Are we too in­tel­lec­tu­ally lazy to ap­pre­ci­ate his ge­nius?

Dumb­ing down the Bard

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - PETER MARKS

Chances are, un­less you’re an English grad stu­dent or en­gaged in a life­long swoon over Shake­speare, you haven’t read or seen “Ti­mon of Athens.” Or even heard of it.

Heck, my job is cover­ing Shake­speare and I’ve never seen it.

So the Fol­ger Theatre’s mis­sion at the moment — stag­ing a mod­ern­dress ver­sion of this ob­scure work — be­gins as strik­ingly es­o­teric.

But it also strikes me as mar­velously vi­tal. Be­cause in our age, the canon of clas­si­cal works to which au­di­ences are ex­posed shrinks by the year.

Oh, the old favourites aren’t go­ing any­where. Romeos and Ham­lets will con­tinue to wax poetic be­fore our eyes — al­though, me­thinks, in smaller and smaller venues — and cos­tume shops will be backed up into the fu­ture with or­ders for Mac­beth’s tu­nics and Des­de­mona’s night­gowns.

Yet the fact that many theatre com­pa­nies seem to be­lieve they can ful­fil their clas­si­cal man­dates with only the most widely-known plays, or worse, sac­ri­fice more chal­leng­ing plays to the pop­u­lar-en­ter­tain­ment de­mands of the box of­fice, makes me won­der whether th­ese are signs of a deeper prob­lem.

Are Amer­i­cans too in­tel­lec­tu­ally lazy to fully ap­pre­ci­ate Shake­speare any­more?

The Amer­i­can theatre’s most prom­i­nent plat­form, Broad­way, seems to have thrown up its hands in sur­ren­der: A play by Shake­speare hasn’t opened there since the fall of 2013.

An ar­ti­cle of faith among the­atres and theatre writ­ers (for pub­lic con­sump­tion, any­way) is the au­di­ence is never wrong. But what if some­thing wrong is hap­pen­ing to the au­di­ence? What if it is los­ing in­ter­est, or pa­tience, in en­coun­ter­ing Shake­speare on his own terms?

A fun­da­men­tal shift in con­trol over Shake­speare’s words has been ev­i­dent for much of the past 50 years in the English-speak­ing theatre, as di­rec­tors have with more and more chutz­pah taken hold of the text and used it as mere mod­el­ling clay.

This has led to some breath­tak­ing flights of the imag­i­na­tion, start­ing with Peter Brook’s paradigm-al­ter­ing “A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream” in 1970, an il­lu­mi­nat­ing pro­duc­tion per­formed on swings in an all-white box. In the years since, it has also re­sulted in a trend bor­der­ing on mind­less­ness, of im­pos­ing every va­ri­ety of anachro­nism on Shake­speare, in the ser­vice of mak­ing his plays more top­i­cal for an au­di­ence that seems to need some­thing close to a lit­eral re­flec­tion of it­self on the stage.

Rock bot­tom, for me, was a pro­duc­tion in Wash­ing­ton last year of “Romeo and Juliet” dur­ing which the mem­o­rable “Two house­holds, both alike in dig­nity” speech was given to a mem­ber of the en­sem­ble push­ing a vac­uum cleaner.

I won­der, though, if this habit has has­tened the predica­ment we’re now in: that it’s next to im­pos­si­ble to at­tract a sus­tain­able au­di­ence to any­thing but the most ac­ces­si­ble ti­tles, be­cause hav­ing to deal with un­fa­mil­iar Shake­speare is ugh, so much work.

One has only to look over the of­fer­ings of the most highly-re­garded clas­si­cal com­pa­nies for ev­i­dence. In the next 12 months, for in­stance, Wash­ing­ton’s Shake­speare Theatre Com­pany, win­ner of the 2012 Tony Award for out­stand­ing re­gional theatre, has three plays by the Bard on the sched­ule: a “Mac­beth” that opens of­fi­cially on Monday; a “Twelfth Night” and a “Ham­let.”

Did “low-hang­ing fruit” have the same con­no­ta­tion in the El­iz­a­bethan Age?

Also on Shake­speare Theatre’s cal­en­dar next sea­son is a re­vival of that favourite of the Ja­cobeans, Lerner and Loewe’s “Camelot.” And this com­pany is not the only one with Shake­speare in its name that is count­ing on mu­si­cals.

“Ok­la­homa!” is among the fu­ture events at the Ore­gon Shake­speare Fes­ti­val, and a new mu­si­cal stage ver­sion of the an­i­mated chil­dren’s movie “Mada­gas­car” is set for this sum­mer at the Chicago Shake­speare The­ater.

“Mary Pop­pins” is forth­com­ing at the Alabama Shake­speare Fes­ti­val, and the Utah Shake­speare Fes­ti­val will soon be do­ing “Guys and Dolls” as will Canada’s Strat­ford Fes­ti­val, which, along with “Romeo and Juliet,” “Ti­mon Of Athens” and “Twelfth Night,” has “HMS Pi­nafore” and “Trea­sure Is­land” on its 2017 play­bill.

Now th­ese com­pa­nies all carry on their tra­di­tions of pro­duc­ing Shake­speare and maybe, from time to time, one or an­other play­wright from an­tiq­uity.

One can’t blame them for want­ing to sur­vive. But sur­vive as what?

