Invitation to AKU-ISMC Public Lectures
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.049 Tuesday, 28 January 2014
From: Matt Brewer <
Date: January 27, 2014 at 8:57:55 AM EST
Subject: Invitation to AKU-ISMC Public Lectures
The AKU-ISMC’s Public Lecture programme will recommence on Thursday 30th January at 5.00pm with a talk by Edward Wilson-Lee, Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge, on ‘Shakespeare and the Zanj’ . On Thursday 6th February at 5.00pm, Mohammad Fadel, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Toronto, will present on ‘The Representational Ideal and the Sunni Conception of Public Law’. Details of both of these events can be found below (including how to register to attend).
Please feel free to pass this email on to anyone you feel may also be interested in attending.
Thursday, 30th January 2014. 5.00-6.30pm.
'Shakespeare and the Zanj'
The reception, translation, and performance of Shakespeare in East Africa from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day
By Dr Edward Wilson-Lee
Abstract: This lecture – which draws on a larger project charting the reception, translation, and performance of Shakespeare in East Africa from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day – will use the widespread idolization of Shakespeare (by British travellers, the Arab elite, native Africans, and Indian settlers) to examine cultural relations on the Swahili Coast (the Zanj) in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. From the use of Shakespeare in Anglo-Omani diplomacy on Zanzibar to the rich history of performance in Mombasa of translations by Aga Hashr Kashmiri (the ‘Indian Shakespeare’), this hidden history provides rich and instructive examples of how art connects and divides cultures.
Chair: Dr Philip Wood
Biography: Dr Edward Wilson-Lee teaches early modern literature, Shakespeare, and medieval literature Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge; his research looks broadly at literature and the history of the book in the early modern period, and he is currently working on the history of Shakespeare reading/performance/translation in East Africa, as well as on the ways in which collections were organized in the early ages of print.
Thursday, 6th February 2014. 5.00-6.30pm.
‘The Representational Ideal and the Sunni Conception of Public Law’
By Professor Mohammad Fadel
Abstract: The Sunni response to the crisis of post-prophetic authority was the concept of the caliphate. In contrast to the Shi'a concept of divine election (nass), Sunni theologians maintained that succession to positions of public leadership of the community were a matter of the community's choice (ikhtiyar). Yet, this was not an unbounded choice: through the rules set out in the theological and juridical discussions on the caliphate, Sunni scholars made clear that the community's choice was to be guided by certain rules, standards and procedures. Dogmatic works of theology, and even juridical works such as al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyya of al-Mawardi, however, were interested more in the notion of how a legitimate post-Prophetic order is established rather than the details of how, once it comes into existence, its ongoing legitimacy, or the legitimacy of its actions, is to be measured. To find an answer to this question this paper argues that Sunni jurists adopted a theory of public life that assumed public officials obtained their authority exclusively as agents of the Muslim public. Accordingly, the representational ideal of agency provided the moral basis for determining the legitimacy -- or lack thereof -- of the actions of public officials from the perspective of Sunni jurists. The existence of this ideal is documented not in an explicit discussion of the nature of public offices in the fashion of political philosophy, but as befits jurists, manifests itself interstitially in the operation of numerous rules and doctrines in various chapters (abwab), jurisdictional and substantive, of the jurists' positive law (fiqh). This paper outlines the source of the representational ideal of public offices, beginning with Sunni juridical discussions of the contract of the caliphate, and its operation as the crucial enabling and limiting principle on the powers of public officials through various examples from positive law.
Chair: Dr David Taylor
Biography: Mohammad H. Fadel is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Toronto, which he joined in January 2006. Professor Fadel wrote his PhD. dissertation on legal process in medieval Islamic law while at the University of Chicago. Professor Fadel was admitted to the Bar of New York in 2000 and practiced law with the firm of Sullivan & Cromwell LLP in New York, New York, where he worked on a wide variety of corporate finance transactions and securities-related regulatory investigations. Professor Fadel also served as a law clerk to the Honorable Paul V. Niemeyer of the United States Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit and the Honorable Anthony A. Alaimo of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia. Professor Fadel has published numerous articles in Islamic legal history and Islam and liberalism.
