Starring Hamilton

When Lin-Manuel Miranda enters as Alexander Hamilton, introducing himself as such in song, he is greeted with rapturous applause. This moment seems written into the music itself– that space to pause between “Alexander Hamilton… my name is Alexander Hamilton,” and to wait for a moment or two (or several more) after.

When Jamael Westman enters as Alexander Hamilton, introduces himself as such, he’s greeted with dead silence. The name hangs in the air, and into that silence he speaks the assurance that suddenly feels electrically charged: “Just you wait.”

Westman is tall and slim as a knife blade, and he always but always stands perfectly erect. With his long, long frame, his hands folded behind his back, even as he towers over absolutely everyone he meets, there is no one who will make him stoop. He is still and controlled. He is going to take up all the damn space he needs. When he smiles (not often– smile more), it’s sharp and often smug.

Whether the London cast of Hamilton should be seen as a kind of replacement or tour cast, or a whole new original, is a vexed question. The glossy souvenir brochures in the lobby feature pictures of the Broadway cast, and everyone here has been mainlining the original soundtrack. In either case, it’s rare– at least in my experience– to see a leading actor transform a role. Javier Muñoz, who I didn’t see, apparently uncovered many of Hamilton’s spikier edges. But Muñoz is a known quantity with Broadway experience and a long association with Miranda. This is Westman’s first musical.

I expected him to be cheered when he announced himself as “Alexander Hamilton” anyway– I assume the touring Hamiltons are, an expression of delight to be meeting the title character, no matter who he’s played by. Like I said, the music itself practically invites it. But that silence was immensely moving– that reminder that this young actor, stepping into the shadow of the beloved Lin-Manuel, would had to prove himself to an expectant audience just as his character is proving himself to a skeptical onstage world.

And it is, as it turns out, a slow unfolding. This makes sense in a role written for the show’s creator and a well-established star, who has no need to win the audience’s loyalty, but it takes a while before Hamilton is really asked to display the full range of his abilities. Like the characters, we have to wait for his talents to unfold: gosh, he’s good with that high-speed rap– oh, he can sing, too– oh, he can act. He has arrogance and menace and charm and relentless drive. It’s so obvious why everyone hates him, but we love him anyway. He and Jefferson, a pair of gaudily-dressed egomaniacs, seem like a newly equal match. Burr (played, fittingly, by the established West End star Giles Terera, who did get entrance applause) and his envy and irritation with Hamilton’s striving makes a whole new kind of sense. It strengthens his opponents as characters when their disdain for Hamilton doesn’t seem to be based only in envy and class prejudice (and possibly weakens Eliza a little bit, but that’s a separate essay). A more flawed Hamilton makes for a stronger overall show.

Most of all, though– in the early scenes especially– the double layers of a relatively untried newcomer, both Hamilton and Westman himself, forcing his way with confidence onto the stage he knows he deserves is captivating and touching and beautiful. Before long, I suspect he’ll be a star, too, greeted with the same rapturous applause as the American Hamiltons. But for now, there’s that silence, that breath of uncertainty: just you wait. 

Review: The Knitting Pattern

I keep waiting for the French Revolution to come into fashion. Interest occasionally seems to flicker into being—Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette, David Adjmi’s 2012 play of the same name, the National Theatre’s 2010 production of Danton’s Death—but it never breaks into the full-fledged fad I hope it will. The tensions seem so relevant and obvious: an ever-growing wealth gap, crushing poverty in a world with the resources to permit others to have lives of unspeakable luxury and decadence, a chaotic reshuffling of the world order with traditional powers scrambling to find their new places. But it’s what those tensions explode into that makes us so nervous—though I guess by us I should clarify the Anglophone world, which can’t quite make itself comfortable with the concept that sometimes, systemic violence from above will be answered with physical violence from below.

Much like broken windows and riots provide a handy excuse for dismissing the concerns of protesters today, the French Revolution’s swerve into extreme violence has long been cause for assuming that there was no possible logic or justification to what the revolutionaries did. Yes of course the monarchy and aristocracy were wasteful and oppressive and corrupt, but then all those poor people died for it? And was it really their fault?

