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.

 

 

Rejecting Romance

I sometimes mutter about this, but it’s time to confess it outright: I’m a romance denier. I don’t believe “romance” is a genre of Shakespeare play. And two plays I saw recently at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival helped confirm this impression for me. One of them is a play we categorize unequivocally as a comedy, Much Ado About Nothing. The other, Pericles, is generally labelled a romance. But seeing them back-to-back drove home their similarities, and drew attention to the ways in which separating the early and late comedies into different generic categories warps our understanding of both.

So first, romances. A critic named Edward Dowden is to blame for using the word for the first time. While we have divested ourselves of most of the nonsense that Victorians made up, for some reason the genre Dowden proposed in his 1875 book has stuck around. Their tragicomic elements, their emphasis on mysticism and redemption, their deus ex machina endings… all of these are pointed to as reasons that romances deserve to be considered a separate genre from other comedies.

Pericles seems to offer proof of this in spades, particularly in OSF’s sublime production, directed by Joseph Haj. The elegant, sweeping production, interspersed with music and dance, neither mocks nor attempts to rationalize its inconsistent tone and improbable series of events, but allows the play to speak for itself. Accepting, as Haj writes in his program note, that “[t]he play is only troublesome if one insists on it behaving like other plays” allows Pericles’ s episodic structure, amazing coincidences, and heightened emotions to accumulate into a fantastical but cohesive world in which the miraculous culminating reunions seem both natural and essential.

The continuing insistence on romance as a genre seems to stem from an effort to explain precisely the strangeness that Haj chose to embrace in his Pericles. But this labeling has led, in my opinion, to a widespread neglect of the fact that all of the supposedly unique elements of a romance are also present in almost all of Shakespeare’s comedies– romances just demonstrate them in a more extreme and concentrated form. And sometimes not even that much more extreme. This was emphasized for me by Lileana Blain-Cruz’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, which I saw at OSF the night after I saw Pericles. 

Productions of Much Ado often seem at a loss as to how to handle the scene where Claudio and the soldiers, as ordered by Leonato, go to Hero’s (fake) tomb to sing a song of mourning and apology to her (not actually) dead body. As my parentheses imply, it’s hard to know what to make of such a long scene of mourning for someone who isn’t actually dead by characters who contemporary audiences aren’t particularly inclined to trust. But Blain-Cruz’s staging of the scene, with Hero herself draped in fabric standing in for her own burial monument, transformed and elevated the scene and song into something just about as mystical as the revelations in Pericles.

Hero behaving as her own statue called to mind at once Shakespeare’s most famous living statue: Hermione at the end of The Winter’s Tale, a character to whom Hero is frequently linked in scholarly criticism. And with good reason. Both are apparently killed by their lover’s irrational jealousy and apparently reborn to renew the union and forgive. Hero’s choice to forgive Claudio is too often dismissed by contemporary artists as not a choice at all, sexist and a bit pathetic, Shakespeare ignoring the complexities he himself has created in favor of a tidy ending.

But the critical and artistic insistence on the difference between comedy and romance has erased the highly mystical transformation that Hero undergoes, one that Blain-Cruz’s staging highlights and the text itself clearly supports. Hero’s response to Claudio’s exclamation that there is “Another Hero!” is not “No, I’m the same Hero,” but “Nothing certainer.” To paraphrase Haj again, by expecting Much Ado About Nothing to act like other comedies (and I think a similar argument can be made about the endings of almost all of Shakespeare’s comedies), Hero’s power to be reborn and forgive, and the agency implied by such a choice– in fact as radical and transformative as Prospero, Hermione, and Imogen’s ability to do the same– is underrated and ignored.

It is easier for Shakespeare’s early comedies and middle tragedies to masquerade as something like naturalistic, but that doesn’t mean that they are. In cordoning off Shakespeare’s most bizarre and mystical plays into a genre of their own, we have ignored the mysticism of the rest of his canon. So many plays hinge on the power of forgiveness, and whether or not such redemption is permitted or even seems possible can often be the biggest difference between comedy and tragedy. By allowing the magical potential of the romance to seep back into the rest of the canon, as these OSF productions do, the familiarity of these plays can be shaken, the easy answers of sharp genre designations rejected.

Top Plays of 2014

I’m positive that there are things I’m missing from early in the year, because I only have notes through April with me now. But, in chronological order, here are my top ten plays from 2014. It was harder to narrow down than I thought it would be, and so when it was a close call I went with the ones that have stuck with me, and that I’ve kept thinking about long after I saw them. It’s been a pretty remarkable year for shows like that. 

1. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812: This is probably cheating, since I saw it for the first time shortly after moving to NYC in 2012. I absolutely adored it then, and I absolutely adored it when I saw it again after its move from Ars Nova to a bigger midtown location. It’s a rock opera, written by Dave Malloy and directed by Rachel Chavkin, adapted from a small slice of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Young, naive Natasha Rostova travels to Moscow to await the return of her betrothed, Andrey, from the wars, but finds herself enchanted by the beautiful and not wholly trustworthy Anatole. Her story eventually intertwines with that of Pierre, Andrey’s best friend, unhappily married to Anatole’s sister. Dave Malloy originated the role of Pierre (though he was no longer playing it by the time I saw it in 2014) and Philippa Soo, playing Natasha, is staggeringly talented and a name to watch. 