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Professor Sankalapuram Nagarajan (1929 - 2014)
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.037 Monday, 20 January 2014
From: Jim Harner <
Date: January 16, 2014 at 11:51:30 AM EST
Subject: Professor S. Nagarajan, India
Professor Sankalapuram Nagarajan (1929 - 2014)
Professor Sankalapuram Nagarajan, one of India’s finest academicians, passed away in New Delhi around noon on January 6th, 2014. He leaves behind his wife, Srimathi, sons Shankar and Chandramouli, daughter Leela, and their families. Nagarajan—‘Nag’ to his close friends—was regarded as one of the most eminent Shakespeare scholars of India and an original voice in the world Shakespeare community of scholars.
Born in 1929 in Bangalore, he did his B.A (English Honours) at the University of Mysore and his M.A. in English Language and Literature at the University of Nagpur where he was awarded the University Gold Medal. After teaching at colleges in Amravati, Bangalore and Jabalpur, he went on to study for his Ph.D. in English at Harvard University. He earned the doctoral degree in a record time of two years (1959-61), and held the distinction of being India’s first Harvard Ph.D. in English. For his doctoral study he was awarded a Smith-Mundt/Fulbright fellowship, a Harvard University fellowship, and a Folger fellowship.
At Harvard he worked with eminent Shakespeare scholars such as Professors Alfred Harbage and Herschel Baker. He finished his coursework with distinction under scholars like Walter Jackson Bate, Reuben Brower, David Perkins, and I.A. Richards. His dissertation on Shakespeare’s Problem Comedies resulted in an invitation to edit Measure for Measure for the Signet Classic Shakespeare. This edition has been in print continuously for over 45 years in spite of severe competition from later and more generously edited editions. In 2013, he published an edition of King Lear, a study he started as a Folger Shakespeare Library Fellow in 1998.
Dr. Nagarajan’s scholarly articles on a wide-range of subjects, including comparative studies (the influence of Advaita Vedanta on Isherwood, for example) appeared in prestigious international journals like the Shakespeare Quarterly, Comparative Literature, Modern Fiction Studies, Ariel, and the Oxford Essays in Criticism. He was the Indian Correspondent of the World Shakespeare Bibliography for about three decades. As many of his former students and colleagues have remarked, Nagarajan was a keen supporter of literature in Indian languages. Thinking about literature in more than one language, he insisted, was a singular strength that Indian scholars could bring to the world stage.
Professor Nagarajan is also remembered for his outstanding contribution to higher education in India. After he returned to India from Harvard in 1961, he was appointed Chair of the University Department of English and Chairperson of the Board of Studies in English at the University of Poona (now Pune). He taught there till 1977 when he moved to the University of Hyderabad to assume the position of Professor of English, a position he held until he retired in April 1989. At the University of Hyderabad, he was Dean of the School of Humanities for six years and officiated for some time as Vice-Chancellor of the university.
After his retirement, he served as an Emeritus Fellow of India’s prominent University Grants Commission (UGC). Later, the University of Hyderabad requested him to serve as the inaugural Director of its new Centre for the Study of Comparative Literature. During his tenure as professor at the University of Pune and at Hyderabad, the UGC honored him as National Lecturer in English and as a National Fellow. In addition, he held many fellowships and honorary lectureships, including being a British Council Visitor, an American Studies Fellow at Harvard, a visiting fellow at Clare Hall (Cambridge, U.K.), a Leverhulme Fellow at the Australian National University and a Commonwealth Universities Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. In 1988, he was elected Life Member at Clare Hall at the University of Cambridge. He was also invited to serve as Visiting Professor and advisor for the University of Mauritius during 1993 -1994.
