The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0457 Wednesday, 26 August 2009
From: Hardy M. Cook <
Date: Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Subject: Shakespeare Sonnets at the Berliner Ensemble
Douglas Lanier posted on his Facebook Wall a link to a fascinating
production at the Berlin Ensemble, a collaborative staging of
Shakespeare Sonnets by avant-garde theatre director Robert Wilson and
singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright:
Wilson chose 25 of the 154 Sonnets and "created magical, dream-like
images and scenes." "Central characters are a handsome young man, often
called the fair youth, addressed in romantic, loving terms and an older
lady, the dark lady, who figures as a former lover. Wilson gathers a
wide range of Shakespearean types on stage -- fairies, fools, and the
Queen of England; Wainwright provides the music to go with the visions."
"In the production, men take women's roles, and women, men's roles.
There's longing and rejection, and fighting for power. Shakespeare's
Sonnets still feel so fresh." Wainwright uses an assortment of musical
styles including appropriately an homage to Kurt Weill and Bertolt
Brecht, since the Berliner Ensemble was Brecht's theater, where their
_The Threepenny Opera_ (_Die Dreigroschenoper_) premiered in 1928.
The New York Times has described Robert Wilson as "a towering figure in
the world of experimental theater . . . an explorer in the uses of time
and space onstage. Transcending theatrical convention, he draws in other
performance and graphic arts, which coalesce into an integrated tapestry
of images and sounds." Rufus Wainwright is the son of Loudon Wainwright
III (singer-songwriter, sometimes actor, and descendant of Peter
Stuyvesant, the last Director-General of New Netherland) and Kate
McGarrigle (Canadian singer-songwriter, who with her sister Anna has
performed for forty years as the McGarrigle Sisters). I've been a fan of
Loudon Wainwright III and the McGarrigle Sisters since my folkie period
-- yes, one of the great traumas of my life was Dylan going electric,
which I got over very quickly. In the past year, I have been listening
to Rufus Wainwright, who in addition to his own compositions has
terrific covers of some of Leonard Cohen's songs and who in June 2006
re-created song-for-song Judy Garland's 1961 Carnegie Hall Concert with
a 36-piece orchestra.
Since I find this such an interesting project, I am citing some links
regarding it and Rufus Wainwright for those who are unfamiliar with him
or his work.
Rufus Wainwright Takes Residency at Brecht's Theater
By Wolfgang Hobel
Musician Rufus Wainwright is currently rehearsing in Berlin for his
theater debut. He's writing the music for a joint staging of
Shakespeare's "Sonette" with legendary director Bob Wilson -- and
suffering greatly in the process.
The young and beautiful in Berlin's nightlife scene worship him as a
glamorous eccentric, but under the bright fluorescent lights of the
cafeteria at the Brecht Theater on Berlin's Schiffbauerdamm street,
singer and musician Rufus Wainwright is looking pale and even a little
[ . . . ]
Wainwright, popular and notorious for being a brilliantly immature
person filled with extravagant emotions, is currently working at the
Berlin Ensemble with a legendary avant-garde artist of the world
theater. Bob Wilson, 67, has hired Wainwright to supply the music for a
joint version of Shakespeare's "Sonette," which premiers on Easter
Sunday. Of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets about the pleasures and sorrows of
love, decay and betrayal, the two artists will use only two dozen for
their spectacle. The theater promises a "dream journey" with sublime
images and the "beguiling music of Rufus Wainwright."
Wilson is a stage director and playwright who, for more than 40 years,
has arranged people and sets in fantastic puppet shows. Because of his
reputation, what he is doing in Berlin today comes as no great surprise
to his fans and detractors alike. After a rehearsal for "Sonette," the
actors shuffle through the Berlin Ensemble's cafeteria, their faces
still painted with Wilson's trademark white makeup, wearing stiff
costumes and white fairy gowns.
[ . . . ]
Wilson, with his reputation for being a cool diva, has involved many
great musicians in his stage productions in the past, including Lou
Reed, Philip Glass, David Byrne and German rocker Herbert Gronemeyer. In
1990, he directed an internationally acclaimed stage hit, "The Black
Rider," in Hamburg with Tom Waits. "He uses a clear, extremely
definitive design vocabulary. My job is to load it with inspiration,"
composer Wainwright says pluckily. "Of course, I know that Bob is an
extremely sensitive person. But so am I! Maybe even a little too
The courage to take emotional risks is one of Wainwright's strengths.
The songs on his five albums combine respectable North American
song-writing tradition (his parents are also musicians) with an
attractive propensity for art songs and opera. His concerts are amusing,
sometimes over-the-top celebrations of sheer allure, in which Wainwright
combines his talkativeness and love of clowning around with
entertainment. For critics Wainwright, who spends most of his time in
New York, is a hero of so-called transgression pop, which toys with
gender roles. Other representatives of the genre include furious musical
innovators like Antony and the Johnsons and the duo CocoRosie.
The Bard in Berlin
Shakespeare's Sonnets Debut in Drag
By Christine Wahl in Berlin
US stage director Robert Wilson has teamed up with pop star Rufus
Wainwright to bring Shakespeare's sonnets to the stage in Berlin.
Debuting on Easter Sunday, this highly stylized cross-dressing version
of the archetypal love poems went down a storm with the audience.
It's been 400 years since William Shakespeare published his "Sonnets"
and now they are getting the Robert Wilson treatment in Berlin. The
renowned American theater director's cross-dressing version of "Sonette"
debuted on Easter Sunday at the Berliner Ensemble, the theater made
famous by Bertolt Brecht.
[ . . . ]
Wilson has selected 24 sonnets for his version and created a highly
stylized design for each one, with lavish costumes, huge hair-dos and
his trademark lighting and puppet-like choreography. The Texan director
pays no head to literary theory or chronology in his version of the
sonnets, but rather uses them to as a starting point for his typically
surreal dreamlike worlds.
The avant-garde maestro uses Shakespearean-like gender role reversal in
the cast but in his "Sonette" the women play men as well as men playing
women. The 86-year-old grand dame of Berlin theater, Inge Keller, sports
a gray pageboy wig and white face paint to play the bard himself. Jurgen
Holtz, another doyen of Berlin theater, plays Queen Elizabeth I, while
Sylvie Rohrer portrays the young poet.
The music is provided by pop star Rufus Wainwright who, unsurprisingly,
has declared the sonnets timeless and whose musical accompaniment ranges
from medieval Minnesang to the very contemporary electric guitar.
Wainwright has professed his reverence for both Brecht and the composer
Kurt Weill, and there are echoes of their "Threepenny Opera" in some of
his music for "Sonette." This is fitting perhaps, given that Wilson's
version of the Brecht/Weill masterpiece is currently sold out for the
foreseeable future at the Berliner Ensemble.
It looks like the "Sonette" could repeat that success for Wilson in
Berlin. On Sunday the audience reacted to almost every single sonnet
with rapturous applause and the evening was brought to a close by
Wainwright himself coming out on stage to sing two of the sonnets before
the final bow. At three hours the play may be over long but for fans of
Wainwright and Wilson "all's well that ends well."
Here are links to Rufus Wainwright singing his versions of Shakespeare's
Sonnets, including the songs referred to in the last paragraph above:
Rufus Wainwright Covers of Leonard Cohen:
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Hardy M. Cook,
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