Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Ashland Festival 2015 – part the first

Our American friend Jeff Burdick, an academic with a particular interest in Shakespeare, has again been lucky enough to attend the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. He saw nine plays, not all of them by Shakespeare. It seems to have been a fantastic season, played in three theatres, so I shall break his wonderfully detailed critique into three sections. Today we’ll visit Jeff’s take on the plays at the Thomas Theater. (Naturally, Jeff uses American spelling!) The photos are from the Ashland website. I hope they don't mind our 'borrowing' them!

This year begins the Shakespeare Decade, an ambitious project to mount all 37 plays in the next ten years. Assuming I don’t keel over, drool uncontrollably, or forget who I am, I’d like to be here for nine more years and see it all. We’ll see.

I’m going to record the plays by theater because the theater environment makes so much happen. The first is the Thomas Theater, a remarkable black box where no one sits more than 7 rows from the stage, which is generally a thrust but can be reconfigured into a central square surrounded by audience. It seats around 300, depending on configuration. It is a beautiful venue. Stage spray is a danger, of course, but being able to see every muscle in an actor’s face, every ripple of emotion across the eyes – there can’t be a better way to see theater. Two plays this year in the Thomas: Pericles and Long Day’s Journey Into Night. I sat in the third row for Pericles, the second for LDJIN.

There are several elevator trap doors, extensive ceiling structures for dropping things down – all quite invisible to the audience. State of the art lights are used to great effect.

Pericles is strange in several ways. Shakespeare did not write the first two acts but did write the final three. The big question here is what did he see that made him want to complete the play? Perhaps money, perhaps he saw something in the frenetic introduction of characters and events that he could untangle into something that made sense. What results is one of the more popular plays he wrote, often performed, often talked about in his own time. And one of the few plays that almost no contemporary theater attempts.

The stage is bare. A series of platforms that seem to mimic waves, royal steps, a temple’s steps. A flat thrust toward the end where two elevator trap doors will figure large.

The play opens with a king offering his daughter for marriage. But there is a secret, a riddle. The answer, we know, is that the king has been sleeping with his own daughter, and the suitor who guesses that will be victorious for her hand. Of course, we’re bewildered from the beginning. Why would the king embed the disastrous secret in a riddle to be solved? Many have tried, many have died. The King wants his domination to be known, apparently. Our hero, Pericles, also a king, will attempt the riddle. The daughter is paraded out. Her gown is sleek and modest, rising high on her neck, but also quite sexy since it is a clinging, full-length gown, and she is beautiful. When it comes time for the riddle, she turns her back on Pericles: her gown’s back plunges all the way down to reveal her long and beautiful back – tattooed with the riddle, which is in elegant script.

Remember that this outrage is performed within feet of the audience – gasps of horror.

Her father has literally violated her body for life, and this is the body she offers to her suitor. Pericles, no dummy, solves the riddle almost immediately but couches his answer so he won’t enrage the king. (Yes, it continues to make little sense that the king wants to reveal and hide the truth). Pericles has won; Pericles must leave because he perceives that his life is in danger. And so begins a life of wandering, ship wrecks, a marriage and the loss of his wife at sea in childbirth, the loss of his child. Pericles seems to be cursed, storm tossed (literally and figuratively), and fully in the hands of fate, which is cruel.

The rest of the play will follow his journey and, in the very end, in what feels like grace, represented by a goddess, the daughter who was lost at sea and the wife who died at sea are, in fact, alive and well and reunited. The closing scenes gripped our hearts. I wasn’t alone in having tears in my eyes. Powerful stuff.

Alert: one must simply accept the fact that I identify with actors and events so much that I am frequently wiping my eyes. I am not stoic. One should not sit next to me if one is easily embarrassed. Or lacking a box of Kleenex.

So, what sets this apart? Music: each act opens with a chorus (If you’ve seen  Henry V you know how effective that can be) who sums up action, introduces the next phase, etc., certainly a helpful device in a play with 5,000 separate plot shifts. The opening chorus was sung, songs intervened at many points, sometimes actually taking the form of sung dialogue but more often in extended soliloquy or intervals. Following the intermission, the entire cast sings together, rounding up the plot points, setting the tone for the second half, when reconciliations begin. The music was a tiny bit too modern sounding rather than appropriate to the time but it was well done, and it was effective. The discoveries at the end of the play are caused by reprisals of earlier songs – a beautiful touch.