Professor Nagarajan will be remembered for his many scholarly accomplishments and his role in advancing higher education in India. But above everything, it was Professor Nagarajan’s students who always brought an unstoppable sparkle and tenderness to his eyes. Their success and achievements evoked in him a parental pride. He gave his everything to students. Every student came away inspired and all felt deep love and respect for him. Students and colleagues were to remain his ever-growing family until he retired and beyond. One of most memorable occasions for Professor Nagarajan was the grand felicitation his former students from across the years hosted for his 75th birthday in Pune (or Poona, as he never stopped calling it by its older name). On hearing the news about Dr. Nagarajan, one of his former students (who now teaches in Belfast, Ireland) wrote, “[Dr. Nagarajan] conveyed to us brilliantly the disturbing power of poetry to teach us what we often did not know of ourselves. It is something we will never forget.”
Professor Nagarajan wrote late into his life. Commenting on his masterful edition of King Lear which was published recently in 2013, Professor Sylvan Barnet, the eminent Shakespeare scholar said, quoting from As You Like it: "O wonderful, wonderful, most wonderful wonderful, and yet again wonderful, and after that, out of all whooping!" Professor Barnet went on to describe the book: “[Nagarajan’s] King Lear is not only for Indian students--it is for all students--yes, and for all readers, including professors--who want a thorough yet judicious, readable commentary on the play.”
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.036 Thursday, 16 January 2014
From: John Cox <
Date: January 15, 2014 at 12:33:26 PM EST
Subject: Reg Foakes
Following up on my earlier notice of Reg Foakes’s death, I have learned from Emily Hockley, Editorial Assistant for the Arden Shakespeare, that Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon will hold a memorial service for Reg next Monday, Jan. 20th, at 12:30 p.m.
Emily also draws attention to tributes to Reg Foakes published online: http://bloggingshakespeare.com/honouring-reg-foakes
Celebrate 450 Years of William Shakespeare!
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.032 Wednesday, 15 January 2014
From: Michael Luskin <
Date: January 14, 2014 at 4:39:25 PM EST
Subject: Celebrate 450 Years of William Shakespeare!
From: Free Library of Philadelphia <
*Celebrate William Shakespeare During the Year of the Bard! *
The Free Library of Philadelphia, in partnership with The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre [http://www.phillyshakespeare.org/] and numerous other cultural organizations from around the region, is excited to present the Year of the Bard: Shakespeare at 450 [http://libwww.freelibrary.org/shakespeare/ ]—a year packed full of engaging, enlightening, and entertaining programs and events designed to celebrate Shakespeare in all his classic and modern incarnations.
Throughout 2014, the Year of the Bard [http://libwww.freelibrary.org/shakespeare/ ] will offer Shakespeare
buffs and newcomers alike a plethora of fun, festive ways to get in on the celebration. Every month throughout the year will feature numerous activities, including engaging lectures, digital and live exhibitions, pop-up and theatrical performances, and of course a big birthday bash on April 23.
Stay tuned to freelibrary.org/bard [http://libwww.freelibrary.org/bard ] for all the latest details and upcoming events!
Did you know?
“Shakespeare For All Time”, a new exhibition celebrating Shakespeare and featuring his important First Folio, will open on January 27 in the new William B. Dietrich Gallery in the Rare Book Department of the Parkway Central Library. The new gallery space was made possible with generous support from the William B. Dietrich Foundation.
The Free Library is one of the most important educational and cultural institutions in Philadelphia. The City of Philadelphia provides funds for the operations of the Free Library system, including staffing at our 54 locations. Through the generosity of individual gifts, the Free Library Foundation supports many of the Library’s incredible programs, which promote literacy and enrich the cultural fabric of our city.
