Measure for Measure for Measure for Measure

It’s a big year for Shakespeare’s (and Middleton’s!) “problem play”. Cheek by Jowl brought their Russian-language production to London in the spring, Shakespeare’s Globe played their version during the summer, and the Young Vic’s production is currently in the final weeks of its run. I finally got the chance to see the Young Vic production today.

My immediate response to director Joe Hill-Gibbins’ latest foray into the early modern is that it tries too hard to bash us over the head with things that the play does pretty well all on its own. A number of people on Twitter have commented on the “Alanis moment”, for example: Cath Whitefield’s Mariana introduces herself to the audience by singing and dancing along to the chorus of Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know”, which replaces the song written into the play’s text. The “punk-light” aesthetic of Mariana’s oversized coat, heavy eyeliner, pixie haircut and tattered wedding dress–along with the song itself–sit uneasily against the use of “punk” to mean “prostitute” elsewhere in the play. I couldn’t tell whether this juxtaposition was intentional or not. There appeared to be no other reason for the choice of song, however, apart from the line ‘It’s not fair / To deny me / Of the cross I bear’, at which point Whitefield turned face-on to the audience and spread her arms to make the shape of a cross. Such a gesture seemed a rather heavy-handed way to remind the audience that Christianity is a powerful force in Shakespeare’s Vienna.

Indeed, the entire production bounced back and forth between extremes: images of sexual indulgence, personified especially in a sea of blow-up dolls, butted up against images of oddly historicised religious devotion, manifest in projections of Renaissance religious paintings and recordings of sixteenth-century sacred music. In one sense, this is typical of Hill-Gibbins’ developing style as a director of early modern drama: he tends to fixate on a disconnect or a juxtaposition that he perceives in a play’s text and test its boundaries in performance. In The Changeling, it was the relationship between the two plots; in Edward II it was the tension between private and public life; in Measure, it seems to be soul versus body.

To a certain extent, making a Measure about the tensions between sacred and secular in the text makes sense, and offers a tempting link between Shakespeare’s world and our own. But I would suggest that it’s hardly the most interesting thing to make the play about, especially since the play itself does such a good job of highlighting that problem already. The back-and-forth between the sinners and the righteous, and the transgressions and ethical quandaries that occur within that framework, do not require ham-fisted directorial intervention in order to be clear to a modern audience.

What was less clear in Hill-Gibbins’ production was his use of live-streamed video footage. He’s been obsessed with off stage spaces since The Changeling, and in Edward II the use of video worked seamlessly with the through-lines of public versus private life, surveillance, and corrupt government. In Measure, however, the use of video feels rather arbitrary, even if it looks cool. Sometimes, it teeters on the edge of a “mockumentary” approach, where characters tell us, via the camera, what’s going on for them. Sometimes it does the surveillance thing it did in Edward II, showing us what’s happening behind the upstage wall. There’s a rather neat moment in which we see both sides of the door at once, with Lucio trying to enter the prison and the Duke (as Friar Lodowick) trying to keep him out. Sometimes it’s a Catholic confessional booth, with close-ups on a single actor’s face; Juliet is subjected to a kind of forced confession in front of the camera, for example. And sometime, it’s entirely unclear what the point is supposed to be: in Claudio’s first scene in prison, for example, he stood on stage, silently, with the camera shoved in his face and his face projected onto the back wall, whilst the Duke gave a long speech as the Friar. What?! Ivanno Jeremiah is handsome, sure, but why the close up on his face in this scene, especially since his face didn’t do all that much? The Young Vic’s main house is tiny compared to the National Theatre’s Olivier, where Edward II was staged, so there’s nothing the camera can show us—in terms of an actor’s performance—that we can’t see just by being in the room. In the end, it seemed that the camera work was simply an aesthetic choice rather than an interpretive one.

Still, the production made me think. The heavy emphasis on religion made the play’s sticky moments all the stickier. Angelo assaults Isabella with a Bible in his hands—and yet she’s about to take her vows as a nun, and we’re supposed to be on her side, so we can’t just condemn religion. There were also some beautifully performed moments: Isabella’s plea for Angelo’s life in the final scene was beautifully done, and Romola Garai portrayed the struggle of that moment with clarity and sincerity. Sarah Malin, as Escalus, gave a strong performance throughout, and was genuinely moving in her discovery that she had delivered the warrant for Claudio’s head.