The poster child for this insistence on innocence is, as the list above suggests, Queen Marie Antoinette—and that is who, at first glance, it seems like The Knitting Pattern, Deborah Nash’s new play at Theatre503, is going to centre on. That quavering falsetto, those panniers, that giant pink hair—who else could it be? But this play is not so realistic.

The woman in the pink wig is Purl (Julia Tarnoky), and she has wandered into the hilltop lair of three fate-like figures (in fact identified by the names of the Fates in the program, though these names are never said in the play) played with appropriate spookiness by Candice Price (the nice one, who spins the threads), David Flanagan (the uptight one, who measures the threads), and Elliot Keefe (the chaotic one, who cuts them). Purl wants her life unwound, or maybe remade, or maybe just remembered. Despite repeated choruses of ‘why are you here, my dear?’, we spool back to relive patches of Purl’s life without ever really understanding why, or needing to. Nash’s poetry is so dreamy, and Michael Hunt’s direction so artfully and aggressively divorced from anything like reality, it’s made plain very quickly that mundanities like linearity and motivation are beside the point.

The fantastic set and props are created by students at the Chelsea School of Art, and their precision—the gage numbers on a pair of giant knitting needles, the matching giant thread, a lumpy, tattered tricolour hanging in the corner—complement the precision of the knitting metaphors, the repeated choruses of counting stitches and interludes of instructional voice-over.

I began to think of the play almost like a collection of poetry—or maybe like a pointillist image rendered in knitting. Something that coheres in part into a concrete narrative, but leaves plenty of gaps for one’s own interpretation.

Purl speaks of feeling like she is made of glass, and Tarnoky embodies this with careful, stylized gestures and a high, twittering voice, speaking like she is afraid of shattering crystalline vocal cords. Is Purl pure artlessness, or only art, with nothing at the centre? Can she really be blamed for shielding herself with the privilege she was raised to, for being offered no other options?

One interlude suggests yes: a cameo by the lone historical figure, the Chevalièr(e) d’Eon, the soldier, spy, and diplomat whose gender was a source of scandal and gossip during and after her life. She spent the first part of her life as a man (though evidently sometimes spied as a woman), then insisted that she had in fact been born a woman and asked to be recognized as such. After her death, she was found to have both breasts and testes. Nash’s d’Eon insists on feminine pronouns, and suggests that there is more space to seize control of one’s own destiny than Purl has been trained to recognize. But this flash of challenge vanishes, and Purl slips into a narrative that, were it not for Nash’s language and Tarnoky’s quaveringly strange and beautiful performance, might feel familiar: constrained by her sex and her class, unhappily married, valued only for her womb, while the revolution rumbles in the background.

It seems that the only site of fascination and tragedy we can find in the French Revolution is in its aristocratic women, with those cagey crinolines and tottering hairdos as ready-made metaphors. Sometimes I think that we’ll know the world is really on the brink of changing, the systems really about to collapse, when someone produces a big, bloody French Revolution play that beheads the aristocrats and says they deserve it. The Knitting Pattern is not that play. It is smaller and stranger, more conservative and more outlandish, a weird, winding web.

Review: Young Marx

Yesterday, after having come under fire for an all-white, all-male written and directed opening season, The Bridge Theatre announced another production: a new Martin McDonagh play to be directed by Matthew Dunster. As exciting as it should be to have a brand new, well-funded theatre company in the London scene, The Bridge isn’t offering much hope yet that it is actually going to make a radical difference in the landscape.

But what about the actual plays? The first, Richard Bean and Clive Coleman’s Young Marx, directed by company artistic director Nicholas Hytner, feels like the company as a whole: yes, of course it’s fine to have fairly traditional plays created by white men and cast with token diversity (but never so blindly that you actually have an actor of color as one of the leads, of course). You will come up with some pretty good– maybe even great!– plays like that, and obviously no one can stop you. But Young Marx and the Bridge Theatre would be so much better if they weren’t.