Stagecraft. My favorite moments, outside of acting genius, are the magic that can be done on stage, the illusions. Certainly the tattooed back was one of those. But two others stood out in this play. The first is the storm that washes Pericles onto shore. An enormous silk scrim covered the entire stage, painted splotchy with sea colors. Stage hands at each side rippled, sometimes violently, the cloth so it looked like the surface of the ocean. Pericles, who was drowning, pops up through a slit and with swimming motions (and submerging motions) struggles against the sea. Very effective with lots of sound effects and flashing lightning – but then something miraculous happened. As he approached shore, the scrim suddenly was withdrawn to the back of the stage and as its trailing edge retreated, it was lit to look like tumbling waves. Pericles is left on the shore with the waves retreating. Magic.

The storm at sea was a sight to behold. Again with the lights and the noise. Pericles stands on a swinging platform. The rigging where his crew are hanging on for life is swinging violently. Men trying to hold down ropes are unfooted and swing out over the abyss. I would not have been surprised to discover that my own chair was in motion.

The same swinging platform was stilled for a late scene when a goddess, who has suddenly intervened to set everything right (deus ex achine), is ensconced in her temple, and the platform is raised high so she appears as a statue.

The acting at Ashland is always excellent. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anyone, right down to the spear carriers, who was not fully dedicated and focused. This play was no exception. Wayne Carr played the lead and Amando Duran played the chorus – the two standouts here.

Unfortunately, costuming was poor. People were draped in layers and layers of mostly white linen cloth, pants that didn’t fit and that made them look fat and unkempt – very weird. At one point, Pericles entered wearing what appeared to be a Coco Chanel white fitted jacket with bright gold buttons. It did not fit, physically or any other way.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a harrowing journey. Four hours of claustrophobia. It is, in my opinion, one of the two greatest plays in the American theater: Glass Menagerie is the other. Streetcar named Desire probably should also sit in the pantheon, but it is of a different nature. LDJ requires, at a minimum, four great actors; five if you can get them. Ashland found five. Even the maid had us mesmerized. The staging was quite conventional: an old home, fairly shabby and old fashioned, though once grand. And all within inches of the audience. We could see every bead of sweat, every tear (and there are many), every ripple of a nerve across the face.

James Tyrone is a famous actor whose career stalled on the Count of Monte Cristo, which he bought as a convenient box-office draw and which he spent his entire career taking across the country, thereby destroying his art and his reputation. He is stingy, always afraid of the poor house. (These are based on O’Neill’s real family, though in a strange turn, he names himself Edmund and a dead baby as himself, Eugene – opposite the real names). His wife is an opium addict who has relapsed after a stint in the asylum. Two sons: Jamie is also an actor though prefers drinking and whoring, Edmund is the younger, more obviously sensitive brother who is dying of consumption. All three men spend much of the play under the influence of alcohol. The past haunts them; the future seems only to hold destruction. We watch one day as these four people who love each other desperately injure each other viciously time after time.

[Note that I’m also attending a production of the Count of Monte Cristo, the same version that O’Neill starred in.]

In four hours, I saw not one moment that I did not believe completely. The boys want to rescue the family. Jamie does it through drinking it away; Edmund is convinced that he can restore his mother to health – as she slips away into her own past. It is a tragedy and an unrelenting one. There is no redemption, no hope. I walked out of the theater reciting Macbeth’s “Tomorrow” speech – full nihilism, staring into the abyss.

“Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf” isn’t actually more destructive than this play is, though I’ve heard it described as the most destructive play.

Simply an amazing four hours that slipped by and lingered on at the same time. 

Cast: Michael Winters (Last year’s Prospero, whom I did not especially like in that role, but perfect in this one), Judith-Marie Bergan (what an amazing actress she is. Every ripple of nerve and muscle in her face showed, her hands almost separate characters as she used them to absorb her shame and fear), Jonathan Haugen (Jamie), and Danforth Comins (Edmund), who is on stage virtually every moment and has to go through laughter and drunkenness and complete collapse – and everything was spot on. Autumn Buck as the maid, who stood up to this household and humanized it, seeing the quality that they did not see themselves.

Jamie is a drunk, and so one is tempted to see him as a toss away, nothing but a foil. But it is clear that he cares so deeply that he can’t do what Edmund does, and that is try. He has lived in this hell longer and with greater perception and without the optimism that Edmund brings. A devastating portrait – often funny, often so honest that it hurts to watch.