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.019 Saturday, 11 January 2014
From: John Mahon <
Date: January 10, 2014 at 8:54:15 PM EST
Subject: Tom Pendleton
Thomas A. Pendleton, Professor Emeritus of English at Iona College and Co-Editor of The Shakespeare Newsletter, died unexpectedly at his home in Norwalk, Connecticut, on Tuesday, December 31, 2013. He was 81 years old. Born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 30, 1932, to the late Charles F. and Marcella Pendleton, he served in the United States Army in the 1950s. He earned a B.A. in English from St. Michael’s College of the University of Toronto and an M.A. and Ph.D. in English from Fordham University. He taught English at Iona, in New Rochelle, New York, from 1959 until his retirement in 2012, and also served as chairman of the department and as a member of many college-wide committees. From 1991 until his death, he was co-editor of The Shakespeare Newsletter. He was a longtime Associate Member of the Columbia Shakespeare Seminar, known for his perceptive and probing contributions to discussions at seminar meetings. Although his primary scholarly interest was Shakespeare, he also taught and wrote about W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, and many modern American writers. He had interests in many other areas, including film, comic books, and baseball—and he had a gift for drawing as well. In addition to many essays, articles, and book and film reviews, he wrote I’m Sorry About the Clock: Chronology, Composition, and Narrative Technique in The Great Gatsby (1993), and he co-edited, and contributed to, “Fanned and Winnowed Opinions”: Shakespearean Essays Presented to Harold Jenkins (1997). He also edited, and contributed to, Henry VI: New Critical Essays (2001), and he edited Richard the Second for the New Kittredge Shakespeare (2012). He is survived by his wife Carol, whom he married on March 30, 1964.
Application Deadline Approaching for "Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography" Conference
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.016 Thursday, 9 January 2014
From: Elyse Martin <
Date: January 8, 2014 at 2:57:16 PM EST
Subject: Deadline “Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography” Conference
The 13 January 2014 deadline for the Folger/NEH conference, “Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography,” is coming up!
As a reminder, funding is available through Folger Institute consortium. A generous NEH Collaborative Research grant also extends funding eligibility to qualified graduate students and faculty from U.S. institutions. For those who do not wish to apply for funding, a registration form is available here.
I would be happy to answer any questions you or your colleagues may have.
Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography
An NEH Collaborative Research Conference
There is no more iconic figure with whom to push forward a fresh critical evaluation of the aims and methods of literary biography than Shakespeare. Within the academy, textual analysis often denies biography any explanatory force, while popular conceptions of Shakespeare look to biography precisely for insight into the works. In the standoff, the genre of literary biography is lost as a subject of serious inquiry. On the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth, the Folger Institute Center for Shakespeare Studies will undertake a rigorous investigation of the multiple—and conflicted—roles biography plays in the reception of Shakespeare today. A cadre of influential scholars, many of whom have written biographies of Shakespeare, will focus discussion on such topics as the distinctions between authorship and agency, the interpretations of documentary evidence, the impact of methods of dating texts on an understanding of Shakespeare’s life, the broadened context for that life of a more robust understanding of theatrical activity, and the possibility that biography is itself a form of historical fiction. The conference opens Thursday evening with a session that doubles as Shakespeare’s Birthday Lecture. In his presentation on “Shakespeare, Biography & Anti-Biography,” Brian Cummings will discuss the problem of writing the life of Shakespeare in terms of the documentary history and its haunting sense of missing links.
Organizers: Brian Cummings (Anniversary Professor of English, University of York), Kathleen Lynch (Executive Director, Folger Institute), and David Schalkwyk (Academic Director of the Global Shakespeare Project, Queen Mary University of London/Warwick University).
