Review: The Wildness

According to The Media, my generation is supposed to be all about sarcasm and irony. But the best work I’ve seen in the past couple of years created by self-identified millenial artists has been deeply, achingly sincere. And another perfect example is Sky Pony’s The Wildness, playing at Ars Nova as a coproduction with The Play Company.

A rock opera meets fairy tale meets cleansing ritual, The Wildness is a metatheatrical blend of fact and fiction as characters named after the actors present a fairy-tale play about combatting doubt, supposedly a tradition the enact every year under the auspices of their collaborator Michael, who recently vanished without a word. Taking his place in the evening’s festivities, presided over by his best friend Lauren (Lauren Worsham) is his sister Lilli (Lilli Cooper).

This blurring of fact and fiction– characters who are named for their actors, who are both real (Lauren Worsham is indeed pregnant and married to co-writer and fellow performer Kyle Jarrow; real audiences members give real ‘overshare’ confessions), and not-real (Lilli Cooper is not really the sister of the fictional Michael; cast members give fictional ‘overshares’ about him)– creates a delightfully sticky and engaging immersive experience.

The fairy tale they embark on telling, about a princess burdened with a prophetic destiny and her devoted, besotted handmaiden, is studded with folk-rock musical numbers and has a DYI burlesque aesthetic, the remnants of your childhood attic on a slightly higher budget. And this tension between yearning for childish things and the irresistibly frightening embrace of the adult– of desire and independence on the one hand, and fear and loss and jealousy on the other– likewise defines the soul of the show. As with many of the genres its mashing up, from fairy tales to confessionals, the point isn’t necessarily subtlety, and this isn’t at all a bad thing.

In Ben Brantley’s review for the New York Times, you can sense his bafflement: why is this all happening? Why is childish nostalgia the aesthetic of choice here? You sense the word ‘cozy’ is not wholly positive. But this show, Ben, is not for you. To him, the soup of comfort and pain seems contradictory (and it’s plain which aspect he values most)– to the target audience, the ones to whom the actors’ reassurance that “we are just like you” is directed, this is the agonizing tension in which we are living. Maybe it looked and sounded different when Ben Brantley was young, but The Wildness taps successfully into the sound and feel of the millenial sense of seeking and alienation. And it doesn’t sound like irony, and it doesn’t feel cold. It’s giddy and confused and hurt and welcoming– and we’re all welcome, too.

It’s Commonplace

When I first was getting really into Shakespeare, I bought a bracelet that said ‘this above all: to thine own self be true’ on it. When I got more into Shakespeare, I was embarrassed by this and got rid of it as the most obvious example of faux-profound Shakespeare being taken out of context by people who don’t understand it.

And then I learned about commonplacing.

When Hamlet cries ‘My tables! Meet it is I set it down…’, he’s participating in a hot Elizabethan trend: carrying around little books (called, that’s right, a commonplace book) to write things down. Things you heard, things you saw, or things you read. As commonplacing grew increasingly, well, common, printers started getting in on the act by marking out phrases in their books that might be ripe for commonplacing. They were indicated with little quote marks like this: “.

Here’s an example from Internet Shakespeare Editions:

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And here’s another:

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Yes, ‘to thine own self be true’ was being held up as an inspirational quote out of context even in 1603.

I admit that at first, I found this practice more than a little odd. If you’re meant to be collecting quotes and ideas that appeal to you, why would you want them pre-selected? Isn’t half the point choosing your favorite lines for yourself? But then I started noticing that we’ve created a contemporary version.

Here’s an article from n+1, one from Medium, and one from HowlRound. They all have something in common: the pull quotes all come with a Twitter button underneath them. You can automatically tweet those phrases without even having to open a new tab. I don’t know if this necessarily makes commonplace marks make more sense to me, but at least it shows a consistent impulse. And, to be fair, the guesses of both commonplacers and pull-quoters about which gobbets will be appealing are usually right.

So really, I should be regretting getting rid of that bracelet…

Cinema Shakespeare: Macbeth

The highlight of my trip to see Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, was my dad’s assessment afterwards that, once she realized Macbeth couldn’t take the heat, Lady Macbeth should have just killed him and taken care of ruling herself.

Aside from some striking visuals and some very dodgy Scottish accents, the film highlighted for me two major difficulties with translating Shakespeare to film, neither of which director Justin Kurzel successfully accounted for.

