Category Archives: Shakespeare Performances & Programs

Smooth Sailing for Stripped-Down Pericles

“For look how fresh she looks! They were too rough that threw her in the sea.” (Pericles, Act III, scene 2)

Wait, seven actors performing a Shakespeare play that has dozens of speaking roles?

How now, my lord?

This is how: cut characters and snip text, and then weave actors in and out of multiple roles. Fortunately, director Kiernan McGowan knows how to handle the scissors and loom. His trim version Pericles, which We Happy Few theater company performs at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop through June 8, clocks in at just 90 minutes, and it works brilliantly.

Grant Cloyd as Pericles conveys the character’s frequent incredulity with perfect aplomb, while Jenna Berk sparkles in an energetic performance as his lost daughter, Marina. Jennifer J. Hopkins, as Pericles’s wife, Thaisa, charmingly alternates between coy, funny, and sad. Kerry McGee delivers a wonderful rendering of the scheming, Lady Macbeth-like Dionyza. Jon Reynolds is convincing as the emotionally-conflicted Cleon, a governor with a conscience (playing the guitar, he also sings a great version of “Crimson and Clover”). Charlie Retzlaff plays Cerimon as an engaging eccentric, while David Gamble portrays Simonides with perfect intensity.

To their fine credit, each actor plays additional roles with an impressive range that clearly and convincingly differentiates the characters.

Pericles echoes themes and story lines found elsewhere in Shakespeare, such as the alienated man who believes he’s lost his wife and daughter, only to be reunited with them in the end. The Winter’s Tale tells such a story as well, with calumny a tension-raising element.

In Pericles, the theme of incest adds tension. Shakespeare is explicit in describing the illicit king-daughter relationship at the beginning of the play. It comes up again late in the second act, when a character recounts that lightning has struck and “shrivell’d up” the king and daughter, as well as at the end of the play. Shakespeare seems to have been fixated on the incest theme, which also figures prominently in Hamlet.

More generally, the theme of alienation crops up in other plays that include Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus, The Tempest, Timon of Athens, and King Lear.

Which brings us to a mystery: Nothing in the life of the man from Stratford to whom the Shakespeare plays are attributed connects him to such subject matter. By all accounts, he was a wealthy businessman who was successful in real estate and the grain trade. There’s no evidence he experienced any of the negative emotional issues we see in the plays, including Pericles.

Is it any wonder, then, that the University of London has begun offering a course on the Shakespeare Authorship Question?

Faithful-to-the-text rating for Pericles: 4 out of 5 stars

I used the Folger Shakespeare Library edition of Pericles to evaluate how faithful the We Happy Few’s production is to the play’s original text. I selected approximately 70 difficult words and phrases from the play, such as “gloze,” “lop that doubt,” and “our paragon to all reports blasted,” and then listened for them during the performance, an approach that added a somewhat objective measure to an otherwise purely subjective analysis.

We Happy Few’s production follows an abridged text that cuts a large amount of material from the original Shakespeare play. Still, the performance I attended retained about a third of the difficult words and phrases on my list (including all those shown above), and even some of the Latin phrases. For me, “faithful to the text” for the most part means replicating the Early Modern English in the retained portion of the play instead of “translating” it.  Thus, I give Pericles 4 out of 5 stars for being faithful to the text, lopping off just one of the five stars because of the play’s abridgment.

Shakespeare Safari

Two of the things I most like seeing in Washington, DC are Shakespeare performances at Harman Hall, the Folger Theater, and other venues, and the elephants at the  National Zoo.

I’m afraid, however, that the Bard and pachyderms have something else in common.

For years I’ve enjoyed reading Shakespeare’s plays in their original version before experiencing their live performance. Having first read the play, I much better comprehend what the actors are saying on stage and connect with the wonderful poetry, stories, and characters. I find pleasure in hearing the Early Modern English our ancestors spoke four centuries ago—it’s a form of time travel—and there’s an added bonus: reading Shakespeare is very good for the brain. 

However, I’ve begun noticing how theater companies seem to be “modernizing” or “translating” Shakespeare more and more. I recently tested that notion by reading Twelfth Night before seeing a Shakespeare Theater Company production.

