eventually go into Romeo and Juliet, but it only highlights their inferior position: they may make contributions, but the plays and the genius are still firmly Shakespeare’s.

Which brings us to Alice Burbage, Richard Burbage’s sister, Shakespeare’s love interest. To define her in any other terms is almost impossible, though there is a funny scene wherein she’s asked what she does at the playhouse, and she replies, “Not much,” before rattling off an endless list of scrivening, prop sorting, prompting, costume mending…

Like Ellen, the show fully accepts Alice’s role in the family business, though unlike Ellen, there are always hints that perhaps it’s inappropriate, perhaps she needs to marry. When Shakespeare firmly rejects her (at Ellen’s command), Alice turns to another idol, represented by another handsome young man: she converts to Catholicism under the guidance of Shakespeare’s cousin, the underground priest Robert Southwell. His luring of Alice smacks of nothing so much as the way cultists prey on the vulnerable, but by the end, the show tries to insist that we view this choice as Alice finally exercising her free will, that it has nothing to do with Shakespeare– though, of course, it has everything to do with him, as every single episode of the show has demonstrated. Even her departure has to do with him: she writes that she cannot be “part of [his] world”– even though it was her world first.

Alice, whose only wish has been to find a place for herself in the playhouse, is forced out to make room for Will, surrendering her piece of the Burbage family legacy in an act the writing attempts to frame as self-actualization, but just reads– ship voyage and all– exactly the same as Viola at the end of Shakespeare in Love, removing herself as a real, full person in order to become something more important: a character of Shakespeare’s, a piece of his mythology. Viola becomes Viola of Twelfth Night; Alice, associated throughout with lines from Romeo and Juliet, signs her final letter as Shakespeare’s “bright angel,” suggesting Shakespeare will use her as inspiration for Juliet. What better fate for a woman, these endings seem to say, than to be subsumed into a man’s legacy as a fictionalized, idealized version of yourself?

Joking discomfort with the fact of boy players means that, as Shakespeare conceives of and we see snippets of the plays performed, female characters are consistently erased or marginalized. The example I continually find most galling is Richard III. Even though Shakespeare and Alice earnestly discussed the character of Queen Margaret in previous episodes, no mention of her is made in that play, nor of the fact that Shakespeare’s only wholly original scenes, with antecedents in none of his sources, are those featuring the female characters.

The other female characters consist of a prostitute older sister who dies trying to flee with her younger brother; Richard’s friend/maybe-love-interest Moll, who gives him shit but ultimately believes in him; a love interest for Richard’s best friend, who is introduced and dies in a single episode; a tavern hostess/landlady; and a host of peripheral wives and children who are often, in traditional period drama fashion, used as the living emblem of the cost of whatever conflict their male relatives have become embroiled in.

The existence of Ellen, Alice, and Emilia alone put Will a step ahead of almost any other Shakespeare-related show or movie I can think of. But though it tries to make room for women, and deserves credit for the effort, it still can’t conceive of them as anything but satellites to men’s stories, defined primarily by their ability to advance or impede a man’s ambitions.

Best OSF Doubles 2017

One of the greatest delights of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is the repertory company, wherein actors play multiple roles in multiple plays across the season. As far as I know, dramaturgically engineering these roles for cross-show resonance is not really a priority. But sometimes it happens anyway. Here are some of my favorite pairs from the 2017 season:

Ned Alleyn (Shakespeare in Love)/Gaston (Beauty and the Beast) – James Ryen
James Ryen made his festival debut last year as Quang in Vietgone and Polixenes in A Winter’s Tale. His roles this year are more similar, but also amazing: the scenery-chomping Ned Alleyn (played in the film version by Ben Affleck and a valiant attempt at an English accent) and the scenery-scaling GastonThere would not be a single line out of place if Ned Alleyn sang “Gaston” about himself (swapping out the names, of course) and that makes this the perfect double.

Mark Antony (Julius Caesar)/The Beast (Beauty and the Beast) – Jordan Barbour
As I said to my viewing companion at intermission of Beauty in the Beast, there’s just a slight, subtle difference between the temperamental Beast and Shakespeare’s scheming orator. It’s always exciting to see an actor traverse such a wide section of their range in a single season, something that doesn’t often happen quite so dramatically even at OSF. In this case, the contrast between Mark Antony’s consummate emotional control and the Beast’s inability to manage his temper (or any other feelings) is fantastic, and Barbour’s ability to shift from such opacity to such vulnerability (while wearing Beast prosthetics, no less) is really impressive.

