Tempest @ St Ann’s Warehouse

In Donmar Warehouse’s all-female Shakespeare Trilogy, directed by Phyllida Lloyd and starring Harriet Walter, the set has always been the same: a women’s prison. Before each performance, a siren sounded in the lobby and then the cast, shackled and in grey prison sweats, was marched through the crowd under the watchful eyes of uniformed guards as well as audience members. In Julius Caesar in 2013, guards and inmates snarled at each other. In Henry IV in 2015, Hal’s pre-show announcement — “I’m gettin’ out!” — set a trap that finally snapped shut with Falstaff’s show-ending wail to the now-king, “Don’t you fucking leave me!” In both cases, the shows were brilliant as performances of Shakespeare, but they also played compellingly with the prisonhouse exterior.

Last in the trio comes The Tempest. The drama of forgiveness and reconciliation lacks the angry critique of male egotism and violence that served as spine for the previous two war stories. But the play’s language of bondage and liberation, shared by Prospero, Ariel, Caliban, and Miranda, as well as the Italian castaways, resonated in the setting. Even more consistently than the previous two shows in the trilogy, this Tempest repeatedly emphasized the extra-Shakespearean identities of the inmates. Thus Harriet Walter’s Prospero was also the “prison character” Hannah, who was in turn (according to an insert in the playbill) based on the true story of Judy Clark, a onetime member of the Weather Underground who has been in prison in New York State since 1983. The prison-story toggled back and forth with the Tempest-story, with guards helping with scene changes and requiring, for example, that the Neapolitan aristocrats change from regal to prison garb.

Jade Anouka as Ariel
(New York Times)

There was a lot to like about this production, much of it centering around the brilliance of Jade Anouka, who also stole the show as Hotspur in Henry IV. Playing Ariel this time, as well as (at least the night I saw it) one of the prison guards, she (as it were) “flamed amazement.” Dancing, singing, rapping, teasing Prospero and mocking the castaways, the spirit dominated the stage. Working with music by Joan Armatrading, Anouka represented the heart of what I liked most about this Tempest and the whole trilogy: the whirling energy and relentless drive of the staging, acting, and production. As she said of her storm and her performance: “Jove’s lightning, the precursors / O’th’ dreadful thunderclaps, more momentary / And sight-outrunning were not!”

Anouka’s performance wasn’t the only theatrical highlight of the evening. The lovers were much better than they sometimes can be, energetic as well as sweet, with a slightly goofy loose-limbed enthusiastic performance as Ferdinand by Sheila Atim and a wonderfully lively Miranda by Leah Harvey. Pouting when her father made her beautiful prince carry those boring heavy logs (or, in this case, the recycling), Miranda’s teenage rebellion and eagerness recalled in happier terms the scene in Henry IV when the sullen teenage prince Hal put on dark glasses and Beats so he could ignore his father’s war council. Sophie Stanton’s Caliban was also wonderfully funny and engaging, if perhaps lacking a bit of the bite of her Falstaff in 2015.

The balloons Prospero will pop
(New York Times)

Many reviewers, including Ben Brantley in the Times, who called this production the “most entertaining Tempest I’ve ever seen,” loved Harriet Walter’s Prospero more than I did. Her performance only really moved me once, when she punctuated “Our revels now are ended” by running around the stage popping the dozen or so huge balloons onto which a cheesy vacation-masque montage had just been projected. Searching for the last balloon to pop, ranging about the stage amid startled actors, she hit the familiar lines with real fire: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.” Pop!

I kept thinking about the magic island as a prison, and wondering how that meshed with the play’s utopian lyricism, in Gonzalo’s rehashing of Montaigne’s fantasia about the cannibals of Brazil and Caliban’s “sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.” I was also thinking about the harsh force of the end of Henry IV, in which Hal but not Falstaff got out of jail.

The last turn of the stage-prison surprised me, in a good way. I’m still thinking about what it means. Prospero, once again in the prison character of Hannah, was the one left behind. All the other inmates waved to her from the stage doors on top of the bleachers. She has drowned her book of spells in a plastic garbage bag, but has a paperback to read, Margaret Atwood’sHag-Seeda brand-new revision of The Tempest. Alone, she sat on a bare cot on a bare stage. With Ariel, Miranda, and the others all gone, her island lacked magic and music.

I didn’t love her performances, but I did buy her book

Not all wizards escape.


#mla17: Hope amid Cleverness

Into cold water

I woke this morning to single digit temperatures in snow-blanketed CT. No heat, no water, no wifi. #frozenpipesarenotjustanallegory. Reflecting on the aftermath MLA and the plumbing in my home, I wondered: what’s the best way to get everything flowing again?