What’s perhaps most troubling about this production—and, indeed, about all three big Measures this season—is that it made no attempt to resolve some of the play’s problems for a modern audience. What do we make of Mariana, for example, who has been deeply, deeply wronged by Angelo and yet still desires him as a husband—indeed, is willing to be pimped out to him at a moment’s notice? What about the games that the Duke plays towards the end, when he decides to keep Isabella ‘in ignorance’ of her brother’s preservation so that he can orchestrate his “big reveal”? What about Juliet, who “repents” for the “sin” of being in love and bearing a child? What about the play’s prostitutes, who are represented at the Young Vic by actual inanimate objects?

I’m not sure it’s possible to do Measure for Measure in the twenty-first century without falling into one of the play’s many, many traps. But I’d love to see a production that attempts to confront the play’s problems. For me, none of the three staged this year managed to do that.

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CFP: STR New Researchers’ Network Inaugural Symposium

STR New Researchers’ Network

Inaugural Symposium 

“EMERGENCE”

 

20 May 2014

The Theatres Trust

London

Call for Papers

The recently founded New Researchers’ Network of the Society for Theatre Research is pleased to announce its inaugural symposium on the theme of ‘Emergence’. As a term ‘Emergence’ is multi-dimensional, referring simultaneously to a movement away from or out of something else, an escape from confinement or the manifestation of something new, and recovery from difficult circumstances.

As new scholars emerging in the field of theatre research, we have a heightened awareness of the difficulties facing our discipline from GCSE level upwards. More broadly, the emerging theatre scholar looks on in dismay at the issues facing higher education as a whole in the UK. For newly emergent theatre scholars and also practitioners the present economic conditions may seem inhospitable. We live in an age of slow economic recovery, where funding is limited and where the arts are suffering severe cuts from all sides. In all sectors new jobs are hard to come by, new houses are unaffordable, and new business ventures struggle to emerge. 

As theatre historians we also deal with issues around ‘Emergence’. The ephemeral nature of theatre and performance, constantly emerging and dissolving, raises a range of historiographical questions. We deal with emerging evidence from archives and collections and use it to develop our own research. Emerging evidence consequently brings new debates, theories and themes to the fore. 

With these ideas in mind, we encourage applicants to interpret the theme of ‘Emergence’ broadly; topics and questions may include, but are not limited to, the following: 

 *The process of emergence for new practitioners or theatre companies, and their struggles and successes, perhaps with regard to experimental theatre and the development of new work; 

*Historical shifts in form or style, and the narratives we create around these;

*Concepts, ideas, theories, or themes which are emergent in contemporary theatre research;

*Emerging evidence of theatre and performance, and new meanings emerging from existing evidence; 

*Historiographical questions: with regard to lost or missing materials, those things which are non-emergent, or to theatre’s ephemerality;

*How does (or how should) the theatre react to or reflect on emergent world issues and political movements?

*What strategies might be employed to help theatre and performance studies, and the humanities more generally, emerge from its current crises? 

*What happens when something unexpected emerges, either from research or from practice?

*What happens to the things which are displaced when something new emerges?

 

The New Researchers’ Network Committee welcome papers of up to fifteen minutes from new scholars, postgraduates and early career researchers on any aspect of the conference theme, broadly interpreted. Abstracts of 250 words should be submitted by email to nrn@str.org.uk by 21 February 2014. Notices of acceptance will be sent by 21 March 2014.

STR New Researchers’ Network Launch

Hello, followers and casual readers of my blog!

I’m pleased to announce that today marks the launch of a project that I’ve been involved with for the past several months: the STR New Researchers’ Network! On behalf of the Committee, I invite you to read the information below and get in touch if you’re interested in joining us (or pass it on to someone who might be)!

The Society for Theatre Research is pleased to announce the launch of the New Researchers’ Network (NRN), a proactive, supportive and well-connected group of postgraduates, young/new scholars and researchers from across a variety of disciplines who are interested in theatre research, history and historiography.

We enthusiastically welcome expressions of interest from all new researchers, regardless of age or academic level, whose interests include theatre and theatre history. 

Through a series of exciting events–including theatre-related visits, lectures, and social outings–NRN will encourage members to share ideas, engage in discussion and develop a network of helpful contacts within the field of theatre research.

