Thursday, September 25, 2014

By Waves From Coast To Coast

Greetings, vast readership! I bet you're wondering if I just gave up entirely before I even began. Well, no. But my summer assistant teaching engagement led directly into our move across the continent, where we were greeted with an ongoing teachers strike that led to my nearly going insane from prolonged exposure to my children. I just didn't have a moment (or, more precisely, sufficient chunk of moments) to focus my attention on Shakespeare. But good news! We are down to about five moving boxes and the strike was settled, so the children are all in school. I can start thinking again.

 Above is a picture of our bit of coast, so you can see why I have been easily distracted. Good news for Shakespeare lovers, though, the celebrated Vancouver rain has rolled in.

No ETA, but I'm resuming my read of Much Ado and will work on my post. Preview: I'm surprised to find the play on the page rather more clunky than I'd thought it was. I think this is one that really comes alive only in production. More on that later, and hopefully I'll be able to rewatch a few of the notable film versions again, depending on the vagaries of Canadian Netflix and my local library.

(Today's title: "And he, good prince, having all lost, by waves from coast to coast is toss'd" comes to us from Pericles, Act 2, Prologue, lines 33-34.)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

An Evening Among the Rarer Monsters of Park Avenue

Let me begin by saying that I am not the world's biggest fan of Kenneth Branagh, by a longshot. On the basis of his film work, I have always found him fairly smug and sometimes hammy, as if he was looking at his reflection back in the camera lens and thinking, "Why, yes! In fact I am the second coming of Laurence Olivier!" Nonetheless, I have respect for his work, so when my friend Ingrid offered me a spare ticket to see his co-production of Macbeth at the Park Avenue Armory earlier this week, I jumped at the chance. 

This production has been lauded, for good reason, for its expansive set, which makes excellent use of the vast interior of the Armory. The last time I saw a play in an armory was in 1992, when a group of us from the Yale School of Drama made the pilgrimage to Park Slope to sit on hard folding chairs for 10 hours over two days to see Ariane Mnouchkine's epic staging of Les Atrides. It was the theatrical event of the time, and in addition to the inside-theater people-watching on offer, the atmosphere in the room felt as charged and excited as if we were about to see the Beatles reunion, or something. Anyway, the feeling inside the Park Avenue Armory on Tuesday night was as close to that as I've felt in the theater in the decades since. 

Audience members check in at tables as if they are registering for an event. At check-in, you are assigned to a clan and given a color-coded wristband (we were Lennox). From there, you are sent to meet your clan leader in one of the beautiful outer rooms containing ornate wood carvings and high ceilings. Your clan leader provides a program booklet covered in your clan's tartan, produced from a military-style bag on her or his belt, and leads you into the performance space. (Hooded figures give dire warnings about photography being prohibited, and man, they are not kidding -- I saw one audience member get into a screaming match with an usher and a house manager over a single snap taken after the show.)

And there the magic begins. The vast armory space has been filled with dirt, puddles, and dried grasses, with a wooden path winding through it. The edges disappear into the darkness, and you feel you are walking through a misty heath. (On the way out, a lone bagpiper plays.) Along the way, figures holding torches and wearing hoods keep you to the path, as your clan leader escorts your group up to the steeply raked seats on either side of a traverse performance space made of dirt. (Seating is on padded benches, no back support, and the play runs two hours without intermission. Like the Scots of the play, we soldiered on.) At either end of the performance space are giant stone columns with horizontal stones across them, reminiscent of Stonehenge. From the direction you approach, the spaces between them are open, but at the other end there are ancient-looking frescoes of Christ and the saints, a looming Celtic cross, and a huge bank of lit pillar candles. A hooded woman, her back to us, appears to be praying there.

The action begins -- the Weird Sisters are perched in the spaces between the columns; they appear to float. A battle takes place before us, all clanging swords and flying, filthy kilts. A light rain begins to fall on the players -- that dirt floor is now mud. You can even smell the damp dirt and wool. For the next two hours, that mud will stain the hems of Lady Macbeth's gowns. Men will fall into it. It will be rubbed on skin and cloth. In the midst of all this, while soaking in the atmosphere in the air, that sense of being in centuries-past Scotland, I think about how much the wardrobe folks must hate that goddamned set.

As the play progresses, I find myself making note of the dramaturgy and the language, the way Shakespeare's key themes of ambition, making your own fate, and taking -- and not taking -- action are explored, and particularly how he explores the differences between men and women with regard to ambition. The language is pronounced clearly and quickly, and it's easy to make out every word. I am also struck by how primitive the cultural moment depicted seems, especially in Act IV when we are shown the Witches in their most pagan ecstasy. This is a society that still has a foot in the wild, matriarchal pagan world of its ancestors, while it strives towards its patriarchal, Christian monarchy.