Speakers: Tarnya Cooper (National Portrait Gallery), Ian Donaldson (University of Melbourne), John Drakakis (University of Stirling), Katherine Duncan-Jones (Somerville College, Oxford), Lawrence Goldman (St. Peter’s College, Oxford), Stephen Greenblatt (Harvard University), Margreta de Grazia (University of Pennsylvania), Graham Holderness (University of Hertfordshire), Julia Reinhard Lupton (University of California, Irvine), Jack Lynch (Rutgers University), Lena Cowen Orlin (Georgetown University), Lois Potter (University of Delaware), Joseph Roach (Yale University), and William H. Sherman (Victoria and Albert Museum, University of York)
Schedule: Thursday evening through Saturday afternoon, 3 – 5 April 2014.
Apply: 13 January 2014 for grants-in-aid to support travel and lodging. A generous NEH Collaborative Research grant extends funding eligibility to qualified graduate students and faculty from U.S. institutions. Application form is available here.
Registration: For those not planning to request travel and lodging funding, a registration form is available here.
Please direct any further questions to
NEH Summer Seminar at Amherst College
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.015 Thursday, 9 January 2014
From: Megan Estes <
Date: December 19, 2013 at 2:43:32 PM EST
Subject: NEH Summer Seminar at Amherst College
SUMMER SEMINAR ON PUNISHMENT, POLITICS, AND CULTURE
Amherst College will host a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar for K-12 teachers and current full time graduate students who intend to pursue a career in K-12 teaching, from June 30-July 31, 2014. The seminar will be directed by Austin Sarat of the Departments of Political Science and Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought. It will examine three questions: What is punishment and why do we punish as we do? What can we learn about politics, law, and culture in the United States from an examination of our practices of punishment? What are the appropriate limits of punishment? The application deadline is March 4, 2014. Information is available at http://www.amherst.edu/go/neh. If you have any questions regarding the seminar or the application process, contact Megan Estes at (413)542-2380 or email
*Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.*
Megan L. Estes Ryan
Academic Department Coordinator
Amherst College Law, Jurisprudence & Social Thought
PO Box 5000, Clark House
Amherst, MA 01002
Beyond Authorship Symposium
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.013 Wednesday, 8 January 2014
From: Hardy M. Cook <
Date: Wednesday, January 8, 2014
Subject: Beyond Authorship Symposium
This symposium announcement is from Brett Hirsch.
Apologies for cross-posting, but this symposium may be of interest to a number of you, your loved ones, pets, and enemies.
24-27 June 2014
University of Newcastle Australia
This symposium seeks to move beyond authorship as the primary focus of corpus-based studies in early modern literature, to consider broader questions of language and style, genre and form, influence and adaptation; to interrogate the new literary histories enabled by electronic text corpora, and the new methods of analysis they make possible.
Confirmed speakers include Douglas Bruster, Gabriel Egan, Jonathan Hope, MacDonald P. Jackson, Lynne Magnusson, and Michael Witmore.
The convenors, Hugh Craig and Brett D. Hirsch, invite proposals for long and short papers (20/40 min) and quick-fire poster presentations (5 min). For consideration, abstracts should be received by email to both convenors before 1 February 2014.
To download a poster/flyer and for more details, visit http://notwithoutmustard.net/beyond-authorship/
New Email Address for the British Shakespeare Association
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.012 Wednesday, 8 January 2014
From: BSA <
Date: January 6, 2014 at 2:31:42 PM EST
Subject: New Email Address for the British Shakespeare Association
E-mail displayed incorrectly? Read it in your browser
British Shakespeare Association
We’ve recently discovered that our email address,
, has become corrupted and any emails sent to it in recent weeks will not have been received. This also applies to any messages sent through the ‘Contact the BSA’ form on our website, which uses the same email account.
The BSA’s new email is
. Please use this for all future correspondence. We always aim to respond quickly to any messages we get so if you have tried to get in touch with us in recent weeks and we have not replied, please try again with this new email address and we will respond as soon as possible.
