Middleton and Shakespeare

I’ve been mulling over an SAA blog post for a couple weeks now, allowing everything to percolate before committing pen to paper (or…whatever the digital equivalent is). I’ve also been a little busy since returning from Atlanta rehearsing for a little show I’ve been working on. It’s taken me a while to get to this, but I’m glad that I waited. In my mulling time, Andy Kesson published some of his SAA thoughts to the Before Shakespeare blog; among other, equally important arguments, Kesson laments the centrality of Shakespeare even in settings that seem designed to sideline or transcend his influence. Sympathetic scholars–myself included–joined his lamentations on Twitter:

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Kesson’s frustrations struck a chord with many of us who think of ourselves as “early modernists” rather than “Shakespeareans.” For me, it rephrased an issue that had come up in the Middleton and Shakespeare seminar, which I audited at SAA.

Middleton and Shakespeare was an exciting and productive seminar in many ways, but there was one thing that troubled me. There seemed to be a consensus in the room that it was Shakespeare who instigated or initiated his collaborative relationship with Middleton.

When I asked the group about the evidence underpinning this claim, their answers felt unsatisfying: there is no hard evidence, but Shakespeare was the more senior playwright and a sharer in the King’s Men at the time. Plus, he wrote a greater proportion of the plays on which they collaborated. So it makes sense that he was the dominant collaborator.

But does it? Or rather: does “dominant playwright” automatically mean “initiating playwright”?

In the absence of hard evidence, allow me to speculate (or perhaps fantasize) about a different kind of collaborative relationship between Shakespeare and Middleton.

Middleton (or ThoMidd, as I affectionately call him to myself) was a freelancer and career collaborator in ways that Shakespeare never was. While it’s true that a greater proportion of Timon of Athens, for example, seems to be Shakespeare’s, I don’t think this automatically means that Shakespeare sought out Middleton for collaboration. Indeed, I think it’s far more plausible that Middleton sought out Shakespeare.

Think about it: around the time that Timon was being written, Middleton was in the midst of an intense legal battle with his wicked stepfather. He would’ve had a strong financial incentive to seek out additional work, if nothing else. But Middleton was always more of a “gig” writer than Shakespeare, who made his real money as a sharer in a company of players. In contrast, Middleton took a job as city chronologer and wrote pageants and court masques in addition to his plays and poems. He earned his living as a writer and collaborated often in all of the various forms and genres to which he contributed. He was a skilled collaborative writer. He was a freelancer for much of his career.

Any good freelancer knows that you can’t wait for the work to come to you. You have to go out and find it. Maybe it’s because I’m so very “on the market” right now, but I can easily picture Middleton–strapped for cash, looking for additional sources of income, and just beginning to make a name for himself–approaching Shakespeare with a pitch.

What impetus would Shakespeare have had to seek out a collaboration of this kind with a very junior colleague, unless he was astonishingly generous?  He was comfortably ensconced as a sharer and was effectively the house playwright for the King’s Men. He had job security in a way that Middleton did not at the time. Perhaps this created an environment in which he felt safe taking a risk on a collaboration with a talented but less experienced writer. Perhaps he was feeling stuck and needed another head in the mix to shake things up. There are, of course, a million possible reasons why a senior, comfortably employed Shakespeare might seek out the assistance of an up-and-comer like Middleton.

But based on the evidence available, isn’t it as least as likely that it was the other way around?

 

SAA Provocation: Shakespeare and Fan Theory

It’s been a while since I wrote a blog post, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been writing! I’m working on a bunch of projects as I navigate the academic job market (again). So here’s something new that I tested out on my Shakespeare Association of America (SAA) workshop group. I’m hoping to build this idea up into an article, so any feedback will be very much appreciated 🙂

It’s a provocation: adaptations of Shakespeare should be more like fan fiction.

