The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.0345 Friday, 24 August 2012
Date: Friday, August 24, 2012
Subject: ISC 2012, Part 2: Plays from World Shakespeare Festival 2012
International Shakespeare Conference 2012
Part Two: Three Plays from World Shakespeare Festival 2012 Briefly Considered
ISC attendees were offered tickets to three plays from World Shakespeare Festival 2012. I attended all three but not the Shakespeare Institute Performance Group Macbeth, a separate addition to the program.
Much Ado About Nothing
On Wednesday evening, I attended the Asian/Indian Much Ado About Nothing at the Courtyard Theatre.
To begin, I would like to express my joy that the Courtyard is still standing and being used as a production venue for the RSC. Although there are images for a planned new Other Place in the renovated Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the Courtyard still stands, yet for how long is a question. I have always liked this space and have seen some tremendous productions in it, including the Henry 6 plays and the Tennant/Stewart Hamlet. However, my understanding from questioning the mayor of the Stratford Council at the opening reception is that even though there was an agreement that the Courtyard would be torn down after the renovations to the Memorial Theatre were completed negotiations continue—he really didn’t see me coming when he introduced himself to me and I asked about the new wheelchair access requirements for taxis as well as the fate of the Courtyard.
Okay, now for the Much Ado. The World Shakespeare Festival web site (http://www.worldshakespearefestival.org.uk) describes the production as “This vibrant and colourful production transposes Shakespeare’s vivacious, and at times unsettling, comedy of love and deceit to an Indian setting.” Yes, indeed the production and costumes were colorful, not a Holi celebration but colorful. The majority of the cast was of Indian subcontinent extraction but seemingly not all: Antonio (Ernest Ignatius) and Friar Francis (Robert Mountford), referred to as Panditji, whose role it was to perform the Brahmin wedding rituals.
The production was directed by Iqbal Khan whose credits include Broken Glass (Tricycle Theatre, 2011) and The Killing of Sister George (Arts Theatre, 2011). Some of the choices worked: having Beatrice (Meera Syal) as an older woman than Hero (Amara Karan) and having Leonato (Madhav Sharma) forget some of his lines during the gulling Benedick (Paul Bhattacharjee). (These observations are from a conversation I had with Hugh Grady and John Drakakis). Bhattacharjee, at first, resembled, to me, a grizzled, Indian George Clooney before he shaved and cleaned up for Beatrice. Other choices just didn’t work for me: Hero’s using an iPhone to gull Beatrice and the whole of the Dogberry beats. The concluding dance was suggestive of Bollywood but not as characteristic as dancing in Bollywood Shakespeare adaptations I have seen: Maqbool (2003) and Omkara (2006).
Troilus and Cressida
On Thursday evening at the Swan Theatre, I saw the Wooster Group/RSC collaborative Troilus and Cressida. I understand that the Wooster Group playing the Trojans (directed by Elizabeth LeCompte) and the RSC cast members playing the Greeks (directed by Mark Ravenhill) rehearsed separately before getting together for the final production rehearsals and performances. The resulting juxtaposition of such varying styles was so jarring that it drove some from the theatre at the Interval, but as I hope I shall make clear this extreme juxtaposition of styles is just what the production seemed to be striving to emphasize.
The Wooster Group is noted for its experimental, often multimedia approach to theatre. “For more than thirty-five years, The Wooster Group has cultivated new forms and techniques of theatrical expression. Wooster Group theatre pieces are constructed as assemblages of juxtaposed elements: radical staging, found materials, films and videos, dance and movement, multi-track scoring, and an architectonic approach to theatre design. The Wooster Group has played a pivotal role in bringing technologically sophisticated and evocative uses of sound, film and video into the realm of contemporary theatre, and in the process has influenced a generation of theatre artists nationally and internationally” (http://www.worldshakespearefestival.org.uk/stratford-upon-avon/swan-theatre/troilus-and-cressida.aspx#thewoostergroup).
The Wooster Group was invited to participate with the RSC in this production commissioned for the World Shakespeare Festival: “When the RSC approached The Wooster Group about a collaboration, we found the proposal irresistible—the lodestone of British culture as manifest in the RSC versus the experimental technique of our New York ensemble” (http://thewoostergroup.org/twg/twg.php?troilus-and-cressida).