Young Marx is about Marx when he’s young. He’s impoverished, living in London, and struggling to write Das Kapital. He feels alienated from his revolutionary group and from his family. This is the kind of play where the long-suffering wife of the man of genius is told, “But he needs you!” and she replies, “But what about what I need?” and no one ever answers. It’s the kind of play where every named adult female character is in love with the man of genius lead.

The most intriguing parts of the play center around the Marxes’ community of radical political refugees, devoted to spreading communism through the world. They turn out to be somewhat beside the point, but watching them, I found my mind drifting to Hamilton. Now, I will argue for the fundamental conservatism of Hamilton all day long, but the casting is a pretty brilliant dramaturgical device, and one that would strengthen Young Marx in the same way as it does the musical. How much better would it be if all the play’s jabs about immigrants and refugees, its air of mistrust and paranoia, its running jokes about police brutality, were being enacted on people of color, people whose foreign accents were real, not (mostly) white British people? As with Hamilton, we would understand the uncertainty and danger of Marx’s position so much more keenly and viscerally. Any other consideration aside, diversity would lead, quite simply, to better storytelling.

And then, too, we might have more than one-line references to the women’s importance to the movement (“She’s a founding member!”) and an understanding of history that admits them as full, genuine participants in the politics and lives of its central characters, not just nagging wives, devoted baby vessels, and cheeky contributors of famous lines in famous works the men are writing (though this sensibility would certainly not be derived from Hamilton). There’s an awareness that in this day and age, women must be acknowledged– they must be present at the radical meeting, even if they’re never given a name– but there’s still no genuine understanding that a sense of history that shunts them to the side and consistently sexualizes them is not actually objective or inevitable. That announcing that you’ll be doing some plays by female writers and directors eventually, but sticking them all under “future projects” and then adding yet another show created by white guys to your inaugural season is not the same as committing to diversity.

But, you know, I get it. If you get offered the new Martin McDonagh play, you don’t turn it down. Rory Kinnear and Oliver Chris are talented and charming, and they put in good shifts here. It’s exciting to see ambitious new work, and I love history plays. The view from the cheap seats in the back is actually pretty good, and it’s awesome to leave the theatre and see Tower Bridge right there, all lit up. Several people stopped to take pictures as they were going out.

But it’s just… it could be better. 

 

 

Blackfriars Diary: Day 4

The Panels

I gave my paper today, which I think went very well! I didn’t get too immensely nervous until just before it happened, and I didn’t knock anything over, accidentally swear, or utterly lose my place, so that counts as a win.

I’m proud to have been on a really wonderfully strong panel, with a bunch of fantastic papers, including Paige Reynolds’ captivating discussion of the use and abuse of Desdemona’s body after she is killed, Elizabeth Kolkovitch’s examination of how contemporary productions stage the masque in Timon of Athens (and, basically, their varying degrees of sexism), and Annalisa Castaldo and John Culhane’s investigation of a question that has been troubling me recently– whether or not bed tricks, such as that in Measure for Measure, would have been construed as rape.

Patrick Harris’s paper about the ring exchanges in Merchant of Venice provided another excellent example of the fruitful use of actors, as he played with the various shades of meaning that emerge when the characters in the play give and take Portia’s ring in various ways.

Michael Dobson’s keynote address was very exciting as well, comparing Much Ado About Nothing and Love’s Labour’s Lost through the lens of the various temporal settings the plays are given in contemporary productions, and why Much Ado tends to feel so quaint and distant precisely because it is so rooted in the reality of Shakespeare’s own time, whereas Love’s Labour’s intentionally fantastic and idyllic tone in fact helps it feel more present and real.

The Play: Much Ado About Nothing 

I found myself keenly aware of actor repertory while watching Much Ado About Nothing. Four days in a row of watching the same twelve actors in four separate plays will do that to you, of course. But I was most struck by a specific pair: Lauren Ballard and Benjamin Reed. Ballard played Edward Lancaster, Molly Aster, Maria, and Hero. Reed played Edward York, Peter, Longaville, and Claudio. They were explicitly linked across all four plays, and romantically in three of them.

