Summer Shakespeare Flourishes and a New Edition is Launched

Summer is the traditional season for mounting plays by Shakespeare in the open air, and this summer sees the Bard’s works performed out of doors in London and New York as well as in Ashland, Oregon. Summer Shakespeare festivals also are taking place in Stratford-upon-Avon and Stratford, Canada, offering playgoers a wide choice of plays, including comedies, tragedies, and histories.  On Shakespeare’s birthday in April, an important new edition appeared, based on the 1623 collection of the works as performed at the Globe and assembled by the Bard’s fellow actors.

At the Globe Theatre in London on the South Bank, in a replica of Shakespeare’s own playhouse and therefore open to the sky, “Renaissance and Revolution” is the theme of this year’s summer season.  “Othello,” “The Merchant of Venice,” and “Love’s Labour’s Lost” explore such problems of the late Renaissance as commercialism and prejudice in the first two works, and love vs. duty in the third.  Directed by Wilson Milan, Eamonn Walker plays Othello, Tim McInnery is Iago, and Zoe Tapper Desdemona.  “The Merchant of Venice” joins “Othello” in repertory on June  2, and matinees as well as evening performances allow theatergoers to see both plays on a single day.  “Love’s Labour’s Lost” opens July 1, and all three may be seen in repertory until October 7.  Performance schedule and ticket purchases: www.shakespeares-globe.org. 

At the Open Air Theatre in London’s  beautiful Regent’s Park the 75th season of al fresco Shakespeare opens in May and runs in repertory until August 18.  “Macbeth,” opening May 28, is directed by Edward Kemp and designed by Jon Bauson, while “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” begins May 30 and runs through August 18.  Christopher Luscombe directs and Janet Bird is the designer. Performance schedule and ticket purchases: www.openairtheatre.org.

In New York City’s Central Park Shakespeare under the stars has long been a summer tradition.  Held at the Delacorte Theater, the performances are free and are seen each summer by some 80,000 New Yorkers and visitors.  Opening on June 5 and continuing through July 8 is “Romeo and Juliet,” with Lauren Ambrose as Juliet.  She plays the teenager Claire in the television series “Six Feet Under” and in London was seen in the National Theatre’s production of Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child.”  Oscar Isaac plays Romeo, and Michael Greif directs.  The second summer offering at the Delacorte is “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” playing from August 7 to September 9.  Daniel Sullivan directs.  Actors who have appeared in the past Shakespeare offerings in the park include Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington, Christopher Walken, Kevin Kline, George C. Scott, and Natalie Portman. www.publictheater.org.

At the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, three theaters will be offering Shakespeare’s plays.  “As You Like It” has been running at the Angus Bowmer Theater, where it appears in repertory through October 8, directed by J. R. Sullivan.  On the Elizabethan stage, in a beautiful outdoor setting, three plays are being presented, opening successively on June 5, 6, and 7.  They are:  “The Tempest,” “The Taming of the Shrew,” and “Romeo and Juliet,” running through the first week of October. For schedule of performances and tickets: www.orshakes.org

Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Canada

Brian Bedford both directs and plays the title role in “King Lear” at the Shakespeare Festival of Canada in Stratford, Ontario.  Wendy Robie is Regan, Wenna Shaw is Goneril, and Sara Topham plays Cordelia in the production which runs to October 28 in the Festival Theatre.  Three additional works by Shakespeare will be seen : “The Merchant of Venice,” at the Festival Theatre June 1 to Oct 27, “Othello” ( Tom Patterson Theatre May 21 – Sept. 22), and “The Comedy of Errors,” at the Avon Theatre, from June 2 to October 26. ”The Merchant of Venice” is directed by Richard Rose, with Graham Greene as Shylock and Severn Thompson as Portia.  David Latham directs “Othello” with Philip Akin in the title role, Jonathan Goad as Iago, and Claire Jullien as Desdemona.  For “The Comedy of Errors,” Richard Monette directs David Snelgrove and Tom McCamus as the two Antipholi and Ian Deakin and Bruce Dow as the two Dromios. Schedule of performances and tickets: www.stratford-festival.on.ca.