Please accept my apologies for any inconvenience that this has caused
Chair of the British Shakespeare Association
Review: Taymor’s Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.008 Monday, 6 January 2014
From: Hardy Cook <
Date: January 4, 2014 at 10:58:36 AM EST
Subject: Review: Taymor’s Midsummer Night’s Dream
[Editor’s Note: I got Holger Syme’s permission to republish his blog review of Taymor’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Theatre for a New Audience. This review appeared on Holger’s blog disposition. –Hardy]
Midsummer Night’s Dream (Theatre for a New Audience / Julie Taymor, New York)
by Holger Syme January 4, 2014
Visually, this is a stunning production. The Polonsky Shakespeare Center, opened this season, is a remarkable space — a broad and deep thrust four stories high, configurable with all sorts of trap doors and hydraulic elements, and Julie Taymor, unsurprisingly, makes highly effective and imaginative use of all these features. The central element in the show is a vast sheet of silk large enough to cover the entire stage: it first appears as the bedsheets of a tiny bed in which a figure we’ll soon recognize as Puck (remarkable: Kathryn Hunter) is sleeping, unfolds from the bed to become a balloon of sorts on which the bed is carried up and away, then winds up as a kind of baldachin over the stage, and then proceeds to twist, fold, and billow, birthing Titania for her entrance, ripping open to let Puck back in, and serving as a projection screen time and time again.
There is something deliciously theatrical in how this piece of fabric works. The effects are always impressive, but they’re explicitly effects: the sheet suggests magic, it implies representation, but it also remains visible as a sheet, a huge prop manipulated by stage hands and ensemble members present on stage, visibly handling ropes and carabiner hooks. Sometimes, it’s characters doing the handling: a running gag is that Flute is too short to catch ropes flown down to hook onto things and always needs help from Snug (who is gigantic). At one point, Puck elaborately hooks herself into a harness while talking to Oberon. A forest of staves that function mostly as sort-of magical trees are very obviously manipulated from below by on-stage figures, or from above by very noticeable ropes. And the production can get quite clever with this metatheatricality. Oberon’s reaction to discovering that Puck has love-juiced the wrong Athenian and has turned a true love false (whatever that may mean) finds its angry expression through a lighting change and an orchestrated stamping of all the twenty-odd staves on stage; Puck responds with gentle mockery by banging just one stave, with her hand. The sound is the same (if less loud); the gesture is pretty much the same (except it’s Puck’s hand moving the stave, not those of visible and invisible helpers). But the effect is completely different: when Oberon “makes” all the staves move and “makes” the light change, the gesture “means” magic; when Puck does it, it doesn’t. What the scene draws attention to, though, is the fact that this is not an essential, inherent difference. In both cases, a bunch of human hands stamp a bunch of wooden sticks on the stage floor, but Oberon’s magic (and Puck’s lack thereof) entirely depend on an audience’s swift decision to understand one of those gestures as “magical” and the other as something else, something less impressive.
So that’s all very smart, and actually quite Shakespearean (if in a rather un-Shakespearean medium). And Taymor certainly has a remarkable eye for captivating stage images — the kind of moment ideally suited for a production still. Whether it’s the opening image after the intermission, when the sheet covers the stage, and all the staves form a kind of stylized birch forest for Oberon to wander in, a solitary dark figure in a space as white as Peter Brook’s famous white box set for his RSC Dream (David Harewood is playing the Fairy King topless, with gold stripes across his chest and in what looked like very dark body makeup); or the haunting image of a solitary child standing all the way downstage wearing a cardboard dog’s head, which when removed revealed cascades of long, very blond hair; or the hilarious moment when Hermia, in her underwear, finds herself caught between Lysander and Demetrius’s crotches at the very moment when they both have rejected her as an object of erotic desire; or even just the small house upstage that, with its stylized neoclassicist facade, identifies scenes as taking place in Athens, and which before Puck’s final sweeping scene stands, framed by the sheet draped from the fly, against an iridescent indigo backdrop, with all of its five windows lit — all of which go out one by one as the couples turn off their lights.