As I read the Folger Library’s edition of Twelfth Night, I made a list of difficult words and phrases, such as “malapert,” “brabble,” and “passy-measures pavin.” My list numbered more than 100 such words and phrases, which I narrowed to 25. I took the list with me to the play and checked off the ones the actors spoke.

The results surprised me. Only about half of the words and phrases on my list made it into the performance, and there seemed to be neither rhyme nor reason (as Shakespeare would say) as to which words were modernized, translated, or cut.

A word such as “crowner,” which is fairly close to its modern counterpart, “coroner,” would be translated, but the word “malapert,” which means “impudent,” remained unaltered. Cut was the phrase “cons state without a book” (which means “learns by heart the phrases of the great”), but the Latin phrase “cucullus non facit monachum” (proverbial for “the cowl doesn’t make a monk”) stayed in, albeit with vulgarized pronunciation (“facit” became “f*** it”).

Overall, the cuts and translations—along with added dialogue and songs with lyrics not written by Shakespeare—struck me as significant changes. It made me wonder whether performances in past decades varied from the original text to the same extent.

The movement to translate Shakespeare is gaining momentum: the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for instance has hired 36 playwrights to “translate” 39 Shakespeare plays into “contemporary modern English” by the end of 2018. According to OSF’s website:

Each playwright is being asked to put the same pressure and rigor of language as Shakespeare did on his, keeping in mind meter, rhythm, metaphor, image, rhyme, rhetoric and emotional content. Our hope is to have 39 unique side-by-side companion translations of Shakespeare’s plays that are both performable and extremely useful reference texts for both classrooms and productions.

It seems to me that elephants and Shakespeare are each threatened with their own kind of extinction. For elephants, it’s extinction in the wild. For Shakespeare, it’s extinction of live performance of the plays in their original text. I have mixed feelings about “saving” both.

As sad as it is, one can view confining elephants in zoos and sanctuaries as an insurance policy that may save them from total extinction. On the other hand, are elephants in confinement—who at times exhibit unnatural behaviors such as pacing and swaying—really elephants anymore?

As for Shakespeare, modernizing or translating the plays to make them more accessible to audiences is a sensible, even laudable goal—otherwise live Shakespeare, at least in the United States, eventually could evaporate altogether. But over time, say several decades from now, what will live Shakespeare sound like? Confined to a prison of modernization, will Shakespeare still be Shakespeare?

Personally, I don’t think so. I can imagine a day when one will have to go on safari in England to find a live performance of untranslated Shakespeare.

Rough Seas: Taffety Punk’s Wonderfully Strange Pericles

The first edition of Pericles was published in 1609, but scholars only guess about the date of the play’s original composition.

One thing I love about Washington, DC is its abundant offerings of Shakespeare. And not just abundant, but diverse. One can enjoy large mainstream productions by the Shakespeare Theatre Company and the Folger Theatre, as well as small offbeat productions by the Taffety Punk and Brave Spirits theatre companies.

Taffety Punk, in particular, presents some of the most innovative Shakespeare in town. Once a year, the company takes over the Folger Theater to present a “Bootleg Shakespeare” play. The actors assemble and rehearse for the first time on the morning of the one-time-only performance. These wacky, often rough and uneven productions have a delightful energy that attracts packed houses year after year. Last Monday night’s Bootleg Shakespeare was no exception.

Directed by Lise Bruneau, Taffety Punk’s Pericles included many strong performances. Joel David Santner was flawless as the young Pericles. Smiling with his arms outstretched as he slowly bounced over imaginary waves, he seemed to enjoy his many sea voyages, each time drawing laughs. Santner displayed great chemistry with Esther Williamson who played Pericle’s wife, Thaisa. Ashley Strand’s performance as Simonides, Thaisa’s father, was outstanding.

While the Taffety Punk crew played Pericles mostly for laughs, Chris Genebeach gave a moving performance as the older Pericles reunited with his daughter, Marina, played by Amanda Forstrom in yet another fine performance.

Amy Domingues’ cello added a haunting, beautiful tone that gave the production a pleasant continuity.