Building on Abigail De Kosnik’s work in Rogue Archives, this provocation theorizes adaptations of Shakespeare in relation to fan fiction. Can we understand the derision that sometimes follows adaptations of Shakespeare as similar to the derision that accompanies fandom? Do Shakespeare adaptations occupy a queer and feminine space in the way that De Kosnik suggests fan fiction does? What does fan theory offer scholars of Shakespeare in adaptation and adapters of Shakespeare that other theories of adaptation do not?

Shakespearean adaptation—like fanfic—is both granted and stripped of legitimacy by virtue of its relationship to the source text or ‘canon.’ Fanfic, like some of the best adaptation, often grows out of a love-hate relationship with the canon: fans obsess even as they recognise the shortcomings of their chosen source text. As Aja Romano puts it in her analysis of Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical sensation, “Hamilton is fanfic, which means its function is partly to argue with its canon, not to simply celebrate it” (np). In Shakespeare terms, this impulse to “argue with the canon” can manifest along a spectrum from Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female casts at the Donmar Warehouse to wholly re-written or re-imagined takes on the plays such as the Hogarth Shakespeare series.

For the purposes of this short paper, I am particularly interested in De Kosnik’s assessment of fan fiction archives as queer and feminine spaces. Without claiming that these “rogue archives” “close gaps in computing access or skill between large numbers of people”, De Kosnik does argue—convincingly—that they are “archives of women’s digital culture and queer digital culture” (10-11, 12). Put another way, fan fiction archivists “pry open ‘the archive’—digital cultural memory writ large—to include their idiosyncratic repositories, and thus foist some measure of democratization onto the field of contemporary archival practice” (18). They appropriate the tools of traditional, institutional archivists (18) in order to rewrite and even transcend the canon (21). Indeed, De Kosnik argues, rogue archives are “intrinsically opposed to the very notion of canonicity” (21).

De Kosnik’s ground-breaking work obviously has a number of implications for Shakespeareans. Here, however, I aim to focus on the opposition to canonicity developed through spaces that are explicitly and emphatically identified as female and queer. De Kosnik identifies fan fiction sites and their archives as “sites in which women and girls can feel that they are participating in a tradition of female writing and reading, and can experience a sense of safety in numbers” (135). As a result, “fan archives facilitate numerous acts of representation and communication that exceed the bounds of heteronormativity” (135).

De Kosnik also identifies in female-authored fan fiction an impulse that drives many adapters of Shakespeare: she reads female fan authorship “as a response by women and girls to a media culture in which they rarely see their own narrative priorities and preferences play out, and so feel compelled to create their own versions” (142). While she is not uncritical of the links that have been made between fan culture and queer culture, De Kosnik also notes that fan spaces can function—“as explicitly queer spaces do”—“as simultaneously ‘safe spaces’ and spaces of targeting” (147). Fan archives are also queer in the sense that they shift the center of the conversation, creating spaces for a cultural archive that is not canonical or mainstream. Fanfic therefore has much to teach Shakespeareans not only in terms of a more relaxed relationship to a canon, but also in terms of providing models for taking genuine risks in terms of casting and dramaturgy. Fanfic frequently recasts the main characters, bringing in a more diverse range of voices than is typically encountered in the canons it represents. And so, I suggest, Shakespeare adaptations, particularly those commissioned by major companies, should be more like fanfic in its willingness to depart from canon and take genuine risks in terms of casting, dramaturgy, and politics.

A useful lens through which to consider this provocation is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “contemporary translations” because of the tension between the democratizing intent of the project and the potential pitfalls revealed by its parameters. Play On! proudly includes voices of women and people of color among the playwrights commissioned for the project (“Play On!”). OSF is also well known for its inclusive casting policies.