“Othello” at the Donmar in London

A major London production of “Othello” opens at the Donmar Theatre November 29, playing through February 23, 2008.  Chiwetel Ejiofor will be seen in the title role, with Ewan McGregor as Iago, and Kelly Reilly as Desdemona, directed by Michael Grandage.  The three actors have appeared earlier in productions directed by Mr. Grandage, who is artistic director of the Donmar: Mr. Ejifor as the son in Noel Coward’s “The Vortex,” Ms. Reilly in “After Miss Julie,” and Mr. McGregor as the lead in Frank Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls,” recently closed in the West End.  Christopher Oram is the designer and Adam Cork the composer.

Royal Shakespeare Company Concludes Complete Works Festival and History Cycle Begins

“King Lear,” “The Merchant of Venice,” and “Coriolanus” conclude the ambitious and highly successful Complete Works Festival, presented at Stratford-upon-Avon from April 2006 to the spring of 2007, with Ian McKellen as Lear.  At the new Courtyard Theatre, the history cycle of Shakespeare’s plays continues this summer, with four additional plays, culminating in February 2008, when all eight plays will be performed in repertory. Directed by Michael Boyd, the Cycle opened in August 2006, with the three parts of “Henry VI”, joined by “Richard III” at the start of 2007.  Plays to be seen this summer are “Richard II”, “Henry IV Parts 1 and 2,” and “Henry V.”

“Richard II” opens July 7, with Jonathan Slinger as Richard and Clive Wood as Bolingbroke, with set by Tom Piper.  “Henry IV Part 1” opens July 17, with David Warner as Falstaff, Clive Wood as Henry IV, and Geoffrey Streatfeild as Hal.  The same actors repeat these roles in Part 2, which opens July 25.  Mr. Streatfeild enacts the title role in “Henry V,” opening October 25.

For “The Merchant of Venice” offering in the Complete Works Festival, F. Murray Abraham starred as Shylock brought to Stratford from New York, by Theater for a New Audience.  Darko Tresnjak directed the modern-dress performance, replete with laptops, cell phones, and video screens displaying the latest financial information.  Venice as Wall Street seems appropriate for this work in which money is of such prime importance – Bassanio needs the loan from Shylock to win in style the lady of his choice, except that charging interest is no sin in the modern world.  Mr. Abraham is an impressive Shylock, beginning as a man of dignity and cool intelligence, so that when his confidence cracks over the elopement of his daughter, we are struck by the depth of his passion, climaxed in the courtroom scene, from which he exits a broken man. Well played by the love interests, Saxon Palmer is a superficial Bassanio who exploits Antonio’s homosexual attraction to him, so that Kate Forbes’s Portia is appalled and dismayed at her husband’s behavior when he kisses Antonio during the trial. The final scene suggests her disenchantment as well as that of  Nerissa (Christen Simon).

“Coriolanus” was the last production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre before it closed for rebuilding, during which major productions are mounted in the Courtyard Theatre.  The role of the victorious Roman general who defeats himself by stubborn pride has perhaps a special relevance today, when politicians decide on military matters.  In addition there is the dramatic conflict between William Houston’s Martius (he is awarded the title of Coriolanus after his victory over the Volscians) and his mother Volumnia (Janet Suzman).  If ever a mother dominated a son for all the wrong reasons, it is Volumnia, who has raised him to be warlike as she gloried in his triumphs, but who now wants him to be a politician too – a role he detests.  So warped has she made him that he has no place in the world except the battlefield. Because the tribunes have manipulated the populace to turn against him and banish him, he leaves Rome (“There is a world elsewhere.”) and joins the enemy. But when his mother pleads with him to save Rome and not invade it, he gives in, knowing that means his death at the hands of the Volsces.  Gregory Doran directs.