If not the filthiest of Shakespeare’s plays, Pericles certainly ranks as one of his strangest – which makes it perfect for Bootleg Shakespeare. The play begins with a story of incest involving a King Antiochus and his daughter. With their violation of the sexual taboo stated in direct terms, the king and daughter repeatedly are vilified as sinners. Fire from heaven eventually “[shrivels] up their bodies.”

Pericles was first published in 1609, but we don’t know when Shakespeare wrote it. Sources for the play date from the 14th century. Charlton Ogburn placed Shakespeare’s original composition in the late 1570’s. If Shakespeare did write Pericles during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, I believe she would have banned it.

Incest had to be a very sensitive topic for Elizabeth. Her mother, Anne Boleyn, was executed for that crime. A contemporary account of a relationship between young princess Elizabeth and her stepfather, Thomas Seymour, strongly suggests incest.

And there’s another reason why Elizabeth would have disliked Pericles.

In 1648, when she was just 14, Elizabeth’s translation of Margarite de Navarre’s The Mirror or Glass of the Sinful Soul was published. Elizabeth’s book is a spiritual meditation on “universal kinship,” the idea that since everyone is a child of God, every carnal relationship is incestuous. An odd text indeed for princess Elizabeth to be translating in her stepparents’ household.

The Queen easily could have thought that Shakespeare’s Pericles was mocking The Mirror or Glass of the Sinful Soul. Here’s an excerpt of the text that Pericles reads about the princess daughter’s relationship with her father:

I sought a husband, in which labour

I found that kindness in a father:

He’s father, son, and husband mild;

I mother, wife, and yet his child.

And here’s an excerpt from Elizabeth’s The Mirror or Glass of the Sinful Soul:

O what union is this, since (through faith) I am sure of Thee. And now I may call Thee son, father, spouse, and brother. Father, brother, son, husband.

In the fourth act of Pericles, Bawd orders Bolt to “crack the glass of [Marina’s] virginity” (emphasis mine). To me, Elizabeth could have viewed this as a swipe at her, the celebrated Virgin Queen and author of The Mirror or Glass of the Sinful Soul. The Queen died six years before the first edition of Pericles appeared.

Given her personal history, it’s not difficult to see why Elizabeth might have banned Pericles. It would explain the puzzle of why the play has romantic elements that sound, as David Bevington has observed, oddly old-fashion for a 1609 publication date.

Leave it to Taffety Punk to make an odd play even odder. Chris Marino as the incestuous King Antiochus looked like the spawn of Goldilocks and the Mad Hatter. Kimberly Gilbert was the dominatrix version of the brothel manager Bawd, Southern-style. Her fire-red bodice looked about two sizes too small, pushing her flesh into her armpits (hope she didn’t hurt herself). With a hilarious drawl and whip in hand, Gilbert’s Bawd dominated all the scenes she was in – and the other people in them. Her side kick, the pimp Bolt (James Flanagan) was equally hilarious. Flanagan articulated his lines like a Mississippian with great comedic aplomb.

Based on what I saw Monday night, I have little doubt that had Taffety Punk performed Pericles during Elizabeth’s reign, she would have ordered all the players shackled and flogged – and some of them might have enjoyed it.

Taffety Punk’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost”

Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 E. Capitol St., Washington, D.C. Theater to stage, axis view II
Besides the seating, not much has changed in the Folger Theatre since 1932, when this photograph was taken.

Yesterday morning I arrived at the Folger Theatre just after 11. The line of people waiting to get free tickets to Taffety Punk Theatre Company’s “Bootleg Shakespeare” production of Love’s Labour’s Lost already stretched around the building into the Elizabethan garden, that is to say, the line was long, lengthily extended, occupied by a large number of persons standing, meaning on two legs without moving, motionless as it were, except for their lips.

I know, my Holofernes imitation needs work, but so much for that.

“He’s nuts,” said a woman to another woman ahead of me in the line. She sounded like an actress. “He wants to play the lead role in Hamlet and direct himself, too. I told him nobody can play Hamlet and direct at the same time.”

“Kenneth Branagh did it,” I said, unable to hold my tongue. “Branagh played Hamlet in the film he directed. It’s the gold standard for Hamlet.”

“The guy I’m talking about is only sixteen,” she said. She looked just a few years older than that.

“You’re right,” I said, “sixteen is a little young.”