Upcoming events include: 

15 October- An informal social dinner prior to the STR lecture

7 November – Events at the Bristol Theatre Collection and the Bristol Old Vic, including a lecture from Catherine Hindson (University of Bristol)

12 March – Guided tour of the Guildhall Art Gallery, London

20 May – Our first Annual Symposium. More information will be available soon.

For more information and details on how to join us, visit:

www.str.org.uk/research/nrn

or email the NRN Committee at:

nrn@str.org.uk

My Problem with the Wanamaker (maybe)

I’m writing a lot lately about the complex relationships between Shakespeare and his contemporaries (a phrase I hate, actually…they could just as easily be Middleton’s or Jonson’s contemporaries, surely?). One of the problems that has come up again and again is the message implicit in major companies’ policy on producing Jonson’s or Middleton’s or Marlowe’s plays: particularly in companies that include ‘Shakespeare’ in their name, any early modern play not written by Shakespeare is considered a commercial risk. The Bard sells the tickets. Consider the RSC’s stance on the issue: Coen Heijes notes in his chapter for Performing Early Modern Drama Today that ‘Performing Shakespeare’s contemporaries was something of an unaffordable luxury for the RSC as long as it had only one theater to operate in Stratford’, whilst ‘The Swan opened up the possibility of finally exploring Shakespeare’s contemporaries in a more consistent manner’ (71, 73). According to Michael Boyd, the twenty-first century Swan provides ‘an opportunity for something to prove itself […] and grow much more effortlessly to have a life in the main house’ (qtd. in Heijes 84). The RSC sees Shakespeare’s plays, then, as being pre-screened: there is no need for a production of Hamlet to ‘prove itself’ before being allowed into the main space.

Never mind that this binary has been completely shattered by the success of  Doctor Faustus at the Globe in 2011 and The Changeling at the Young Vic in 2012 and…I could go on and on.

The problem has extended more recently to the Globe’s new indoor playing space, due to open in January 2014. Although many of Shakespeare’s late plays would have been produced in the Blackfriars, an indoor playhouse similar to the one the Globe is currently constructing, this new theatre has not been advertised as belonging to Shakespeare. Instead, it is either the ‘indoor Jacobean playhouse’ or, more officially, ‘The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse’, after the current Globe’s late founder and benefactor. While it could easily have been ‘Shakespeare’s Blackfriars’ or ‘Shakespeare’s Indoor Playhouse’, in line with the name of the parent company and the main playing space, the marketing for this new theatre has been deliberately non-Shakespearean. The inaugural season of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse will include The Duchess of Malfi, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, and The Malcontent, handily balancing a more popular non-Shakespearean early modern tragedy against two lesser-known plays, along with an Italian baroque opera and several concerts. Dominic Dromgoole’s statement on the inaugural season is diplomatic, suggesting that ‘in time, we will perform the plays of Shakespeare in there’, but expressing his delight at ‘opening this theatre with three such shining jewels’ of non-Shakespearean early modern drama.  On the surface, this seems like a positive step towards inclusion of a wider variety of plays and playwrights within the current early modern performance canon. Consider, however, the implicit coding: the Wanamaker is a smaller, and more expensive, theatre space, comprising 350 seats with prices starting at £10 and running up to £75; in contrast, the Globe offers 700 £5-tickets at each performance and caps prices at £39. This alone results in greater accessibility for plays produced in Shakespeare’s Globe as compared to the Wanamaker. While former artistic director Mark Rylance opened Shakespeare’s Globe with a season containing plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries in equal measure, the only non-Shakespearean early modern play on that stage during Dromgoole’s term so far was Doctor Faustus in 2011. The first season at the Wanamaker could therefore be read as a segregative message: the Globe is for Shakespeare, but the Wanamaker is for other playwrights; and furthermore, Shakespeare should be accessible to everyone, but his contemporaries need not be.

Future seasons at both Shakespeare’s Globe and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse will be telling in this respect. I’m the first to acknowledge that more productions of early modern plays that were not written by Shakespeare is an amazing thing–but I do think that the way they’re produced and where they’re produced can be as important as the mere fact of their production.

Heijes, Coen. ‘Shakespeare’s contemporaries at the Royal Shakespeare Company’. Performing Early Modern Drama Today. Ed. Pascale Aebischer and Kathryn Prince. Cambridge: CUP, 2012. Print. pp. 70-84.

‘The Duchess of Malfi to open Sam Wanamaker Playhouse’. BBC News: Entertainment and Arts. 22 April 2013. Web. 15 May 2013.

