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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Literature in the News: Shakespeare in the Original

I came across this review by Noah Millman in one of my favorite website magazines of two Shakespeare play productions currently on Broadway.  What’s unique about these productions is that they will adhere as strictly as possible to the original Elizabethan presentation:

The two hottest Shakespeare tickets in New York right now, in a season chock-full of wildly divergent takes on the Bard, are, in a sense, the most old-fashioned productions of the lot. “Twelfe Night” and “Richard III,” both at the Belasco Theater and starring Mark Rylance, one of the most celebrated classical actors living, are “original practices (OP)” productions—that is to say, they seek to perform the plays as they were staged in Shakespeare’s time.

This theatrical movement, promoted by Shakespeare’s Globe in London—a faithful recreation of Shakespeare’s own theater where both productions originated—is centered on three principles: a close attention to the rhythms of the verse; a theatrical style that acknowledges the presence of the audience; and a rejection of modern stage contrivances that would not have been available in Shakespeare’s day. But these productions go further: they use all-male casts—as was the practice in Shakespeare’s day—build costumes out of traditional materials and with traditional fasteners, and incorporate traditional instruments and dances.

That sounds really cool.  Yes, it is true, there were no female actors in Elizabethan stage, and men played the female roles. 

Elements like these suggest that OP is a kind of antiquarian fundamentalism, akin to Civil War reenactments—hardly a model for living theater, nor the basis of a Broadway smash. Is the point of OP to recover a lost theatrical tradition? Or is the point to give us the illusion of being Elizabethans for a day?

That is a good point.  Why go to that extreme when simple suggestion of similar era-style costumes can fill the need?  I don’t know, but I would love to see to assess. 

“Twelfe Night” and “Richard III” are an interesting pair of plays to use to showcase OP. The first because the play is (among other things) Shakespeare’s greatest cross-dressing farce. Viola, shipwrecked and stranded in a foreign land, disguises herself as a man for her own protection. She offers her services to the local Duke, Orsino, who is in love with Olivia. Olivia spurns his overtures, so he uses Viola as a go-between to press his suit. Olivia winds up falling for Viola instead of Orsino, and meanwhile Viola falls in love with Orsino herself—but can’t reveal her love because she’s disguised as a man. The play loads on additional comic complications—more suitors, a mistaken-identity plot when Viola’s brother, whom she thought drowned, returns—but following the original practice of an all-male cast foregrounds the question of sexual identity and presentation.

I have to say that Twelfth Night is one of my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies, and the cross dressing costume shifts does make it ideal for this.  I’m not sure why they picked Richard III, perhaps for its historical setting as Millman states. 

“Richard III” is an interesting choice for a different reason. For Shakespeare’s audience, the play covered relatively recent history—foundational history for their political system. The play is a searing portrait of a self-loathing, manipulative psychopath, but there is a providential scaffolding around the action, the notion that Richard was the “scourge of God,” sent to purify England of the final stains of the Wars of the Roses, before being defeated by the man who would finally unite the white and red.

I was curious whether an “original practices” production would try to recover that political context. But this production goes in the opposite direction. Indeed, it goes so far in wiping out the War of the Roses that the part of “mad” Margaret, the character who directly articulates that providential theme, is cut entirely.

I’m not sure the politics of Richard III synergize with the use of original period production.  The reason why one would chose Richard III is that it’s the closest of Shakespeare’s histories to his day, and the use of original costume might provide a the realistic visual to the audience.  However, one could have gone in the opposite direct, chose a history play the most distant from Shakespeare’s day and see if the costume clashes.  But that’s more of an assessment by subtraction, and why would a playgoer want to spend his money on something that might be discordant. 
Which brings me to the price.  I would love to go and see this production of Twelfth Night.  I checked out the prices, since I’m so fortunate enough to live in New York City.  Yikes.  The cheapest seats in the very back are $123 each.  Broadway prices have gotten outrageous.  Who pays for these shows?  Well, my wife would not be interested enough to justify spending that amount.  So I will have to pass.

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