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. 

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: 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. 

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. 

Experiment: "Bad" Quarto Hamlet

One of the many examples of how I’m learning that everything theatre school teaches you about Shakespeare is wrong is the case of Hamlet’s first “bad” quarto, or Q1. I’d been told many times that it was a faulty memorial reconstruction by an actor, probably the one playing Marcellus and maybe some other small roles. It’s choppy. It’s weird. The order and character names are wrong and the actor remembering it sort of seems to lose steam and start phoning it in at the end. It makes for a funny theatrical history anecdote.

It’s only this year that I’ve learned that the memorial reconstruction theory is far from accepted fact. And the more I start thinking about the instability of all Shakespeare texts, the questions of collaboration between writer and company, not to mention the alterations (purposeful and otherwise) made by the printers, the more I wonder if, whatever its provenance, Q1 ought to be considered an equally valid Hamlet to the rest.

After all, what we have of Pericles is basically just a bad quarto. But it gets in  because we don’t have anything better. Admittedly, if this was the only Hamlet we had, it probably wouldn’t be quite so famous. But even if it isn’t the best of the Hamlets we have, it doesn’t seem fair to ransack a few useful stage directions and then toss the rest as invalid.

Given Q1’s rumored provenance and the theories that it’s not a corrupted version, but a shortened text for touring– or at least poorly-remembered hints at the cuts that were made to Hamlet’s far-too-long full version for regular performance– maybe the most useful question would be, is this text performable?

So, given free rein of the Globe stage for a night, my class decided to perform it. Here are a few of my major takeaways.

– The biggest argument for me in favor of Q1 being a corrupted text rather than a performance text is that some pretty essential exposition is left out. Horatio’s explanation of Rosencranz and Guildenstern (or Rossencraft and Guilderstone, as they’re called here) being killed by the English doesn’t really make any sense, nor is the mission of the English ambassador who shows up with Fortenbras explained at all. Laertes and Hamlet’s fight at the grave is weirdly truncated: Hamlet insists that he never wronged Laertes, but Laertes hasn’t actually accused him of anything. Most vitally, Laertes and Claudius’s poison plot is never actually elaborated. The fact that the sword and cup are poisoned is mentioned in the final duel as if the audience already knows, but the scene where it was explained– and where, for that matter, the pair decided to stage the duel– seems to have been lost. 

– I read Horatio, so I spent the most time thinking about him, inevitably. When we were talking about Q1 in class a couple weeks ago, someone brought up the fact that Horatio in Q1 is the only character who can’t be doubled with anyone else (I think this is also true in Q2 and Folio, but I haven’t checked– I think he could possibly double as Fortinbras’ soldier, but then of course he couldn’t reenter in that role at the end). This points to an interesting sense of Horatio as universal spectator. He is, after all, the person who is charged at the end of the play with telling the story. But in Q1, he actually sees much less: he does not seem aware of Ophelia’s madness, though in the other versions he strangely seems to be tasked with keeping an eye on her. He is present for less of Hamlet’s fake madness, and fewer of his exchanges with Rosencranz and Guildenstern. 

(Side note: Where the hell is Horatio from? This bugs me across all three texts. In the first half, the text seems to imply that Horatio is not Danish: his presence at Elsinore seems unexpected to Hamlet, he doesn’t know about the custom of carousing, and “Oh day and night, but this is wondrous strange.”/”And therefore as a stranger give it welcome” seems to pretty explicitly suggest that he is not from Denmark. But on the other hand, he’s the only person who knows why the watch has been strengthened, and he both recognizes the King and knows all about his history with Fortinbras. And, of course, at the end he is “more an antique Roman than a Dane.” But then why draw so much attention to his apparent foreignness in the early scenes? Anyway, this has driven me crazy for years and I noticed it again while reading through Q1. Perhaps it relates to his role as observer? Is he better qualified to witness and report as a fellow Dane, or as an outsider?) 

– Rosencranz, Guildenstern, and Horatio also feature (at least in part) in the only scene that is completely different from anything that appears in Q2 or F. Right before the gravediggers scene, Horatio tells Gertrude about Hamlet’s escape from England and return to Denmark and, as mentioned above, offers the unclear explanation about R & G’s deaths. This scene is fascinating, because it places Gertrude explicitly in the pro-Hamlet, anti-Claudius camp. It also excises the quiet but, in my opinion, crucial moment where Horatio seems to question the morality of Hamlet’s choices. His shock over R&G’s murder, prompting Hamlet’s callous reaction, is gone.

– The King tells it like it is. He had so many hilariously blunt lines and I loved it. 

– The play was almost exactly “two hours’ traffic.” If this is a corruption rather than a theatrical cut, it’s a pretty perfectly timed one. 

My over all impression, admittedly a useless one, is that it doesn’t not work. Everyone dies literally over the course of a page at the end, but it doesn’t look quite as ridiculous onstage as it does on the page… and it looks pretty ridiculous in the real thing too. What you lose in Q1 is a lot of the apparent psychological complexity and character relationships that we as modern readers value so highly… but one has to wonder if that necessarily means that an early modern audience would have done so. I think so much of our understanding of Hamlet’s enduring appeal stems from the fact that it contains gestures towards a naturalistic psychology that we can recognize… that is, we like it because it looks more than most other Elizabethan plays like the kind of play we would write today. But that may very well have absolutely nothing to do with why Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences liked it. So (logistical issues mentioned above aside) it doesn’t seem fair to assume that what we see as shortcomings in terms of depth are proof that it would not have been performed in this form then. 

