Friday, April 29, 2016

King And Country: Henry V, or, Echoes And High Notes

My going-to-war crown has a cross on it.
“Oh come ON!” loud-whispered the guy two seats down from me during the final scene of Henry V. He had spent most of the evening leaning forward, arms on the railing in front of us, but now he leaned back and shook his head. “It’s a stupid FARCE!” he said to his wife with his arms folded. To which I wanted to reply: “First time ever seeing Henry Five, huh, fella?” Because that last scene—the wooing scene between Henry/Hal and the Princess of France, is a total hoot no matter how you play it. Seriously—it’s as bad-actor proof as the Pyramus and Thisbe play from Midsummer Night’s Dream—it’d even get laughs if Christian Bale did it. With Alex Hassell and Jennifer Kirby playing it, it was delightful. It’s the crowning scene in the play, and the crowning moment in Hassell’s journey from a scapegrace taking on two tavern wenches at once to a self-aware king making self-aware passes at someone who barely understands English. 
This production begins with a moment that is just as delightful. The stage is bare of all except a throne, on which sits the crown of England. In saunters Oliver Ford Davies as the Chorus, dressed like a rumpled old history buff who mistakenly walked through a stage door instead of his study door. He looks around. He acknowledges us. He  sees the crown of England sitting on that throne, and holds it up to look at it—and then Alex Hassell marches on in a huff, grabs the crown out of his hand, and marches off with it, throwing a snooty over-the-shoulder look back at Davies like he’s the fly in the buttermilk. 

From that moment, you know you’re in good hands. And while it’s not on the level of Henry IV 1, this production achieves a nice balance between foolery and seriousness—with the notable exception of Pistol, who is still painfully unfunny, even though in this play Antony Byrne portrays him as a completely different Pistol from the one in Henry IV 2. If anything, this serves to highlight just how seamlessly the rest of the actors are delivering consistent characters from one play to the next. 
Especially Hassell. This is the culmination of all the work he’s done in the previous two plays, and all that work pays off here. Again, when Henry V is done as a standalone, certain choices that actors make are defined by the fact that they have to come out of this play alone. Hassell can echo and call back to and advance upon what he’s done in both earlier plays to make this Henry someone who is still learning how to be a ruler, a warrior, and a man. The mannerisms that marked his Hal are still there in his Henry, but they’re refined and more under control, like a set of potential flaws that have been forged into protective armor. It’s a different kind of theatrical acting than I’m used to—it’s a style and technique that’s more suited to television, where you use the episode to build to the series, and it’s both fascinating and revelatory to have seen that on stage. 

Especially since there’s really no connecting tissue here. Everything is self-contained, like an evening of one-acts introduced by a kindly old producer, who invariably apologizes in advance for what we are about to see. The scenes are like secular Stations of the Cross, with the betrayal scene even compared to a second fall of man, which is pretty damned presumptuous if you ask me. Also totally British.  

There is a lot of audience interaction, with the lights rising during the Harfleur speech (we’re the French) and just before Agincourt (we’re the army). Nym talks a lot about humors, and the frequency of it makes me suspect that it’s a deliberate parody of Ben Jonson. Falstaff’s death is handled poignantly, and little by little the world of Eastcheap is whittled away, with Nym and Bardolph hanged, the Boy killed in battle, and Pistol turning cutpurse and thief. Jane Lapoitaire, playing the French Queen, performs her final verbal bow the same way she made her first one, by entertaining the first two rows of the audience with what the rest of us cannot hear without the audio equivalent of a satellite dish. Seriously—you can hear your cells dividing more clearly than you can hear her.
And the ghost of Richard II hovers over everything. Henry’s plea to God not to be punished for inheriting the sin of his father along with his crown has a lot more resonance when you see the plays in sequence. You really get a feel for how awful any murder is, never mind the murder of a sovereign. And you also, if you know your history, get the very clear sense that just because God doesn’t punish you now, that doesn’t mean he won’t let you win and then take it all away from you later, or wait until you’re dead and have your son lose everything and more, like that. 
Two final notes: the scene between the Princess of France and her ladies-in-waiting, as they describe body parts in English and French, was sublimely hilarious, and just as uplifting as that final wooing scene between Henry and the Princess. But the one scene in this production that brought down the house was the Welshman/Irishman/Scot scene. Simon Yadoo as Jamy the Scot was as hilariously unintelligible as Brad Pitt in Snatch, and his commitment to total gibberish was nothing less than inspirational. Which was the source of the other memorable overheard comment of the night. After the play was over, as two women waited as patiently as possible on line for the Ladies, one turned to the other and said: “I wanted to see more of Jamy the Scot.”
Me too, lady. Me too. 
*   *   *   *   *
So what to say about the King And Country series as a whole?  