I also got to see Barbour go on as an understudy for the preening Richard Burbage in Shakespeare in Love, which added another fun layer of rivalry with James Ryen/Alleyn/the Beast.

Will and Viola (Shakespeare in Love)/Fenton and Anne Page (The Merry Wives of Windsor)- William DeMeritt and Jamie Ann Romano
I didn’t realize this neat echoing of lovers until near the very end of The Merry Wives of Windsor. If you don’t like how Shakespeare in Love ends, you can just pop across the courtyard to see these two get together after all. Their situations are reversed in the two plays, to a certain extent: one of the Pages’ concerns about Fenton is that he’s too high-status to actually be interested in their daughter, in contrast to the wealthy Viola’s inability to match beneath her station.

Portia (Julius Caesar)/Penelope (The Odyssey) – Kate Hurster
There were quite a few actors who appeared in both of these shows, but these were the most resonant examples. Kate Hurster’s two waiting wives– the patient Penelope and the ultimately despairing Portia– paint contrasting images of idealized femininity, both in the eras of their source material and, perhaps, our own: a core of strength that is still defined by and ultimately subject to her relationship with her husband.

Octavius (Julius Caesar)/Telemachus (The Odyssey)- Benjamin Bonenfant
Benjamin Bonenfant’s two heirs likewise feel like echoes, two young men grappling with their father’s (or uncle’s) legacies, with the choices that will bring them from boy to man. Telemachus is sweet and loyal, Octavius bubbling with latent danger; both the emblem of an uncertain future.

 

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Isabella?

Measure for Measure might be my least favorite Shakespeare play. Actually, I’m surprised it’s not being performed more often these days: it’s so perfectly in keeping with the black-and-grey, sexually obsessed moral flavor of so many popular prestige television shows.

One of the show’s key difficulties in my experience lies with the ostensible protagonist, the novice Isabella. Isabella goes to Angelo, standing in as leader while the Duke of Vienna is mysteriously absent, to plead for her brother’s life. Claudio has been sentenced to death for fornication under Angelo’s draconian new morality laws, and Isabella hopes to convince him that Claudio should be spared. Angelo, fastidiously morally upright, makes a shocking offer: he’ll free Claudio if Isabella will sleep with him. For Isabella, this is a no-brainer. But Claudio is shocked that she would choose her chastity over her brother’s life– and in my experience, modern audiences and readers tend to agree.

The fact that we don’t generally see this potential encounter as rape points to the shortcomings of popular understandings of consent. But it’s also a great example of a place where the gap between Shakespeare’s culture and ours tips the moral scales of his writing out of balance. We cannot conceive of weighting a woman’s virginity– even a nun’s– in equal balance with a man’s life. In the play itself, Claudio also represents this point of view, but it seems clear we’re meant to view Isabella’s dilemma as far more difficult than Claudio is right and Isabella is being a prude. I’ve read so many reviews that eagerly describe the chemistry between Angelo and Isabella– or condemn the lack thereof, as if the play clearly requires that Isabella share some form of Angelo’s attraction.

Randy Reinholz’s Off the Rails, an adaptation of Measure for Measure making its world premier at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, comes close to resolving this dilemma for a modern audience. Reinholz sets the action in late 19th century Nebraska, in a tiny wild west town that lies at the end of the railroad line, with one saloon, one jail cell, and an Indian boarding school. The ‘kill the Indian, save the man’ philosophy that formed the heart of the era’s forced assimilation policy for Native Americans becomes a central moral conflict of the play. Isabella (now Isabel) has converted to Christianity, graduated from her boarding school and is studying to become a teacher there. Her younger brother Momaday (the Claudio role) is rebellious and unwilling to renounce their Pawnee culture. When he impregnates an Irish servant in town, Angelo’s anger is as much racial as moral.

When Momaday criticizes Isabel for her refusal to sleep with Angelo to save his life, he turns the argument into a condemnation of her assimilation: she has chosen Christian morality, and the value it places on chastity, over her brother– and, by extension, their family and their culture.