What I don't get is a sense of horror, of deep emotional turmoil. Branagh is better than I'd imagined -- on stage, that hammy self-regard is gone; he can't play to the camera. Alex Kingston is a strong Lady Macbeth, one without the drag-queenish villainy sometimes seen in the role. There is blood, but not very much of it, and as the mud dries, I start to get a feeling that it's there to serve as some kind of metaphor, as much as it is to create a world -- See how everyone is muddied by Macbeth's ambition! It seems a little glib to me. There is ample sword fighting, but it's very safe and choreographed. When Macduff's wife and son are killed before us, I feel little tension, and that is a scene in which a woman is forced to watch her child murdered before her. Her death is so gracefully choreographed that it looks more like a pas de deux than a war crime.

Macbeth can be played as a real gorefest and horror movie, and I'm not saying it has to be, but I do think that it needs a rawer sense of emotion than what was staged here. Part of the problem may be the very vastness of the space, in which we're all peering down at this narrow trench. The traverse stage itself is limiting -- much of the activity involves actors striding or running up and down the corridor. 

There are some nice moments and some good uses of the vastness of the space, as when the approaching armies begin to enter from far across the Armory, carrying their "leavy screens." In the banquet scene, two long wood tables are placed together at the center. When Banquo takes Macbeth's seat, the performers gently pull them apart to make a passage for the ghost, then push them back together. It's a lovely moment of simple stage magic. Less lovely are the carefully crafted but rather too flashy holographic daggers Macbeth sees before him. I'm not sure why any effects are needed -- does the audience need to see these at all? It distracts from focusing on what is happening for Macbeth at that very moment.

Better is Kingston's playing of the handwashing scene. She stands, in a white nightgown, on top of the monolith above the bank of candles at which she had prayed at the start of the show. It is a striking image, and her terror and guilt are palpable. Similarly, it's in the simpler moments that the strength of Branagh's performance shines through. When he is still, and not pacing the traverse, we see his transformation from a laureled warrior to provoked co-conspirator, from murderer aghast at what he has done to plotter of horrors he has begun to believe he is entitled to by right. It's a clear elucidation of the man's progress from beginning to end. It reminded me of one of the greatest contemporary characters and performances I've seen of late on this theme of harnessing one's inner ruthless ambition -- Bryan Cranston's Walter White -- though Walter White displayed a visceral burning desire I wish this production had tapped more.

I think making the ancient Scotland setting feel so real was the greatest accomplishment of this production. It put us in the same place as a people who think they are so modern and moving forward out of their past but who are still suspicious, still superstitious, and not as enlightened as they'd like to believe. In that, the specificity began to create a universal, which theater does at its best. Ultimately, though I would have liked a little less cerebral and a good deal more guts, this is an ambitious production that left me with a lot to chew on, a rubber wristband with my clan name, and a newfound appreciation of Kenneth Branagh.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Pretty Orders Beginning

When I started contemplating this project, the order in which to read the works was the opening question. Several approaches came immediately to mind -- chronological, reverse chronological, tragedies-histories-comedies, chronological by setting, alphabetical, in order written, or even just randomly selected in some way. I did some poking around online, and came across a very thoughtful post at the excellent and comprehensive site The Shakespeare Standard suggesting an order for a new reader to tackle the plays. In essence, it suggests that the works be roughly divided into "earlier works" and "later works" and within those two buckets an order established that groups the plays thematically or, in the case of the histories, in the order of events. It suggests a new reader give herself a soft landing by starting with the most familiar plays, Romeo & Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream, but since those two are so familiar to me and I've read them recently, I'm going to use them to leaven that long slog through the histories. I may sprinkle the big poems and the sonnets around there too.

So here is the list. I am sure I will find reason to rejigger this from time to time, but at least I have a rough plan.

Much Ado About Nothing
Love's Labour's Lost 
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Comedy of Errors
The Taming of the Shrew
King John
Edward III (for kicks, I could stick Marlowe's Edward II before this)
Richard II
Henry IV, Part 1
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Henry IV, Part 2
Henry V
Henry VI
Richard III
Henry VIII
And before we exit that last run of 10 plays, we'll also do:
Romeo & Juliet
A Midsummer Night's Dream
The long poems
The sonnets
Titus Andronicus
The Merchant of Venice
Julius Caesar
Antony & Cleopatra
Twelfth Night
As You Like It
King Lear
All's Well That End's Well
Measure For Measure
Troilus & Cressida
The Two Noble Kinsmen
Timon of Athens
The Winter's Tale
The Tempest

And then I keel over.