The ensemble work throughout was stellar. Each play had its own style, but the series as a whole shared a number of recurring motifs. A playful moment with the crown. Church or religious settings, with men and women crossing themselves either to ward off evil or acknowledge a blessing. Henry V's peacetime crown is unadorned and gold; his war crown is dark ungleaming silver with a cross on the front. (God is very near the earth in these plays.) How History as a force never really ends, even though plays must. How the dead haunt the living—the series that begins with a mourning old woman draped over a coffin while a choir sings dirges, ends with a marriage attended by both the living and the dead of Henry V—the dead looking down from where the choir sang in Richard II, the living assembled in preparation for a curtain call.  
Ranking the four plays: I’d put Richard II at the top, followed by Henry IV 1, Henry V, and Henry IV 2 
What I remember as I think back: a king who loves martyrdom more than monarchy teasingly offering and then snatching away his crown to the man who will succeed him. A young prince laughing with his commoner friends. A rash husband walloping his wife’s shoulder with what passes in him for affection. “Here comes your father.” A quiet night before battle when soldiers tell the truth to a king in disguise who should know better than to defend himself by pulling rank, but does it anyway. And a woman’s body draped over a coffin while a choir from above sings three-part harmony. That’s the image that began the series, and it infected everything else I saw with the presence and the promise of grief and mortality. And—despite our oh-so-modern trust in progress, understanding, and community—aren’t those two things what History is all about?

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Past, Present, Future

We have no future, you and I, except
   The one we lived for in the past—what we
Hoped for when I felt weak and you felt kept—
   Fought for and lost—fought hard, lost bitterly.
We have no present now, except for times
   A memory will rise up from its grave
To haunt us with the well-intentioned crimes
   We joined in for a love we could not save.
We have no past except the selfish fervor
   That dragged a common dream into the light.
You clutched it like it was a life preserver.
   I ran from it like it was kryptonite.
      Now that I know it never can come true,
      I run the other way, and dream of you.


Copyright 2016 Matthew J Wells

Monday, April 25, 2016

King And Country: Henry IV Part 2, or, Johnny (Falstaff) One-Note

See this? That's how much plot you're getting tonight.

You don’t see this play done by itself very often—I have a vague memory of seeing it once before this, but damned if I can remember when—because when it’s done at all, it’s either done in rep with Part 1 or combined with Part 1 to make one gigantic HenryFouriad, like the version at Lincoln Center in 2003. And for good reason. The plain truth is, this play can’t be done on its own. It’s a Part 2 that requires an intimate knowledge of Part 1, a sequel in which the opening Eastcheap scenes all contain callbacks to things that happened in Part 1, and they’re not references that are explained. The only way it can be successfully mounted as a standalone is if you construct a “Previously, on Henry The Fourth Part One” voiceover, with excerpts and selected moments from the prior play presented for the Bolingbrokian impaired. 

I would have loved it if this production had started out that way. But it doesn’t. It starts out with a monologue by Rumor—a very modern Rumor, wearing a Rolling Stone Tongue T-shirt (perfect) and carrying a cellphone (double perfect), who delivers a clever multilingual  hashtag joke (perfect hat trick). The entire speech is delivered like Hal’s monologue, right at the audience with the house lights up half. And then he waves them down, and we are in the play proper, and it’s the first misfire of a night which will contain several. In most productions, the actor playing Rumor also plays Lord Bardolph, who brings (what turns out to be rumor and false) news of the battle of Shrewsbury to Hotspur’s father. In this production, the actor playing Rumor plays the Porter who lets Bardolph in, so the point that Bardolph is a walking rumor is lost. Which is inside baseball, yes, but it’s the kind of smart moment that happened everywhere in the earlier two plays in this series. 