I identify with Edmund, and in fact one of his monologues was a piece I used for auditions back in my acting days. In some ways, his story parallels my own, so I come at this play with emotions on the edge. I told a colleague last night that if Edmund had keeled over from his consumption during the play,  I could have completed it for him, not because I know all the lines but because I lived much of this, too.

Comins was amazing in every way. He is on stage for virtually every minute of this play, and it is an extraordinarily taxing acting job. He can’t be just one thing. He must be funny and sober and drunk and destroyed and ill and angry and optimistic– one after another in such quick succession that it is amazing that any actor can pull this off. And he does.

Side note: He also pays Benedict in Much Ado (next post!). Also brilliant.

The final scene with Bergen, as she finally retreats back to a time before her children who ruined her life (who are listening in while their hearts break) gave me chills that lasted well beyond the curtain call. Absolutely believable as she put off her age and her damaged self to be the young woman she started out to be. I don’t know how old Bergen is, but I would guess well into her 70s. During this last scene, she sits on a couch with her knees pulled to her chest like an 18 year old, her eyes bright with the promise of a life as a concert pianist or, her other dream, being a nun – without the husband and children in the room.

Certainly one of the finest productions I’ve seen of any play. The play ended around 5 p.m.; I was still awake at midnight, thinking about it. 

Next week we'll see Jeff Burdick's take on the plays at the Bowmer Theater.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Is Much Ado really Love's Labours Won?

As an interesting sequel to her last post, Frances, our president, discusses the Royal Shakespeare Company's approach to Much Ado about Nothing - or should that be 'Love's Labour's Won'?

What an interesting idea to consider: in a pre-show interview the director, Christopher Luscombe, made a strong case for regarding Much Ado About Nothing as the missing Love’s Labour’s Won and treating it as a sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost.

We usually expect a sequel to follow the fortunes of characters we met in the earlier story, in much the same setting. Well, Luscombe had already changed Navarre to Warwickshire, so in the second play 'sunny Sicily' was changed to 'chilly England', the action in the same beautiful country house. However, the cast was now playing completely new characters entirely unconnected with the first play. This gave me an additional pleasure: observing the skill and versatility of the performers in their different roles, notably Sam Alexander, who turned from the superbly eccentric Don Adriano to the authoritative and soldierly, but kindly, Don Pedro. The two leads, Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry, moved from their fine portrayals of the youthful Biron and Rosaline to even more admirable performances as the more mature Benedick and Beatrice. Although Love’s Labour’s Lost was the last film I had seen (and therefore fresh in my mind) I accepted these new acquaintances immediately, greatly to the credit of the actors.

The decision to place the action in the immediate post-WW1 period allowed perhaps more than usual emphasis on pathos and the darker aspects of the play. Beatrice’s chatter was less light-hearted and her exchanges with Benedick had an edge suggesting past disappointment or misunderstanding. She frequently evoked a sense of loneliness behind her outward bravado, while Benedick at times appeared at a loss to understand her and their current relationship.

Iqbal Khan's 2012 production with Meera Syal as Beatrice and Amara Karan as Hero. By Ellie Kurttz.
There were nevertheless some lovely comic scenes, particularly the gulling of Benedick, when he performed amazing contortions behind the window curtains, and survived a near-electrocution in the Christmas tree. Another gloriously funny scene was performed in solemn silence, as the sexton tried to leave Dogberry’s kitchen, but found himself hemmed in by people, furniture and assorted domestic paraphernalia while everyone milled about trying to clear the way. The gulling of Beatrice was treated far more seriously with her listening at the window of a high tower. I thought her stillness and sadness (rather than affronted umbrage) contrasted rather too strongly with the actions of Hero and Ursula, who appeared to try a little too hard in their search for the comedy of the scene.

The audience had been told in advance that the characters of Don John and Dogberry were to be understood as resulting from trauma during the war. I found some difficulty with this. Don John’s use of a crutch and his marked limp tended to evoke sympathy and to reduce the impact of his malevolence, but did not give any clearer explanation of his motives. Dogberry was to be seen as suffering PTSD to account for his mis-use of words. My feeling is that comedy allows us to laugh sometimes at things which polite society does not permit in daily life, and that we can enjoy Dogberry’s extraordinary vocabulary just as later generations enjoyed Mrs Malaprop. I see Dogberry as smugly complacent about his own authority and position and entirely happily unaware of his deficiencies. To give him the extra tics and limps of a disastrous war made it difficult for me simply to enjoy his character.