Off the Rails does provide a more explicit outside defense of Isabel’s decision than Shakespeare, in the form of Madame Overdone, transformed from a bawdy, comic-relief bit part into the formidable proprietor who takes over the Duke’s role as orchestrator of the play’s resolution. To her, Isabel explains that she can’t bear the thought of bearing Angelo’s bastard, a position Madame Overdone sympathizes with, and one the program, if not quite the production, hammers home with its detailing of the characters’ mixed parentage: Lakota and French, Choctaw and Scottish.

But this grounds Isabel’s emotional and moral objection in practical reality, thus suggesting that these reasons– to not want to be coerced into sex, to think that chastity is important, to genuinely believe in her adopted Christian faith– are not enough. The racial politics of the situation (not to mention the utterly reprehensible Angelo of this production, who, despite hiding his violent religious fervor beneath a genial demeanor that’s honestly sort of charming, is established as a brutal hypocrite from the moment he’s introduced as the superintendent of the boarding school) helps weight the scales in Isabel’s favor, but Momaday’s castigation of her decision as a cowardly surrender to white, Christian morality swiftly unbalances them again. The physical practicality (one that you’d think a madame like Overdone would know how to avoid) is what allows Isabel to carry the day, not any respect for her ideological standpoint.

It’s enough for the purposes of the play. But it points to our enduring difficulty with granting a woman true autonomy over her body, with recognizing that violation can take place without violence. In Shakespeare’s day and Shakespeare’s play, there are troubling patriarchal mores that lend weight to Isabella’s obsessive defense of her virginity, and those are best lost. But even without them, there’s power in her refusal. I don’t know that we’re meant to think Isabella is wholly right– but nor should we think that Claudio is.

It’s ironic that we find Isabella’s lack of lines to accept or reject the Duke’s ending proposal so troubling, but often argue that her staunch unwillingness to take up Angelo’s offer is slightly absurd, or proof of her flawed character. Reinholz finds a workable dramatic solution, but not one that truly respects the simple fact of Isabella’s right to choose.

 

Trumpius Caesar

So people are really mad about the Shakespeare in the Park Julius Caesar that dresses Caesar up as Trump. And lefty theatre people are sort of gleeful at the rightwing anger, because look! Theatre causes controversy! We’re important!

But one thing that’s jumped out at me in the furor is the implication– suggested by my Twitter timeline’s, “It’s Shakespeare, stupid,” response to a Fox news article attacking the “New York City play” in terms that made it seem like they thought it was a new anti-Trump play– is that there is inherent Trumpiness in Shakespeare’s play. That Oskar Eustis didn’t add anything except an orange wig and some pussyhats to what was already there.

But as always, Shakespeare is way slipperier and more equivocal than directors seem to expect, and the supposedly self-evident commentary on dictatorship that Julius Caesar offers is no exception. Today I keep thinking about a production I saw several years ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival where the Vilma Silva played Caesar. Suddenly, the conspirators’ accusations of tyranny took on a more suspicious cast. Why were they so threatened by her? Should we believe their accusations of actions we never get to see? Why is Cassius so obsessed with her physical weakness, with feeling degraded by being subordinate to her?

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival didn’t change the text either– Caesar still had a distinctly self-aggrandizing air, still less-than-secretly craved a crown. Was still a war hero, and beloved by the people. There was good and bad. But her gender added an additional wrinkle, forced a reexamination of the conspirators’ virulent hatred. That wrinkle went some way towards standing in for an Elizabethan audience’s acceptance of the self-evident good of monarchy, a counterbalance to the conspirators’ language about tyranny and freedom that tends to ring completely convincingly to contemporary audiences.

I can’t see the Public’s production, so it’s very possible that they offer much more complication than the reviews and responses have suggested so far. But it seems to me that they have unbalanced the play’s morality by depicting Caesar as Trump– especially given their New York City (read: probably liberal) audiences, who are coming in with a certain set of biases (to say the least). Caesar is not just a cardboard tyrant, and Shakespeare’s central question is more complicated than just “is assassination of an objectively horrible leader right or wrong.” I don’t think it would have been any better to put Caesar in a pantsuit and make Calpurnia her white-haired southern husband, but it might have left more room for the text’s uncertainty about Caesar’s dangerousness.