Not this one, though. Where the previous play soared, this one staggers and disorients, and this production does its best to help it walk, but it’s a lot of heavy lifting. The scenes with Hotspur’s father are confusing. Is he going to war? Is he getting out of Dodge? Is there a point where we should care? Out of nowhere, Hal has enough brothers to field a basketball team—one of whom (Prince John) is a total dick. Plus Hal doesn’t show up for almost an hour of stage time. Plus the funny stuff isn’t as funny as everyone thinks it is, and when I say this, I’m pointing at the Pistol scene (Act II, Scene 4). It’s so relentlessly devoid of laughs that you can feel the actors’ frustrations coming out—it’s like watching a bunch of people kick a dead body as hard as they can to bring it back to life. But no such luck; it was dead on arrival.  

And that’s how this play feels for the first half. Everyone is trying to lift it up, but it just won’t get off the ground, not the way the first part did. And I know it’s wrong to compare one play with another, but damn, a good 30% of this script is full of nothing but references to another play, so how can you help comparing the two of them? You can’t. 

Seeing Henry IV 2, you really appreciate the ease with which the three worlds of Henry IV 1 are integrated: the court, Eastcheap, and the rebellious north.  It’s a study in contrasts that is as brilliant as the Athenians/Mechanicals/Fairies triptych in Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s also lightning in a bottle. You can’t repeat it. Which is what makes this play not just problematical thematically but incredibly difficult to do theatrically. And the problem is epitomized by the portrayal of one character: Falstaff. For the first 90 minutes, he is the one constant. Not Hal, not the court: Falstaff. Yeah, we get some scenes in the North, and the beginnings of a new rebellion, but we also get a ton and a half of Eastcheap before we finally (finally) see Hal for the first time. And throughout all this, Anthony Sher kills it as Falstaff. But then this play is built around Falstaff. He has a monologue like once every ten minutes. The more he talks, the more you’re supposed to love him. Because the more you love him, the more it’s going to hurt when Hal becomes King and rejects him. But because the play is structured so that Hal’s accession is a late-second-half development, and because it’s built on the same kind of “I screwed up/I forgive you” scene with his father that reconciled the two of them in Part 1, it feels rushed. Like Shakespeare said to Will Kempe: “Okay, you’ve got two hours to ad-lib your ass off as Falstaff; but then I REALLY have to start telling the story, okay?” 

[Theatrical side note. Think of the pre-1600 Chamberlain’s Men as the kind of repertory company where all the sharers were (a) guaranteed roles in each play the company performed and (b) also given an equal number of lead roles, depending on what plays were done. And Henry IV 2 was Will Kempe’s lead role as Falstaff. Probably his last one. Because once the Men built the Globe in 1600, Burbage and his brother owned half the total shares of the company, Shakespeare’s plays were all written for Burbage to play the lead and no one else, and Kempe was gone as a sharer. Why? Nobody really knows. But watching Henry IV 2, it’s not hard to see Richard Burbage seething at all the attention Kempe is getting, and then turning to Shakespeare and saying “If I’m doing Henry the Fifth, I’m not doing it with Kempe as Falstaff. Because it’ll be his play, not mine. So no Falstaff. And Kempe’s out.” ] 

This production does its best to make the first half feel like more than filler, but it’s an uphill battle, and it doesn’t settle down until the war starts and we get to Gloucestershire. With the appearance of Shallow and Silence, something like the balance of Part I is achieved, for now the comedy has war to bounce off instead of referencing moments from another play, and that makes it sharper and funnier. Oliver Ford Davies, with his plummy voice and manner, makes Shallow a continual delight; the scene where the recruits are chosen is hilarious in all the right satirical ways.

But in the end, side dishes are not meant to be main courses, and by building most of the play around Falstaff, the story—the history—bounces off the comedy, instead of the other way around. The thing is, Falstaff without the real world to bounce against or comment on is like Costello without Abbott. You can’t have misrule without rule, and there is no rule in this play. If Henry IV I was a house of many rooms, this play is a house with just one. It’s like a Twilight Zone episode where every door you think is going to lead you out, leads you back to Falstaff and Eastcheap, and try as you may, you can’t run away from them. Which is why Hal’s “I know you not, old man” speech is not just an attack on Falstaff, it’s an attack on the audience, like it’s our fault for liking Falstaff so much from the first play that he usurped the second one just to make us happy, and now he’s rejected and there’s going to be a war with France. Happy now, Falstaff lovers?
Text note: the epilogue, which promises that Falstaff will return in Henry V, is dropped.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Item The 23rd, or, the First Folio Hamlet - Part the First

An excerpt from “The Rest Is Clamor: An Oral History Of The First Production Of Hamlet.”

