Review: Richard II

Richard II has long been sort of an article of faith with me, as far as Shakespeare plays go. I devoutly believed that it could be great, even though I had never actually seen any live evidence– and indeed, several instances which seemed determined to prove that the play was just inherently quite slow and boring in spite of the beautiful poetry, or (in the case of DruidShakespeare’s marvelous adaptation) could only succeed if significantly trimmed down. But I should have foreseen that if anyone could prove otherwise, it would be the director of the hugely delightful Beaux’ Stratagem, Simon Godwin, who is clearly having a very productive year, given that he has also just opened a gorgeous (and in my case, faith-affirming) production of Richard II at the Globe. 

 
I recently heard a director say that she has never produced Richard II because she works with an ensemble, and Richard II has nothing worthwhile for an actor besides the title role. This very often seems true; the major productions of the last few decades are inextricably paired with their lead actors: the Ben Whishaw Richard, the Fiona Shaw Richard, the David Tennant Richard. But Godwin has built his ensemble with performers so compelling, and allows every scene to fill with such engaging urgency, that for once the world of the play manage to expand beyond the long shadow of the King himself. 
 
A world over which he has wholly cast the shadow of his own sunlight is, of course, just what Richard likes to imagine: crowned at ten years old (in a beautiful opening sequence alternately featuring Thomas Ashdown and Frederick Neilson as the child Richard), Richard has grown up to be a giddy, self-centered monarch, certain that his crown and power are  his due by divine right and not things that must be upheld by steady rule, prudent spending, and politic dealings with his nobles. 
 
Charles Edwards as Richard is everything this complex role demands: frivolity mixed with sensitivity, a dazzling intellect that only gradually begins to creep out from behind the facade of entitled delusion. His delicate Richard is compelling even at the height of his vanity, and amply fills out the tragic dimensions of the latter scenes. It is a sensitive, nuanced performance.
 
Swanning around a dazzling gilt set, surrounded by a quartet of high-voiced favorites in satin and brocade, the implications of his aesthetic are inescapable, though not (as in many productions) ever made explicit. Indeed, he and Anneika Rose present one of the warmer potential versions of Richard’s relationship to his Queen, with the textually nameless French princess (called Isabel, after Richard’s historical queen, in the program) proudly taking her place amongst the giggling, whispering cloud of courtiers until suddenly left bereft by Richard’s departure and her own abrupt loss of position. 
 
Richard’s opposite and eventual rival is his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, a role that an article I read recently described as ‘completely thankless.’ But if this is its theatrical reputation, you wouldn’t know it to see David Sturzaker’s performance. His sharp, patient, and deeply feeling Bolingbroke defies the easy interpretations of his character as a quick-tempered proto-Hotspur or a ruthless Machiavellian climber. Godwin and Sturzaker suggest a Bolingbroke swept away in the strange current of shifting power that leads without any explanation from Bolingbroke publicly protesting he does not seek the crown, to Richard’s Queen overhearing by accident that her husband’s deposition is imminent. Where Richard is obsessed with pageantry, Sturzaker’s Bolingbroke is like a stage manager, continually delivering silent commands in the background through looks and gestures, a tendency which ultimately demands far closer attention from his subjects than Richard’s flamboyant performances ever did. But deep down, though it takes a quieter form, Bolingbroke is as determined as Richard that he end up the hero of his story, and movingly horrified when he realizes that that is not to be. 
 
This production makes the play feel more than it ever has for me like the story of three families, three branches of the family tree descending from the oft-invoked King Edward III: his last two living sons, John of Gaunt and the Duke of York, now patriarchs with sons of their own; and the necessarily fatherless King Richard, whose recklessness, flanked by York and Gaunt’s steadiness, draws continual attention to the skipped generation of rulership, the king who never was. While this structure makes sense textually, it rarely feels alive in performance; that it manages to do so is thanks to the stand-out performances of William Gaunt as Bolingbroke’s father John of Gaunt (yes, really), William Chubb as a scene-stealingly sarcastic and endearing Duke of York, and Graham Butler as his increasingly unsteady son Aumerle, Richard’s cousin and confidant, who seems to be an almost unwilling survivor of Richard’s fall. Sarah Woodward and Sasha Waddell also deserve mention for their refreshing interpretations of the Duchesses of York and Gloucester respectively, and for making so much of the little they are given. This is not a play that is very kind to actresses. 
 
In his famous speech in the penultimate scene of the play, the lonely, imprisoned Richard tries to ‘people this little world’ with his imagination. Very often, this is how the play itself feels: faintly drawn characters fluttering around Richard, who is himself the only real, full person onstage. But Godwin’s vision is more expansive– more history play than tragedy, many people’s stories rather than just the one. The result is a boisterous, generous production that is not afraid of letting laughter butt right up against tragic sincerity, or of letting other characters become as important as the lead, or of letting the sad story of the death of kings be genuinely enjoyable, too. 