The build-up to Hero’s wedding was charming, with a pretty scene in her bedroom, the girls in negligee and pyjamas, all excitement and warmth. It led nicely into the fine church setting, with stained glass, choir and guests ready for the big moment. However, this scene for me was perhaps the least successful of the play. Claudio needed more fire and shock-power in his denunciation, and the long and vituperative speech of Hero’s father, Leonato, was accompanied by a distinct drop in the high and engaging intensity of the rest of the performance.

Beatrice and Benedick were outstanding in their interaction. Sensitive timing and well-judged emphases and facial expressions drew from their lines every last nuance of thought and feeling. They moved from some sense of disgruntlement at the start to the joyous surrender to mutual love at the end with charm and a lovely balance of fun and seriousness. The conclusion of the play was a warmly and satisfyingly happy one.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Movie review: Love's Labours Lost

Frances, our president, writes glowingly of the filmed version of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Love’s Labour’s Lost.

The RSC production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, screened last weekend, was breathtaking. I’m wondering how to record my responses without
maundering on tediously over every little detail. Warning: prepare for a hail of superlatives as you are peppered with exclamation marks and some very staccato-style notes.

Settings, costumes, lighting and music created the nostalgic romance of the last summer before the world changed forever in 1914, and perfectly supported the brilliant cast and their command of the challenging language of the play. In the discussion preceding the performance an actor suggested the audience just let the language wash over us, and avoid attempting “a simultaneous translation”. This was excellent advice. Such was the skill of the performers that within a few moments the elaborate versification ceased to intimidate and the meaning was clear, with all the fun and feelings of these youthful characters.

The four young men were clever, charming and delightfully young, with their foolish plans already shown to lack depth and forethought in the first scene by the slightly more analytical Berowne. He too is young, though, and indulgently goes along with them. Even in that first scene the cast brought out every last trace of comedy, and from then until the change of tone in the last scene, the audience was kept laughing.

The young men shared the comedy with a troupe of gloriously individual characters. There were so many skilled performances on display that it is almost unfair to pick out particular actors, but I must mention some features and scenes that will linger long in my memory.

These include Don Armado’s languid, love-sick poses and his quite touching sentimentality, Moth’s strong and sweet voice, Holofernes’ odd little fadings away in mid-thought and Costard’s triumphant examination of the meanings of “remuneration” and “emolument”; the duet performed by Moth and Armado; and the joyous conclusion to the first half: the uncovering of the young men’s secret passions. This is usually played with the actors hiding in trees or bushes in the park, but here the action took place on the roof – a magnificent re-creation of part of the famous Charlecote Manor. The scene was a wonderful example of how comic suspense can be built up, even when the audience can predict perfectly the inevitable progress of the action. Berowne was played by Edward Bennett, and after his secret was revealed, Bennett achieved a beautiful transition from witty word-play to a warmly sincere rejection of their immature vows and a heartfelt defence of the power of love. It was a strongly effective conclusion to the first half.

The second half was, if anything, even better than the first, having scope not only for unbridled hilarity but also for the intrusion of the outside world, bringing the need to face reality.

In the Masque of the “Muscovites” the young men gave a fair impression of Cossack steps, helped by the wild whirling of Moth, and sang with fine deep “Russian” voices. There was no time to consider the absurdity of their failure to recognise their lady loves, hidden only by minimal eye-masks, as the action hastened on to the Pageant of the Nine Worthies.

These “amateur” acts, with their improvised props, were very funny, particularly Moth’s appearance as the infant Hercules, with fake biceps, wrestling the snakes, but as was observable throughout the play there were constant changes of tone, one instance being the Princess’s kindness to the crestfallen Dr. Nathaniel which softened the mood.

The pageant collapsed with Costard’s challenge to Armado to fight, creating a high point of tension. The arrival of Marcade with news of the French king’s death brought a powerful turn-about, as the ladies prepared to leave and the young men came to terms with the need for a more serious approach to real life and to love.