“King Lear,” with Ian McKellen in the title role, is the final play in the Complete Works Festival, playing at the Courtyard Theatre during June.  William Gaunt plays Gloucester, with Sylvester McCoy as the Fool, Frances Barber as Goneril, and Romola Garai as Cordelia.  In Trevor Nunn’s direction, one disconcerting note is that the Fool (who disappears after the hovel scene) is seen hanged and hanging during the interval, based on a misinterpretation of Lear’s line in the final scene, “And my poor fool is hanged.”  The line comes just after Edmond confesses that the order had been given to hang Cordelia in prison.  As the Oxford English Dictionary tells us that “fool” was a “term of endearment used in Shakespeare’s day by writers like Sidney and by Shakespeare himself in “The Winter’s Tale,” Lear is referring to Cordelia.   

 “Macbeth,” which plays at the Swan Theatre in June and July is directed by Conall Morrison, with Patrick O’Kane as Macbeth and Derbhle Crotty as Lady Macbeth.  The production starts by staging rather than reporting the battle against Norway, in which Macbeth kills a baby, with the witches in attendance.  This negates the mystery and power of the witches as they first appear as written.  Even worse, it sours Macbeth’s “milk of human kindness,” indicating that, according to the text, he is a good man whom ambition turns to evil.  As Lady Macbeth, Ms. Crotty reveals her vulnerability early, a perceptive touch by the director that affirms her failure to commit the murder, as earlier she had promised to do, because Duncan resembled her father as he slept.  Her performance builds steadily to the sleepwalking scene, as this shattered woman’s behavior indicates that she will soon destroy herself.

A New Shakespeare Edition Is Based on the Folio

The RSC Complete Works edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen

The First Folio collection of Shakespeare’s plays appeared in 1623, seven years after his death. Gathered by fellow actors John Heminge and Henry Condell in the King’s Men company, the plays are based on the playhouse prompt books, thus providing a record of the plays as they were first performed.  Some, but not all of the plays had appeared earlier, in Quarto form, single editions of individual plays usually appearing soon after they debuted on the stage.  But some eighteen of the plays, including “Macbeth,” “Julius Caesar,” and “The Tempest,” appear only in the Folio.  Beginning in 1709 with Nicholas Rowe and continuing to the present day, editors have tended to compare an existing Quarto with the Folio and to conflate the two, depending on their own judgment as to choice of a word, a line, or even a scene.  In general, where there is a Quarto or more than one, the Folio text, being the playhouse copy, will be shorter, as occurs “Hamlet.”  As is true of modern works, a play is cut if it exceeds an acceptable playing time.

 With “Hamlet”, and with other plays for which Quartos exist, this new edition prints at the end of each play the “Quarto passages that do not appear in the Folio.”  This is instructive as to how to cut a Shakespeare play that is just too long for staging today.  A look at this section for “Hamlet” shows judicious cutting – except for the omission of  the last soliloquy, “How all occasions do inform against me.” (Act 4, scene 3)  The exchange with Osric is too long (5.2), as is the King’s with Laertes (4.6)

Another feature of the new edition that is helpful for staging as well as reading is that unobtrusive stage directions, only when indicated in the text itself, appear at the right. Directions in the original text are in italics.  As to the punctuation, the new edition reflects the “heavy” punctuation of the Folio rather than the light punctuation of the good Quartos that we suspect were from Shakespeare’s own copy.  Dr. Tyrone Guthrie, one of our best modern Shakespeare directors, once told me that when directing, he had the actors remove all the punctuation from their printed texts.  Knowing that the Folio was for reading, not for performance, Heminge and Condell may well have punctuated for the eye, not the ear. 

The glosses at the bottom of each page are useful, as is the spelling out of the characters’ names.  Best for reading is the single column for the text, unlike the double-column Folio itself.  The general introduction by Professor Bate, as well as his individual introductions to the plays, are clear-cut, well-written, interesting, and not overly-long.  One might disagree with certain conjectures, like the surmise that the Macbeths had a child that died; the text refers only to a child, not to its death: “I have given suck…” (1.7.58 ff)

 It is good news that these texts will be used for future productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company, under whose aegis the volume was produced.  As the size (2485 pages) and weight of the volume dictates limited use as a valuable reference volume – the facsimile of the actual Folio edited by Charlton Hinman is 928 pages – it is suggested that for use in the classroom and on the stage, Random House might consider separating this new volume into three, using the Folio’s original divisions (as does this volume) into Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies.

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