I put on my headphones and minded my own business. Then I thought maybe sixteen wasn’t too young. After all, some scholars (some of which probably are smarter than Holofernes) think that William of Stratford wrote Hamlet in 1589, when he was only twenty-five, if you can you believe that.

It makes sense to call Taffety Punk’s annual Folger event “Bootleg Shakespeare,” because the company breaks rules. Actors rehearse together for the first and only time on the day of the first and only performance. Costumes and props are strictly make-shift, and the director sits in the front row with the playbook, prompting actors when they forget a line. Whenever the director shouts “flourish,” the audience shouts back, “toot-toot-la-doo!”

These are rowdy affairs. Last year’s spectators watched Hamlet run around the stage buck naked. “Bootleg Shakespeare” always proves to be a unique experience.

Last night’s Love’s Labour’s Lost was no exception. Directed by Lise Bruneau, the strong cast was led by Tonya Beckman (Princess of France), Dan Crane (Prince of Navarre), Esther Williamson (Rosaline), Shawn Fagan (Berowne), and Jamie Beaman (Boyet).

In my opinion, Eric Hissom (Don Adriano de Armado) and Kimberly Gilbert (Moth) stole the show.

With a thick yet completely intelligible Spanish accent, Hissom shifted easily between grandiosity and melancholy playing the magnificent, love struck Armado, to uproarious comic effect. Gilbert, as the page Moth distracted by reading the Kama Sutra, was his perfect foil.

Max Reinhardsen as Costard was also excellent, as was Victoria Reinsel as Jaquenetta. Dressed like Daisy May in low-cut red polka dots and blue jean hot pants, she was sultry as sultry gets. The venerable Ted van Griethuysen entered an appearance as Marcarde.

The Folger Theater looks like an Elizabethan Renaissance playhouse. Small and intimate, it’s the best venue in town for seeing Shakespeare, in my opinion. Watching “Bootleg Shakespeare” there, admiring the actors who’ve rehearsed only briefly with each other, I imagine this must be a little like what 16th century playgoers at The Globe experienced, where the players staged a different play every day.

“Bootleg Shakespeare” is a must see — but you’ll have to wait until next year. Stay informed about next summer’s production by visiting Taffety Punk’s website and signing up for the newsletter.

Next up for Taffety Punk: an all-female production of Titus Andronicus.

Taffety Punk’s Twelfth Night

Cruel joke: Malvolio dresses and acts silly in front of Olivia. Set under the sea, Taffety Punk’s quirky production looks quite different than this, Malvolio appearing as if he were in a Jacques Cousteau film.

Taffety Punk can chalk up another success with its production of Twelfth Night, now playing at the Capitol Hills Arts Workshop in Washington, DC.

Led by Esther Williamson (Viola) and Tonya Beckman (Olivia), the strong cast under the direction of Michelle Stupe spoke their lines flawlessly and without missing a beat in the sold-out show I saw Saturday.

Taffety Punk is arguably the best entertainment value in town. The company’s innovative, polished performances of Shakespeare consistently satisfy, and at $10 for a ticket, it’s a theatre-lover’s dream.

I got a particular kick out of Sir Toby Belch, whom Ian Armstrong played as a guitar-strumming rocker and 24-hour party guy singing many of his lines. His sidekick, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, in an excellent performance by Jared Mercier, was hilarious alongside the witty Maria, superbly played by Jennifer Hopkins.

Kimberly Gilbert delivered an interesting, thoughtful interpretation of Festes, the Fool, and once more demonstrated her fine musical talents. She has a wonderful voice. Dan Crane (Sebastian), Ricardo Frederick Evans (Duke Orsino), and Robert Leembruggen (Antonio) were also very good, making for a solid cast all around.

For me, however, Daniel Flint stole the show as the much abused Malvolio.

The scene in which Malvolio reads the letter Maria has written in Olivia’s hand, tricking him into thinking Olivia is in love with him, was one of the best Shakespeare scenes I’ve watched in recent years. Crane was very convincing as the duped suitor with laugh-out-loud results, his performance reminding me why Twelfth Night is the Bard’s funniest play.

This show is a two-thumbs up. It runs through February 23. I hope you can still get tickets!