What does it say when th­ese or­ga­ni­za­tions, whose iden­tity re­volves around 38 (or there­abouts) plays writ­ten 400 years ago, have to rely on mu­si­cal theatre to sur­vive? And if th­ese com­pa­nies fall back end­lessly on ti­tles such as “As You Like It” and “A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream,” will the ul­ti­mate con­se­quence be a fur­ther di­min­ish­ment of Shake­speare, a wear­ing down by Chronic Warhorse Fa­tigue Syn­drome?

That some Shake­speare works are more pop­u­lar than oth­ers is cer­tainly noth­ing new.

Such ex­perts as Columbia Univer­sity pro­fes­sor James Shapiro, au­thor of “The Year of Lear: Shake­speare in 1606” and sev­eral other well-re­ceived books on the Bard, note that go­ing back as far as the 19th cen­tury, the plays in the canon that could be counted on as “likely box of­fice suc­cesses” al­ways num­bered only about a dozen.

“Peo­ple grow up be­ing steered to th­ese plays ei­ther in the theatre or the class­room, and they are the plays they like to re­turn to,” he said.

“The other ex­pla­na­tion is that there are some amaz­ingly good roles in Shake­speare, and ac­tors like to play those roles.”

You can get Kevin Spacey to play Richard III, Shapiro ob­served (which Spacey did). But it’s a lot harder, he added, to per­suade him to com­mit to Posthu­mus in “Cym­be­line.”

What does feel as if it’s gain­ing mo­men­tum is the sense that pre­sent­ing Shake­speare as writ­ten is some­how a dis­ser­vice to au­di­ences.

I spoke with Shapiro some months ago, af­ter the Ore­gon Shake­speare Fes­ti­val un­veiled an am­bi­tious plan that drew some raised eye­brows along with some plau­dits: “Play on!,” an ini­tia­tive that has com­mis­sioned 36 drama­tists to, in the com­pany’s words, “trans­late” the en­tire Shake­speare canon “into con­tem­po­rary mod­ern English” by Dec. 31, 2018. While it has some com­mend­able goals — draw­ing many writ­ers of note, in­clud­ing many play­wrights of colour, into a po­ten­tially pro­found com­mu­ni­ca­tion with Shake­speare’s work — the no­tion that Shake­speare needed to be trans­lated both­ered me.

It seemed an­other in­di­ca­tion of an ero­sion in our abil­ity to ap­pre­ci­ate the po­etry of the most in­ge­nious drama­tist of the English-speak­ing world. For plots, Shake­speare him­self in­vet­er­ately co-opted. What is he, then, if not his lan­guage?

This dis­con­certed Shapiro, too. Shake­speare’s rhymes and rhythms are Shake­speare, he said. “You have to un­der­stand that even in Shake­speare’s own day, not ev­ery­body got every word,” he ex­plained.

“Every play has its own score, its own mu­sic, and it’s grounded in that iambic pen­tame­ter, and some­how, Shake­speare man­ages to cre­ate a jazz mu­si­cal, a dif­fer­ent feel, a dif­fer­ent melody to each work.

“The bot­tom line for me is this, and it’s some­thing that peo­ple in theatre com­pa­nies don’t want to hear,” he added. “When ac­tors and the di­rec­tor know what they’re say­ing, au­di­ences do, too.”

In other or­ga­ni­za­tions, such as the Amer­i­can Shake­speare Cen­ter in Staunton, Vir­ginia, a troupe in­cor­po­rat­ing orig­i­nal El­iz­a­bethan prac­tices into its pro­duc­tions, projects are un­der­way to build a con­tem­po­rary lit­er­ary in­fra­struc­ture around the en­tire canon.

Last week, the cen­tre an­nounced an in­ter­na­tional play­writ­ing con­test, in which $25,000 prizes are to be awarded an­nu­ally for con­tem­po­rary “part­ner” plays for each of 38 Shake­spearean works.

The idea is to run each of the new plays — ide­ally with parts for a dozen or so ac­tors — in reper­tory with the play that in­spires it.

Which brings us back to the bold­ness of Fol­ger’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion of “Ti­mon of Athens,” a play that chron­i­cles the de­cline of a rich cit­i­zen (played here by Ian Mer­rill Peakes) who, af­ter naively giv­ing away his for­tune, lapses into ter­mi­nal de­spair.

The work is like “The Mer­chant of Venice,” the­mat­i­cally built around money, but un­like “Mer­chant,” is rife with what’s re­garded as in­fe­rior verse and is thought to be un­fin­ished.

The ac­tor and the di­rec­tor, Robert Rich­mond, said they were struck by the con­tem­po­rary con­nec­tions that might be made in por­tray­ing a man’s com­plex re­la­tion­ship with wealth.

For Peakes, who at the Fol­ger has played some of the most no­to­ri­ous char­ac­ters in the canon — Iago and Mac­beth, to name two — “Ti­mon” is pos­si­bly even more of a test of the met­tle of a clas­si­cal com­pany.

“There is partly this re­spon­si­bil­ity as an in­sti­tu­tion to per­form th­ese works,” he said, dur­ing a re­hearsal break re­cently.

“The goal is for peo­ple to say ‘Why aren’t we do­ing th­ese plays more?’”

Why in­deed.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

“Henry V” at the Globe Theatre in Lon­don in 1997. Writer Peter Marks says: Many the­atres seem to be­lieve they can ful­fil their man­dates with only the most widely-known plays.

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