The OSF website, however, is absolutely clear that “The Play On translations will not be adaptations” because “Everything to do with setting, time period, references, etc. will remain unchanged […], pop-culture references and contemporary slang will not be appropriate, and the politics of the original plays will not be cut or ‘fixed’ in any way” (“Further Reading”). Despite this, the project claims to be following a path of “experimentation, exploration, and changing the language.” As an adapter of Shakespeare, I’m intrigued by this deliberate separation between “experimentation” and “adaptation.” Experimentation, it seems, is important, meaningful, expository work—an effort that will appropriately “celebrate Shakespeare’s masterworks.” Adaptation, on the other hand, is framed as reductive, destructive, inappropriate, or—worst of all—trendy, informed by “pop-culture references and contemporary slang.” I wonder to what extent these paraded women and writers of color will be able to represent themselves under these restrictions, especially given that American pop culture and slang are derisively coded ‘Black.’ From my point of view, the emphasis placed on fidelity to Shakespeare undermines the potentially subversive work to be done in ‘translating’ Shakespeare for twenty-first-century audiences. Rather than leaving space to “argue with its canon,” the project seems to insist that the canon is unassailable.

Without having seen any of the finished products, of course, it is hard to say what these translations will ultimately achieve. Based on the information made available to the public, however, it strikes me that the safe and inclusive spaces of De Kosnik’s fan fiction archives are not echoed in OSF’s Play On project to the extent that they ought to be. If anything, the ghosts of pale, male, and stale critics, board members, and donors (exemplified, perhaps, by Shakespeare himself) haunt the initiative, preventing it from fulfilling its genuinely revolutionary potential. These spectres raise a chilling question: what is at stake in refusing to capitulate to institutional demands that Shakespeare be kept, somehow, intact? In mitigating these risks, perhaps adaptors of Shakespeare can look to fan fiction for precedents.

 

De Kosnik, Abigail. Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom. Boston: MIT Press, 2016.

Romano, Aja. Hamilton is fanfic, and its historical critics are totally missing the point.” Vox. 4 July 2016. [accessed 3 Jan 2017].

“Play on! 36 playwrights translate Shakespeare.” Oregon Shakespeare Festival. [accessed 3 Jan 2017].

“Play On! Further Reading.” Oregon Shakespeare Festival. [accessed 3 Jan 2017].

Assault isn’t edgy, so let’s stop pretending: reviewing Filter’s Midsummer

Last night, I had the opportunity to see Filter Theatre‘s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. There’s a LOT that I liked about the production. Midsummer is one of those plays that bores me to tears and brings out my angry feminist most of the time, and Filter’s production certainly wasn’t boring. It definitely brought out my angry feminist, but more on that later.

CN for descriptions of sexual assault

Not sure how necessary this one is, but the show is still touring, so: SPOILERS AHEAD.

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First, the good stuff. Filter’s production is really, really good at fun surprises. Oberon and Puck burst through walls, ceilings, and floors; Demetrius does a pretty spot-on Michael Jackson impersonation; and an audience plant joins the show as Bottom after a stage manager comes on to let us know that the “celebrity guest” got stuck in the lift. There’s excellent sexual innuendo with the love potion flower juice stuff. There’s a food fight. There are some good physical gags around who can and can’t see Puck and Oberon when they’re “invisible”.  And, as you’d expect from Filter, there’s some great stuff with sound. It’s a fun production. Like I said, definitely not boring.

Despite all the fun, I had two pretty basic problems with the production: 

1. Sexual assault is not cool or funny or cute. 

2. The Shakespeare was bad. And not in an ’80s way.

Let’s take those one at a time.

I shouldn’t even have to put this in writing, but as I said on my Facebook page after the show last night, I’m getting really sick of otherwise cool and/or interesting productions (especially of Shakespeare) that seem to think gratuitous sexual assault makes them “edgy”. It doesn’t. It’s gross. And it definitely should not be played for laughs.

I saw this in the RSC Cymbeline in August, and I saw it again in Filter’s Midsummer last night. I can’t tell if this is a trend, or if I’m just paying better attention because of my own adaptation project with Measure for Measure. Either way, it sucks.

For those of you who don’t know Midsummer, I’ll give a bit of context, because the plot is actually important here. In the play, there are two hetero couples with a little bit of a love triangle problem. Hermia and Lysander are in love with each other, but Demetrius also wants Hermia and has her father’s permission to marry her. Athenian law dictates that Hermia must either acquiesce to her father, become a nun, or be killed. Yay. Demetrius has previously sworn his love to another woman, Helena, who is still desperately in love with him. He’s a gentleman.

