Dec 24, 2013

Bards on the Boards

For what it's worth, when I recently took issue with Charles McNulty's review of three high-profile New York Shakespeare productions, I had already filed my review of the fall's Bard glut, but it's only online now (and in print in a week or so), in the Jesuit weekly America.

Since I've already hammered the point that American Shakespeare is seldom best represented on Broadway, and only slightly less rarely in New York in general, here's another point I'm particularly keen to stress, given some critics' slightly overstated plumping for the superiority of the "original practices" approach:
On their surface, the Globe productions on Broadway could not be more different from [the Donmar Warehouse "Julius Caesar"]. Both “Richard III” and “Twelfth Night” are performed and staged in a meticulous recreation of Elizabethan stage practice, right down to the starched ruffs, tooting recorders and all-male cast; audience members who arrive 20 minutes before curtain can watch the actors get into their authentic costumes and makeup on the stage of the Belasco Theatre. But in following to the hilt a trend so diametrically opposite from contemporary interpretations like Donmar’s, these original-practices stagings end up making a similar point about the plays: that strong, unfamiliar concepts can make them shine in a new light.
A pithier way to put it, I guess, is that anyone who thinks that Mark Rylance is giving "original practices" performances (as if anyone could presume to know what those would look or sound like), rather than thoroughly contemporary interpretations that reach us in the eternal present of the theatre, is letting themselves be snowed. And Rylance is hardly alone in this. Indeed, much as the slavishly recreated 1940s sets and score and style of Mike Nichols' Death of a Salesman only made the cast's utterly current, unadorned naturalism stand out all the more starkly, the frisson between the apparently old and the sneakily new in these Globe productions is the sweet spot they've hit (well, in Twelfth Night, at least).

RTWT, as the kids say.


David Cote said...

Three things: 1) I and probably most people who reviewed the Shakespeare's Globe productions are fully aware that this is merely a concept and not empirically "authentic" in any absolute sense. To impute credulousness on the part of critics is unfair and inaccurate. 2) That having been said, this historical re-creation has been constructed in good faith with scrupulous attention paid to costumes, settings and documented theater practices of Shakespeare's time and so is not randomly pieced together or the work of Renaissance Faire amateurs. 3) It's pretty obvious that in terms of acting style, there's a fine balance between a kind of formality and something looser, more modern. If Rylance and the entire company were doing some stiff and rigorously choreographed version of "Elizabethan acting," with a gestural vocabulary and a ritualized speaking of the verse, well, it would probably be pretty boring. Instead, it's a mix. No one knows exactly how Elizabethans acted. But we do know a bit about the window dressing. So these excellent productions (and I'd love to see their American equivalents!) have period window dressing and something foxier in the acting. That's my take at least. No one has been "hoodwinked" by "original practices" fraudulence and the acting company has been justly lauded for doing an amazing job.

Tony Tambasco said...

As far as I can tell, no one was around to record the original performances of these plays, or even take decent pictures, so anyone who believes that original practices or conditions are truly original are just kidding themselves. That said, I don't think many people *are*. "Inspired by original staging conditions" is a more accurate, although perhaps less marketable phrase.

When you start looking at some of the more grandiose stage directions left in print playbooks, you can't help but notice that many so-called original practices or conditions companies tend to NOT perform the original conditions that would prove the most expensive. I am most familiar with the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA, which boasts the world's only re-creation of the Blackfriars Playhouse, and while their time honored slogan "We Do It With the Lights On" makes for a charming bumper sticker, it also cuts off possibilities in terms of early modern lighting effects. If that makes their performances any less entertaining, however, the casual play-goer is unlikely to notice.