[Interviewees: Cuthbert Burbage, Richard Burbage, Henry Condell, Sander Cooke, Richard Cowley, Michael Drayton, William Ecclestone, Susanna Hall, John Heminges, Ben Jonson, Judith Quiney, Anne Shakespeare, and Nick Tooley.]

HEMINGES:  There were 25 in all, if I remember aright—25 clauses in the First Globe contract.

CONDELL:  We called it the Century Contract, because it was signed 1n 1600 once the Globe had been built. As opposed to the Fire Contract, which had over 50 clauses in it.

TOOLEY:  The more the Burbages took over the company, the more they talked through their lawyers.

RICHARD BURBAGE:  I’ve heard players refer to the Century Contract as the First Globe Contract, and I always correct them. “First Globe Contract.” As if we expected there to be a second one. It’s like walking out of your wedding and saying “I’d like to introduce you to my first wife.”

CUTHBERT BURBAGE:  Item the 23rd from the First Globe Contract reads thusly: in the event of any lost, destroyed, misplaced or damaged manuscripts, books or prompt-books, upon which the company of players relies for its existence and livelihood, replacement copies will be appropriated from the libraries of any and all sharers who possess fair copies of said books, manuscripts, and prompt-books.

COOKE:  And that phrase “any and all sharers,” well didn’t we all know that meant no one but Shakey? I mean who else had copies of everything?

ECCLESTONE:  For the last 25 years, Shakey was the company scrivener. He copied out all the sides, he created all the prompt books. And got well-paid for it, too.

COOKE:  He was also in charge of the library.  Holinshed, Plutarch, Ovid, that Italian tale-teller whose name I can never remember. He would buy one copy for the company, and a second copy for himself.  Usually at a reduced rate.

JONSON:  Born haggler, that man. Sweet as honey till it comes to money, as Will Kempe used to say.

HEMINGES:  So here’s the setting on the morning of the 29th of June 1613. The promptbooks are all up to date. This includes the latest version of Henry V, which has the Essex reference switched out for a James reference; the 1612 version of Love’s Labor’s Lost, which is now full of jokes about current poets instead of the Raleigh circle; the full script of Macbeth;  all the plays that had been revised for the first two James Christmas seasons of 1604 and 1605; all the touring scripts; and all the comedies that had been rewritten for Armin when he replaced Kempe, and Jemmy Fletcher when he replaced Armin.

CONDELL:  And that full six-hour version of Hamlet, with all the scenes which had ever been done on tour, or done for the Queen, including the Essex references she took great issue with; and then done again for James.

HEMINGES:  By sunset they were all ash. Thanks to a spark from a cannon shot during that afternoon’s performance of All Is True.

TOOLEY:  The next day there’s a “What the fuck do we do now?” meeting of the sharers. Which, because the Burbages owned half the company’s shares, was really a “You’re going to do whatever the fuck we say” meeting.

CUTHBERT BURBAGE: It was decided that we would relocate to Blackfriars, which was the only performance option open to us, while we financed the rebuilding of the Globe.

TOOLEY:  The operative word being “we.” Because of Item the 30th in the Century Contract, the cost of any and all renovations or repairs to the theatre were to be divided up equally among the sharers, based on their number, not their percentage of shares. Which meant that, instead of paying half the amount, the Burbages would only have to pay one-seventh each.

JONSON:  And none of the sharers looked kindly on that. Bad enough the Men had been run like a Burbage fiefdom since 1600; worse that every play they commissioned had to give Richard Burbage the biggest part, three soliloquies at least, and then a half hour Act Four break where he vanished from the stage to rest up for his mandated Act Five explosions. But to then act as if the Burbages were one among equals instead of the lords among servants, that was too much.

HEMINGES:  The Company almost disbanded then and there.