Hermia and Lysander decide to run away through the woods, and disclose their plan to Helena. Helena tells Demetrius of their flight, and he pursues them into the woods. Helena follows Demetrius, despite his protestations that he does not nor he cannot love her and his threats to rape her if she keeps following him (well, his words are “do thee mischief in the wood” but he also talks about her the “rich worth of [her] virginity”, so…you do the math).

Meanwhile, Oberon, king of the fairies, has a love potion that makes you desire the first thing you see upon awaking from sleep. He’s using it to abuse his wife (we’ll come back to that!), but he sees Demetrius and Helena fighting and decides she should have that man, dammit! So Oberon instructs his servant Puck to lay the potion on the eyes of a man wearing Athenian garments. Puck finds Lysander, mistakes him for Demetrius, and administers the love juice. The first person that Lysander sees when he wakes is Helena.

And that’s where Filter’s production went very, very wrong.

Helena, tired from chasing a dickface through the woods, pauses to catch her breath. She sees Lysander lying on the ground, and rouses him, concerned the he might be dead: “If you live, good sir, awake!”

And wake he does, immediately professing his love for Helena and his newfound hatred for Hermia. Helena is at first confused and then indignant, convinced that Lysander is cruelly mocking her miserable single life. But Lysander is persistent, insisting that he does hate Hermia and love Helen.

This is one of those tricky scenes in which someone wants to get away and has a very good reason for wanting to leave, but they can’t actually vacate the stage until they’ve said all their lines. Most productions get around this problem by creating energetic chase scenes, chock-full of near-misses, leapfrogs, and furniture tossing. This is, in itself, a little problematic, right? No Means No, Lysander. But I suppose the text must be served.

Filter’s production, however, takes things one step further. This time, Helena is prevented from leaving the stage because Lysander is physically and sexually assaulting her. Check out some of the lines that Filter’s Helena delivers while Lysander’s head is between her legs and she’s trying to push him away:

Good troth, you do me wrong–good sooth, you do–

In such disdainful manner me to woo.

But fare you well. Perforce I must confess

I thought you a lord of more gentleness.

(3.1.129-33, Norton)

Helena ends up on the ground, with Lysander engaging in some non-consensual heavy petting and over-the-clothes cunnilingus before she finally gets away.

But here’s the kicker: when Helena stands up, she has a moment where it seems like she kinda enjoyed it despite herself. With a little giggle and a coy look at Lysander, she bends at the hips and puts her hands over her crotch, then looks embarrassed and runs away.

The whole thing is played for laughs. The band/Mechanicals watch and do nothing. The take-home message for the students sitting next to me, as Roberta Barker and Dave Nicol once observed, is absolutely horrific: “Although the victim may seem unwilling, in fact it’s all a bit of saucy fun”. As Barker and Nicol go on to say, “this is hardly a productive of way of interpreting ourselves to ourselves” in a time and place where “rape victims are still subjected to humiliating cross-examinations about their sexual pasts on the witness stand”.

And that’s without considering the abuse that Titania undergoes for having the audacity to stand up for herself, or the whole Theseus/Hippolyta thing, or the fact that Demetrius and Helena end up together in the end. Can we also please stop pretending like two guys kissing each other is super good comedy? K, thanks.

Oh, and let’s not forget the part, in Filter’s production, where Lysander starts a food fight by chucking buns at a defeated, prone Hermia, who has been convinced that the guy willing to flee his home with her two scenes ago now hates her guts. SO FUNNY, RIGHT?

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This leads me on to my second problem with Filter’s Midsummer: the Shakespeare bits.

Now, anyone who knows me may be surprised to find me complaining about “the Shakespeare”. I’m generally totally on board with slicing, dicing, deep-frying, digesting, and regurgitating Shakespeare as much as you darn well please. My friends and I cut the Duke from Measure for Measure for Pete’s sake. Yes, we really did. So why am I so bugged by this cut-up, no-interval, super-fun production’s treatment of Shakespeare?

