Wednesday, April 25, 2018

`Hie thee hither': Shakespeare's best onstage, not on the page -- April 26, 2018 column


Poet Ben Jonson wrote in his tribute to William Shakespeare: “He was not of an age but for all time!”

Lucky guess.   

More than 400 years later, we’re still reading, watching and arguing over Shakespeare. Most of us are, anyway.

High school students continue to struggle over the Bard, thanks to the Common Core standards, but most major universities long ago dropped the requirement that English majors take even a single Shakespeare course.

Two years ago, students at the University of Pennsylvania removed a large portrait of Shakespeare from the English Department and replaced it first with a picture of Audre Lorde, an African American writer, feminist and civil rights activist, and later with a collage of 88 writers and filmmakers.

Last June, a production of “Julius Caesar” in New York’s Central Park became a conservative cause célèbre when Caesar was depicted as a Trumpian with blond hair and a red tie, “whose bloody stabbing is seen as offensive and inappropriate to some who have seen it,” The New York Times reported. 

Defenders countered the tragedy shows the consequences of violence and its disastrous effects.

Shakespeare was born in April 1564, so before the month slips away, let’s give him props. Bob Dylan did. 

When the great Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, he asked Patti Smith to deliver his speech at the awards ceremony in Stockholm. Here's an excerpt:

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure.

I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn't have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read.

When he was writing Hamlet, I'm sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: "Who're the right actors for these roles?" "How should this be staged?" "Do I really want to set this in Denmark?"

His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. "Is the financing in place?" "Are there enough good seats for my patrons?" "Where am I going to get a human skull?" I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare's mind was the question "Is this literature?"

Leave it to Dylan to imagine Shakespeare not as highfalutin artiste but a playwright juggling his words and picky details. Dylan has it right, of course. Shakespeare’s plays are meant for the stage, not the page.

I know this after seeing three Shakespeare plays in two weeks. It was the first time, but won’t be the last, I sorta-binge-watched the Bard.

First was “Romeo and Juliet” at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, a good warmup for the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, where “Macbeth” played one evening and “The Taming of the Shrew” the next afternoon.

Shakespeare’s themes generally are timeless, though modern sensibilities do prickle occasionally. Juliet’s marrying at age 13 is disturbing, and so is Taming’s last scene when Kate, starved and sleep-deprived into submission, says: “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, thy head, thy sovereign . . .”

Despite such quibbles, I enjoyed the plays immensely.

There’s hardly a better place for Shakespeare than the 300-seat Blackfriars Theater at the ASC. Opened in 2001, it’s a recreation of the Jacobean playhouse in London’s Blackfriars neighborhood. Blackfriars was the indoor theater where Shakespeare put on his plays, the Globe his outdoor venue.

The ASC’s repertory company delivers three or four well-staged productions a week. The versatile actors also dance, sing and play instruments in acoustic musical performances before the shows and during intermission.

“We do it with the lights on,” the theater brags, because Shakespeare produced his plays in what’s called universal light. That means the audience and actors not only can see each other but also interact. You don’t need to understand every archaic word to follow and enjoy the plays.

It’s improbable to find a first-class Shakespeare theater in a small town in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, but like Shakespeare’s work, it’s an enchanting experience.

Take a cue from Lady Macbeth and “hie thee hither” to see Shakespeare onstage.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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