RICHARD BURBAGE:  I will not say they were wrong, but their signatures attested to the fact that they had all agreed to that clause, as well as every other clause in the Century Contract. This they denied so vociferously that it was all I could do to be heard, and indeed I was well aware that while it was an argument which I could win in court, I would lose it in this meeting. Unless I could outflank them all.

CONDELL:  He did it very craftily. He ceased attempting to refute every argument, and indeed said nothing at all for a good ten minutes by the clock, letting every man speak his peace--except Shakespeare, who kept his peace throughout--and then, as the angry voices fell away one by one, and there was a pause in the verbal battle as the army arrayed against him congratulated itself on their apparent victory, Burbage said mildly:  “We are also invoking Item The 23rd.”

TOOLEY:  When he said that, when he mentioned Item The 23rd, it completely diverted the percentage argument. Because that was when Shakey, who hadn’t said a blessed word for the last hour, that was when he erupted like Vesuvius.

(to be continued)

Copyright 2016 Matthew J Wells

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

King and Country: Henry IV Part 1, or, Hitting All The Right Notes

I never laugh like this with Dad.

The ghost of Richard II hovers over this play—literally, since in the opening scene, which begins with a kind of coronation ceremony, the galleries are full of viewers—including one tall fellow with long hair dressed in a white robe in the gallery audience right, and is that a crown on his head? Blink and you’ll miss him, because he leaves almost immediately, but his ghostly physical presence soon becomes a concrete verbal one as Henry’s one-time allies, feeling slighted by the new king’s peremptory treatment of them, start reminding us that Richard was the rightful King, and had his own ideas about his successor, whose name did not rhyme with Rolling Croak.  

The way that opening scene is acted in this production, it’s pretty clear that, to his old supporters, Jasper Britton’s Henry is the political equivalent of an actor who gives great monologue but can’t play the part—the  kind of King who inspires revolt because he lacks the touch of gratitude that his son displays, the kind of man who uses his new position to justify both his superiority and his condescension. And there’s also a hint of insecurity, like all this bullying and temper is masking the granddaddy of inferiority complexes. All of which raises the question that the rest of the play is designed to make us keep asking: what makes a good king? Because that’s what we see for the next two hours: rightful kings, potential kings, would-be kings, and illicit kings, especially a crafty old overweight one. 

(And by the way—during this argument, we get another great crown bit, as Henry, holding it in his hand, uses it to literally push people around until he finally plants it on his head because he’s the fucking King, by God, so treat him like one.) 

As for the other would-be monarch, Anthony Sher’s Falstaff is a drawling, self-satisfied cross between Fagin and Pecksniff (a very Dickensian Falstaff, this one) who milks laughs out of the stoniest lines as he waddles around the stage like a smug well-fed goose who knows that it’s going to be someone else’s neck on the chopping block come Christmas dinner. (That walk is a brilliant touch. He literally goes from side to side in order to move forward, which is a great visual image for a character who can only progress by eternally reinforcing his current position.) Matthew Needham, who pretty much walks away with best Hotspur Ever, IS the privileged fratboy that everybody presumes Prince Hal to be, restlessly pacing when he’s not speaking, punching his wife’s shoulder when he’s being affectionate, never reining in his tongue when he can ride it at a gallop, and absolutely riveting and hilarious and heartbreaking in his divinely brainless simplicity. And Alex Hassell’s first appearance as Hal is a character reveal, as a bed with a pile of linen on it slides into view and out from under those sheets comes the future King of England, and the tavern wench he just slept with; and then the other tavern wench he just slept with. Which is a perfect place to start with this character, because it makes him look so much like a decadent wastrel that, when he gives his first soliloquy, what he’s saying is in sharp contrast to what we’ve seen him doing. 

And that soliloquy is the first of many interactive moments in this series, because when we see Hal alone after his first scene with Falstaff, the lights rise to half in the audience, and suddenly we’re part of the play, and Hal is literally giving US the “I know you all” monologue where he reveals that he’s just pretending to be a scapegrace. This is also usually the moment in the play where the actor playing Hal starts to foreshadow the kingliness of the future Henry V. But not this version. Twenty minutes later, Hal goes and slaps the Lord Chief Justice, which is a moment imported from the earlier version of this script, The Famous Victories of Henry V. The moment jars, and it’s meant to. We’ve just seen Hal tell us he’s not really the juvenile delinquent he pretends to be, and here he is acting like one, which—when you think about it—retroactively makes his soliloquy not a statement of fact, but a statement of purpose. 