Entering the Swan, the spectator immediately notes the presence of four video screens positioned above the stage and visible to the cast and audience. Initially, the screens have a slightly pulsing white line across them.
At the opening scene, sans Prologue, the images on the screens become, I believe, a documentary of Eskimo/Native American life. Troilus (Scott Shepherd) enters with a lacrosse stick (sport of Native American origins often played in US largely at exclusive private and public schools, at least on the East Coast). The Wikipedia article on lacrosse indicates the following: “Lacrosse played a significant role in the community and religious life of tribes across the continent for many years. Early lacrosse was characterized by deep spiritual involvement, befitting the spirit of combat in which it was undertaken. Those who took part did so in the role of warriors, with the goal of bringing glory and honor to themselves and their tribes” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lacrosse). Troilus swings his lacrosse stick as if in a lacrosse game with his eyes glued on a video screen. He moves in a fashion similar to that of those being projected on the screens. Troilus and the Trojan warriors wear stylized, feathered garb with, for reasons I was not wholly able to determine, a rubber-like figure on the back.
The Wooster Group actors have their voices amplified by the visible mikes they wear. Troilus delivers his lines in a singsong cadence that I heard second or third hand resembles that of Pacific Northwest Native American tribes. Pandarus (Greg Mehrten) delivered his lines in a similarly stylized fashion. With all of the business going on (including at times loud drumming and musical accompaniment), it was sometimes difficulty to hear clearly the lines that were being spoken. As one quite familiar with the play, I initially was disoriented by what was happening on stage and on the video screens. It was only after the fact that I realized that the Wooster Group’s style was intentionally jarring and disorienting.
When her time arrives, Cressida (Marin Ireland) emerges from a teepee like structure for her exchanges with Pandarus. The viewing of the returning Trojan warriors is almost drowned out by the drumming and music, but again images on the video screens reflect what is happening on stage. Other members of the Wooster Group include Andrew Schneider (Aeneas), Bruce Odland (Priam), Ari Fliakos (Hector and Varlet), Bobby McElver (Helenus), Gary Wilmes (Paris), Jibz Cameron (Cassandra and Margarlon), Jennifer Lim (Andromache), and Zbigniew Bzymek (Antenor).
With the first scene of the RSC Greeks, the productions elements were different in the extreme from those of the Wooster Group. The RSC group wore military uniforms that might have been out of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ulysses (Scott Handy) delivered his lines as one has come to expect from the RSC. Interestingly, the images on the video screen, as with all scenes of the Greeks, shifted back to the dark screen with a white line through it, the line now pulsing to the speech patterns of the RSC actors as on an oscilloscope or voice recognition software.
Get it, RSC equals verse speaking; Wooster Group equals theatrical experimentation.
The contrasts could not have been more pronounced. RSC actors, a relatively small company, doubled most of the parts. Danny Webb was Agamemnon and Diomedes, who has an Aussie accent. Zubin Varla played Menelaus and an appropriately sleazy Thersites in a wheelchair. In fact, Zubin Varla’s Thersites was as over the top as that of the Amazing Orlando of Jonathan Miller’s BBC/Time-Life version. Scott Handy was not only Ulysses but also Helen. Clifford Samuel was Nestor and Patroclus. Aidan Kelly enacted Ajax as a dumb jock, professional wrestler in a body suit worthy of the Hulk and played Diaphram with shirt barely covering his massively bulging Ajax muscles. Joe Dixon was a gorgeous, dreadlocked Achilles with the sculpted body worthy of a Venice Beach Boardwalk denizen.
During the Trojan scenes, the Eskimo/Native American documentary or documentaries, I was not sure it there were only one or more, always played on the screens with the Wooster Group actors watching the actions there and mimicking them. The Trojans would, at times break, into the sort of chanting that this North American associates with the many western films he has seen. Interesting during the tenderish love scene between Troilus and Cressida preceding their night together, the two, again watching the screens, mimic the actions and affectionate gestures briefly of James Dean and Julie Harris in Kazan’s film of East of Eden (1955) and for longer of Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood in Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass (1961).