This had the odd effect– completely coincidental and entirely based on the order in which we happened to see the plays– of easing, somehow, the often troublesome fact of Claudio and Hero’s reunion. This was due partly to their strong performances, of course, but there was also a degree to which I had become accustomed to seeing them together. The fact of their union– feeling, in some ways, like a long-awaited culmination after the two disrupted romances of Peter and the Starcatcher and Love’s Labour’s Lost— seemed inevitable and natural.

Blackfriars Diary: Day Three

The Panels

Today’s theme for me was hearing from some scholars who have really figured out how to usefully leverage contemporary performance in service of historical principles. So often, using a modern-day performance in an attempt to excavate historical ideas can feel like false objectivity: just because something seems obvious to us doesn’t mean it would have been obvious or logical then. Or it can just come off seeming a bit “so what?”– highlighting that an individual performer/production made a given choice can feel more like anecdote than analysis.

The staging session led by Farah Karim-Cooper and Beth Burns of the Hidden Room Theater Company transcended all of these issues with its emphasis on experimentation. Karim-Cooper recently published a book about early modern gesture onstage, and has done work with Burns’ company to illustrate some of her theories and findings in performance. No one claimed to offering truth, only possibilities– and the possibilities they presented were very interesting. Pairing Shakespeare’s heightened language with heightened gesture felt so fitting and natural, a forceful reminder that Shakespeare is not naturalism, and works best when it isn’t trying to be. I was startled when their very sincere rendition of Q1 Hamlet‘s dumb show had much of the room in gales of laughter, as the exaggerated, expressive movements really weren’t funny– they were just unfamiliar. But they were also very evocative and very beautiful, and Karim-Cooper’s connection between the gestures of rejection and capitulation of the Player Queen and her wooer in the Hamlet dumb show and the “perverse wooing scene” between Gloucester and Lady Anne in Richard III was very fascinating, and I think indicates a really important and useful avenue of exploration, one that reminded me of Janette Dillon’s work on scenic “units” in Shakespeare and the Staging of English History. What might be found by attending more closely to gestural echoes across the plays?

Katheryn McPherson’s paper operated similarly, experimenting with space in public vs court performances, letting the actors traverse different ranges of the playing space and to incorporate (or not) the presence of a theoretical monarch.

Richard Priess’s exploration of an apparently impossible stage direction in The Devil is An Ass– one that seems to require an actor to be in two places at once– was so firmly rooted in text and so masterfully argued that his use of actors actually felt more like illustration than exploration. But in that, it provided another useful example of how to take advantage of the performance options this conference offers.

James Keegan brought an actor’s take (though he’s also a professor) to the difficulties of hoisting the dying Antony’s body aloft in 4.15 of Antony and Cleopatra, but applied a sufficiently thoughtful and scholarly lens to take his conclusions beyond mere anecdote.

This is a question I continue to grapple with, especially being partly based at an institution that is rooted in experimenting with reproductions of early modern spaces. It was so useful to see some great examples of how performance as research can feel really effective.

The Play: Love’s Labour’s Lost 

I forget that lots of people aren’t fans of Love’s Labour’s Lost because to me it seems so self-evidently great. As I was saying to someone today, I think that if people could move past their panic about the density of the language, they’d realize that the extremely contemporary-feeling characters and situations would (I think, anyway) prove sufficiently accessible to audiences to make up for the linguistic soup.

This production was delightful, though the day’s panels inspired some interesting thoughts about the play’s much-discussed inconclusive ending. As Burns and Karim-Cooper’s panel in particular remind us, “original practices” is not just an aesthetic– not just a 17th century playhouse and costumes and fast entrances and live music. There is an acting and storytelling style that needs to be retrieved as well, and the ending of Love’s Labour’s Lost is a place where contemporary expectations crash particularly jarringly against what the text suggests.