In short, while Oskar Eustis may not have added anything to turn Caesar into Trump, it’s reductive to suggest that he was just tapping into was was already obvious and explicit in Shakespeare’s words.

1 Henry IV (with the death of Lady Henry Hotspur)

My full review of this production will appear in The Shakespeare Newsletter

She’s too much. She’s too blunt and too loud and she never stops talking. She knows what she’s worth, and she’s worked hard to prove it, but these days that isn’t enough anymore. Now everyone says she needs to be quieter, needs to be gentler, needs to not be the things– aggressive, impulsive, passionate, utterly wholly constantly sincere– that have helped her claw her way to where she is.

Which Shakespeare heroine? Why, Harry Percy.

Alejandra Escalante’s Hotspur has no patience for arrogance (though she can be arrogant) or incompetence (though she is not, perhaps, an expert in her present profession of secret armed rebellion) or being thought of in any way as one of the girls. She’s a soldier, and in her chosen field, she commands the respect and open admiration even of her enemies: of the Douglas, of King Henry, of Sir Walter Blunt. But people who ask her to do things that fall outside her area of expertise– her aunt Worcester and brother-in-law’s hopes she’ll be politic, her father’s longing for her to be polite, her wife’s pleas that she be open and confiding– will be disappointed, and she mostly seems incredulous that anyone would bother to ask her to be anything but who she is. Don’t you know her? Don’t you know what to expect by now?

It seems inevitable such a Hotspur would have come to chafe against the confines of her society, a world where even as a nobleman’s daughter, she would always have to answer to someone else, to lead someone else’s soldiers. This is a Hotspur who would never really have believed in her King Henry V’s reformation– witness her incredulity in the moment of her death, the weight Escalante gives to the second lines of Hotspur’s final speech: dying isn’t as bad as being killed by you. 

And she has not played the game as wisely as the other women of her circle; she has made herself into something too violent, too angry for a woman to be permitted to remain: not smooth and silver-tongued like her aunt Worcester, not undercutting her self-assurance with cheerful eccentricity like Glendower, not thoughtful and pliable like Vernon. Once he throws Worcester out, there are no women in King Henry’s court.

There is a little something extra in King Henry and Prince Hal’s shock and envy. This Mars in swaddling clothes, this infant warrior– what right does she have? How does she do it?

So it seems inevitable: she cannot only be defeated, she must be disgraced. She must lose to a party boy who’s barely wiped the coke off his face. She must be mutilated and dragged around like luggage by Shakespeare’s most famous clown, and he must have the credit for her killing. Her death, as is sometimes the case, is not choreographed to be attributable to her honor against Hal’s pragmatism, her arrogant confidence against his desperation, his luck against her skill. It just happens. They grapple, and he wins. She fumbles with her armor, with her coat, unwilling to believe what has happened until she reaches in and sees her own blood.

She’s betrayed, too, of course, though she never knows it. Harry will be forgiven, her aunt argues. There’s a ready-made excuse: A hare-brained Hotspur, governed by a spleen. Silly girl, she just got so upset, she didn’t know what she was doing.

The pendulum between the two Harrys of Henry IV, the two stars in one sphere, has swung back to a preference for leading men to play Prince Hal, the politician and the pragmatist, the one with the heaps of juicy textual ambiguity and the daddy issues. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has used it as a traditional stepping stone for its brightest young actors: start as Romeo, then tackle the Henry cycle, then Hamlet, then Richard III. These days, we prefer to frame the play as reckless idealism colliding with the harsh necessities of performative politics, and this makes Hal the star, Hotspur his tragic foil.

But the preference was once for Hotspur, and surely will be again. Maybe this is how. Or maybe just for me. To feel how hard-won her place of esteem was, to watch her battering herself against the confines of every expectation– even those of gentility and grace– in her stark inability to be anything but herself. The willingness of those around her to use her for her good qualities and reject her for her bad.

OSF hasn’t rewritten the play, this is the function Hotspur has always played. The lines are the same. But that’s the power of creative casting. Their Hotspur’s a Shakespeare heroine, and just the one I needed.

Julius Caesar, A Ghost Story

My full review of this production will appear in The Shakespeare Newsletter

It was a dark and stormy night. Two conspirators were standing ’round a flashlight. They had a prophecy to fulfill. But once that was done, they didn’t know what would happen next.