Training north out of snowy Philadelphia early the day before, I had been thinking about Hermione Granger. A lover of scholarly pursuits like the thousands of academics who gathered for #mla17, she values other things more —

Books! And cleverness! There are more important things – friendship and bravery and — (1.16.287)

Might the core virtues of adventure fiction — solidarity and courage — be things we academics need as much as books and cleverness, in the face of coming storms?

I went to MLA this year seeking radical hope, and I came back with some things to hold onto.

Signs of Hope

  1. My panel on hope buoyed me up during Saturday afternoon’s snowstorm, and no part more than the Lynne Bruckner‘s gorgeous and moving talk on “Hope and Breath in The Rape of Lucrece.” Lynne’s been a longtime leader in the early modern ecostudies community, and — as she courageously announced to the audience — this was her first public talk as she recovers from a traumatic brain injury. She was nervous beforehand but assured throughout. In a stunning conclusion, she performed the intake of breath that punctuates the caesura in the last line of Sonnet 18 — “So long lives this, [take a breath in] and this gives life to thee” — and demonstrated how perhaps the most familiar sonnet in the language can still stir new feeling. It was one of those talks during which you feel fortunate to be in the room.
  2. Books! Like Hermione and yet unlike her too, nothing entrances me more at MLA than the hopeful assemblage of books. So much beauty and cleverness on display! I came back with bags stuffed and lists ready for the University Library. I even saw, for the first time, a new volume with my name on its spine, alongside that of my wonderful co-editor Marty Rojas. The cover image shows a polar bear diving off an iceberg into cold water. We leave the allegory as an exercise for the reader.
  3. Patsy Yaeger’s “The ocean as quasi-object”: The essays in the book originated at the Hungry Ocean conference at the JCB back in 2011, and the almost six years between then and now have been a windy road. The most shocking loss was of our contributor, keynote speaker, and inspiring colleague Patsy Yaeger. With the support of Patsy’s husband and several of her colleagues, we’re very proud to have been able to complete and include her brilliant and generative essay in the book. I wish she could see what the next generation of ocean-scholars will do with her work: “Swimming with Marx and Latour brings us up to the limits of both theoretical perspectives, and possibly past them into a different model entirely. Ultimately, it may take poets to show the way” (167).
  4. Ecologies everywhere! I went to lots of sessions, but could not keep up with all the premodern ecocritical and Anthropocene panels. Among many favorites were Karen Raber’s “The World is Flat: Ecomaterialist Perspectives in the Renaissance,” and Jeffrey Cohen’s multiple sessions, including “Ecomedia” and “Extro-Fictions” (which I missed), and a great roundtable on Ecological Catastrophe that packed the house at 8:30 am. There were two Shakespeare enviro-sessions, on “Eco-rhetorics” and “Climatology” — plus many other sessions in and around the field, not all of which I could hear or overhear via twitter. Perhaps ecocrit has really arrived?
  5. Futures: The best kind of post-MLA feeling, other than the luxury of a good night’s sleep, is the sense that multiple good things are peeking above the horizon and many bubbling pots are being carefully tended. Despite the orange cloud rising soon in Washington, “something good” — to borrow from the wisdom of Plenty Coups — will also come.

And yet…

MLA always casts a melancholy shadow, as the conference rolls above a vast grey river of job-market misery. The human cost of the river of suffering seemed slightly less visible this year compared to a few years ago, perhaps because many first round interviews are now done via Skype, but our profession continues to devour our young. To the extent that I’m insulated from such melancholy, it’s due to being old & tenured & without a lot of students at MLA.

It feels cynical to feast on brilliant books and talks and imaginative excellences while keeping only one eye attuned to the plight of those who the “market” churns up. Even the word “market” seems dishonest, as academic job culture bears little resemblance to an economist’s ideal marketplace.

Today the MLA approaches a crossroads, with the search beginning for a new Executive Director and the long-central place of the MLA interview shifting under technological and financial pressures. Can the organization become a force to support its precarious members as much as it already does those (like me) who are comfortable? That’s the task. I hope whoever steps into the leadership role knows it.

Though I recognize that feeling able to choose is a privilege, I’m going with the hope that motion gives over despair at the academy’s frozen pipes. I’m also thinking about Hermione’s priorities: friendship and bravery over books and cleverness. Like most MLA-ers, I love the latter two things to distraction. What’s better than beautiful books and clever words? But we need not to forget the first two. We need friends and the courage to build better futures.

The Schuylkill, as I’m heading north

A little later on this chilly morning I learned that warmth, time, and patience can open blocked conduits. Plus I was pleased to benefit from whatever magic Comcast does to make the wifi reanimate. By 10 am my home was flowing and hopeful again.





Radical Hope and Early Modern Ecologies #mla17 #s598

Out of the ashes of 2016…

Crawling out of the wreckage of 2016 into the New Year, don’t we all need a little hope? Come join us at session 598 on Saturday at the Convention Center (Room 112B at 3:30 pm).