“Shakespeare Uncovered” Takes On Hamlet and The Tempest

John Barrymore as Hamlet in 1922, after Sigmund Freud analyzed the Dane as mother-fixated. Barrymore agreed and, as Hamlet, was the first to kiss Queen Gertrude in her bedroom.

PBS aired the final two episodes of “Shakespeare Uncovered” on Friday, with David Tennant discussing Hamlet, and Trevor Nunn The Tempest.

It was fun watching film clips of various actors playing the Prince of Denmark as Tennant gave a straightforward summary and analysis those new to the play should enjoy.

Viewers also got to see a rare copy of the “Bad Quarto” of Hamlet, the first printed version of the play that’s only about half the length of subsequent versions. Actually, depending on one’s perspective, the “Bad Quarto” is very bad, or not so bad after all.

One theme of the Hamlet episode was how actors bring different interpretations to the lead role. John Barrymore, for instance, was the first to play “the closet scene” between Hamlet and his mother, Queen Gertrude, in her bedroom, kissing her on the lips, thus conveying the taboo sensuality that Sigmund Freud said was at the core of their relationship. In what one might call a classic case of Freudian projection, Hamlet repeatedly accuses Gertrude of being “incestuous.”

Yet, despite being touted as “telling the stories behind the stories” of Shakespeare’s plays, this episode of “Shakespeare Uncovered” was oddly silent about the sources for Hamlet. Instead, it spent a few minutes attempting to link the play to its assumed author’s biography, an approach I found unhelpful not only because it skipped over the play’s sources, but because it relied on too many unproven assumptions about Will of Stratford, the man that many (including historian David McCullough and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor) doubt was Shakespeare in the first place.

Even though one may not get the “story behind the story,” this episode of “Shakespeare Uncovered” is worth watching. But as for the last episode in the series, which looks at The Tempest, well, that’s a different story.

Trevor Nunn’s discussion of what most consider to be the Bard’s last play is chockfull of biography about the man from Stratford, laden with qualifiers such “ we can’t be sure of this, of course,” that give his analysis a makeshift quality.

Nunn cites a particular event in Stratford Will’s relationship with his daughter, Judith, as a reference for Prospero’s relationship with Miranda in The Tempest. Besides not knowing precisely when The Tempest was written (or any of the plays for that matter), what we do know is that Judith was illiterate, an oft-cited reason why Stratford Will was not the author.

It’s unfortunate, because Nunn could have conveyed his feelings and emotions about Shakespeare’s farewell play, I think, without muddling his narrative with “biography” that smacks of fiction.

The episode also gets caught up in a contradiction of sorts. It relies on the orthodox theory about William Strachy’s account of a 1609 shipwreck in Bermuda as the source for the play (albeit with the qualifier “may have been”), but then spends a lot of time showing that the Mediterranean is the probable setting for “The Tempest,” staying silent about the appearance of the word “Bermoothes” in the play.

Indeed, recent scholarship about The Tempest demonstrates convincingly that it was written at least by 1603 for Shrovetide performance, and not derived not from Strachey but from Richard Eden’s 1555 Decades of the New World. It’s a shame that “Shakespeare Uncovered” doesn’t even touch upon this scholarship, suggesting a bias toward orthodoxy in a field that Shakespeare lovers ought to see as ripe for new discoveries.

All in all, I give “Shakespeare Uncovered” high marks. Here’s my ranking of the episodes (the links are to my reviews):

1. Richard II, with Derek Jacobi (Episode Three)

2. Henry IV and Henry V plays, with Jeremy Irons (Episode Four)

3. Macbeth, with Ethan Hawke (Episode One)

4. Hamlet, with David Tennant (Episode Five)

5. The Comedies, with Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave (Episode Two)

6. The Tempest, with Trevor Nunn (Episode Six)

You can watch the complete episodes on the “Shakespeare Uncovered” website.

 

On “Shakespeare Uncovered,” Derek Jacobi Uncovers Shakespeare as (Surprise!) Edward de Vere

Derek Jacobi has been fearless in espousing a controversial view about Shakespeare’s true identity.