Research Musings: Shakespeare, and…

This one will be brief, but I made a pact with myself to write something every single day, so here goes:

In doing some preliminary online examinations of archives today (Bristol Theatre Collection, RSC/Birthplace Trust, etc.) it occurred to me to see what the Globe had available online. While I knew that the (new) Globe had never produced The Changeling, I was surprised by the other early modern plays I found in their ‘past productions’ section. In its entire existence, the Globe has produced only five early modern plays which are not ascribed to William Shakespeare: A Chaste Maid in Cheapside and The Maid’s Tragedy in 1997, A Mad World, My Masters and The Honest Whore in 1998, and Doctor Faustus in 2011. Compare this to the eight plays the Globe has produced since 2009 that fall under the category of ‘new writing’. 

One of the questions that I wanted to research as part of my PhD was the thought process behind a company’s choice to produce The Changeling. I was especially interested in companies whose mandate is explicitly to produce Shakespeare’s plays–and when you’ve called yourself ‘Shakespeare’s Globe’, one might assume that your company’s mandate has something to do with the Bard. The Globe hasn’t produced The Changeling since its resurrection, but Thomas Middleton is the second most recurring playwright in their repertoire, miles ahead of Marlowe or Beaumont and Fletcher.

Two questions are arising out of this discovery for me:

Firstly, are the Globe’s choices significant? In other words, does it matter which early modern plays outside of the Shakespeare canon the Globe chooses to produce? Is their choice to do, say, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside more significant than anyone else’s? And what, if anything, is to be made of the fact that Middleton’s two most-performed plays (The Changeling and Women Beware Women) are nowhere to be found?

Secondly, am I wrong to be framing any part of my research (and eventually my argument) in terms of Shakespeare or Shakespeare-focused companies? I had this thought today whilst trying to block out the sounds of circus performers just outside the library windows (seriously). Every single source I’ve read so far about Middleton or Middleton and Rowley or The Changeling or all of the above comes back to a comparison to Shakespeare. Shakespeare certainly isn’t routinely compared to another playwright in critical analyses of his works–or if he is, it’s done to make a specific point about a specific relationship between characters or plot lines or dramaturgical considerations; very rarely is Shakespeare broadly compared to one of his contemporaries in critical writings. Middleton, on the other hand, is always analysed in terms of Shakespeare. Am I crazy to dream of a day when Shakespeare will be analysed in terms of his contemporaries’ work just as often as his contemporaries are analysed in terms of his work? And is it really any kind of meaningful rebellion to leave Shakespeare out of my analysis of Middleton and Rowley’s play? Will that just seem negligent? Or will anyone even notice?

Witness Faustus’ manly fortitude

I had the great pleasure yesterday afternoon of seeing the final performance of the season at Shakespeare’s Globe: their version Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, directed by Matthew Dunster and starring Doctor Who‘s Arthur Darvill as Mephistopheles and Paul Hilton as Faustus. My friend Kathrin and I started queuing about two and a half hours before the 4pm curtain time–and thank goodness we did! The Globe was packed full, both in the yard and in the galleries. Thanks to our absurdly early arrival, we were lucky enough to get a space leaning on the stage extension, right in the middle of the action. Perfect!

I’d heard an awful lot of hype about this production from people whose opinions I trust (Kathrin, for example, was seeing it for the second time!). Nevertheless, I was a bit nervous that I would leave disappointed that the play hadn’t lived up to its praise. That feeling disappeared, however, as the musicians took their places and began to play. The original score for the production–written by Jules Maxwell–perfectly captures the spirit of Marlowe’s text. It is at once playful and deadly serious, urgent and languishing, contemporary to both the 21st and 16th centuries.Dominated by percussion, it drives forward while leaving one desirous of going back, if only to hear the previous section one more time–a feeling that Faustus himself articulates in his final moments.

Perhaps most impressive about this production was the seamless integration of non-textual elements. Dance/movement, music, magic and puppetry all play vital roles in the Globe production, an artistic choice that could easily have obscured the text in a cloud of flashy smoke. But, somehow, Dunster has made it work. The extra-textual elements are so well integrated and so smoothly incorporated that one feels that Marlowe must have written them into the play. The overwhelming feeling is that this is how Faustus should always be done: with huge dragon puppets and books that light on fire and four (FOUR!) trapdoors and a movement-based ensemble Martha Graham would covet.

One example of the excellence of the ensemble is the scene in which Mephistopheles and Lucifer conjure up the Seven Deadly Sins for Faustus to see. Often awkward to stage and boring to watch, this scene has the potential to totally drop the energy out of the play. Not so in Dunster’s Faustus!  As each Sin emerged from the bowels of the stage, he or she added on to the movement patterns established by the Sins previous–a bit like the old improv game “Machines.” In this way, the build and drive of the scene were created in the movement as well as in the words. Nothing stayed static; rather, each Sin built upon the last. Directors are constantly asking actors to inject energy into a scene by “topping” one another, continuously increasing the energy output on lines. Here, we see that principle applied to movement as well, and a scene which could have been a trite pageant became totally compelling.