Review: Henry IV Part 1

Strangely, Henry IV Part 1 may be the Shakespeare play I’ve seen the most. Even if it’s not quite the top in viewings, I think it’s unquestionably the play I know best, and one that I’ve spent a truly ridiculous amount of time thinking about. So it’s very exciting to me when a production can offer ideas about it that I’ve never seen or thought of before. While far from a perfect production, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Henry IV Part 1 offers a lot to think about, including particularly compelling takes on Prince Hal and Hotspur. 

It opens, however, with a direct call-back to last year’s Richard II starring David Tennant. Up on a platform, a figure (face shadowed) dressed in Richard’s long white robes and long brown hair looks down on the man who deposed him, King Henry IV, abject and repentant in a church. The design matches last year, too: medieval costumes, a wood set with galleries that echoes the architecture of the RSC’s stage, a healthy dose of Christian imagery. King Henry’s frequently religious language is leaned into heavily: the only two places he is ever seen are in a church or on a battlefield. He crosses himself a lot. And most importantly, he seems to take fairly literally his own conjecture that his wayward son, Prince Hal, has been sent by God “to punish [his] mistreadings.” His frustration and impatience, even in the face of Hal’s attempts to reform, create an interesting father-son relationship that is the inverse of the usual: Alex Hassell’s oddly earnest Hal just wants to impress daddy, but his father will not be convinced. 

This sometimes forces Jasper Britton to play against the sense of his lines as King Henry, but it also sets up Hal and Hotspur (a manic Trevor White) less as polar opposites than as kindred spirits forced onto opposing paths. Hotspur, too, looks often for approval to his father and uncle, who are both just as likely to respond with a blow as with paternal advice. Hotspur in turn vents his hurt and frustrations on his wife, the absent (but, you get the sense, ever-present at the back of his mind) Hal, or anyone else he can reach. I was aware more than ever of the hollowness of the rebellion, and of Hotspur’s twin betrayals by the very family members who have put him up to leading it. 

Likewise, there doesn’t seem to be much method to Hal’s madness. He’s certainly no Machiavelli (unless Machiavelli was a frat-boy douchebag, in which case… yeah, maybe), and his drunken revels with Falstaff and the others are clearly a means of distracting himself from his own feelings of failure; his explanation to the audience (for which the house lights, interestingly but somewhat awkwardly, were fully raised for the only time in the show) rings mostly as a desperate rationalization. He seems to realize only as he jokingly says it that someday, he will have to leave Falstaff and the rest behind. Antony Sher’s Falstaff is very much in the vein of Simon Russell Beale’s TV portrayal of the character, leaning more into his advanced age than his irrepressible life force. 

The sense of both Hal and Hotspur as basically good-hearted but badly misguided and mistreated made me dread their inevitable clash as I never have before. Usually, they seem like emissaries from different worlds, their perspectives on honor and politics completely incompatible, the victory of one over the other somehow necessary to the coherent functioning of the kingdom. Here, however, one almost wishes they could just get along, and work together to overthrow their guilt-ridden and self-centered parents. But at least if they have to fight, the choreography of their final encounter (fights by Terry King) is some of the best I’ve seen in a long time, involving at one point a total of four (!) swords. Though it wasn’t as meticulously narrative as the duel sometimes can be, this was more than balanced by the sheer thrill of it, especially at a chance to finally see Hotspur doing what he does best, and reveling in it. 

The marketing for this production leans primarily on Falstaff and King Henry. The former makes sense, it being not only Falstaff, but Antony Sher; but the choice of Henry over Hal or even Hotspur is interesting. It matches the title, of course, and allows more direct continuity with Richard II. And, as the first scene makes explicit, the RSC is interested in presenting their history plays as a direct series of sequels. But try as one might, Henry IV Part 1 just isn’t about King Henry. He has only three scenes in the first three acts, and he’s present in act two only in the form of Hal and Falstaff’s burlesqued versions of him. Admittedly, he has more to do in Part 2, but at least for this half, the production did not manage to justify its marketing choice. 

Another gesture towards continuity is the interesting inclusion of a scene from The Famous Victories of Henry V, an anonymous play from which Shakespeare seems to have borrowed liberally when structuring his own plays about the youth of the future Henry V. I was very skeptical when I heard about this, as Famous Victories is more or less terrible. But the scene, an encounter between Hal and the Lord Chief Justice who becomes a major player in Part 2, actually works very nicely in setting up the identity of the Chief Justice rather than having him suddenly appear as he does in Shakespeare’s text, and by letting us see the tense relationship between him and Hal that is otherwise only talked about. 

In some ways, King Henry’s arrogant fears about his son in this production aren’t entirely wrong: Hal is a rebuke, not sent by God, but borne of Henry’s own self-centered paranoia and guilt. That is the staggering challenge these plays offer to the doctrine of divine right. King Henry can never be truly legitimate because he overthrew an anointed monarch– but somehow, the son of a usurper can grow up to be one of England’s greatest kings. One feels that the only thing standing between that future and this Prince Hal is not Falstaff’s temptations, but his father’s example.