Here are the abstracts and presenter bios. Featuring Lynne Bruckner, Dan Brayton, Jen Munroe, and Tiffany Jo Werth!

Here’s how I’ll open the panel, explaining what we mean by radical hope.

When we proposed this panel last winter, we didn’t know how much we’d need hope in early 2017. We were concerned then and now with environmentalist thinking in our catastrophic present, which seems to oscillate between tragic visions of apocalypse and technology-inspired fantasies of redemption. Either we are all doomed, or electric cars will save us just the way we are. This panel on premodern literature aims to historicize the relationships between humans and the nonhuman environment. Seeking alternatives, we offer the abundance of historical difference.

Our title comes from philosopher Jonathan Lear’s 2006 book, Radical Hope, which unfolds the story of Plenty Coups, the nineteenth-century Native American Crow leader who guided his people to accept the end of their traditional way of life. Plenty Coups’s dilemma – “How ought we to live with this possibility of collapse?” (9) – resonates with the dire pronouncements of environmental doomsayers in the Anthropocene. Plenty Coups shows that it’s possible to reframe breakdown as futurity: “We must do what we can,” Lear ventriloquizes the Crow leader, “to open our imagination up to a radically different set of future possibilities” (93). Plenty Coups’s vision of the Crow people enduring without mobility, wealth, or war may parallel our prospects in the face of climate change.

Facing the unknown kindles fear and stimulates courage. The required stance, as Lear interprets Plenty Coups, is deceptively simple. “Something good will emerge” (94) insists the leader who turns forward into catastrophe. The form and shape of the good remain unknown and unknowable. Preserving optimism when facing a blank constitutes heroism. This stance is also, Lear emphasizes, a “traditional way of going forward” (154) – not because Crow traditions had any experience with a world without buffalo, but because Plenty Coups used traditional cultural resources to generate not-quite-articulable hope.

We early modern ecoscholars use this hope to historicize the Anthropocene. But as 2016 has turned out, it is not only the nonhuman environment that needs a dose of radical futurity. In the rawness of the November 21st issue of the New Yorker, the novelist Junot Diaz reached for Lear’s book in the Age of Trump. “Radical hope,” Diaz writes, “is not so much something you have but something you practice; it demands flexibility, openness, and what Lear describes as ‘imaginative excellence. We academics butter our bread by cherishing imaginative excellence, though like everyone we sometimes shy away from disorienting openness. My hope is that this panel will plant flexible seeds in our thinking and our teaching. In time, they will grow into flowers that we didn’t expect and have never seen before.

Looking forward to seeing everyone in Philly!


Theater in 2016

I blog-reviewed eighteen plays or performances (in sixteen posts) this past year, of which ten were early modern plays and seven were part of New Haven’s #artsideas festival. Here’s the year-end summary:

  1. Theater for a New Audience’s Pericles
  2. The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart (#artsideas)
  3. Our Ladies of Perpetual Succor (#artsideas)
  4. (#artsideas)
  5. Steel Hammer (#artsideas)
  6. The Bookbinder (#artsideas)
  7. The Square Root of Three Sisters (#artsideas)
  8. Wendy Whalen (#artsideas)
  9. Tumacho (by Ethan Lipton)
  10. Cymbeline (RSC)
  11. Hamlet (RSC)
  12. The Alchemist and Dr Faustus (RSC)
  13. The Taming of the Shrew and Macbeth (Globe)
  14. The Rape of Lucrece (New York Shakespeare Exchange)
  15. Kings of War (Toneelgroep Amsterdam)
  16. Coriolanus (Red Bull)

I also wrote a slightly revised and Trump-ed response to the Richard III part of Kings of War, published in Hypocrite Reader as He Must See Ghosts: Richard III, Trump, and the Future

A good year in the aisles.



Bookfish in 2016

A few stats for 2016 —

~ 12,400 page views. That’s about what it’s been for the past several years. Roughly 7000

32 posts. Up slightly from 30 in 2015, but still down from 2014’s 55 (!).

Most in one month was June (6, all theater reviews from #artsideas in New Haven). Least was zero in May.

Sixteen — exactly half — of the blog posts were theater reviews. I’ll collect them in a separate post. Of those sixteen, nine were plays from the Renaissance (or close to it.) Four were responses to academic events.

Maybe I’ll start doing something different with the Bookfish in 2016?