At the Interval, I half-jokingly said that I felt thoroughly defamiliarized and that I had spent the first half picking my jaw up from the floor. By the end of the production, however, I was thoroughly excited by what I had seen. I recognized the dialectical juxtaposition of the theatrical styles of the Wooster Group and of the RSC. I realized that a further dialectic was created between the Wooster Group actors and the actions of the video screens. I realized that the Wooster Group’s delivery of lines and stylized actions further distanced me from what I was seeing.
After going to sleep at about midnight, I awoke at 3:00 a.m. and things really began to fall into place.
What I had seen was not the, at times, typical entertain-the-tourists productions that I sometimes have associate with some of the RSC play rotations. What I had seen here was definitely not check-your-mind-at-the-door dinner theatre faire, where spectators go to escape into unabashed entertainment; what I had seen was a challenging dialectical theatre of engagement that resisted audience identification with the actions on stage in favor of Verfremdungseffekt—“defamiliarizing,” “distancing,” “estranging”—destroying of the familiarity of a representational on-stage reality while completely resisting audience compliancy with what is seen and heard. That I could not get back to sleep and spent the rest of the night thinking about what I had seen made this Troilus and Cressida, for me, an example of Brechtian “Epic Theatre” at its best, theatre whose affect does not happen until after the production and then continues to evolve into a new synthesis with the possibility of initiating societal change.
The first Shakespeare Troilus and Cressida I saw was on the grounds of the Washington Monument in the early 1970s at the height of the War in Vietnam. I was a graduate student who had just completed a semester teaching “World Lit I,” with a syllabus that included the Iliad and the Aeneid, works stressing heroism and bravery. And what I saw in that Troilus and Cressida was something more resembling the reality and absurdity of the war I had opposed for half a dozen years and would continue to oppose for almost same time. That production, even though not as accomplished as ones I have seen since, opened my eyes to the power of theatre as a political weapon. I was changed by what I had seen and would continue to be changed and opened to the power of theatre when I saw Peter Brooks’ Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Kennedy Center a short time later.
At breakfast in the guesthouse where I stay, I realized that THIS Troilus and Cressida was not for all markets, but then that was the point.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It)
On Friday evening, I saw the opening night production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It), another work especially commissioned for the World Shakespeare Festival with a limited engagement of, I believe, nine performances in the newly Royal Shakespeare Theatre before moving to the Edinburgh International Festival. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It) is a creation of the Moscow, avant-garde, Dmitry Krymov Laboratory troupe, billed as a “Chekhov International Theatre Festival / Dmitry Krymov’s Laboratory / School of Dramatic Art Theatre Production.”
The approximately ninety-minute production was presented in Russian with English surtitles and no Interval. The premise was that “Amongst the chaos of an auditorium that hasn’t finished being built, the mechanicals are rehearsing for their big performance.” The troupe consists of twenty humans and Venya, a Russian Jack Russell Terrier (who steals the show with a performance that defies belief it is so good). There are also what seem like 20-feet-tall puppets representing Pyramus and Thisbe. To give a bit of the flavor of the production, at a crucial moment, Pyramus needs a cast member to use a bicycle pump to inflate his penis.
In an interview available on the World Shakespeare Festival site, Krymov explains the production’s concept:
Q: Speaking of the style of this play, will it be similar to your previous work?
A: Well, I thought that I always change my style with every production, but apparently, I always remain the same!
Q: Well, there are some recognizable features typical of your productions…
A: For instance?
Q: For instance, a specific approach to the original text, non-linear story-telling in which visual images play more important role than words?
I very much hope that here we will stay on familiar tracks. This is even more important because we are not using Shakespeare’s original text, we will tell the story with our own words.
This is not a translation of the play. It is more about the themes of Shakespeare’s plays. The play is called A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It). So we’re playing with the names of Shakespeare’s plays. It’s like, for example, putting on and billing a play as Hamlet, but making the story more like Othello. I want people to leave the theatre wondering which of Shakespeare’s plays they have actually seen. I like to blur the boundaries of his work.
This production was entertaining, provocative, and stunningly realized, a fascinating theatrical experience but one that did not move me as much as the Troilus and Cressida did.