To be honest, I’m having trouble putting my finger on it. But I think it’s sort of connected to the sexual assault problem. Let me explain.

What are the stereotypes about Shakespeare from people who don’t like Shakespeare, or haven’t encountered much Shakespeare? He’s boring. He’s hard to understand. Too many rhymes. So old-fashioned. Filter’s production confirmed every single one of these stereotypes. Their delivery of lines from Shakespeare was, on the whole, stilted, forced, boring, and rushed. It was like they had so much fun making the play that they forgot to do the play.

I’m going to caveat this next part by saying that I have no idea if someone who’s unfamiliar with Midsummer would’ve been able to the tell the difference between the “verbatim” Shakespeare and the paraphrased, improvised, rewritten, or newly written bits. But Midsummer has some extremely purple passages, and it’s very rhyme-y, and so it was painfully obvious to me when they were doing “the Shakespeare”. And it was also painfully obvious that they thought their material was way funnier than Shakespeare’s.

Who am I to disagree? A lot of what they were up to genuinely was way funnier than Shakespeare. Nerdy superhero Oberon and sound tech Puck watching the four-way love triangle fight from lawn chairs with snacks like they were in a cinema? GENIUS. Monty Python-style coconuts for Bottom-as-Ass walking around the stage? COMEDY GOLD. Oberon zooming around on a wheelie chair pretending to fly? WIN.

HOWEVER. That dynamic creates an impression that Filter are putting up with Shakespeare in order to have a marketable vehicle for their brand of screwball comedy. That’s absolutely fine, to an extent. But that implied relationship to Shakespeare makes it too easy to write off the stuff that isn’t funny–like that pesky sexual assault thing–as part of Shakespeare and not part of Filter.

I think that’s what I found so irritating about their failure to perform the Shakespeare bits well: it allowed them to gloss over the sticky relationship situations we find at the end of the play. Helena has Demetrius because he’s under a spell; Hermia has had her faith in Lysander seriously challenged; and Titania has basically been date-raped. None of these merit more than a passing glance in Filter’s production, because that would get in the way of the fun part where Bottom-as-Pyramus pretends to be dead for so long that everyone laughs.

My point is that it’s all well and good making Shakespeare more fun or more accessible. I’m totally and completely on board with that as a goal. But I’m not on board with productions that get away with ignoring or even endorsing the play’s really sticky politics because there was that funny bit with a spray can of whipped cream.

 

The Taming of the Shrew, Cymbeline, and the World Shakespeare Congress

I’m in decompression mode, having spent last week immersed in one of the largest gatherings of Shakespeareans and early modernists on the planet, the World Shakespeare Congress. It’s been an incredible learning experience, and a great chance to catch up on what’s happening in Shakespeare studies–not to mention an opportunity to mingle with the “greats” and catch up with friends and colleagues from around the world. I think most delegates would agree that the exorbitant cost of admission was worth it just for the phenomenal plenary talk by Adrian Lester and Ayanna Thompson.

What’s sticking in my mind this afternoon, however, is not the amazing conversations I had or the cool people I met, but the webs connecting the RSC’s current production of Cymbeline, the Globe’s Taming of the Shrew, and the issues of intersectional feminism raised for me by participation in the WSC. We must always be allowed to critique the things we love, and that’s what I’m attempting to do here.

The director of the Shakespeare Institute, Michael Dobson, welcomed us on the first morning of the Congress with a brief history of Shakespeare-commemorative events in Stratford. Highlighting the pale, male, and stale qualities of a 1964 conference committee, Dobson quipped that the current representation was much better–though they were still “working on it”. The room responded with a mix of groans, applause, and chatter. Sarah Olive tweeted:

I have to confess that “working on it” is one of my least favourite institutional euphemisms. It implies that there aren’t scores of people who don’t fit the narrow old, white dude mould ready and waiting to step in if given the opportunity–which is absurd. All it took was a look around the assembled WSC delegates to realise that the old stereotype of an academic as an older gent in elbow patches is on its way out.