250 in 2016

It was pretty much down to the wire, as I juggled pool-time between shuttling my kids around New Haven County in late December — but I hit my goal of 250 swimming miles in 2016. Here’s the chart —

My Progress for Go The Distance 2016

Month Total Distance
Jan 24.33 miles (=42,820 yards, =39,155 meters)
Feb 24.82 miles (=43,690 yards, =39,951 meters)
Mar 11.82 miles (=20,800 yards, =19,020 meters)
Apr 23.81 miles (=41,900 yards, =38,313 meters)
May 29.18 miles (=51,350 yards, =46,954 meters)
Jun 23.16 miles (=40,768 yards, =37,278 meters)
Jul 14.49 miles (=25,508 yards, =23,325 meters)
Aug 15.24 miles (=26,816 yards, =24,520 meters)
Sep 22.23 miles (=39,130 yards, =35,780 meters)
Oct 13.61 miles (=23,950 yards, =21,900 meters)
Nov 21.32 miles (=37,525 yards, =34,313 meters)
Dec 26.22 miles (=46,150 yards, =42,200 meters)
Total 250.23 miles (=440,407 yards, =402,708 meters)


A little more detail:

19 swims in Jan = 24.33 miles

18 in Feb = 24.82 miles

8 in March = 11.82 miles (Spring break! Worst month)

17 in April = 23.81 miles

20 in May = 29.18 miles (Best month – b/c my classes end before the kids’ do)

18 in June = 23.16 miles

16 in July = 14.49 miles

16 in August = 15.24 miles (Summer travels cut into the mileage)

21 in Sept = 22.23 miles

10 in Oct = 13.81 miles (a slow transition from salt water back into the pool? Also trips to Boulder and DC)

15 in Nov = 21.32 miles

17 in Dec = 26.22 miles


195 total swims x 250.23 miles = 1.28 miles on average

195/366 = I swam 53% of the days of 2016


Not bad. Travel makes it tough — I was on the road a fair amount in March and October this past year. (Summer travels are easier: I know a great pool in Stratford, and a week in Greece gave me lots of decent-length swims.)

I wonder if I can push up to 300 next year…




He’s Not There: Hard Rain in Stockholm

La cantautor estadounidense Patti Smith canta "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall", de Bob Dylan, durante la ceremonia de entrega de los premios Nobel en Estocolmo, el sábado 10 de diciembre del 2016. Smith tuvo que tratar dos veces antes de que le saliera bien el tema. Dylan fue el ganador de este año del premio Nobel de Literatura pero no asistió a la ceremonia porque dijo que tenía otros compromisos. (Jonas Ekstromer/TT News Agency via AP)

(Jonas Ekstromer/TT News Agency via AP)

Of course he didn’t show. How could he?

I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard.

He sent in his stead an early ballad, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” sung by Patti Smith. The New Yorker called her performance, with full orchestral backing, “transcendent.” Visibly moved, she garbled some lyrics in the second verse:

I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’

[Update: Patti Smith reports in the New Yorker that she picked the song.]

Recorded on Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), which was his first to feature mostly original songs, Hard Rain had its legendary debut at the Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village in 1962, leading the folk singer Dave Van Ronk to name it “the beginning of an artistic revolution.”

Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter

When Dylan got the Nobel nod back in October, I said that I thought the committee, in this Age of Trumpian and Brexitish Nostalgia, wanted to retrieve and celebrate the “old, weird America” in place of the Orange One’s racist fantasia. The sense that Dylan bears a harsher and truer past seems more intensely pertinent in today’s hard rains. I also think about what Robbie Robertson said about recording the Basement Tapes with Dylan: “He would pull these songs out of nowhere. We didn’t know if he wrote them or if he remembered them.” That’s one task for art: making new things that sound as if they have just crawled out from under ancient stones. He sings a painful, living, entangled past.

I met a young child beside a dead pony

He also sent some words to stand in for his absence at the banquet. Never shy, Bob was thinking about what it felt like to write Hamlet:

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?”

Where are you going to get a human skull? What will we do with it now that we have it?

And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breath it

In 1963 the Hard Rain was nuclear, but not only. Today’s it’s nativism and racial resentment, but not only.

Bob’s question — “What’ll you do now?” — echoes his dramatist predecessor’s: “that is the question.” Art’s past demands artistic futures.

What will we do now, my darling young ones?





Public Writing and #trumpnoise

Who cares about poetry when surrounded by #trumpnoise? As outrages and tweets accumulate, attention divides. The idea of a “public” feels fractured and disorienting. Who are we talking to? Each other?

In the bitter climate of early November 2016, I spent my 50th birthday surrounded by friends and theater. A few days later I woke feeling as if my country had morphed into its own evil twin, recognizable but horribly distorted. In this raw season, I’ve been thinking about public writing, about values, and about how to counter #trumpnoise.

Like many humanities scholars, I write largely for what Paradise Lost calls “fit audience…though few” (7.31). My books and articles are aimed at fellow specialists and students of (mostly) premodern literature. I love it when an artist or non-academic writer or actor or old friend or anyone finds something of value in my work, and I’ve been enjoying recent collaborations with non-professors in projects such as Oceanic New York  but I also believe in scholarship on its own terms.

