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I play hooky on Pentecost to return to the Stratford Festival
My wife and I spent the past Thursday through Sunday in Stratford, Ontario, home (as the sign on the way into town will inform you) of the Ontario Pork Congress and the Stratford Festival. Not the way I typically spend Shavuot, and probably definitive proof that Shakespeare is my real scripture.
We’ve been going to Stratford for decades together, continuously since 1998. I even traveled up solo in January of 2020, thinking that if I holed up in a Canadian theater town in the off season, when everything would be snowbound and the theaters would be closed and I was far away from all the distractions of New York City, I might finally get some proper writing done. Which I did—and then a month after I returned home all of New York’s distractions went into COVID-induced hibernation. Since the last time I did one of these off-season retreats to Stratford I returned to New York on Election Day 2016, I am beginning to think going to Stratford in the off season is asking for trouble. But going in season is something I missed too much these past two years to stay away.
The theater itself, honestly, was almost a secondary aspect of what I missed. I live in New York, and we have plenty of theater—high-brow and middle-brow, Broadway and off-off-off, plenty to love, plenty to hate, plenty resting in the indifferent middle, and altogether far too much for me to see. Plenty of Shakespeare too. Stratford opened the festival this year with a production of Hamlet, but this summer there are three variations on Hamlet to see in New York: Robert Icke’s production from London, which will play at the Park Avenue Armory; The Metropolitan Opera’s production of Brett Dean’s contemporary operatic adaptation; and a new play, Fat Ham, inspired by Shakespeare’s comic tragedy, on view at The Public Theater. Why do I need to schlep all the way up to Canada?
My answer has changed over the years as my theater knowledge has grown and my taste has evolved, but the common thread through time has always been continuity. Stratford is the largest repertory theater company in North America, and even though the company inevitably changes over time (as it should), the organism as a whole knows the stages, knows the texts, knows itself in a way that doesn’t have any parallel in New York. This season, I got to see Seana McKenna play Queen Margaret in Richard III. I had seen her play a young Queen Margaret on the same stage twenty years ago in the Henry VI plays, and she and I were not the only people in that theater who were cognizant of that fact, or who were affected by it.
I say “the same stage” but that’s not entirely right, because the big event of this year, apart from it being the first proper season since the pandemic (Stratford did a reduced, outdoor season last year that I couldn’t attend because Canada’s border wasn’t open), was the opening of a new Tom Patterson Theater to replace the old third stage. The new theater is elegant and state-of-the-art, the building almost Pharaonic, aiming to awe as much as to delight. I have decidedly mixed feelings about the whole project, since so much of what I most admired at the old Patterson made a virtue of its poverty, but the theater itself is so obviously a vast improvement in just about every way that I feel peevish expressing the slightest anxiety about what it might portend.
But what about the shows themselves? The first three openings—Hamlet, Chicago (the only musical this year) and Richard III—offer a reasonable cross-section of what Stratford is about, the main omission being new Canadian work (several of those will open later in the season). I’m reluctant to review them, both because that isn’t really what I do and because I have too many friends in the company to be truly objective (not that that always stops me). If you want reviews, you can find them collected here. What I will try to do, rather, is characterize each show and what I think it is aiming to do.
Peter Pasyk’s production of Hamlet looks from the start like it is aimed at a younger audience, perhaps less familiar with Shakespeare. The play is presented in contemporary garb, with modern dress, firearms and cellphones, and the body habitus of the younger characters is equally contemporary. It even opens with a thoroughly contemporary gag that provides a novel framing for the opening line. The cut of the text, though, shows the hand of a scholar. He has displaced “To be or no to be” to an earlier point, separating it from the ugly fight with Ophelia that Claudius and Polonius overhear, and he has incorporated pieces of Q1, particularly a late scene between Horatio and Gertrude that reveals to her Claudius’s intended murder of her son, Hamlet. Pasyk has also cut all the Fortinbras material, and intriguingly added Polonius to Claudius’s confession scene, compromising him just as he’s leaving to go to hide behind the arras in the Queen’s closet.
These changes create a common effect which I assume is deliberate. Without Fortinbras, Claudius has no opportunity to demonstrate his abilities as a king, and the audience doesn’t have to confront the fact that young Fortinbras is seeking revenge for his father’s death as surely as Hamlet is. Polonius (played by Michael Spencer-Davis, a highlight of the show), knowing as he now does that his lord is a usurping regicide, seems somewhat to deserve his death at Hamlet’s hands (though this Hamlet, rather than indulging in black comedy, seems genuinely shaken by his actions). Gertrude, meanwhile, after being informed of the King’s true nature, declares that she is looking out for Hamlet and aims to thwart her husband before going into the final duel. Even Laertes has second thoughts about going through with poisoning the prince. Hamlet, finally, seems mostly resolute throughout; it’s not clear that any internal or external obstacle prevents him from consummating his revenge, which is the central source of tension in Shakespeare’s play as we usually receive it. Indeed, while Amaka Umeh’s performance is energetic, funny, engaging and full of feeling, I felt it lacked the interiority that is usually the hallmark of the role.