* Today's title is brought to you courtesy of Measure for Measure, Act II, scene i.

Tongues in Trees*, or What is This All About, Anyway?

So I've decided I'm going to spend the next year(-ish) reading all of Shakespeare.

There, that's what it's all about. Thanks, don't forget to tip your waitress!

Oh, OK. The more detailed explanation goes something like this:

I loved Shakespeare from the time I was lucky enough to have a marvelous English teacher in high school, Mr. John Broza, whose enthusiasm for The Bard was boundless and infectious. If you take the even longer view, I think I may have loved Shakespeare from the time we read Romeo & Juliet in ninth grade English and we saw the entire Zeffirelli film in class, a feat probably impossible today, what with the post-adolescent bare buttocks and what have you.

Anyhoo. My exposure to great literature in high school, including Shakespeare, with teachers who loved and could really teach it, and who brought it alive off the page created a lifelong passion. Coupled with a passion since childhood for theater and things theatrical, I majored in theater and obtained a MFA in dramaturgy and dramatic criticism before, as my friend Seth's grandmother once perfectly put it, giving up the drama of the stage for the drama of the courtroom. That is, I went to law school, and proceeded to practice law for 17 years.

The theater bug never left me, and my shelves of drama books have been lovingly tended over the years, plays seen and read, filmed versions taken in (in small doses between falling asleep on the sofa, the curse of the mother of three with full time employment outside the home). I have obsessed over the brilliant Canadian TV series Slings & Arrows (more on this to come, I am sure), bought Shakespeare tales and Lego brick retellings for my children (more on these later, too). We've cooked a Shakespearean feast and filled long car drives with delicious arguments about how to cast King Lear with Warner Brothers cartoon characters or riffed on my friend Nicole's fantastic Star Trek/Midsummer mashup idea.

I didn't realize quite how much I missed real immersion in theater, dramatic literature, and Shakespeare it until I found myself exploring career options outside of law. After several years of soul-searching, I decided to become a teacher of theater, with plans to work with adolescents. I enrolled in a teacher certification program and was delighted to learn that a required course was "The Art of Teaching Shakespeare." I also spent a month of mornings doing fieldwork observation with a Waldorf School ninth grade class reading Iphigenia at Aulis and Romeo & Juliet. Encountering Romeo & Juliet again after not having read it for probably 30 years was revelatory. It's still, of course, one of the greatest stories of forbidden love ever told, but I was struck by how deeply I felt for the parental figures (including the Nurse and Friar Lawrence). At the same time, I've been working on and off for years on a novel adapted from A Midsummer Night's Dream, and similarly found myself less focused on the pairs of young lovers but on the themes of rebellion, parental control, and custody over children. What was so exciting was to experience how these master works continually reveal new richness and depth as I changed as a person and gained new life experiences.

I also realized how stale and rusty I was with what Shakespeare plays I'd read or seen in the past, and how many I'd never managed to read or see. It felt time to remedy that, and since I have stretching before me more than a year without paid employment (my career change is mapped to a bigger change in our family -- we are relocating to Vancouver, my husband's home town, where I will need to wait until I have appropriate permanent residency papers in order to get a job), what better time to take it on.

I'm going to set an order for planned reading, and I will post my thoughts here on what I read, as well as any other relevant stuff about Shakespeare, thinking about teaching Shakespeare, productions I see, wacky ideas I have for productions, Shakespeare-inspired reading, and the like. The deranged bureaucrat inside me will pressure me to think of this project as a failure if I do not follow the set order, take long breaks, skip past boring stuff, and so on. I intend to fight off that deranged bureaucrat with a stick. If this stops being fun and feels like work, or like the Shakespeare Blog Police will come and arrest me if I get bogged down, that will be the failure.

I hope, if any friends choose to follow this blog, that you will feel free to converse. Join in with all or part, if you feel like it! Let me know what you're reading and thinking and seeing! Enjoy!

* A word on the blog title -- The phrase comes from As You Like It, when the Duke and his party arrive in the Forest of Arden at the top of Act II and he extolls the pastoral life thusly:

And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.

I was hanging around before class with our instructor, Mark Kenny, and we both starting scanning through our Shakespeare text apps looking for something that might work as a title that wasn't Words, Words, Words. He found this, and it struck me as marvelously apropos, especially given my imminent departure for somewhat more natural environs. Poking around, I realized it introduces recurrent language in the play, and I look forward to exploring it later in the project. So thanks, Mark!