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I just returned home from the Lowell Summer Music Series’ yearly FREE Shakespeare offering (held indoors at the high school auditorium due to weather). Just last Thursday night I got a chance finally to attend Shakespeare on the Common in Boston, as well.
The two productions could not be more different, and both were great. As an avowed Shakespeare fanatic (ever since my freshman year in high school!), I thoroughly enjoyed them, though strangely both are from the same period of “dark” comedies and both (All’s Well That Ends Well, and Measure for Measure) involved tricking a main character into thinking he’s bedding one woman, and really bedding another. I hadn’t read nor seen either of these plays before, and they’re probably not on the list of my favorites.
Today’s LSMS staging, put on by the New England Shakespeare Festival, got me to thinking…about the difficult language of Shakespeare for modern audiences, accessibility, and fidelity to the text and context of the plays. There are a lot of really great modern takes, such as “O” - based on Othello - or “10 Things I Hate about You” (loosely based on Taming of the Shrew) and they are fascinating, but I’d argue much more fascinating if you are familiar with the original plays. Some other adaptations fall short in my opinion, and the various on-screen traditional productions are great or good or bad, but there are a thousand of them. (My absolute fave is Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, a rich and gorgeous production with its sizzling, and stinging, back-and-forth between Branagh’s Benedick and Emma Thompson’s Beatrice.)
Why is Shakespeare so revered, adapted, and performed in all these various movie and stage vehicles? A lot of people probably wonder, especially those who are not Shakespeare geeks. Shakespeare has permeated centuries of literature and plays and movies, and most modern viewers or readers don’t even realize it. With our 21st century sensibilities and much more cynical suspension of disbelieve (we even like our sci-fi and fantasy to adhere to “reality,” at least self-referentially), sometimes Elizabethan stagecraft and writing seems overly quaint, and deus ex machinae too corny. I can’t blame people, with little spare time to study Shakespeare, for feeling this way.
However, there isn’t a steep price for entry into Shakespeare, if one knows where to look. For instance, serious movies like Branagh’s Much Ado (though now he’s more known as Professor Gilderoy Lockhart than as Henry V, another great movie) and good “modern” adaptations that ditch the language but mimic the plot can get one familiar with the stories and the language pretty quickly. And going to live performances like today’s from the New England Shakespeare Festival are sure to make you a fan as well.
Unlike the Boston Common performance, which is polished, well-staged, with live string music and impeccable dramatic delivery, the NESF prides itself on accessibility. They bring Shakespeare back to its roots, as they explain at the outset of their performance. “Show of hands, have you ever attended an unrehearsed Shakespeare play?” you are asked at the beginning. Because you’re about to see one!
The NESF company stages Shakespeare like they did in Elizabethan times, which is surprisingly much more accessible than what you might think of as traditional staging. In Shakespeare’s time, they explain before starting, actors were performing a different play each night in order to compete for audiences with other production companies, so lines were not memorized, but put on a hand-held scroll, and there was an on-stage prompter to help actors when they miss lines.
In their production, you feel like you, the audience, are in collusion with the actors. The delivery is not perfect (far from it) and the “fourth wall” comes crashing down more often than not, and the lines are hammed up with dramatic gestures, overdone eye rolls, and exaggerated tones. There were even a few moments where I disagreed with the interpretation of a line or two (being a Shakespeare geek does come with some privileges). But I had fun, and so did the entire audience so far as I could tell. Even the kids were giggling.
At the polished performance on the Common, I was enthralled and I loved it. But I did see a few people snoozing on their blankets in front of me - likely dragged there by an enthusiastic spouse - and there was less engagement by the children in attendance. It had a more removed feel (and not just because we happened to go on a night everyone else did, and had to be quite far from the stage). New England Shakespeare Festival’s performance, by contrast, was intimate, with a nod and a wink to the audience. A third of the play was acted from the aisles in front and middle of our seats, and several times, audience members were referenced with gestures at some line about thieves or (in one memorable moment) strumpets. There was lots of cheering, and you were encouraged to boo the knave who was causing all the problems. (He wasn’t quite a villain, just a religiously rigid hypocrite. In that way I felt like I was watching the evening news…)
I am not a Shakespeare purist, and when a good “adaptation,” or full-blown production, or anything in between, comes around, I judge it on its merits. There is room for the modern take, the polished stage production, and the bawdy over-exaggerated “unrehearsed” roving Shakespearean companies as well.
One thing I do know about Shakespeare is that understanding his outdated writing does come to you with practice. With productions like NESF’s around to introduce newcomers to the Bard, maybe more people will be enticed to build up their Elizabethan muscles.
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