The final songs of Spring and Winter are always a moving ending, but in this production the composer (Nigel Hess) created an entirely new version, combining the two into one chorus performed beautifully by nearly the whole cast. Armado’s last line: “You that way, we this way” is usually spoken to the audience, but here he addressed the young men. Now dressed in Army uniform, they saluted and marched away.

Setting the play in 1914 was doubtless in part associated with the widespread commemorations of the First World War. Certainly the customary idea of that idyllic last summer, as belonging almost to another world, followed by the dreadful truth of war as the real world, gave added depth to the final scene. It was an impressive finish, as the men faced a far greater trial than that imposed by the ladies, to test their love, though a tiny quibble might be that it could be thought too far beyond the scope of the comedy.

I cannot praise too highly the actors’ speaking skills. Despite the complexity of much of the language, and the speed required for much of the delivery, their diction was perfect. The progress of ideas and the movement of the plot (minimal though it is) were always clear. As well, throughout the show the focus was kept firmly on the theme of language in all its diversity of style and purpose, including the intricate versification and self-conscious cleverness of the young men, the unproductive and smug pedantry of Holofernes and Dr. Nathaniel, the almost total inarticulateness of Dull, the Hispanic mangling of English by Don Armado, the bright self-improvement of Moth, the ladies’ barbed language as a weapon for verbal fencing and their insistence on plain, true speaking at the end, and the confusions over long unfamiliar words shown by Costard. All these uses flowed effortlessly through the lively comedy of the action, and of course led on to the final display of true sincerity of speech at the close.

This was a beautiful, richly comic and sensitively subtle performance. I found much to enjoy and admire, and to think over at leisure afterwards.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A lively finish to 2014

Kate Dolan as Portia, painted by John Everett Millais (1829–1896)
We brought our program for the year to a close on Saturday with a moved reading, led by our secretary Rosalind. But really, it's all Rob's fault. Rob put together a most scholarly collection of research into the court scene from The Merchant of Venice and laid out the fruits of his labours in our newsletter, Ariel

The court scene has to be one of the most widely performed excerpts from Shakespeare. I checked YouTube to see how many versions had been uploaded, and found over 1700. As a matter of interest, I sought other famous scenes and speeches: Mark Antony's 'Friends, Romans, and countrymen' takes the cake with nearly 40 thousand versions, with Hamlet's soliloquy coming in second at 32,500. (Many of these, of course, would be accounted for by young hopefuls putting up their audition pieces.) The balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet has been uploaded in 24,000 versions, with Hal V's Crispin Crispian speech showing up over 7,500 times, including a couple by pre-schoolers! The Merchant's court scene only has 1700 versions, but that's still a respectable showing.

At this point, Rosalind picked up on Rob's research and came up with the idea of a moved reading. I've been with the club over ten years and in all that time we've never done a moved reading. In fact, I have never done a moved reading before in my life, and I was surprised at how hard I found it. It's impossible to do Shakespeare half-heartedly - my inner Gratiano wanted to make rude gestures at Shylock whenever he got the chance, even when the Duke was watching. I suspect that in reality, poor old Grat would have been kicked out of court, but this time the Duke was in a mild mood so he got away with it. Of course, every time I gave Shylock the finger I had to take my eyes off the script, and while I know that scene reasonably well, I don't know it off by heart. And therein lies the difficulty of a moved reading.

We all enjoyed the exercise, and members who were not reading (and were therefore a captive audience!) agreed afterwards that it had been enjoyable to watch, too. Perhaps we might make moved readings a regular part of our calendar.

Also at this meeting we celebrated the wonderful contribution made by  Roy Shannon, a member for some decades, who has served in various capacities, most notably as secretary for many years. Frances had commissioned a framed copy of Sonnet 29 as a memento for Roy. Although Roy wants to take a back seat and enjoy the ride for a while, we hope he will continue to attend meetings.

All-in-all, 2014 has been an enjoyable year at the Shakespeare Club of WA. We've learnt a bit more about Henry V, King Lear, Measure for Measure and The Winter's Tale, and we've also had some very happy times just drinking coffee and munching cake!

We have a social get-together in January, and in February one of our favourite guest speakers, Professor Chris Wortham, will pay us a visit. In March we hold our AGM, when we vote on activities for the coming year. I wonder which plays we'll choose this time?

PS - A slight correction to the above - Rosalind tells me the idea for a moved reading came from Frances, our president, so kudos to all three - Rob, Frances and Rosalind - for a whooping end to the year's activities!