Derek Jacobi is a brave man. The acclaimed Shakespearean actor, apparently unafraid of peers castigating him as a heretic, boldly argues on PBS’s “Shakespeare Uncovered” that the Bard was not the son of a glove maker from Stratford, but the nobleman Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

Little more than half way through an episode of the program about the play Richard II, Jacobi explains that Oxford wrote the Shakespeare plays anonymously and allowed William of Stratford to take the credit.

Among other facts, Jacobi cites that the Stratford man’s children were illiterate, and that his will makes no mention of books, manuscripts of plays, or the theatre, strong evidence that the Stratfordian was not the playwright.

Jacobi acknowledges that the Shakespeare authorship question is “hugely controversial.”

The PBS show includes a rebuttal by Oxford University professor Jonathan Bate. Bate asserts that the “middle class grammar school boy” from Stratford who became an actor could understand “courts and kings and politics” because he performed at court, and “courts and kings and politics are things you can read books about.”

I imagine Bate’s remark elicited chuckles from “Oxfordians,” those who believe Edward de Vere was Shakespeare.

I find it surprising that Jacobi was allowed to express his opinion about Shakespeare’s authorship on “Shakespeare Uncovered,” given that its producer, Richard Denton, considers it “nonsense.”

It’s also interesting to me how some folks belittle the view that Shakespeare was de Vere’s pseudonym, given that many serious people – such as the esteemed historian David McCullough – have concluded there’s convincing evidence to support that view.

I found Jacobi’s discussion of Richard II, which included clips from a 1978 production featuring him in the lead role, fascinating, making me want to see again the only play Shakespeare wrote completely in verse.

In the subsequent installment of “Shakespeare Uncovered,” Jeremy Irons provides an analysis of the Henry IV and Henry V plays that’s well-worth watching. Irons is an Oxfordian, too. However, unlike Jacobi, he steers clear of the authorship question.

PBS will broadcast the last two installments of “Shakespeare Uncovered” on Friday, February 8. They will feature David Tennant discussing Hamlet, and Trevor Nunn discussing The Tempest.

Ethan Hawke is Engaging in “Shakespeare Uncovered”

Hawke

In the first part of “Shakespeare Uncovered,” the new PBS series which tells “the story behind the stories of Shakespeare’s greatest plays,” Ethan Hawke delivers an engaging narrative about his desire to understand Macbeth and play its lead character.

Hawke’s study of Macbeth is worth watching. He focuses on how the character’s mental state evolves throughout the play, and even consults with a forensic psychoanalyst to better comprehend the criminal mind. His discussion is light on topical references to Macbeth, with only a passing mention of King James I and his interest in witches.

Nor does Hawke look to Shakespeare’s biography for help in interpreting the play. Instead, we watch him struggling to connect with Macbeth on a personal level, as an actor. In the end, he seems ready to take on the part and one hopes he does.

The second part of “Shakespeare Uncovered” features Joely Richardson discussing Shakespeare’s comedies, with an emphasis on “As You Like It” and “Twelfth Night.” For me, Richardson delivers a surprise.

First, a bit of background. Richardson played the young Queen Elizabeth I in Roland Emmerich’s 2011 film, “Anonymous,” which depicts Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the playwright using the pseudonym William Shakespeare. Richardson’s mother, Vanessa Redgrave, played the older Queen. The controversial film shows the Queen and de Vere (alias Shakespeare) as lovers who have a child together.

In a 2011 interview, Richardson stated that it’s “highly improbable” that William of Stratford-upon-Avon was Shakespeare, and that the Earl of Oxford “easily” could have been Shakespeare. With some justification one could have called Richardson an “Oxfordian.” But now, listening to her on “Shakespeare Uncovered,” it sounds like she has shifted her position 180 degrees.

Her analysis of Shakespeare’s comedies is full of allusions to William of Stratford’s putative biography. For example, we hear that the loss of his son, Hamnet, influenced his writing of “Twelfth Night,” in which Viola thinks her brother Sebastian has drowned at sea.

Redgrave also appears in “Shakespeare Uncovered,” conversing with daughter Joely about the Bard’s comic heroines. Interestingly, however, Redgrave says nothing to support her daughter’s apparent new thinking that Stratford Will was Shakespeare. I, for one, was surprised to hear Richardson espouse that view, although I guess it’s possible she hasn’t changed her position but is merely reading the script written for her for “Shakespeare Uncovered.”