So why undercut the soliloquy? Because there are two ways to play Hal—the serious Prince who’s slumming, which runs the risk of making him look like a manipulative prat; and the frivolous spoiled brat who is slowly learning responsibility and control, which runs the risk of making him look like a perpetual frat boy. Because this play is often done as a standalone, most actors choose the first option, so that—by the end of the play—Hal’s journey is complete. But when you do the three Hal plays in sequence, you HAVE to choose the second option, because you’re playing the long game, because you’re building a character whose journey doesn’t conclude at the end of the first play, or even the second, but the third. And that’s what Alex Hassell does throughout the sequence—he doesn’t achieve; he strives. His Hal goes back and forth between selfish and selfless, and Hassell does this wonderful thing whenever he says something Princely—he makes it look like some inner impulse he can’t control is making him speak in a kind of rush that he rides, instead of drives. It’s hard to describe, but the effect is that you get a sense of the Prince inside occasionally taking over Hal’s words and actions, little by little (and play by play) becoming more dominant, more visible, more the Windsor against which Hal of Eastcheap must measure himself. 

Which is why this production is unique along all the other Henry IV 1’s I’ve seen. It’s not played as a novel, but a chapter. It asks the questions but it doesn’t give you the answers. It pits Hal’s two fathers against each other—one a likeable braggart, the other a peevish bully; one a chummy blowhard, the other a vexatious drillmaster—and it never declares a victor. It pits Hal against a Hotspur who, thanks the right direction and a great actor, is just as much a spirit of misrule as Falstaff, the main difference being that Hotspur’s self-centered view of the world will cost other people their lives, while Falstaff’s only costs other people their money, and their pride, if they’re willing to part with them. 

Interesting perception note: The scene where Hal offers to fight Hotspur in single combat is not done as a regal Hal moment but as a Hotspur Hal moment, where the whole thing rushes out of Alex Hassell in what amounts to a single thought and almost a single breath. And Henry’s reaction is to brusquely and physically push Hal back into line. My friend DJ saw this and thought: “He’s protecting Hal because he doesn’t want him to lose his life in a stupid chivalric tradition that makes no sense.” I saw this and thought “He’s shoving Hal back into line because he doesn’t want to share the spotlight with anybody, even his son, and no wonder Hal hangs out with Falstaff.” Which says all you need to know about my relationship with my father, and DJ’s with hers. 

And the end of the play, which I have seen done so many times as a moment of finality and completion, has a definite TO BE CONTINUED feel to it. Nothing gets settled. The battle is won, but nothing has really been decided. You’re left without the usual closure you get when you see this play. Because it is indeed to be continued.
Spoiler alert: Too bad it’s continued by Henry IV Part 2.

Friday, April 15, 2016

National Pastime

Love is a pitcher full of wicked curves.
   She’ll tease you with a hanging powder puff,
Then brush you back till you’re nothing but nerves
   And challenge you to hit her fastest stuff.
Love is a batter who will swing away,
   And he’ll strike out so many times before
He ever gets to first, but that’s okay:
   He only needs to get one hit to score.
Love is a day game played by night game lights
   Where one side loses so that both can win—
And though there may be errors, fouls and fights,
   I’ll do my best to meet them with a grin
      When to your heart my heart is gamely hurled
      With all the longing of the lonely world.


Copyright 2016 Matthew J Wells


Thursday, April 7, 2016

Salem Light: The Crucible on Broadway


It is a truth universally acknowledged that there are two Ivo van Hoves. One of them directs brilliantly precise artistic revivals (like A View From The Bridge) which serve the play by using the concept to make it timeless, immediate and gripping; the other directs muddled self-servingly “artistic” revivals (like The Crucible) which undercut the play by substituting concept for connection and making it “contemporary,” shallow and confusing. 