Review: King John

I don’t think I’ve ever read anything about Shakespeare’s King John that doesn’t at some point call it something along the lines of “infrequently performed” or “seldom seen.” So consider this your requisite mention of the fact that for most of its life, people have considered King John pretty crap. After all, it is a play about King John that includes neither of his reign’s two most famous features: Robin Hood (technically from when he was Prince John, I guess) and the Magna Carta. 

But the common thread between both these well-known stories and Shakespeare’s play is John’s illegitimacy as a ruler. As the villainous Prince in Robin Hood stories, he has all but usurped his older brother, Richard the Lionheart, off fighting in the crusades. And he was forced at sword-point by his nobles to sign the Magna Carta (or so the simplified version goes), promising them certain rights in the face of his mismanagement of the kingdom. 

Shakespeare’s John is a temperamental tyrant, stoutly backed by his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, in seizing the throne from his older brother Geoffrey’s son Arthur after the death of his oldest brother, King Richard. By right of primogeniture, the throne should be Arthur’s, and Geoffrey’s widow Constance has rallied the French king and his son Louis to fight for Arthur’s claim. 

If this sounds vaguely confusing… it is. Or at least Shakespeare sometimes makes it seem that way. Part of King John‘s checkered production history doubtless has to do with the fact that the play’s plot seems to careen out of control, devolving into subplots and intrigues that spring up seemingly out of nowhere. But director James Dacre and the company do a remarkable job of sifting through the loose threads, highlighting apparently throw-away lines (like an early comment of John’s about looting monasteries for money for his wars) that gain unexpected significance later on and teasing out unexpected resonances that help shape the central characters’ journeys, even if many of them (by Shakespeare’s design, not a failing of the actors) are lines and circles rather than arcs. 

Music features heavily, not just as background or pre-show adornment, but within the scenes themselves. Lines are set to music, and many of the scene transitions are accompanied with hymn-like, choral settings of particularly essential words and phrases, which also helps to knit the play– which skips from darkly comic to tragic to political with abandon– into a more cohesive-feeling whole.  

But all of Dacre’s excellent work in structuring the production would be worthless if it weren’t resting on such excellent performances. Jo Stone-Fewings’s King John is splendidly petulant. He has the perfect look of a medieval king, which literalizes the contradiction Queen Eleanor astutely notes in the opening scenes: that his kingship is a question of appearances and possession, not of right. 

Barbara Marten and Tanya Moodie’s rival queens Eleanor and Constance are formidable and stately. Constance’s eleventh-hour lament for her captured son is a staple overwrought audition monologue, and it was a breath of fresh air to hear it delivered with a dignified grief that did not blunt the character’s sharp intelligence. 

The show-stealing role is that of Philip Falconbridge, the bastard son of John’s older brother Richard, the only entirely fictional main character in any of Shakespeare’s histories. Alex Waldmann combines irreverent charm, boisterous arrogance, and genuine feeling. Ciaran Owens does some scene-stealing of his own, making a big impact in the relatively small role of Louis the Dauphin, whose glowering and preening provides a silent, foppish parallel to the Bastard’s running commentary. The stubborn confidence of Owens’ Louis, particularly in the later scenes, shifts the play away from Shakespeare’s usual characterizations of the cowardly, villainous French, and instead casts much of the blame for the play’s chaos on Cardinal Pandulph (Joseph Marcell), a meddling Papal legate.

The date of King John’s composition is uncertain, but most scholars put it in the mid 1590s, after Shakespeare had finished the Henry VI plays and Richard III, but before Richard II and the Henry IV plays. Watching it, however, the play that came to mind was Troilus and Cressida: they share a sharp cynicism at their heart, though King John ultimately offers at least a superficially hopeful conclusion. But the penultimate image is striking: the Bastard, not the soon-to-reign Prince Henry holds the crown– implying not, I think, some secret desire for usurpation, but the continuance of the cycle that began with Eleanor and Constance: those who might be best suited for power can only– because of their birth, their class, their gender– watch from the sidelines. 


Stay tuned, as well… on June 13, King John will he performed in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for one night, and I’ll be there. I’m very excited to see how such sprawling, combat-filled show fits into that little space, and I’ll be sure to write about it. 

Review: As You Like It

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Romeo and Juliet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Merchant of Venice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Broken Heart

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

Luckily, John Ford was ready to deliver. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Thoughts: Othello

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Knight of the Burning Pestle

You know that one couple at the theatre? They keep rustling their candy wrappers during serious moments, and the wife keeps asking what’s going on and the husband has a lot of opinions about the subject matter and relative merits of the characters? Sometimes they kiss and you wonder where, exactly, they think they are? Well then, you’ve already met the heroes of Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle. 

‘Heroes’ might be a strong word. The Citizen and his Wife recognize that they themselves are not exactly the stuff of heroic drama. But that’s why they have to interrupt the new play being put on at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to insist that their apprentice, Rafe, play a present-day (present-day being roughly 1600) knight errant who will bring glory to the Grocer’s Guild of London. The play is ostensibly about a company trying to put on a production of a supposed new play called The London Merchant, a fairly cliché story about the forbidden love between a merchant’s daughter and the merchant’s apprentice. But at George and Nell’s insistence, and to the frustration of the cast, this becomes interspersed with the tale of Rafe, the Don Quixote-like knight errant who is sent on increasingly disjointed errands to please the tastes of his excitable and, we are meant to understand, profoundly middle-class master and mistress.