All that adds up to a much more straightforward story, morally speaking. We have an evil usurper who, though he manages to hang on for a while, and to bring down a host of better people as he goes, is ultimately overthrown by a virtuous if madcap youth. I wouldn’t be surprised if younger audiences take to it, but it felt to me like a reversion to something simpler that Shakespeare had taken pains to complicate.
Chicago has never been my favorite musical. The music itself is extremely simple, aiming to mimic its trashy vaudevillian setting, and the story is relentlessly cynical to the point of being outright reactionary. If Frank Hamer saw it, it would confirm everything he already believed about criminals, show business, lawyers, and the celebrity-besotted public. But Donna Feore’s high-octane production, and the exertions of her downright athletic cast, won me over.
Or, that’s not quite right. I would have been wowed by Harry’s (Devon Michael Brown’s) backflips, Hunyak’s (Bonnie Jordan’s) aerial acrobatics, and Mary Sunshine’s (Robert Markus’s) extraordinary vocal range regardless. Heck, I would have applauded Billy Flynn’s (Dan Chameroy’s) currency-spangled boxers. But what made the show more than I anticipated were the depth of characterization by Jennifer Rider-Shaw as Velma Kelly, Steve Ross as Amos Hart, and especially Chelsea Preston as Roxie Hart. The look in her eye, whether cornered or triumphant, sent chills down my spine. The story may be cynical, but the production and the performances are anything but.
Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino, finally, has delivered a Richard III that should appeal best to those who underwrote the theater in which it is staged. That’s partly because it makes such effective use of the new capabilities of the theater. We get subtle and explosive sonic and lighting effects, a mobile balcony, even an armored horse. But it’s mostly because he’s assembled an impeccable veteran cast that knows the play backwards and forwards, and directed them in a manner that should appeal to the most classically-minded. Which is ironic because Cimolino frames the show with a device that seems to telegraph the importance of these events for us today. We start in Leicester a decade ago as Richard’s bones are being dug up in a car park, and as the workers huddle around the opening in the earth, Richard himself (played by Colm Feore) strides out of the grave.
Feore eschews Richard’s usual seduction of the audience; indeed, his soliloquys are less theatrical than any Richard I have seen. He’s not gleeful when he says he will prove a villain, not even as a cover for pain and anguish. He’s simply declaring a coldly logical conclusion about his likeliest path forward in the world. Even when wooing Anne (played with great intensity by Jessica B. Hill), I felt little heat from the professed fire in his heart. His declaration of love is a threat, not a promise; he’s almost daring her to doubt him. That leaves her in something of a pickle, since what she has to play is fear rather than confusion—and it puts the audience in a pickle as well. For if Richard doesn’t succeed by brilliant manipulation and seduction, playing on the preexisting enmities that slash across and through the rotten state, then how does he prevail? As Feore strode about the stage in his twisted gate, dancing circles around his more stolid and lumbering foes, it felt to me like anyone could have done the same if endowed with sufficiently ruthless energy.
At the end of the play, Cimolino returns us to the present, with the triumphant Henry VII revealing a suit and tie under his chain mail, conducting a press conference announcing his marriage to Elizabeth, thereby uniting the white and red roses of York and Lancaster that had bloodied England across four plays. But it’s a match that Richard himself had just tried to effect, and for the same purpose. Would he have succeeded as well had he won her? Henry VII is largely a cypher in Shakespeare, a bland Tudor-state-approved symbol of all things good. He’s even more of one in this production, though, little more than the lucky last one standing. All of which left me in a decidedly somber mood as I left the theater contemplating the bitter enmities that slash across our own commonwealth.
A Usurping Macbeth
Far more developed thoughts of mine on another Shakespearean regicide appeared in the latest issue of Modern Age, a piece about Joel Coen’s film, The Tragedy of Macbeth. That piece is now on line, and I confess to being quite proud of it. Here’s the opening section:
Macbeth has surely tempted any film director with a love of Shakespeare. Indeed, it seems at first glance to be among the most readily-adaptable of the major plays. It is one of the shortest, and, helpfully, contains only a single plot. Its action is mostly focused and contained—helpful for keeping down production costs—and the supernatural elements provide opportunities for movie magic to display its imagination-stretching power.
