Friday, December 18, 2009

That's too long for a play

In the study-versus-stage debate that is (or should be) Shakespearean scholarship, I’m totally on the stage side. To me, Shakespeare was not a poet who held his nose while handing perfect first drafts of his poems to rude uneducated actors, he was a working actor from a rude uneducated background who was paid extra money to write plays with particular actors in mind. Which, when you think about it for more than ten seconds, means that the man probably rewrote more than he wrote.

THE SHARERS: Hey, Will –- you know the guy we just hired to play Albany? He’s better than the guy we had before, so can you rewrite King Lear to give him more to do?
SHAKESPEARE: Sure. But then I get to publish a quarto with that version and pocket the proceeds.
THE SHARERS: Hey, Will -- we’re mounting a touring production of The Scottish Play to bring to Edinburgh. Can you cut it down to about 90 minutes so nine actors can do it?
SHAKESPEARE: Sure, but that’s the version that’ll end up in the Folio.
THE SHARERS: The what now?

These are the kind of activities which the ShakeStudy readers, who have little or no idea of what it’s like to mount a play, never mind act in one, think are beneath their lofty Bard. But those of us in the StageSpeare troupe know that these activities are precisely what Will the actor did every day of his working life. He had to perform in and create plays which would not only keep the half-drunk groundlings in the pit from throwing food at the actors, but amuse the merchants in the galleries and flatter the titled lordlings lounging on their stools stage left and right. To paraphrase Peter Brook in The Empty Space, if Shakespeare hadn’t created 30-odd scripts which combine Mel Brooks, Tom Stoppard, and Tennessee Williams, critics would be saying that it was impossible.

All of which is prologue the following statement: based on the production of Love’s Labor’s Lost that’s being done at Pace University through this weekend, the Globe Theatre in London is the best thing that has ever happened to Shakespeare since the publication of the First Folio.

Why? Because the Globe Theatre productions, by their nature, rescue Shakespeare from the culture-snob study and put him back in the popular theatre where he made his daily living. You get the high, the low, the smart, the silly, poetry, fart jokes, music, dance, tenderness, silliness, and a lot of interaction with the audience –- everything, I’m guessing, that was done by the Chamberlain’s Men at the Globe to keep their audience entertained enough so that they didn’t walk out to watch Harry Hunks fight off a couple of dogs in the bear-baiting arena down the street.

Which is no mean feat for a play like Love’s Labor’s Lost, a young man’s look-at-me-I’m-clever script with a ton of wordplay, a piece that feels like it was written for an educated audience (no groundlings allowed) to be performed in an indoor setting (wordplay does not travel well in the gusty Southwark wind). It has the feel of the later Blackfriars plays, which are three parts pageant to one part theatre. And, like Midsummer Night’s Dream (which was probably written to celebrate a particular wedding), LLL has a play-within-a-play in which the audience talks back to the actors (The Pageant of the Nine Worthies). It’s hard not to imagine, while you watch the on-stage lordlings heckle the actors, that this was the sort of thing the Chamberlain’s Men had to put up with every fucking time they did a play for those snobby nobles with their inbred belief that they are by birth smarter and funnier than any lowly actor. Which means that all the onstage backchat is Shakespeare’s way of needling the lordlings about the snarky way they needle actors. You have to believe that the gentles felt a verbal slap when they heard Holofernes’ walk-off line, “This is not generous, not gentle, not humble.”

Take that, you twits.

To illustrate how times have changed, Shakespeare scholars used to think that LLL was one of the earliest plays in the canon (nowadays they place it around Romeo and MND). To me, it reads like the son of a Stratford glover being told one too many times what a country yokel he is, and finally saying, “Oh yeah? I’ll show you!” with a pitch-perfect mimicry of his university-trained betters, like a John Lyly play with actual characters. Ironically, it’s the university wit part that makes this annoyingly clever play so notoriously hard to perform well –- it contains references to everything from the Armada to Raleigh’s so-called School of Night (a reference which was cut from this production, if memory serves), and it’s totally made up of in-jokes that must have had them rolling off their stools in 1594. It’s the Elizabethan equivalent of stringing together 15 Johnny Carson monologues from 1965 and performing them for people born in 1970. There’s no way you’re going to get any of the jokes without reading 10 pages of footnotes before the show. And that’s the challenge: how do you perform a play which is that site-specific without boring a modern audience so much they start watching bear-baiting videos on their IPhones?

Well, if you’re director Dominic Drumgoole, you attack the problem head-on by making your production as site-specific as possible, with the site being the outdoor stage of the Globe and the specific being 1594, so that it’s a total period piece, from costumes to musical instruments (I cannot tell you much my time-displaced inner Elizabethan was kvelling at hearing shawms and sackbuts). And then (because nobody’s going to get the in-jokes anyway), you direct the actors to (a) always speak as if they know what they’re talking about, (b) add business wherever possible to get a laugh, and (c) generally lark about like college kids whose bright ideas always backfire in their faces. Result: an audience-aware delight that doesn’t try to make the lines live so much as make the play live. If I can echo a comment to the New York Times review, which quotes an anonymous student: “I didn’t understand a word of it, but it was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.” That’s good Shakespeare, folks.

And since a review of a play that needs footnotes should always have a footnote of its own:

The play at Pace right now is a touring revival of the original production, which was done in 2007 with a slightly different cast. One of those slight differences is Thomasin Rand, who plays Rosaline. Her voice is so light and airy that a row full of people inhaling at the same time could drown it out, and if she's not facing you when she speaks, then goodbye audibility. All of which makes me wish I had seen Gemma Arterton (picture above) who originated the part in '07. You might recognize Ms Arterton as Tess from the recent BBC Tess of the D'Ubervilles, or the British agent in Quantum of Solace who has an unlucky run-in with a couple of cans of diesel oil. If you don't, that's all right -- she'll be all over the place in the next couple of years as the title character in Tamara Drewe, Catherine Earnshaw in the remake of Wuthering Heights, and I-forget-who in the upcoming West End production of The Little Dog Laughed.


Molly said...

Indeed, the Rosaline, though clever and apt, needs more breath and vocal training. Happily that forced Horvendile to write a spiffy footnote that starts my list of things to look forward to in the next couple years. Tx. This was indeed a delightful production -- go downtown this weekend!

amanda said...

I watched a local production of "Much Ado..." last night here in Raleigh. I'm sure it was as good.