But the real story is about George and Nell. Those are their names, by the way. We all laughed when a professor rather indignantly pointed out that we ought to call them by their given names, but I’ve come to agree. ‘Citizen’ and ‘Citizen’s Wife’ are such cold and dehumanizing titles, but George and Nell are the warm, beautiful heart of the play. Sure, they can barely sit still for more than the length of a scene, but the strange, comic character sketch of the grocer and his wife is much more interesting than what they players are actually trying to offer.

Because of this structure, Burning Pestle could easily suffer from what I think of as the “Pippin problem”: in order for the interruptions to the very traditional form to work, you have to spend so much time establishing it that ultimately, you mostly end up watching a pretty cliche play that is only interspersed (or concluded) with moments of interesting frame-breaking. But here, director Adele Thomas has recognized that the heavily formulaic plot means that the scenes can stand a great deal of interruption and distraction without making the story completely incomprehensible. So, the ‘real’ actors are just as ridiculous as George and Nell, and just as much time is spent making fun of the pretensions of actors as of the citizens’ complete ignorance of audience etiquette.

This is a leveling which the text does not necessarily demand, but which works tremendously. One of the most notable examples is the character Jasper, the handsome romantic lead of the comedy the players are attempting to perform, and who sticks most doggedly to trying to present the play as written. Nell takes an instant dislike to him, a funny and strangely contemporary-feeling metatheatrical comment on the fact that, were she a character in such a comedy, she would certainly be the disapproving wealthy mother sneering at a character just like Jasper, the poor suitor of her daughter. In the text of the play as I read it, there is irony in her distaste, and comedy in the audience’s recognition that Nell (though she does not know it herself) has picked the “wrong” side. But instead, in this production, Jolyon Coy’s Jasper is a pitch-perfect depiction of a self-centered diva, furiously indignant when anyone dares step on his big moments and fantastically greedy for applause. We are allied with Nell in our distaste for him (hilarious though he is), especially when he gleefully seizes the opportunity, under the guise of a fight scene, to ‘actually’ beat Rafe up.

This scene is almost the last straw for George and Nell as well.  For what pulls them through the play is partly their enthusiasm at shouting out suggestions for new scenes, and partly the comedy of their bad manners, but mostly their effusive love for Rafe. This mostly takes a comic form, of course, but Phil Daniels and Pauline McLynn so skillfully root it in something genuine that it never loses its humanity. Both George and Nell have one speech each in which they brush ever so gently against tragedy, and the acting and directing of both of these moments are some of the deftest transitions from funny to moving and back again that I have ever seen.

Matthew Needham’s Rafe is the perfect object for these affections. Needham perfectly executes the very difficult task of portraying Rafe’s utter guilelessness and surprise revelation of a credible talent for acting without any hint of artifice or commentary. Towering over most of the cast yet hesitant to take up space, undeterred from his performance by rest of the cast’s frustration yet always obediently answering to his master and mistress’s summons, Rafe is entirely and irresistibly charming, and the audience’s ability to entirely share George and Nell’s love for him is yet another way in which their interjections are rendered not laughable, but a game in which we are eager to join them.

I was encouraged by the woman at the box office to splurge on a ticket in the pit– which is obviously her job, but also sound advice. The sense of community participation were palpable where I was sitting, but I have a feeling the infectious joyfulness would not have spread quite the same way in the upper galleries, where you’re not near enough for Nell to pass you a grape, or George to wander over during one of the short musical interludes and strike up a chat (both of which happened to me). By the end, the pit and lower galleries at least had become remarkably vocal, with gasps and cheers to match what I’ve sometimes experienced in the yard of the Globe– but with the increased feeling of unity as a single audience that comes from a very intimate space.

The costumes (gorgeous, as always, and designed by Hannah Clark) are basically of the period, but the use of the Wanamaker’s lighting is not: lights from the voms and from under the seats are used in most instances to supplement the candlelight, and occasionally to provide colored lighting effects. This works well– however bright the chandeliers would have seemed to a Jacobean audience, the candlelight is just too dim to seem fitting for a comedy today. Plus, candles alone would not sufficiently light George and Nell, who are seated in the pit, rather than on stools on the stage as they are in the text.

In its time, The Knight of the Burning Pestle was a pretty massive flop– possibly because audiences just didn’t know what to make of its fourth-wall-shattering metatheatricality. Or possibly because the audience was a little too full of exactly the kind of middle-class theatergoers that the script was designed to mock. But this production insists that there is pride in being allied with George and Nell, in laughing at stupid slapstick comedy and cheering for impassioned pre-battle speeches (no matter how completely detached from the narrative) and just wanting them to skip all the boring bits and bring your favorite character back onstage. There’s something quite cheerfully subversive, in fact, about what the play ultimately offers: permission to engage sincerely– loudly, quietly, however you please, but without etiquette or pretension or artifice– with the theatre. 

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.