It was in evidence in this production as well: the Princess of France performed the entire end of the play tearfully– which makes naturalistic sense. She’s just learned of her father’s death, after all. But her actual text bespeaks calm. The language is measured and complex, devoid of exclamations or lamentations. Like the end of so many comedies, the end of LLL lifts above any pretense at naturalism, into the heightened realm where improbable conclusions become possible. Hero is both revealed and reborn. Proteus is forgiven. The Princess is now a Queen (as has often been pointed out, her speech prefix changes instantly) and presents the King with a fairy-tale like quest to restore his wounded honor.

The incorporation of contemporary songs at certain moments in the play suggest they weren’t necessarily seeking to fully achieve an OP aesthetic, and the injection of extra emotion into the ending sequence certainly didn’t disrupt the splendid production– but I admit I was most moved when they finally did eschew naturalism to end the play with a dance.

Blackfriars Diary: Day 2

The Panels 

My definite favorite paper of the day was presented by Lindsey Snyder, a scholar and ASL interpreter who discussed the possibilities contemporary gestural languages like ASL can present for attempting to revive early modern gestural vocabulary. The part of the paper that really blew my mind was her translation of several speeches by Juliet, to illustrate the dramaturgical power of ASL’s embodied notions of time– the way that time, past, and present are located upon and in relation to the speaker’s body. Not only was this a fascinating intellectual point, her translations of Shakespeare (and her wonderful performances of them!) were immensely moving. I have an ongoing fascination with ASL in general, and translations of Shakespeare in particular, and I loved getting to see the topic approached from such a rigorously scholarly point of view.

There is definitely a propensity for highly theatrical papers– not just those that use actors to demonstrate points, but speakers, like Matthew Kozusko’s discussion of the rhetoric of Coriolanus, who structure the papers themselves in a self-aware and performative way.

An exciting paper on a more practical note was Megan Brown’s presentation on the Folger’s new Digital Anthology of Early Modern English Drama, a resource that sounds very exciting and that I hadn’t previously known about.

The Play: Peter and the Starcatcher 

Okay, it’s not Shakespeare. But I absolutely adore this play, and saw it more times than I should probably admit during its Broadway and off-Broadway runs (don’t judge me, it was always for free).

Unsurprisingly, the play’s DIY, Nicholas Nickleby-inspired aesthetic works extremely well with the Blackfriars’ shared lighting and lack of sets. The actors were obviously having a huge amount of fun, and so the audience was, too. It was interesting to see how differently and more flexibly this show used the space. Where The Fall of King Henry only had one entrance from the house, here the actors were all over the place, moving through rows, clambering over audience members, and jumping off the stage. There was more use of the trap door and upper gallery, too.

I felt extremely aware of the elaborate language, and the delight the play takes in its own kind of poetry. There really is something so Shakespearean about such awareness of the musicality of words and taking such pleasure in building delightful sounds out of them. I’m not sure if it was the actors’ Shakespearean training that made them handle the language in a Shakespearean fashion, thus raising my awareness of the dialog’s complexity and pleasingness, or if it was the simple fact of the setting that drew my attention. But in either case, it seemed a highly fitting choice for this company.

Blackfriars Diary: Day 1

I’m in Staunton, Virginia for the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Conference! Terrifyingly, I’ll be giving a paper on Saturday morning, but before that there’s three days of panels, papers, and performances that I’m going to try to write about.

So, day one…

The Panels 

Blackfriars strictly enforces a quite short paper limit of ten minutes, and perhaps because of this brevity, the most compelling papers for me were ones that took a specific, concrete, and sometimes extremely narrow (like, one word level narrow) focus. Lena Cowen Orwin’s keynote address, while obviously longer than the other panel papers, set the tone in this respect with her investigation of the origins of Shakespeare’s monument in Stratford, and suggesting evidence that Shakespeare himself had likely designed it. She also made the brief but fascinating point that the evidence suggests that, unlike, say, Edward Alleyn who seems to have been colloquially known as Ned, Shakespeare was known to his friends and colleagues (and maybe even his family) as Shakespeare.

