Dec 16, 2013


Charles McNulty is right on the merits and right in his reasoning in this new review lamenting the Lincoln Center Macbeth and adding his praise to the hosannahs for the Globe's Twelfth Night and Richard III. And he's not wrong to point out that this contrast only affirms the prejudice against Americans doing Shakespeare--a prejudice also reinforced, if his peers are to be believed, by Romeo and Juliet on Broadway and at CSC, and by (in my fairly lonely opinion) the sumptuous but unevenly acted new Julie Taymor Midsummer, as well as by the stunning Donmar Warehouse women's-prison Julius Caesar (which I had the great fortune to see the same week as I took in the Globe's "original practice" Shakespeares, affirming not only the apparent superiority of Brits at the Bard but the notion that a strong conceptual framing can bring out the best in these plays). I also think McNulty's point about the grounding in rhetoric that lies behind successful verse drama is sound, and all too frequently taken for granted.

But if I were a West Coast theater company that had ever produced Shakespeare, from A Noise Within to Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I might take exception to the critic for the Los Angeles Times offering these as his generous caveats to the Brits-are-better verdict. In noting that Macbeth's Lady is played by a Brit, Ann-Marie Duff, he qualifies:
Duff's presence in the cast demonstrates how precarious it is to nationalize these differences. The English-born Rylance, though he trained at RADA, grew up in the States, and of course there are plenty of Americans (Kevin KlineAndre BraugherDiane Venora, Liev Schreiber, Dakin Matthews, Michael Stuhlbarg, among them) who can mellifluously hold their own with their British counterparts.
Of those happy few, only Dakin Matthews has strutted and fretted on a West Coast stage in the Shakespeare. I know that McNulty has visited Ashland and counted himself underwhelmed (would it be churlish to note that his visit included precisely one Shakespeare play?), but if this review of three New York productions is to be taken at face value, the lead critic of the LA Times has had to travel all the way to Lincoln Center to find American actors bungling Shakespeare, while his SoCal backyard must be full of them, given that none but Matthews makes his Dream Team list. My own personal list, if anyone cares, would include the thoroughly American Dan Donohue, Derrick Lee Weeden, Anthony Heald, Robynn Rodriguez, Demetra Pittman, David Kelly, and many others I saw over the years I happily and repeatedly visited the mecca in Oregon, as well Jenna Cole, Robertson Dean, and Geoff Elliot, among others at A Noise Within. The Public's offerings in Central Park have also been quite solid, and occasionally inspired, in recent years.

In short, I've seen enough entirely and unapologetically American Shakespeare (and to lay my cards on the table, participated in it, too), and much of it on the benighted Left Coast, to be so over this Yanks-vs.-Brits debate. Perhaps a more illuminating context in which to consider why New York productions show Brits to advantage would be the commercial pressure that constrains what makes it to a stage here. Shakespeare can certainly be good box-office on his own, but moreso with Brits in the cast (witness the RSC's now-routine incursions). American productions in New York, meanwhile, are often cobbled together with celebrities at the helm and actors of widely ranging backgrounds in the supporting roles (though Jude Law's Hamlet proved, as did Ian McKellen's King Lear, that top-heavy, shakily supported productions are a more pervasive problem).

But for McNulty, as for many, what happens in New York is by definition the prevailing (if not exclusive) standard by which the American theater is judged. Breaking that default assumption is something you might hope an out-of-town critic of McNulty's acumen would be well positioned to do, but alas, this doesn't seem to be in the stars.


Wayne Myers said...

Julie Taymor's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for Theatre for a New Audience was a safe choice that played to her strengths as a designer. I read that she had considered staging "Macbeth," and that would have been the bold move she really needed to make. What I would really like to see from her on stage is something without puppets and masks.

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

Wayne, good point. I didn't know about the "Macbeth" plan. I was largely disappointed with her "Midsummer":

Don Shirley said...

Sorry for only belatedly seeing this post, but I'm glad that you've taken note of the fact that McNulty -- after eight years on the job -- has barely glanced at LA's own Shakespearean resources.