The music is beautiful, the performances were spot-on, the staging was inventive and made sitting through a three-hour rock opera adaptation of a Russian novel a positive delight. Oh, also, the actor playing Dolokhov gave us free wine because we happened to be sitting with someone he knew, so… all around, everything you want from an evening of theatre. 

(seriously, if anyone reading this doesn’t know this show, download it at once, it’s truly great) 

2. Twelfth Night: Okay, this one is probably also cheating, because I also saw this in both 2013 and 2014. But it’s part of the reason I’m here in London now, so that’s probably important. And this production completely transformed the way I look at Twelfth Night, which I freely admit I never much liked before, and now consider one of my favorites. This production allowed me to rediscover the joy in the play, which a lifetime of watching knock-offs of the Trevor Nunn film version had almost completely sapped away. It was my first all-male production, and I found the experiment fascinating– and also that it justified my impulse that there is more than just nerdy dramaturgical interest to be gained from understanding early modern playhouse practice as deeply as possible… which in turn helped me justify the mostly completely batty decision to come to London. 

3. Cripple of Inishmaan: This play taught me that I might possibly like two things I thought I didn’t: Daniel Radcliffe’s acting, and Martin McDonagh’s writing. Blasphemy, I know– but the only thing I ever read of his was The Pillowman, and then I was too traumatized to read more. But Inishmaan was an utter delight, and I will be the first to acknowledge that I seriously misjudged Daniel Radcliffe’s talents– and more importantly, I think, his humbleness and his obvious dedication to working hard at the job of acting, not just coasting along as a movie star, as he obviously could. 

4. Much Ado About Nothing: I was terribly excited for Shakespeare in the Park’s Much Ado About Nothing, and the show far exceeded my high expectations– mostly by completely transforming those expectations. Like Twelfth Night, this production completely changed my understanding of the essential dynamics of the play. Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater’s Beatrice and Benedick were unlike any I’ve seen in the best possible way: rather than being obviously the two smartest, coolest people in the room– so that the question of their getting together only seems to be an eye-rolling matter of when– they portrayed the quarrelsome lovers as proud and prickly, lashing out when you sense they’d rather reach out, if only they weren’t too afraid of being mocked. This is not to suggest that the pair were soaked in maudlin self-loathing, but rather that their vast intelligence and genuine high spirits were also undergirded with a strong instinct for self-preservation. Most interestingly, this had the effect of raising actual questions about their eventual union. Would they actually manage to overcome their quips and fear to get together? Their public denials in the last scene read to me, for the first time ever, not just as a silly final layover before the inevitable happy ending, but a moment in which there seemed to be a real chance that they would choose pride and safety over happiness at last. 

5. Two Gentlemen of Verona: My wish for 2015 is that more people start producing all-female Shakespeare that a) isn’t The Taming of the Shrew and b) doesn’t feel like it needs to hedge its bets with explanations, framing devices, and commentary. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Two Gentlemen of Verona was a perfect example of the power that simply presenting a play and letting women embody it can have. The gender decision spoke for itself: director Sarah Rasmussen wisely recognized that no more adornment was required.  

6. Into the Woods: I’d never actually seen a live Into the Woods before this production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It’s a hard play for many musical theatre fans to see, I think, because the filmed Broadway version casts such a long shadow. But Amanda Denhert’s production straddled the perfect line between staking an interpretive claim and sucking the magic out of the show by privileging the director’s vision above the strength of the play itself. It was, in other words, sufficiently different from the original version to shake off the specters of Bernadette Peters, Joanna Gleason, and Chip Zien, but did not feel the need to achieve this by, say, setting it in modern-day New York City.  

7. Julius Caesar: Yet another production that helped me see a play I thought I knew very well in an entirely new light. As I wrote, the trouble with Julius Caesar often seems to be that all the good bits– or at least all the famous bits– happen in acts 1-3. But Tom McKay’s beautiful, soulful Brutus so fully inhabited the heart of the play, it became not just a story of politics and assassination, but a character study that had to be followed to the bitter end. 

8. The James Plays (plus part 3): I can’t stop thinking about these plays. Weeks after seeing them for the second time, I had to go buy the script because I couldn’t stop trying to remember lines, scenes, and moments. The last time I can remember seeing a play and it having that kind of effect, the play was by Shakespeare. The opening scene of James I might be one of the best-written first scenes I’ve read, full stop. I’ve linked them anyway, but my reviews are so far from encompassing what I’ve come to think and feel about these plays, because I wrote the reviews right after seeing them, and it turns out these plays take much more time than that to fully unfold. 

9. Charles III: When I first read about Charles III last spring I was desperate to see it, and I’m so glad that I not only got the chance, but it was exactly as awesome as I thought it would be. I was worried that I wouldn’t understand the politics of it, but Mike Bartlett’s drama is much more human than that. It’s a classic Shakespearean historical tragedy, and its setting in the near future rather than the past only serves, somehow, to reinforce this feeling. As the man said, what’s past is prologue. 

10. The Knight of the Burning Pestle : How often do you feel pure, joyful delight in the theatre? Not often enough. But what’s so remarkable about Burning Pestle is that it achieves this joy without just being a confection of a play. It’s terribly silly, but it’s not shallow. George and Nell ground the play, radiating warmth and welcome. If more plays reminded people that there’s no right way to go to the theatre, maybe more people would come.