Read through the script, and a shot list comes easy: a panoramic sweep of impregnable Dunsinane from horseback; a long lens for Macbeth’s first brooding ruminations with Banquo watching behind; a hand-held camera for the frenzied seizing of Fife; a close up on Lady M.’s obsessively washing hands. Conjuring the thick darkness of the play’s nocturnal world should be a lighting designer’s dream, and the sound designer should have a feast as well, what with night shrieks and crows making wing to the rooky wood. Proceed this way for a while, and it isn’t long before you think: this is so atmospheric, it hardly needs dialogue.
And there’s the problem. On stage I’ve seen productions of Macbeth that made much of expressionist lighting or moody underscoring, ones where you could practically smell the witches’ brew. I’ve seen large-cast productions dressed in traditional plaid and in modern fatigues, and I’ve seen at least two one-man shows, one set in an insane asylum, the other performed by the characters from The Simpsons. Always, it has been the language that reaches in and grabs me by the scruff of my soul.
Of course, Shakespeare’s plays are poetry. But the poetry in Macbeth functions somewhat differently than it does in Hamlet or The Tempest or Romeo and Juliet because the play is so completely about atmosphere, and it is the play’s language, and the language of its main character in particular, from which that atmosphere emanates. Macbeth is a play about the power of the imagination, a faculty which for the Scottish regicide considerably exceeds his intellect. That is how it is able to overpower him, and with a great actor as their instrument Shakespeare’s words can overpower us as well, trap us among the scorpions nesting in Macbeth’s mind.
Film can do this too—but not primarily with words. In film, language speaks most powerfully as a frame for silence. That works fine for Hamlet, but for Macbeth it presents a problem. It is likely no accident, then, that what many consider to be the greatest filmic adaptation of Macbeth, Akira Kurosawa’sThrone of Blood, dispensed with Shakespeare’s language entirely. If you are at all familiar with the play, you won’t need subtitles even if you don’t understand a word of Japanese: the film will grip you in the vise of Macbeth’s horror-struck mind, and will not let you go.
Few other adaptations have succeeded nearly so fully. What lingers from Roman Polanski’s Macbeth are the lurid encounter with the witches’ coven (a call-back to the director’s earlier film, Rosemary’s Baby), and the exceptionally brutal murder of Lady Macduff and her son (informed by the still-recent murder of Sharon Tate). Both moments are essentially visual realizations of the text. Orson Welles’s 1948 effort teeters perpetually on the edge of camp precisely because of the florid theatricality of the delivery. It’s at its strongest when it sardonically accepts the comic side of its own grandiosity, at its most unintentionally funny when it plays it fully straight. A tribute like Scotland, PA that plays off our familiarity with the story to comic effect may work better than most: it elevates the shabby noir its fast food franchise murderers inhabit at the same time that it brings Shakespeare down to our own notch.
For all the above reasons, I was both excited and apprehensive when I heard that Joel Coen would be directing a film adaptation of the Scottish play. The Coen brothers are meticulous filmmakers who storyboard every shot with care; they are planners, not improvisers. Their visual acuity is married to an affinity for language, including heightened language that, in lesser hands, would come off as stilted. They marry a taste for the macabre with perfect comic timing, and they have a longstanding obsession with the problem of evil. Over and over they have told tales of foolish criminals who take the shortcut to get what they want, get in over their heads, and leave a trail of bodies behind them before achieving their own destruction. Why shouldn’t I have been excited to see one of the brothers tackle the ur-text for this kind of story of crime and punishment?
And so I was excited—but also apprehensive. I’ve seen plenty of other directors come to grief on their first serious encounter with Shakespeare, whether by imposing preconceived notions or through a too-tentative veneration. Sadly, I found The Tragedy of Macbeth afflicted both ways. Aiming to be a classic, it became an object lesson, for me, in the dangers that attend classicism when it comes to Shakespeare adaptation for the screen. What I learned is that Macbeth is not a Coen brothers film, because it never was.
Over the past two weeks, I only wrote about one subject here: the massacre in Uvalde and the prospects of doing anything to prevent similar horrible events in the future, or in any way to reduce the deadly toll of gun violence in America. Two pieces on that subject:
The first took a sober look at the difficulty in reducing gun violence given the reality of just how heavily-armed a society America is and will remain.
The second was skeptical of a politics that, having faced that difficulty squarely, decides simply to avoid the issue.
Again, I encourage you to read both, as they are intended to complement each other.
The World Elsewhere
I am very excited indeed that my old colleague at The Week, Damon Linker, has struck out on his own and started a Substack dedicated to examining the ongoing evolution of the political right, not only in America but in a global context. I can’t think of anyone better to do that job, and it’s a job that very much needs doing.
His first several posts are all worth reading, but I want to single out in particular a piece about the future of the religious right in a Trumpian post-religious context that makes a number of bold claims that I’m still mulling over. I’m not sure I agree with it—but it’s carefully built and powerfully argued piece which it behooves me to think about longer before responding to. That’s exactly what a piece like that should be, and the prospect of more like it is exactly why people should subscribe.