1. Shakespeare is not naturalism.

Film often is. This film certainly tries to be, generally eschewing Shakespeare’s anachronistic castles for the villages of early Scotland. I will happily concede their more ‘realistic’ interpretation of the movement of Birnam Wood is also beautiful. But in general, the dramatic cinema tendency speak low and slow is deadly to good verse delivery. The monotone, raspy whisper that seems to be a staple of period drama renders the poetry nonsensical, delivered as it is without emphasis or shaping of the verse lines. Delivered in the currently-fashionable understated style of Oscar nominees, every scene sounds basically the same. The characters exist in three modes: naturalistic mumbling, madness, or sorrow. This makes for dialogue that is not only monotonous, but difficult to understand if you don’t know the play already.

2. What is all this poetry for?

During one of Macbeth’s soliloquies– I’ll be honest, I can’t remember which– I found myself wondering ‘why is this happening?’ It, along with the retained descriptions of Duncan’s dead body, made me very aware of the extent to which Shakespeare’s poetry was intended to stand in for things the audience couldn’t see– scenery, battlefields, corpses, even the actors’ expressions. These all happen to be things that contemporary film audiences can see very, very well. Seeing the turmoil on Fassbender’s face and hearing him talk about how upset he was felt just as redundant as hearing Macduff describe Duncan’s murdered corpse while the camera lingered on a shot of it. I came way with the distinct feeling that you really only need one or the other… which does suggest that a fundamental element of Shakespeare and a fundamental element of film are somewhat incompatible.

These are both setting aside some of the other narrative choices of the adaptation, most of which I didn’t like, but are certainly within their rights as adaptors to add. These two points seemed to me to be the most egregious misunderstandings of how Shakespeare as writer functions, and what all those words they were muttering and shouting were actually for.

Review: Nell Gwynn

Let’s get the important questions out of the way right up front: there is a King Charles Spaniel in Nell Gwynn, Jessica Swale’s new play going up at Shakespeare’s Globe. She is only in one scene, and she received entrance and exit applause. Her real name is Molly. Her character’s name is Oliver Cromwell. 

Yes, it’s the Restoration: King Charles II is on the throne, the theatres are open again, and actor-managers are trying to figure out how to remake English drama after a ten-year break. Killigrew (Richard Katz), head of the King’s Men,  learns that his rivals have a brilliant idea, which has recently been given the king’s seal of approval: an actress. If they want to compete, they need one, too. 

Luckily for him, his leading man Charles Hart (Jay Taylor) has just the girl waiting in the wings. In between making love to her, he’s been training up the orange-seller Nell Gwynn (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in the art of acting. This tangled mess of motivations– love, art, economic advantage– are a tidy preview of the trials to come as Nell charts her ascent from selling oranges to wooing the King of England. The journey is fantastically fun, easily the most unceasingly delightful show at the Globe this summer, but also has a genuine heart. 

In the theatre, Nell meets a buoyantly hilarious cast of oddballs, including Graham Butler’s neurotic playwright John Dryden, Angus Imrie as the endearingly dumb Ned Spiggett, and Amanda Lawrence’s scene-stealingly funny Nancy, the company seamstress and Nell’s eventual confidante. The first act is largely a delightful take on the ‘putting on a show’ trope, interspersed with music and real questions about the nature and purpose of the theatre as it faces a seismic shift.

The play’s attempts to insist that the Restoration was the birth of the Strong Female Character, and its repeated dismissal of every single female role of the early modern period as worthless were unconvincing and felt a bit lazy. Killigrew, trying to persuade John Dryden that he’ll have more fun writing for real women, points out that because they’re real, ‘they don’t have to be so feminine all the time.’ It’s a shame that this interesting idea is never quite explored, nor is the alternate subjectivity offered by the first (known) woman writers to have their plays professionally produced (though Aphra Behn gets a shout-out near the end). 

However, the first act particularly raised the specter of questions that have been swirling around the theatrical world with particular fervor lately. Former leading lady Edward Kynaston’s (Greg Haiste) frantic insistence that the inclusion of those people will only sully the pure, traditional nature of his art sounds all too much like arguments recently used by those who insist that Verdi’s Otello must be done in blackface, or The Mikado in yellowface. 