Now I’m not sure those terms are enough, at least not by themselves.

So, a month early, I’m resolving that in 2017 I’ll do more public writing, about public questions, for public venues. It won’t all be about politics. I’ll be trying to show in public the humanist and more-than-humanist values that I cherish. It won’t cut through all the #trumpnoise, but I’m hoping for a slowly expanding circle of clarity and resistance.

To borrow a great line from  in the New Yorker, “Now is the Time to Talk about What We are Actually Talking About.” Writing and talking in public — showing the reasoned and tolerant speculative intellectual culture that we in the academy teach, in all its various and sometimes discontented voices — is worth doing more deliberately.

I have no magic wisdom to impart, and I don’t want to aggrandize myself. But I believe in the diverse, imaginative, vibrant America that Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor currently playing Aaron Burr in Hamilton, spoke publicly to Mike Pence about two weeks ago. I want to bear public witness to the value of this multiculture.

I’m not aiming to become a media star like the awesome medieval-historian-turned-journalist David Perry, but it seems important, now, to reach outside academic conversations. Clarity can counter #trumpnoise, at least on the margins, over time. History moves in surprising directions, but I don’t believe that irresponsible greed and selfishness represent lasting American ideals. History reminds us that 2017 won’t be the first year that an unrepentant white supremacist will work in the West Wing — but history also shows that hatred shrivels in sunlight. Eventually.

So, here’s a new public piece on Trump and Richard III, via the online magazine Hypocrite Reader. The whole December issue — SAFE (THE TRUMP ISSUE) — is very much worth reading in these uneasy times.

The moral of my story, told by ghosts, celebrates plurality in public.

He Must See Ghosts: Richard III, Trump, and the Future

The man who wanted to rule stood apart, downstage left, staring at his body in a full-length mirror. The Dutch actor Hans Kesting, playing Richard III in Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s jarringly prophetic Kings of War at BAM the weekend before the election, projected a sinuous intensity that should have warned us all what was coming. Kesting’s Richard was enticing and violent, without any elaborate physical props except a wine-colored stain under one eye. He threatened by standing still, separate, eying his reflection while the other aristocrats pretended they were in control of the kingdom.

Kesting’s Richard walked as if on springs, unstable and uncomfortable, with his hips slightly forward and arms back, enough to disorient but not tipping into caricature. Only once did he he cascade into ridiculousness, wearing the crown he’d not yet claimed, draping a rug over his shoulders, and running around the stage in a parody of the humpbacked king.

We watched that same narcissism and blind ego triumph in pre-dawn darkness on November 9. Why did the people choose him? Shakespeare’s shown the answer for four ambivalently democratic centuries.

He dominated with unbearable greed and need. Seducing Lady Anne, betraying his brothers, condemning the princes in the tower: every step sang out reckless desperation. When he bared his breast and offered Lady Anne the knife, he revealed urgent but not sexual desire. He must be at the center, he must be the most hated and the most loved, the only one who matters. He-Who-Must-Always-Win.

Today we need a narrative to unseat that center-grabbing need. Shakespeare built that, too. Ghosts undid Richard. We must make him see ghosts.

Before the battle of Bosworth Field, King Richard sat in the chair of power with his back to the audience, staring at his own massive image on a video screen. Slowly, the features blurred to superimpose his victims: Henry VI, brother Clarence, the young princes, Lady Anne. Their presences maddened the king. As the screen faded to red he galloped around the stage bellowing:

A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!

What he wanted and could not have was a stronger and more animal body, a vehicle for boundless ambition and drive. He never got it. We saw him defeated. He galloped horseless until the video curtain pulled up to reveal the full cast, the nation, dressed as an invading army, with the future King Henry VII at the head. Trump-Richard snaked through the crowd and vanished.

We need to make him see ghosts. Against a solitary sleepless ruler with his fingers on twitter we juxtapose the relentless heterogeneity of the world. Ghosts represent history’s victims but in the half-light of this new regime history itself risks becoming spectral. Against his singularity we assert our plurality. We need everything and everyone to stay visible. He must see and we must see. Ghosts must show themselves on screens and streets—not just that shining spirit in her white pantsuit bearing the popular vote, but all the human and nonhuman people he’d rather ignore. Our ghostly plurality must refuse relegation to invisible spaces on national margins.

I missed the super-short deadline but wanted to add a final punch-line. I’ll splice it in here:

The ghosts whisper: Don’t normalize. Pluralize!

More soon!


