Tuesday, April 23, 2013

My Year In Shakespeare

Once a year, some of us, we few, we happy few — or, as my cousin calls us, people with greasepaint in our blood — celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday.  Why celebrate the birth (and death) date of someone who wrote over 400 years ago, is not in my family tree by any stretch of the imagination, and is recalled as school days torture by the majority of people I talk with every day?  Because listening to and reading Shakespeare sharpens my mind and has afforded me great pleasure over the years, as well as being the first building block in a number of friendships that have blessed my adult life.  I am grateful, more than once a year, to the Bard and those actors/directors/teachers/friends who taught me how to take his words in and make them mine, in particular Eric Hoffmann and the late Robert Mooney.

The year’s wheel has come full circle, so I started writing down all sorts of fascinating things about Shakespeare, but then I had too much of a good thing, so I had to stiffen the sinews and start from scratch.  While setting goals for next year (for which I intend to plan ahead, just as I probably did last year for this), I’ll move apace with this year’s musings. 

Once a year my friend Horvendile posts to his blog, A Likely Story, a list enumerating things he’s done — how many poems he’s written, how many plays, short stories, how many pints of Guinness or bottles of wine drunk, among other things (and thereby hangs a tale), as well as every play he’s attended.  Many of the last will overlap with my list of plays seen because we cannot get enough Shakespeare.

I come to list Shakespeare, not to praise him, the plays and books I’ve seen and/or read that were by or about Shakespeare in the year since I last posted to the Happy Birthday Shakespeare Blog.  What would be impossible would be to list how many of Shakespeare’s phrases I have heard in everyday conversation without anyone realizing the debt.  There are too many to count, so that way madness lies.

Last year I blogged about the role Shakespeare played in my theatrical experience in terms of performing and directing.  I said it then and I’ll say it again:  I’m no scholar or academic, and my experience with Shakespeare is certainly neither as consistent nor as long as I would like.  Still I remember learning to scan, learning how the verse (or lack thereof) can inform an actor more than 400 years on how to say a line, what it means, where the stresses go.  This is a remarkable gift.  (Or curse, when the actors strutting their hour onstage mangle the verse, which is why it can be so rewarding to experience the stories anew in a foreign tongue.)  So although I haven’t acted Shakespeare in some time, I continue to attend productions of his plays several times a year, I re-read some of the plays each year and someday soon I’ll re-read the entire canon, preferably aloud with friends.

Just before we celebrated Shakespeare’s birthday last year, I saw the excellent Simon Callow perform Being Shakespeare which was written by the scholar/academic I am not, Jonathan Bates.  This is an historical fabrication bent on clarifying that Will Shakespeare had education and experience enough to have written the plays and poetry attributed to him, and happily had a number of monologues and soliloquies included in it.  This in contrast to Mark Rylance’s play, I Am Shakespeare, which I did not see but rather read.  It’s a lot of fun, but did not convince me that anyone besides Will wrote the plays.  (I still haven’t seen Anoymous.)

Will was busy, so Artie posed in a ruff.  Ruff.  (c) 2013 Eric Johnson Jr.

As summer 2012 dawned, I saw the NYC Public Theatre’s delightful production of As You Like It on a perfect evening at the Delacorte in Central Park.  Droll and heartfelt, it transported us all to joy.

In October we trekked to lower Manhattan to see a production of Hamlet from Shakespeare’s Globe.  I called it a Wee Hamlet because of the charmingly compact set the company traveled with and the short playing time — due to the very fast delivery of a streamlined script.

A representation of The Globe in London. 

In November we journeyed to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for an unusual production from the Netherlands — it was an all-day affair featuring news crawls, newsreels, no intermission, however imbibing, wandering and tweeting were allowed.  This was Roman Tragedies, which is a mash of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony & Cleopatra, by the Toneelgroep Amsterdam.  It was close to six hours, mostly fascinating.  Oh, and it was in Dutch.  No, I do not.

In the new year, a delightful Much Ado About Nothing (by the same company that did a marvelous Taming of the Shrew last year, Theatre For a New Audience at the Duke Theatre in Manhattan) and most recently the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar at the BAM Opera House.

A few decades ago (guess the year), my friends Judy and Alan and I purchased the best bargain of our lives — New York’s Public Theatre intended to perform the entire canon of Shakespeare over the course of five years, and we paid up front what then appeared to be an enormous sum to subscribe. For that investment, we saw all of the plays at least once, with extra productions over a period that stretched beyond those original five years, including reserved seats even at the summer venue, the Delacorte! Final tally: $11 per performance. The like will never come again.

One of those friends is Alan Gordon, author of the Fools Guild Mysteries whose latest publication is an essay in the new book Living With Shakespeare, an anthology of essays by writers, actors, directors, and others edited by Susannah Carson and Harold Bloom. This book has given me hours of delight and I’m not even halfway through. The evening before Shakespeare’s birthday, the editor and several contributors chatted about the book and Shakespeare and the plays at the National Arts Club in Manhattan. An evening’s discussion among friends and strangers about Shakespeare — who could ask for more on the eve of the Bard’s birth.

Also in 2013, looking forward to (I can practically hear Carly Simon singing “Anticipation”) Joss Whedon’s “home movie” of Much Ado About Nothing due in theatres in June. Then… whatever productions at BAM or elsewhere catch my eye. 

Just when there was too much time between live theatre productions, Public Television provided the exciting Shakespeare Uncovered series, with Jeremy Irons, David Tennant, Derek Jacobi, Trevor Nunn, Joely Richardson, and Ethan Hawke exploring the texts, the sources, the lore of spending a life performing or directing Shakespeare.

Videos (or DVDs, I have both) recently watched include Roman Polanski’s Macbeth with Jon Finch, Francesca Annis, and Martin Shaw.  I saw this on a high school field trip to Manhattan in the early 1970s.  Just as the nuns hadn’t realized that Romeo and Juliet would show some bare flesh in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film of Romeo and Juliet (how short-sighted of them!), I don’t think they realized the witches and Lady Mac would be naked — after all, the moors and stone castle floors of Scotland are quite chilly….  What I remember most clearly about the trip to see Macbeth was my friend Carolyn’s nails leaving marks on my arm when Macbeth’s head was lopped off by MacDuff. 

Shakespeare inspires.

With no malice aforethought but rather this birthday blog in mind, I’ll take note of anything Shakespearean that may come my way over the next twelvemonth….and once again I’ll post it to the website dedicated to bringing together people who blog and love Shakespeare and … whatever else the Happy Birthday Shakespeare bloggers do at this year’s celebration of the Bard’s Birthday.

~ Molly Matera, off to re-read Coriolanus before I view the DVD….

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