Less time is spent filling in the side characters in the court (though Sasha Waddell earns her moment of humanity as Barbara, Lady Castlemaine), with the compelling exception of King Charles. With Nell, David Sturzaker’s giddily libidinous Charles can begin to tentatively reveal that his chronic indecision is not a result of stupidity or indifference, but the searing, unfaded memory of his father’s execution, and his fear that any decisive action he takes will prove equally fatal. It’s not the most rousing defense of Charles’s legacy– but then again, as Nell herself says, who cares? She only troubles herself with the opinions of people she’s actually met. 

It’s this perspective that makes Nell Gwynn, at its heart, a love story: not just the romance of the King and the Orange-Girl, but the many loves of Nell herself– yes, the king, but also Charles Hart, also her family, also the theatre. Mbatha-Raw is effervescent and charming. She flirts like a master, but performs onstage with an almost self-consciously girlish glee. Her frank acceptance of who she is and what she has been is the source of both her power and her charm, and you never pause to wonder why every man who meets her seems to fall in love. 

The show combines to be much more than the sum of its parts. Propped up by excellent performances and sharp direction by Christopher Luscombe, Swale’s greatest success is in capturing a chaotic, spirited tone of an era and art in turmoil, eschewing strong political statements (save feminist ones) for weaving a web of characters’ rumors and opinions. The blurred lines between onstage and off, audience and actor, stage and court, jumble together to give the entire play an expansive, popular feel that suits the Globe perfectly. 

Also there’s a dog.

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: The Beaux’ Stratagem

To judge from the publicity for the National Theatre’s The Beaux’ Stratagem, and indeed, from the first scene of the play itself, you might be forgiven for thinking that the main characters are the rakish ne’er-do-wells Thomas Aimwell and Frank Archer, who have spent their fortunes in London and are thus off to the country to find themselves an heiress and divide her fortune between them. Standard stuff of Restoration comedy so far. Samuel Barnett plays Aimwell, the impoverishred younger brother of a viscount, easily besotted but determined to make a go at being mercenary; Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Archer, who is posing as Aimwell’s servant (this time ‘round, he is careful to note: in the next town— which they never reach— they will switch places), is the more skilled heartbreaker, more devoutly fixed on making money.
But while Aimwell and Archer drive the plot (amazingly, Aimwell’s efforts to callously marry the lovely Dorinda (Pippa Bennett-Warner) for her money don’t go quite as planned), director Simon Godwin firmly places the play’s heart in the hands of Susannah Fielding as Mistress Sullen. She is the married woman with whom Archer becomes enamored, whose husband’s charming personality is, as is traditional, made quite plain by her married name. Beautiful and clever, her apparently stock-comic desire to commit adultery gradually gives way over the course of the first act to reveal genuine, profound unhappiness. 
Often when a director decides to turn a comedy into one character’s tragedy, it shakes the entire play out of balance and drags the tone of all the scenes into an unpleasant muddle (Malvolio in Twelfth Night is a common example). But that’s in clumsier hands than Godwin’s. Fielding anchors the play in humanity (while also being very funny herself), so that the rest of the play can soar off into batty comic delight. It’s difficult to talk about the play in much more detail without giving away the wonderful jokes behind the series of musical numbers, Aimwell’s newfound martial valor, the deadpan butler who makes friends with Archer while he is disguised as a footman, a suspicious French priest, and the band of highwaymen who nearly derail all of the lovers’ plans. 
The sheer opulence that the National Theatre’s size and budget permits is put to excellent use. There is something, in these cash-strapped days, so delightful about seeing a character who is meant to be a surprise arrival enter and, rather than recognizing him from doubling some early minor role, sharing the characters’ surprise. There is gorgeous live music (composed by Michael Bruce, music direction by Richard Hart), lovely costumes (particularly for the beaux, design by Lizzie Clachan), and a detailed but efficient multi-story set.
The Beaux’ Stratagem is another perfect example of the comic style I’ve previously praised in the works of Blanche McIntyre and Adele Thomas, where allowing characters (and especially the female characters) to have true human dignity not only makes the play funnier, but helps create a sense of forward momentum in plays that could very easily descend into giddy, directionless farce– and in the process, offering a reminder that the concluding marriages and engagements these comedies are about more than just sex. They are symbolic of the genre’s promise of renewal, and a reminder that the comic rebirths at the end of these plays are even better when they stem from something worth leaving behind. 

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.