The next two installments of the series air on Friday, February 1. In the first hour, Sir Derek Jacobi will discuss Richard II. According to one advance review, Jacobi will observe that the Earl of Oxford was Shakespeare.

Jeremy Irons will host the second hour, which covers the Henry IV and Henry V history plays. Irons, too, is known as an Oxfordian. Will he surprise us?

 

PBS Shakespeare Series Has “Oxfordians” Onstage

Vanessa Redgrave
Sir Derek Jacobi
Jeremy Irons
Joely Richardson

 

 

 

 

 

 

For three consecutive Fridays beginning January 25, PBS is treating Shakespeare lovers to “Shakespeare Uncovered,” a new series that “tell the story behind the stories of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.” Each night will include two 1-hour episodes with different hosts (check local stations for airtimes). Here’s the line-up:

  • January 25:  Macbeth with Ethan Hawke (1st hour); As You Like It and Twelfth Night with Joely Richardson and her mother, Vanessa Redgrave (2nd hour)
  • February 1: Richard II with Sir Derek Jacobi (1st hour); Henry IV and Henry V with Jeremy Irons (2nd hour)
  • February 8: Hamlet with David Tennant (1st hour); The Tempest with Trevor Nunn (2nd hour)

It’s interesting to me how PBS enlisted “Oxfordians” – those who think “William Shakespeare” was the pseudonym used by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford – to narrate several episodes.

Richardson, Redgrave, and Jacobi all appeared in Anonymous, Roland Emmerich’s controversial 2011 film that presented Oxford (played by Rhys Ifans) as Shakespeare. Irons, too, is an Oxfordian.

Indeed, if one counts the number of narrators and plays they discuss, Oxfordians have a slight edge: 5 plays and 4 hosts, versus 3 plays and 3 hosts for non-Oxfordians — those who maintain William of Stratford-upon-Avon was the Bard, or who remain neutral on the question of authorship.

PBS has not been lily-livered when it comes to the controversy over whether Shakespeare was a pseudonym. “The Shakespeare Mystery,” a PBS program broadcast in 1989, is described on PBS’s website as making “a strong case that the most celebrated writer in the English language was not the man from Stratford. Rather, ‘Shakespeare’ was a clever nom de plume used by Edward de Vere, a learned Elizabethan court insider, to publish his incomparable, but often politically scandalous, writings.”

Given that probably over ninety percent of the theatrical world still believes that William of Stratford was Shakespeare, I’m sure PBS could have found plenty of “Stratfordians” to host all the episodes of “Shakespeare Uncovered.” It striketh me that somebody made the conscious decision to include hosts holding the minority opinion about Shakespeare’s true identity. Or it could be just a coincidence.

In any event, how much difference can an Oxfordian perspective make when telling “the story behind” a Shakespeare play?

Without previewing the first “Shakespeare Uncovered” episode, one can only guess what Ethan Hawkes, who I assume is in the non-Oxfordian camp, will say about Macbeth.

Hawke invites viewers to join him “in his quest to play Shakespeare’s murderous Thane of Cawdor by uncovering the true story that served as inspiration, immersing himself in some of the most memorable and innovative productions and discovering Shakespeare’s extraordinary insights into the criminal mind.”

The orthodox (Stratfordian) view generally holds that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth around 1607, several years after Oxford’s death when Will of Stratford-upon-Avon was still in his forties. According to this view, the play was intended to flatter James I, who had reached the top of the career ladder by going from King of Scotland to King of England. James narrowly escaped death in the infamous Gunpowder Plot, in which Catholic radicals tried to blow up Parliament. Stratfordians see in Macbeth topical references to the Gunpowder Plot. In his book, “Will of the World,” Stephen Greenblatt writes that, “Some playwright affiliated with the King’s Men [the acting company] — perhaps Shakespeare himself — grasped that this story would make an exciting play.”