Given the glut of productions of Julius Caesar with political undertones, performed in sharp suits and dress uniforms, it’s obviously a play that speaks to a contemporary political sensibility. Well, of course it does: it’s about a pack of schemers, filled with characters who are admirable in one scene and despicable in the next, one that refuses to declare its moral or political loyalties. Except Brutus, of course. That’s clear, at least: whether what he does is right or wrong, Brutus is a good guy at heart.

The lack of ambiguity surrounding Brutus’s role in the drama–  anguished moral center– makes it easiest to shape a production around him, to use him as the fulcrum for answering what has become the play’s central production question: why is Julius Caesar named after a character who dies in act three? And why does the play keep going after he dies?

Back to the dark and stormy night. Comets streak the sky, and wild animals roam the streets. The women, especially, are troubled with bad dreams. It’s a scene that can seem deeply strange. There’s a lion wandering the streets of the city? Isn’t Casca kind of a doofus? Are we meant to take him at his word?

But go back one scene, to the light and sunny festival day that begins Julius Caesar. In Shana Cooper’s production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, we begin with a reminder that the first scene is not about an aimless mob, but a religious festival. The revelers are masked and clad in white (a stark constrast to the other characters’ contemporary dress) and they chant and dance. In the next scene, no one thinks it strange that a Soothsayer– or someone claiming to be one– should appear. They only take issue with what she has to say.

Superstition and ritual course through the play, and Cooper and choreographer Erica Chong Shuch highlight them with gestures, with prayers, with sequences of stylized movement between scenes, all of which combine to create a world where the descriptions of lions whelping in the streets of Rome, of slaves with hands consumed in magical flames, do not seem out of place. And where the appearance of a ghost seems almost inevitable.

Maybe Julius Caesar is a ghost story. The best ghost stories, after all, have two parts: how the ghost died, and what it did after. On a dark and stormy night, two conspirators were standing ’round a flashlight. They gathered together their friends and made a plot: to kill the man they feared would make himself a king. All the signs seemed to point in their favor– the flaming heavens, the words of soothsayers, the dreams of women. So they did it, and thought they had done right.

But then they trust the wrong man, and he raises a mob that drives them from the city. They raise their armies, prepare to fight. But it’s all going wrong: their messages are misdelivered, their words are misconstrued. Their wives die. Their enemies grow strong. And floating above it all, the promise of a ghost: I’ll see you again.

Cooper’s soldiers paint their faces with clay, with careful, ritual movements. In the production’s language of rhythmic, repetitive movement, battle looks like prayer looks like prophecy. They are all one physical language– pieces of the same puzzle, stations on the same journey. The story’s momentum is not (just) towards assassination, but to the final battlefield at Philippi, to see what the ghost they have made will do.

 

A Response to Dominic Cavendish

In Dominic Cavendish’s article lamenting the demise of the male actor because women are stealing all their parts, he lists examples of women who have taken on classic male roles in the past year or so: Tamsin Greig as Malvolio, Glenda Jackson as King Lear, Michelle Terry as Henry V, “a female Cymbeline” (her name is Gillian Bevan, though Cavendish decided not to look that up I guess) at the RSC, and “some… innovations at Shakespeare’s Globe.”

In roughly the same time period in which those woman-led productions appeared, at just the companies listed above, the following canonical leading roles were played by men: Mark Antony (twice), Octavius Caesar (twice), Enobarbus, Orsino (twice), Sebastian (twice), Antonio (twice), Sir Toby (twice), Sir Andrew (twice), Cassius, Brutus, Casca, Julius Caesar, Pistol, the Dauphin, the Duke of Orleans, the Constable of France, Princess Katherine, Palamon, Arcite, Faustus, Mephistopheles, Hamlet, Claudius, Laertes, Polonius, Prospero, Antonio, Gonzalo, Ariel, Caliban, Edgar (twice), Edmund (twice), Gloucester (twice), Kent (twice), Othello, Iago, Cassio, Shylock, Antonio, Bassanio, Posthumous, Iachimo, Macbeth, Macduff, Petruchio, Pericles, Helena, Demetrius, Lysander, Oberon, King Lear, Henry V, Cymbeline, and Malvolio.

Among others.

The boys are just fine.