I may have more to say about my first International Shakespeare Conference at Stratford this past week: it’s a fascinating socio-cultural-academic event, bringing together a thoroughly global group of scholars and two separate academic institutions, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the Shakespeare Institute, in a setting that weirdly combines authenticity – the house where Shakespeare was born! – with Euro-Disney. But first I’m going to think through the plays.
We saw three shows in the three main Stratford theatres. Part of the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival, they each open differently onto the global nature of current Shakespearean performance practices.
So, here was my week:
Wednesday night: RSC Much Ado at the Courtyard
Opening night was a high-spirited Bollywood Much Ado, featuring Anglo-Indian star Meera Syal as a Beatrice who stole the show even more than this character usually does. Syal has wonderful physical comic force, and she clearly loves the spotlight. Much of what I’ll remember about the performance is her smiling mischief and charisma: singing “Hey nonny nonny” after the interval, toying with Benedick in 1.1, raging against Claudio after the broken marriage. Benedick, as played by Paul Bhattacharjee, never stood a chance. I kept hoping, somehow, that Simon Russell Beale, who I saw play a wonderfully big-bodied Benedick at the National Theatre a few years back, could have transported himself to the stage for a battle of the titans. Certainly nobody on the stage last week could match Syal. (Beale, alas, was busy playing Timon in London, in what by all reports is a great production, perhaps overshadowed by the Olympics.)
The richly Indian staging was fun – bicycles in the lobby, bright colors, elaborate clothes of carefully varied degrees of Eastern- and Western-ness. Especially in the second half, in the two wedding scenes, the spectacle was good to the eyes. But there was an odd sense of the over-ripe also. Most of the actors, including Syal, are not Indian-born, but native to the UK. Their Bollywood accents, most noticeable in act 1, were assumed, and then, especially in Benedick’s case, slowly sloughed off as the play continued. A parable of assimilation? A way of poking fun at non-Anglophone Indians? Or maybe my ear just got trained to their accents? It was hard to shake a slight feeling of excess, both the sweet excess of Bollywood itself and, possibly, a less comforting kind of cultural friction through appropriation. The show was fun; easy to watch and listen to, a perfectly enjoyable evening, but perhaps it missed an opportunity to explore the relation between the UK and subcontinental Anglophone Indian communities? Though of course not every play need reach for high political resonance.
Not everything in the show captivated as much as Beatrice. Dogberry in particular was a dud, funnier in fact when garbling pre-show instructions to be sure to talk loudly on your cell phones during the performance. Borrachio was more fun and outrageous, including when he urinated on his long-suffering buddy Conrad before being nabbed by the idiot watch. Don Pedro’s proposal to Beatrice was played seriously, and given how much this Beatrice overshadowed everyone else we could understand his choice. Beatrice’s choice of Benedick was harder to explain.
Wooster Group/RSC Troilus at the Swan
This was the one that divided the Shakespeareans, with most of the gang of professors not enjoying what I thought was the best production of this play I’ve ever seen. Notoriously, at least in the hothouse gossip of the ISC, both Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson of the Birthplace Trust walked out at the interval, and they certainly weren’t the only ones. (It ran 3.5 hours, which was perhaps a factor.) But mainly I think people did not want to play the Wooster game, which I think is one of the strange triumphs of 21c theater. Billington’s cranky review in the Guardian didn’t even try to make sense of it.
The name of that game is mediation, and the short version is that they rehearse for an absurdly long time – 18 months for this production, I think – in order to cue every physical motion they make on stage to a series of film clips that they play during the show. In fact, rather than looking at each other for much of the time on stage, they look up at the 4 video monitors placed around the stage, which were playing clips from three films:
(Update: this cinematic knowledge reached me via Tom Cartelli)
Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals, a 2002 self-aware parody that imitates the look of American Indians in classic Hollywood Westerns, The Fast Runner, a 1998 film that resembles a documentary about Inuit life, and the very young and gorgeous Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood in a 1961 black and white classic of doomed love, Splendor in the Grass. The Wooster Group played the Trojans, with the RSC taking the Greek parts in a very different manner. By slowing down their voices and making them artificial, almost mechanical – Marin Ireland’s Cressida in a sometimes robotic sing-song, Scott Shepherd’s Troilus with monotonal flatness – the Woosters forced us to watch and listen through two media at once. Film and live theater: not fighting each other but supermposed.