As incredible as the ensemble work was, I can’t leave out the lead characters any longer. Darvill and Hilton were a well-oiled machine of teamwork who managed to be totally in tune with each other while still working moment-to-moment throughout the play. Darvill as Mephistopheles was particularly compelling to watch in his silences, and Hilton as Faustus navigated his character’s multitudinous transitions with grace and gravity. Their text work –and the rest of the cast’s–is nearly flawless, and the words are at once spontaneous and carefully constructed. I would love to go into detail about how all this was achieved, but I honestly don’t know. I would love to have the chance to speak with Dunster about it, actually!

Darvill’s Mephistopheles was unlike any version of the demon that I have ever seen or heard of. He played the character with such a mix of ancient bitterness, dry humour, devilish sexuality and terrifying power that I found myself believing that he could have crawled from hell to steal my soul–and that he would enjoy doing it. You really got the sense that he was an ancient being with a long memory and an appetite for souls. I apparently wasn’t the only one feeling this way, as evidenced in the subtle retreat of groundlings’ hands and elbows whenever Mephistopheles stepped near the edge of the stage. He was simultaneously hilarious and terrifying, attractive and repulsive. We delighted in watching him torture the friars at the Pope’s banquet but shuddered when he entered the stage without our noticing (which he did several times!). I would have thought that it was impossible in the Globe space to enter without anyone noticing (and, indeed, perhaps it is–most of the gallery probably saw him enter). It’s an easy trick, really: Faustus pulls our focus such that we don’t notice when then devil sneaks on until Faustus does. Simple, but effective.

‘Simple, but effective’ also characterized the humour in the production. The bits with Robin and Dick (who was apparently so named for the odd positioning and unusual size of his, well, you know)  were hilarious. Pearce Quigley as Robin gave a fantastically detailed and entertaining performance that served exactly the purpose his scenes are meant to: to echo Faustus’ situation in comic terms. The scene in which Robin and Dick are changed by a very pissed off Mephistopheles into a dog and an ape might have been terrifying if it wasn’t so funny. Indeed, a similar scene in which Faustus gives Benvolio a set of horns ends with Benvolio and his companions being dragged off by a bunch of really scary demons. And, of course, Faustus himself is eventually pulled into the hellmouth.

I could tell you about Dunster’s version of a hellmouth…or I could just tell you that I won’t be sleeping well for weeks. The concept of a hellmouth is a particularly tricky one anyway (Henslowe recorded that the Rose had one in storage, so it was apparently an actual piece of set or scenery), but I highly approve of Dunster’s interpretation, which used people and puppets rather than the special effects that might have tempted him. From my little groundling perspective, the emerging denizens of hell–many of whom resembled 21st century concepts of demons/ghosts/monsters/etc–were nothing short of, well, hellish. They were made even more so by Mephistopheles nonchalant exit. I couldn’t quite tell from where I was, but I suspect that he kept his eyes on Faustus’ the entire time, despite his triumphant swagger. Faustus certainly didn’t take his eyes off Mephistopheles.

The play doesn’t end, however, with Faustus’ final line (“Ah, Mephistopheles!”). Before the jig (which I’ll get to in a moment!), Lucifer, who throughout the play had had to be supported by a couple of pig-faced demons, suddenly walks to center stage of his own volition and proudly stands as his minions bring him these truly gigantic feathered wings. The music climaxes, the lights don’t fade, but everyone knows the play is over and bursts into applause. Again, it was a simple moment, but it was so effective.

And then there’s the jig. The jig is the kind of thing that can go really well or can totally ruin an otherwise great play. In this case it’s decidedly the former. This jig incorporated all the elements that made the play great, sacrificing neither comedy nor scares, and featured Faustus and Mephistopheles rocking out on their lutes. Yep: rocking out on their lutes (Maybe you had to be there).

All in all, this production of Faustus was, for me, an example of why it’s great to have the Globe around. The space was used to its fullest advantage and one had the sense of being taken back in time by a very 21st-century-conscious time machine. Incredibly detailed character and text work was layered with seamlessly incorporated extra-textual elements that brought the whole thing to a higher level of epic (yes, that is a scholarly term). The experience of watching has been described to me by more than one person as “theatrical orgasm.” I can’t say that I disagree.