And yet, although I enjoyed this production, I wasn’t exactly blown away. Despite the impressive visuals, much of the show seemed, visually, like a watered-down version of what Robert Wilson might have done. The colour scheme reminded me of Wilson, and Puck’s make-up in particular, with spiky red hair, white-face, and strong eyebrows, could have been straight out of any of his recent Berliner Ensemble productions. In particular, I was reminded repeatedly of the Peter Pan I saw last May. That’s not to say, at all, that I think Taymor is ripping Wilson off. Part of it struck me as fairly clear homage. Part of it is likely just the result of an overlap in their aesthetics. What Taymor adds to the equation in a more overt way than Wilson, and what I appreciated about her take on this kind of aesthetic, is the foregrounded theatricality, the very ostentatious made-ness of her stage images. Wilson, for all his anti-realist program, tends to obscure the mechanics of scenes more, leaning towards a more impervious surface, and as a consequence can easily get glib or facile. I think Taymor’s approach is more interesting.
That said, if there’s a similarity between her aesthetics and Wilson’s, they have nothing whatsoever in common in their approach to the text. One of the Berliner Ensemble dramaturge’s told me last year that “Do we really need that line? Let’s cut it!” is the constant refrain of Wilson’s rehearsal work. Taymor’s Dream, on the other hand, is textually faithful to a fault — a few lines have been cut, but the play basically proceeds “as it was written” (as they say). Puck gets a few opportunities to ad-lib (including a glorious parody of Bottom), and stands in for Philostrate, Theseus’s Master of the Revels (delivering the part in what sounded to me delightfully like a parody of Mark Rylance), but other than that, little work seems to have gone into crafting a performance script for the show. And that points to this Dream‘s signal shortcoming: it’s a visually inspiring production that takes a deeply uninspiring approach to the play.
My heart sank early on, when, after the gorgeous opening with the disappearing bed and a brilliantly choreographed chaotic staging of the preparations for Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding, the two characters come and start to speak — and the show switched from a mode of unpredictable creativity to the dull and utterly conventional sound and look of Anglo-American Shakespeare. Verse was dispatched, more or less competently, in various accents, some fake RP, some actual English ones, some mid-Atlantic inflections (not that I care, but it’s perhaps worth noting); some verse speakers signalled their investment in psychology by pausing and showing us that thought was happening, though not necessarily at moments when those pauses made sense or when the thinking seemed supported by what they were saying; Shakespeare was being served. I suspect all the actors more or less knew what they were saying, but nothing was happening on stage that suggested that Taymor had any interest in what was being said — let alone in what was being left unsaid.
For all the creative investment in the visual aspects of this show, at its heart is a rather stunning absence of any kind of serious interpretative investment. It’s perhaps indicative that the program offer no director’s note of any kind — only a set of “perspectives” firmly anchored in the most commonplace and unchallenging takes on Shakespeare’s play (as well as a brief biography of the author that, grump-inducingly, sees a need to “acknowledg[e] that there are and have been prominent individuals who continue to question whether the man from Stratford known as William Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him,” a note to which a hearty WTF seems the mildest possible response). In German reviews, Taymor’s production would be described as “attitude-free.” The phrase would not be a compliment. The show creates an atmosphere — an overall oneiric quality, a suggestion that the entire play, as Puck says, may as well just be a dream. But while that’s pretty, and pleasing, I do also wonder what it would mean. If the opening image of Puck in his bed is indeed meant to suggest that what unfolds over the three following hours is “just” a dream, then Taymor, rather oddly, appears to anticipate Puck’s concluding negative scenario: that the shadows will offend, and that this offence needs to be forestalled by framing the entire show overtly as a dream, as unreal. (Remember that Puck’s notion of the play as a dream is intended to “mend” the offence the actors may have caused.) But why assume that? And if that’s not the point, what then is gained, or suggested, or implied, by casting the entire play as a dream? (Yes, I know that’s what it’s called. I’ve never really quite figured out why. I would expect a director to at least try.)