Coriolanus in Trumpland (Red Bull @ Barrow St, 11/17/16)

posterWhat would it have been like to have seen Red Bull’s blazing production of Coriolanus before our national day of reckoning? Could watching this painful and bloody tragedy of egotism and political betrayal in 2016 have been experienced, before the fateful election, as a muted triumph, in which female resistance manages in the end to save civilization from masculine violence? I suppose I’ll never know, though I’ll bet some of you reading this review saw this show in October…

There’s a moment near the center of the action in which the citizens, having more or less willingly given the war hero their voices and their red-colored ballots, realize, with a little help from the slightly smarmy Tribunes, that they can change their minds. They rebel, and they retract their support. Sounds like a good idea!

Probably the most unexpectedly powerful performance of the night was Broadway vet Patrick Page as Menenius. In a dapper suit with tie and suspenders, often sipping a tumbler of bourbon, he played the Senator with old school Southern charm, reminding at least some of the older members of the audience (like me) of the days when white men with accents were the face of American liberal politics. corioanus

Another surprise was the Rebecca Franks’s charismatic and quiet Virgilia, the hero’s wife. Tall and fierce, she was upstaged by tiger mother Volumnia but not as conclusively as can often be the case. Her silence, juxtaposed with her mother in law’s volubility, suggested a different kind of bond. With her husband, kisses were a silent eloquence.

Dion Johnstone’s excellent Coriolanus showed us no visible wounds, even while wearing the track suit and red baseball hat “of humility,” but his powerful body, black, beautiful, and finally devoured by hungry Volscians, was the star of the night. Bloodied before the gates of Corioles in act 1, when he sacked the city, and again in act 5, when its angry citizens took their final revenge, he performed towering male violence held tightly close and closed, unable to open himself up, afraid of the people and (of course) of his mother.

How did Volumnia beat her son down before the gates of Rome, after he’d rejected his comrades, wife, and son? Partly, as Lisa Harrow’s performance showed, by wearing him down: her speech to him was long, varied, a bit suffocating. She would not let him turn away, and then when he did turn, she kept talking until he turned back. husband-and-wife

The famous stage direction, in which the warrior “holds her by the hand, silent,” marks the hero’s surrender to his mother and the preservation of Roman civilization. It wasn’t perfectly staged, since he had to walk too far downstage to reach her hand, but the next moment, in which he knelt before her, still holding her hands, was devastating:

O mother, mother! O!

You have won a happy victory for Rome,

But for your son, believe it, O, believe it

Most dangerously you have with him prevailed

If not most mortal to him. (5.3)

She stood stoic but his pain hit me in my seat against the back wall of the theater.

The set was festooned with ballots and balloons, dropped when Coriolanus was presented to the people and popped loudly when the riots began. The last painful set of electoral props for November 2016?

I’m left thinking what I always think about in Shakespeare’s Roman plays: what is the human and bodily cost of political ambition? Who does the wolf love? (2.1).

mother-and-sonI also wonder today about the Tribunes, Brecht’s Marxist heroes, enemies of the aristocracy. Is this play about the failures of democracy in governing a republic? Does that remind us of anything we might have experienced recently?

What will the monument to Volumnia look like? Will she stand beneath it, thinking of her dead son?

But more than anything I’m left today replaying one pure irresponsible stage moment of anti-democratic rage, when a nameless citizen jumped up onto center stage and hammered the blunt end of a sledge into a ballot box. It took a few hard blows, but she scattered the red cards of endorsement all over the stage. Votes don’t always last.

What is the city but the people? (3.1).


Kings of War: 11/4/16 @ BAM

The most brilliant, painful, and astounding performance was the last — but I’ll take the kings in chronological order. Six of themkings-of-war_640x359, lined up in a long row.

Henry IV

The dying old man laid out prone on the white hospital bed dropped wisdom on the son who’d already begun playing with the English crown. There’s an easy way toavoid trouble at home, the old man advised: “Busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.”

So started four-and-a-half hours of Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s brilliant and searing Kings of War, directed by Ivo van Hove, which is spending the pre-election weekend at the BAM opera house. A master class in domination, violence, and strategy, it was just the thing to redirect political jitters for a few hours on Friday night. Politics as bloodsport and play, not exactly as Shakespeare wrote it — the performance was in Dutch with supertitles, and stripping down five plays into one night required aggressive cuts — but certainly as Machiavelli understood it.