This production is set in a classroom which (based on the schoolgirl uniforms) could be anytime between the 30’s and the 60’s, but probably represents either 1952, when the play was written, or 1953, when it was first produced. It works for the prologue that van Hove has created: all the girls of Salem in class, reciting what’s written on the blackboard about good and accepted behavior. But because it’s a common space, it feels all wrong for a young girl and an older man to be talking about their affair. And because it’s supposed to also double as John Proctor’s home, you never feel the sense of intrusion when someone from the town comes to question him, or the sense of dread when he talks about going to town to defend himself. It’s like watching a play about Robespierre’s life where all the scenes take place next to the guillotine in the Place de la Concorde. (Actually, that sounds like a pretty cool play; but this van Hove would fuck it up.) 

There is Philip Glass underscoring throughout the entire production. It is incredibly distracting and annoying. 

In a lot of ways, this production is like Bad Van Hove's Antigone at BAM. (One does not talk about his Antigone at BAM. It's like The War. But one must admit that it takes a certain kind of genius to make Juliette Binoche look bad.) The main similarity between the two: the acting level is not that high. Ben Whishaw is the best thing in this, by far. Sophie Okonedo does her best, but I didn’t feel like she was playing Proctor’s wife, only his conscience. Ciarán Hinds has been better; he’s brusque and officious in all the right ways, he plays the “Are you accusing me of wrongdoing?” card like a professional political gambler, but I only got the all-business side of Danforth from him, not the moral certainty side. Plus he was drowned out now and then by the incredibly distracting Philip Glass underscoring. 

Which reminds me: the Philip Glass underscoring is incredibly distracting and annoying. 

What are we to make of this, Part 1: The curtain lowers; then immediately rises, and we see Betty Parris, the mute still-in-shock girl from the opening scene, flying in the middle of the classroom. The vision lasts just long enough for the audience to note it, and then the curtain comes down. WTF?

Saoirse Ronan is a sad disappointment. When she speaks, she “projects” like someone who has never been on a stage before, and it’s all one note, and it’s a surface note to boot, which means there’s nothing in it that comes from inside her. I’ve said this before about other film actors when they do stage plays, and it holds true for Ronan: it’s like she’s laying down a vocal track which she can fine-tune in post-production. Tavi Gevinson as Mary Warren fares better—she has stage chops; she has a three-note range—but she still does the “projecting” thing with her voice, which makes her sound like she’s always protesting against something. But since that fits her torn-between-two-choices character, it works.  

What are we to make of this, Part 2. At the opening of Act 3 (right after intermission,) the curtain rises on a man asleep in the classroom. Enter a wolf audience right, who prowls across the stage (eating pre-set treats, if you’re sharp-eyed enough to notice), then stops at the lip of the stage, and turns and stares at the orchestra audience, before trotting off audience left. It’s a genuine Wow Moment. But it’s also a Huh? Because: what does it mean?  And if it’s not there to mean something, why is it there? 

That sound you hear is me gritting my teeth at the incredibly distracting Philip Glass music. (Oh wait—you can’t hear my teeth grinding at all, can you? Because that Philip Glass underscoring WILL NOT FUCKING STOP.) 

What are we to make of this, Part 3. After Mary Warren says that Abigail is faking it, and Abigail accuses her of being Satan’s bitch, and Mary repents and rejoins the Salem Girls, there’s what can only be described as a poltergeist event on stage. The classroom neon lights flicker, short out, and fall from their moorings; and from the audience left wall, a stream of trash and refuse hoses out onto the stage. This happens for what feels like thirty seconds, so it was probably closer to 15 or 20; and again, it’s a Wow Moment. But when you’re doing a play in which one of the questions is “Are these girls in league with the devil?” and then you show an audience evidence that something devilish appears at their command, well shit, play’s over, right?  It’s like Jack Nicholson walked onstage, grinned at the audience, and went: “He-e-e-e-e-ere’s SATAN!”

The unique thing about this production for me? It's the first time I've seen The Crucible where I've been convinced that the town of Salem has sacrificed all its male children to the Old Testament God. Because it's the first time I've ever seen the play and asked myself: "Wait a minute! Where are all the BOYS?" Which is not a question anybody should be asking during this play. 
You know how weird this production is? There isn’t even a lights-out at the end. You just see Elizabeth Proctor deliver the final line, and then everybody troops onstage for the curtain call. And I'll tell ya, they don’t look very happy.

Me, I’m only happy that the OTHER van Hove directed View From The Bridge.