Midsummer Night’s Dream is an extraordinarily rich text. Taymor gives it an extraordinarily rich visual treatment, but that imagistic riches hardly intersects with the textual. There is darkness in some of the visuals, but the nature of that darkness remains obscure — it certainly doesn’t illuminate, or displace, or really engage at all in any way, deconstructively or constructively, with the text. Instead, the script seems to be accepted as a given: those are the words, this is how they’re supposed to be said, don’t mess with them. These are the pictures: let’s get creative with them! By the same token, I couldn’t help but notice a contrast between the precision of the effects and a relative lack of such precision in the acting, where big moment after big moment wasn’t allowed its due weight or didn’t hit home with sufficient force. This is not the actors’ fault. It’s a question of directorial priorities. (Then again, Kathryn Hunter managed to make her scenes about the performance, even about the character; I don’t know what that says.) Taymor just doesn’t seem all that interested in engaging with the text, or undercutting it (not that that isn’t a form of engagement). For instance, I was delighted to see a Helena who not only, FOR ONCE, didn’t tower over Hermia, but who was also cast against the text’s apparent intent: Hermia is repeatedly troped as darker than Helena in the play, but here, a very English, very blond Hermia is coupled with an African-American Helena perhaps an inch taller than her “dwarfish” friend. The pay-off in the production? Sadly, zero. Lysander’s line about leaving a raven for a dove is thrown away; and Helena throughout walks on much higher heels than Hermia. This may be another clever instance of foregrounding stage reality as an effect achieved by mechanical means, but if so, it comes at the cost of throwing away a chance to complicate Hermia’s obsession with her own supposed shortness. In other words, more often than not, when the production comes face to face with a chance of letting what’s on stage interact with what’s on the page, it simply ignores those opportunities.
The consequence of this oddly (though, in an Anglo-American context, hardly uniquely) schizophrenic enterprise is that the wonderful and the trite live unhappily side by side: there’s Bottom’s ass’s head, a technical marvel and a spectacularly creepy image, basically a human nose and mouth at the end of a long donkey’s nose, fully mobile, operated by two levers that the actor (visibly) manipulates as he speaks. I loved everything about that: it was the most realistic and the most theatrical translation of Bottom-into-Ass I’ve ever seen (and again, very clever: Bottom’s face and the ass’s are a hybrid, because Bottom is, of course, already an ass. And the theatricality of having the actor visibly manipulate his own character’s face was of a piece with the production’s general approach to its stage magic, so yay for that too). But Bottom’s performance was a pretty bog standard interpretation of the role, with a New Jersey (I think!) inflection on the standard issue model, but without any especially interesting choices or moments. (By contrast, last summer’s Globe production in London was utterly unremarkable as a production, but featured, in Pearce Quigley, an actor who made interesting choice after interesting choice, essentially reinventing Bottom from scratch.) Perhaps I was just in an uncommonly curmudgeonly mood, but Taymor’s take on “Pyramus and Thisbe” struck me as one of the least riotous, least creative, and also least funny versions of that scene I’ve ever seen — and I used to think it was a pretty indestructible vehicle for comedy.
So, in the end, I found this a very unsatisfying production, but also one that seems to me helpfully illustrative of the problem of mainstream Shakespeare in English, perhaps especially in North America. Whatever desire there is for theatrical creativity, for directorial inventiveness, for finding and pursuing an angle of some sort always, it appears, needs to focus on design — it cannot express itself, or work itself out, dramaturgically. The sanctity of the text is such that it leaves directors and actors hampered — a limitation that is more, rather than less, apparent in productions directed by artists as inventive as Julie Taymor, because the contrast between the creative spirit evident in the design and the choreography on the one hand and the uninspiring, painting-by-numbers approach to the text on the other hand is so very stark. Further confirmation, in other words, that Shakespeare has become a problem, for reasons that have nothing to do with Shakespeare.