Other highlights for me:

  • Tiffany Stern’s exploration of the use of the word “playhouse.” Cuthbert Burbage’s court testimony of the 1630s describes both the Theatre and the Globe as being known as “the House,” and while we have taken that word to be a general term– and it has become one– she queries whether it may not have been specific to those buildings.
  • Paul Menzer’s reflection on his loathing of the word “nuncle” and how Shakespeare has become a lens through which we refract our concepts of good and poor taste.
  • Tim Fitzpatrick’s excellent explanation of the methods by which they derived the measurements for New Zealand’s Pop-Up Globe. His comparisons between Wenceslas Hollar’s sketches for his famous engraving and a very well-explained theory of ex quadrata geometry make a very compelling argument for a second Globe that was distinctly smaller than the dimensions chosen for the Globe reconstruction in London (which was based off its own well-founded theories).
  • James Marino’s study of the effects of revision on cues in the two editions of Doctor Faustus. His originating question was to ask how much revision to cues were actors willing to tolerate. And the answer seems to be “a fair amount.”
  • Claire Bourne’s illumination of the use of  “printer’s lace” divisions as more than just a way to take up space/make up for half of Q1 Romeo and Juliet being printed in the wrong text size, and not just simple scenic divisions (which really didn’t exist as such at that point) but as indicators of thematic divisions.

The necessity of matching form to content– the form in this case mostly being defined by time constraint, but also by the fact hearing a paper is much less kind to wandering or vague connections than reading one is– has been a useful reminder that while conferences are often framed as a “state of the field” check-in, they’re really kindest to very specific kinds of work.

The Play: The Fall of King Henry (3 Henry VI

I’ve never seen any Henry VI play live before, and diving into part three, arguably the strongest one, seemed like a fair enough way to begin. The ASC has been putting together the first tetralogy, retitling the Henry VI plays as The Tragedy of Joan of Arc, The Rise of Queen Margaret, and now The Fall of King Henry. Like my beloved Oregon Shakespeare Festival, such multi-year cycles are enabled by their resident acting company, many of whom (as their bios attest) have been working for the ASC for years.

This was my first show in the Blackfriars, a replica of the indoor playhouse used by the King’s Men. I’ve been in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the Globe’s version of an indoor, 17th century playhouse, but it’s much smaller than the Blackfriars. I had some hopes that this would ameliorate the major sightline issues that one encounters in the SWP when sitting anywhere along the sides… but it didn’t. The sight-lines are just as bad (and the seats are just as uncomfortable). In the SWP, I happened to see a series of Jacobean tragedies, so I ran into a new problem seeing a sprawling history play:  3 Henry VI introduces a bunch of new characters in the second half, who are naturally doubled by actors whose characters died in the first half. But because I frequently couldn’t see new characters’ faces when their names were first mentioned, for most of the second half, I had no idea who any of the secondary characters were. Unless we assume that the average playgoer was extremely well-versed in heraldry and every character just wore their coat of arms– which I strongly doubt– this seems like a problematic staging issue that must have had a better solution in the 17th century than the directors managed to find here.

There was a detour at one point earlier today into the classic question of whether early modern audiences went to “hear” a play rather than “see” a play, and thus didn’t care about the apparently crappy sight-lines in these indoors spaces. I am unconvinced by this, particularly because we know for certain that companies spent most of their money on costumes. That would certainly be a waste of money if audiences didn’t care about seeing– or couldn’t see.

But the sight-lines aside, this production was a great reminder that the Henry VIs are really much more engaging and performable than they get credit for being. The early (probably collaborative) verse, while sometimes a bit clunky, is also simple and easy to follow. The extremely heightened action is actually really compelling, even if, in this instance, the production couldn’t resist making jokes out of some of the more ridiculous moments. Then again, maybe they were meant to be jokes in the first place.

The Blackfriars’ irreverent spirit is definitely well suited to a messy, extreme show like 3 Henry VI. I’m looking forward to seeing how some straightforward comedies play… and maybe if I’ll be able to get a better view.

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.