Henry V

The first crowned monarch — all the kings were crowned on the same red carpet, followed by the same single file line, stretching out to the edge of the stage — started quietly. Ramsey Nasr played Henry V with no visible traces of Prince Hal, and he invaded France  without any leavening from Welsh or Scottish captains, fiery Pistol, or tears at Sir John’s death. Playing against the patriotic swellings we remember from Olivier’s and Branaugh’s films, this Henry V was frightening because he was just a little bit opaque, not quite accessible. Thinking back over the long arc of the full production, I see Henry V as a tactical serpent, exporting to fertile France the destructive forces that would bloody England during successive reigns. Watching his army’s march through Harfleur to Agincourt as a preface to Rose War rather than the culmination of Hal’s journey makes the wastrel-king harder to read. In the sort of outrageous theatrical coup that Toneelgroep has been specializing in for years — here’s my gushing review of their Roman Tragedies, which I saw at BAM in 2012 — the king spoke the Crispin’s day speech as voice-over on a bare stage. The band of brothers, with its fantasy of an organic (masculine) political body unified through royal rhetoric, was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps it doesn’t really exist?theatre-marathon

The stage was set in the first half of the production (a touch of H4, H5 and the first two parts of H6) to resemble Churchill’s War Rooms, now a museum in London, with maps, desks, and a single bed (in which Henry VI would sleep after kneeling in prayer). The great innovation of the staging, however, was several backstage hallways, which were included in the action via stedicam footage that was projected on a massive central video screen. The screen showed some backstage murders, conspiracies, and even, during a memorable speech in which King Henry VI indulges in a pastoral metaphor, a flock of sheep (or goats, maybe?). With the exception of the livestock, most or all of the filmed action was live, but it was only visible to us via video feed. The result was as seamless an intermingling of live and filmed action as I’ve even seen, making even the Wooster Group‘s pyrotechnics appear a bit labored. Another patterned staging showed figures of authority — York and Richard III, especially — seated with their backs to the audience but with their faces shown in close up on the big screen. The combination of contempt for and intimacy with the masses was potent and disturbing.

This staging of Henry V moved without a pause from his securing the hand of Princess Katherine to the conquering monarch’s funeral, which opens Part 1 of Henry VI. This staging of wooing scene, often a semi-comic break from the relentless battles, showed the king’s emotional neediness more than his mastery. In a sharp inversion of common practice, the scene suggested that Katherine understood the king’s English but he cannot fully decipher her French. His sometimes comic lines about being a soldier who cannot speak love-verses built to his petulant fists pounding on the table in frustration. The princess, and the off-stage negotiators of the Anglo-French treaty, rescued Henry — but the sense of not-fully-visible violence, like the rapine and pillaging the king had threatened but not visited on Harfluer, lingered after the conqueror passed.

Henry VI

Eelco Smits’s boyish Henry VI looked out of place in his pajamas among the senior military men dressed in suits. Crowned at six months old and never quite growing into his father’s bloody shoes, this Henry brought the play’s action back to England and civil war. All Shakespeare’s French scenes, except Suffolk’s wooing of Margaret, were cut, and to the list of missing figures these plays added Joan of Arc, Jack Cade, and several others. The cabinet room now overflowed with rivalries: the Cardinal and York and Suffolk plotting against Henry’s uncle, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, whose losing hand was played with brilliant frustration by Aus Greidanus, Jr., who would later play Buckingham in Richard III. But the blazing star of the Henry VI plays, and one of the two incandescent performances of the evening, was Janni Goslinga as Queen Margaret of Anjou. 2016-11-05-01-40-11

Margaret, “the she-wolf of France,” dominated the Henry VI plays, especially in a production like this one that cuts Joan of Arc and Jack Cade and minimized Warwick the Kingmaker. Goslinga’s performance ratcheted up the human intensity of the political intrigue, which shifted from Henry V’s war-strategy to a complex multi-party civil war. King Henry VI’s famous piety saw him kneeling in pajamas at his cot while the senior administrators continued their business meeting, but this abdication frustrated Margaret’s ambition for herself and her husband. She burst into rage when Henry VI disinherited their son in order to prevent his rival, the Duke of York, from pushing him off the throne. While the production skipped most of the final stages of the civil war, including almost all of Henry VI, Part 3, which includes Margaret’s great despairing speech — “Say you can swim; alas, tis but a while” — but she dominated the middle section of the performance.

Edward IV

In a nod toward clarity, Kings of War crowned the Duke of York, rather than his son, who was also named Edward. The key scene featured York with seated at a conference table with his back to us, holding aloft a lit cigarette in his right hand. The video screen displayed his impassive face. We watched the smoke curl up as the Duke let his silence negotiate with an increasingly frantic King Henry VI. At the end, York was named heir, Margaret raged against an impotent Henry, and the Lancastran forces were routed. In Shakespeare’s dramatic cycle, completing project takes several more battles and campaigns — but York’s stillness and the implacable control of Bart Sleggers’s performance stood in nicely for all that violence. When the curtain at last came down after two and a half hours (only one interval!), the white rose of York was firmly in command, though the arrival of a certain son, Richard Duke of Gloucester, whose late self-atomizing speeches were almost all Toneelgroep kept of Henry VI, Part 3, promised futures troubles.