Oxfordians hold a very different view about Macbeth. Besides believing Shakespeare wrote the play much earlier than 1607, they think a grim drama involving witches and multiple murders would hardly be one to flatter James who, if he saw the play (there’s no documentary evidence he did) might have felt that it cast doubt on his own succession. You can read more about the Oxfordian view of Macbeth here: http://www.shakespeare-oxford.com/?p=533.

On “Shakespeare Uncovered,” I expect Ethan Hawke will stick to the Stratfordian view and likely mention connections to King James and the Gunpowder Plot, in addition to delving into the Bard’s sources for the play and history about Scottish royal succession.

With Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave discussing As You Like It and Twelfth Night, one shouldn’t expect any references linking those plays to Stratford Will, such as those Greenblatt describes. Greenblatt emphasizes Stratford Will’s “folk” environment, connecting his father’s vocation as a wool dealer and glove-maker to lines in As You Like It such as, “we are still handling our ewes; and their fells, you know, are greasy.” Greenblatt’s take on Twelfth Night includes linking Count Orsino’s advice that “the woman take an elder than herself” to Stratford Will’s marital unhappiness after being dragged to the altar by an older woman.

As Oxfordians, Richardson and Redgrave, in my opinion, will dispense with such linkage. Instead, they’ll likely focus on the personalities of Rosalind in As You Like It, a character Harold Bloom calls “first in poise of all Shakespearean characters,” and on Viola, the female heroine in Twelfth Night, arguably the best of Shakespeare’s comedies.

In sum, one can expect the Oxfordians featured on “Shakespeare Uncovered” to leave out any discussion of topical references and links between the author’s life and his work, and instead take the approach that “the play’s the thing.”

Shakespeare Matters: All’s Well That Ends Well

It’s not ranked among Shakespeare’s best plays, which doesn’t mean it’s any less of a gem. All’s Well That Ends Well is a shining example of the Bard’s ability to combine drama, romance and comedy with seamless shifts in tones that make for a highly enjoyable play.

In this portrait Shakespeare looks comfortable in his nobleman’s clothes. A great majority of his plays, including “All’s Well That Ends Well,” are set in royal courts.

I just saw a delightful All’s Well at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s annual “Free For All” in Washington, D.C. Placed in an attractive Victorian setting, the play’s strong cast features Golden Globe winning and Oscar-nominated actress Marsha Mason (Countess of Rossillion), Miriam Silverman (Helena), Tony Roach (Bertram), Paxton Whitehead (Lafew), Adam Green (Lavatch), Cameron Folmar (Parolles), and Ted van Griethuysen (King of France). Van Griethuysen played the same role when the company last performed All’s Well at its Free For All in 1998. The choreography and music are bonuses in the current production, and van Griethuysen dances nimbly on stage in his excellent performance.

Now, here are few more reasons to see All’s Well That Ends Well.

The Bed Trick. I think Shakespeare must be second to none in using the bed trick as a plot device. The bed trick, in which one character sleeps with another without knowing who it is, becomes the main catalyst that drives All’s Well to its odd conclusion, and you’d probably be hard pressed to find a story that does it any better. The bed trick is not the only bawdy element of the play. Early on, there’s extended off-color dialogue about virginity and a rift on a sexual taboo. A prostitute plays a big part in the story. All’s Well ranks high on the Shakespeare bawdy scale along with Pericles and Measure For Measure, the latter another play where a bed trick is central to the plot. (Why is Shakespeare so fixated on bed tricks? Good question!)

Women Rule. On the surface the King of France is in charge, assisted by various male attendants and servants. But it’s a group of strong-willed women who work together to do the impossible and bend Bertram to Helena’s will. Men in the play largely come off as fools — speaking of which, the servant Lavatch is one of Shakespeare’s best clowns. In a sense, however, it’s Helena who does the best fooling, and it’s worth watching her incredible efforts to come out on top.

Parolles. A swaggering, boastful rascal whose name means “words” in French, the character Parolles is the spark that energizes All’s Well and provides some of its funniest moments. At turns sleazy and buffoonish, this character appears so natural it’s hard to believe Shakespeare didn’t base him on some real scoundrel. In the performance I saw, Cameron Folmar’s animated rendition of Parolles stole the show.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Free For All production of All’s Well runs through September 5. If you’re in the Washington, D.C. area, check out the company’s easy on-line method of obtaining tickets.