 

 

Review: Ink

Politics and analytics website FiveThirtyEight recently came out with the conclusion of their series evaluating the role of the media in the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. There have been similar analyses and reckonings regarding the role of the press in the outcome of the Brexit vote, all pointing, like the FiveThirtyEight piece, to one question: how did all of this happen? 

James Graham’s new play Ink, transferred to the West End from the Almeida, proposes that our world today is nothing but the natural culmination of a shift in media culture set into motion a long time ago.

It’s an indirect connection, however. The play doesn’t directly address anything about the present day: it’s all set in 1969 and 1970, and concerns the purchase of failing newspaper The Sun by an Australian upstart named Rupert Murdoch, who woos Larry Lamb, a working-class former reporter with a chip on his shoulder, to be its editor. Murdoch’s goal: to embrace capitalism, not any lofty notions of journalistic responsibility, in order to crush the narrow-minded elites of Fleet Street. Most of all, he wants to surpass the circulation numbers of the most popular newspaper in the world, The Mirror— which just happens to be Lamb’s former paper, where he never received the editorship he felt he deserved.

Though Murdoch is the more internationally famous name, Lamb, played with slouchy Northern charm by Richard Coyle, spends most of the play as the guiltier party in the game of dragging the ideals of journalistic integrity into the populist, lowest-common-denominator mud. Murdoch is the distant, awkward money man, prone to fits of scruples and prudishness; Lamb accepts his mission to give the people what they want, to do whatever it takes to beat the Mirror, and (almost) never wavers from it.

Though his role is the smaller of the two central characters, Bertie Carvel’s Murdoch begins the play, and is magnetically fascinating. Carvel is an improbable chameleon. His voice is incredibly distinctive, his choices in physicality and characterization all similarly strange, and yet every character he plays seems completely different and completely human. He is always himself (or at least whatever version of that appears onstage), but he can always seem to shift that same essence into something different. Murdoch is no exception.

Rupert Goold finds the perfect staging language to complement Graham’s not-quite-naturalistic script. This, along with Graham’s sparkly dialogue, help elevate what is otherwise a fairly standard structure and recognizable Fleet Street Faustian story arc. Clever movement sequences and even a bit of singing create cinematic-feeling montages, most of which are recognizable from any movie about young upstarts: the “getting the gang of misfits together” montage, the “spitballing new ideas” montage, the “look at our successes” montage. Even if they follow a slightly familiar pattern, they are– much like the newspaper this band of outcasts is trying to build– cheeky and fun, and thus mostly avoid cliche. As the play moves into its darker second act, the pace grows even more driving.

The protagonists’ moral downfall (and it’s surely not a spoiler to say that there is one, since both the play’s structure and actual history make this obvious) hinges on two crises, both of which center around women: one murdered, and one naked. The latter subplot introduces a laudable, if not wholly integrated, attempt to include the perspective of a woman of color in this very white, very male world and play. It also somehow comes off as seeming more depraved, more scandalous, and more heartless than the murder. Graham’s script seems generally uncertain about how to draw the moral lines around what Lamb and Murdoch are trying to do, when to suggest they have gone too far. Though it’s clearly intentional that the play lacks a clear right and wrong, the characters lack a clear moral compass, too, which is a detriment when telling the story of men selling their souls for success. Lamb and Murdoch trade off moments of hesitation, only to be seduced once more by their own power and success– but these waverings don’t always come off as totally logical. They seem to swap capitalist ruthlessness for scrupulous reticence as needed to balance the other’s state of mind, not out of their own convictions.

Lamb and Murdoch’s rivals are relentlessly painted as stuffy, snobby, and elitist, with only glimpses of sympathy for their position. Given that all the weight of our present media crises falls firmly on their side of things, perhaps the play can stand to stack its cards– at least at first– in favor of the broad-minded populists. But with hollow protestations of working-class solidarity on the one side and ivory tower elitism on the other, Graham certainly presents two dispiriting poles, with very little hope for what could come in the middle.

But, as Murdoch says in the play, it’s a writer’s job to hold the mirror up to society– it’s not their fault if we don’t like what we see.