Richard III

Hans Kesting, who I’d previously seen play Antony in Toneelgroep’s Roman Tragedies, gave the part of Richard III a sinuous intensity that I don’t think I’ve ever seen equalled on stage before. Without any elaborate physical hijinks or props, except a wine-colored stain under one eye, he carried Richard’s dark ambition and restlessness through his body. He threatened just by standing still: I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a more ominous stage moment than watching him stand on one side of the stage, staring at his reflection in a full-length mirror, while other characters pretended that they controlled the kingdom. I’ve seen Ian McKellen and Kevin Spacey give strong live performances of King Richard — but Kesting roared over all of them. As my buddy Erik said after the curtain, “I guess I don’t need to see Richard III ever again.” richard-crowned

It’s hard to describe the impact of seeing Kesting’s Richard on stage. I think it had something to do with the way he held his body, and also something to do with the way I’d been holding my body for the past 3 hours when he finally arrived on stage. Kesting walked gingerly, as if he were a coiled spring, with his hips slightly forward and arms back, enough to disturb but not enough to be a caricature. At one point his cascaded into full ridiculousness, wearing the crown he’d not yet claimed, draping a rug over his shoulders, and running around the stage in a parody of the humpbacked king. Most of the time he was just alien enough to disturb but not disrupt.

I also think the way the show made us wait for Richard made a difference. By the time he appeared, we’d been sitting still for over two and a half hours, and the late arrival of the man we knew would be the last titular king in the sequence focused our attention. If Henry V, conqueror of France, was understated and his play oddly calm, Richard III arrived to upstage him — though of course the final turn to Richmond, the future Henry VII, also returned Ramsey Nasr, who’d played Henry V, to center stage.


Hanging up on Barack

A few moments of Kesting’s Richard particularly linger. When he was sure he was about to be crowned, he sat at the war room table in front of three brightly colored hotline phones. He lifted the red phone, drawls into in in a fake American accent: “Hallo?…Barack?!” Guffawing, full of himself, he next grabbed the green phone and spoke in German to Angela Merkel. To the blue phone he barked at Putin in Russian, then mocked the Russian leader as a “pussy” after he hung up.

Especially after reading the harrowing reporting from Trump’s gold-plated plane in this morning’s Times, I’ve been mulling how Kesting’s Richard combined ruthless domination with near-absolute neediness. The seduction of Lady Anne, about which Richard crowed when she left the stage, played itself out through utter desperation and need. When he bared his breast and offered her the knife, his brutal control operated through his urgent need to be at the center, the most hated and the most loved, the only one who matters:

Lo here I lend thee this sharp-pointed sword,

Which if thou please to hide in this true breast,

And let the soul forth that adoreth thee,

I lay it naked to thy deadly stroke.

No wonder Anne couldn’t kill him. Who could strike in the face of so much need?

Hans Kesting (Richard lll) in Kings Of War by Toneelgroep Amsterdam @ Barbican. Directed by Ivo van Hove (Opening 22-04-16) ©Tristram Kenton 04/16 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email:

Hans Kesting (Richard lll) in Kings Of War by Toneelgroep Amsterdam @ Barbican.

Richard’s successful wooing of Anne to be his wife gets inverse-mirrored late in the play by his failure to convince Elizabeth to woo her daughter to be his next bride (4.4). Chris Nietvelt, who had previously played the French herald Montjoy, staged Elizabeth as Richard’s match, in a way that Anne and even Margaret had not been. After she left the stage, having not agreed to his proposed match for her daughter, Richard gave the Brooklyn theater one last crowd-pleasing ad lib: “nasty woman.”

The night before the battle showed Richard seated in the position of power on a bare stage with his back to us, staring at his own massive image on the video screen. Slowly, the features blurred to reveal, superimposed, the faces of his victims: Edward, Henry VI, Clarence, the two young princes, Lady Anne. Their presences drove the king mad, and as the screen faded to blood red he galloped around the stage bellowing, “a horse, a horse, My kingdom for a horse!” The famous line reimagined itself as pure physical need, desire for a stronger and more durable body, a vehicle for Richard’s boundless ambition and drive. We never saw him die: as he galloped horseless around the red stage, the video curtain pulled up to reveal the entire cast, now dressed as supporters of Richmond’s invading army, with Richmond himself at the head. Richard snaked through the crowd and vanished into the backstage hallway, not to return until the ovation.

Henry VII

What did the new king mean? The cycle closed with another Henry and another coronation for Ramsey Nasr, who had started us off as Henry V. The circular turning and absence of the tyrant’s body suggested that not all evils have been firmly banished. “The dog is dead,” said Richmond, as he prepared to marry to white rose to the red. Would that all political divisions were so easily sutured.