It’s not easy to watch, though one of the things I love about this practice is how it makes you hyper-conscious of where your attention goes on the stage. With the actors looking variously at the video screens and very seldom at each other, viewers need to choose, and to parcel out their attention across the complex set, filled with red Indian kitsch. (The program mentions Karl May, a 19c German author of Wild West Indian stories, massively popular in Europe, who wrote his dime-store novels without going to American at all. They are full of obvious errors – but the Indian chief on the high plains is a mythic figure, after all, especially in Europe.) Watching live theater is fundamentally about apportioning attention, and the Wooster method emphasizes that in a way that no other company I know does.
The RSC’s Greeks was more predictable and colonial: a heavy-metal Ajax who practiced WWF moves on enemies and friends and also danced the haka like New Zealand’s All Blacks; a Crocodile Dundee-esque Diomed, who got a bit under the skin of some of the Ozzies at the conference; a brilliant and abrasive Thersites who stripped down to his skin in the second act. (The family with two little girls sitting near me had wisely departed by then.) Achilles played almost the whole play with a towel around his waist and no shirt, except for one scene in a red dress; he was alternately needy, childish, ferocious, and, when asking his Myrmidons to help kill the unarmed Hector, suitably ignoble. The whole RSC cast was solid, though the somewhat dull Ulysses seemed to substitute eyeglasses for intelligence. But all the action was on the Trojan/Wooster side, at least for me.
They played the Trojans as Red Indians, an interesting contrast with the Bollywood India of the night before. In their strange way, they presented both a caricature of the image of the American Indian we know from old movies and an affecting portrait of a culture that, even more than most past cultures, we only know through the imagination. Modern Stratford is widely different than the town that William Shakespeare grew up in, but the continuity between 16c and 21c England is greater than the worlds of the Lakota and the Inuit over that span. These worlds were largely wiped out by European germs and other pressures. In a sense, the choice to play Trojans as Indians makes Pandarus’s final line about bequeathing “my diseases” into a painful world-historical truth. Like Troy itself, I found myself thinking, American Indians are one of our great shared myths of a doomed culture, a people whose glories burned bright but are gone forever. I thought about Kafka’s Red Indian, and I found – this is what happened to me at the Wooster Group Hamlet also – that the stilted dialogue and staging became more, not less, emotionally affecting.
I winced at the pub & conference table the next few days when people sneered at the show. Taste is a variable thing, of course, and it’s fine with me if people like what they like. But there’s nothing on stage quite like Wooster Group, and I hope they keep doing Shakespeare. I also wonder if they’ll bring this strange hybrid Troilus to New York sometime.
Russian Midsummer at the RSC Theatre
The cherry on top was a delightful, experimental Midsummer done by Dimitry Krymov and a Russian Chekov company with fifteen-foot tall marionettes, a very large cast including a dozen of so people in evening dress playing the audience – they only did the Mechanicals’ play, insofar as they followed the text at all – and a Jack Russell terrier who was on stage for the whole hour and 45 minutes. Pure weird pleasure – not intellectual and divisive like Troilus, but simply the sort of thing that you don’t expect to see and that makes you happy. We happened to see it on its premiere in Stratford, so no one had any idea what to expect. (There’s a little summary on the website now, but I don’t think it was there before the first show.)
The title said the play was also, sort of, As You Like It, but unless that referred to a kind of pre-play in which the mechanicals – about a dozen or so – manhandled a 20-foot tall fake tree through the seats and onto the stage, turned it around a few times, then took it out the back of the stage, I don’t know what it means. There wasn’t a lot of Midsummer there either, though the giant marionettes were clearly Pyramus and Thisbe.
Some great inventive stage moments: a symphony of funny noises, maybe 8 people strong at its height; a man doing a handstand on another man’s head (!); the dog leaping up and onto his trainer, who wasn’t much in evidence for the first hour or so, during which time it seemed as if the dog was doing his own thing; a strange scene in which the Thisbe-giant urinated into a large tub; four ballerinas who appeared just before the epilogue; and some witty absurdist banter between the lead mechanical – Bottom or Peter Quince? – and the aristocratic audience. Also a great face off between fake lion and real dog.
This was the crowd pleaser of the week, certainly. It ended fairly early, at 9 pm, sending us off to the Dirty Duck for a few pints and happy discussions. I had to leave early-ish, with a 6 am cab to the airport waiting for me the next day. But it was nice to have good & fairly unified vibes as we left the theater.