And yet, out of seven advertised plenary speakers (not including the “international directors” speaking with Tom Bird on Saturday morning), there were two women and two people of colour–Ayanna Thompson, as a black woman, counts for one in each category, and she wasn’t even speaking on her own. Adrian Lester was amazing, but I would very happily have watched Professor Thompson give a full plenary lecture in her own right. Claire van Kampen, too, shared the stage with Gordon McMullan, who welcomed us to the London portion of the event, and Bill Barclay, the Globe’s director of music. Following van Kampen’s lecture, the first question was directed at Mark Rylance–who had not participated in the lecture and, to his credit, gracefully deflected attention back to van Kampen. The women and PoC involved in the final discussion between international directors of Shakespeare were framed by and filtered through the chairmanship of Tom Bird, the Globe’s Executive Producer, whose photograph was displayed on the conference website and in the printed programme.

So it seemed fitting, in many ways, to end the week with the final performance of The Taming of the Shrew at the Globe. Taming is one of those plays that make life very difficult for the people who like to argue that Shakespeare was some kind of enormously open-minded and forward-thinking proto-feminist. This particular production, directed by Caroline Byrne, tackled the play’s gender problems partly through a darkened tone, in which Petruchio is portrayed as the sort of “nice guy” that many of us will recognise: he’s friendly and funny and chatty and flirty until you try to say “no” to him, at which point he turns nasty.

The flip-flopping between the genuinely funny and the truly disturbing highlighted the complicity of the audience in Kate’s torture. More than once I found myself laughing, only to stop and realise, “wait, that isn’t funny”. When Petruchio first deployed his famous “Kiss me, Kate”–playing the following line “We’ll be married o’Sunday” as coercive–Hortensio encouraged the audience to join in a chant of “KISS! KISS! KISS!” with him, as Kate herself weighed her options. The audience’s willingness to pressure her into a kiss was genuinely unsettling, especially given that we had just witnessed a scene in which Kate made it abundantly clear that she wanted nothing to do with Petruchio.

Interestingly, the production’s figuring of Petruchio’s violent and controlling side contrasted sharply with the presentation of masculine power in the RSC’s Cymbeline, which I had a last-minute opportunity to catch on the second night of the conference (THANK YOU to the previous owner of my ticket, who was generous enough to give it away for free!).

Despite casting Cymbeline as a Queen rather than a King (and making the evil Queen an evil Duke), Melly Still’s production presented a highly sexualised, dystopian view of masculine power, including a number of gratuitous sexual assaults. It seemed to me that Byrne and the Shrew cast largely avoided the presentation of sexual and even physical violence between the two protagonists, choosing instead to represent Petruchio’s psychological abuse of Kate. This choice to abstract the physical side of abuse was, perhaps, a desire to avoid sensationalising. But the production didn’t shy away from the physical effects of Petruchio’s “reign” on Kate herself. It’s the first production I’ve seen that keeps Kate in her increasingly tattered and dirtied wedding clothes throughout the second half, for example, taking Petruchio’s dismissal of the Tailor’s efforts to its logical extreme.

By contrast, Still’s Cymbeline never resisted an opportunity to present sexual violence to the audience. While the Iachimo scene was appropriately disturbing, sexual assault became a shorthand for “danger” in the production as a whole, a lazy way to over-indicate which characters were in control and which were not. Cymbeline’s trousers were removed when she was captured by the Romans, as if it wasn’t already clear that she was in a vulnerable and dangerous situation. Watching from the safe distance of the upper gallery of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, I wondered how complicit those sitting in the front rows, mere inches away from Cloten’s assault of Pisania, for example, felt during the performance.

Complicity is the note I’d like to end on here, and the thread linking Shrew, Cymbeline, and the WSC in my mind this afternoon. As much as I am convinced that it is important to be physically present–to be “numbered in the song” as Kate sings in the Globe’s Shrew–to what extent are we complicit in perpetuating, for example, all-male, all-white panels, unbalanced plenary line-ups, and the comfortable notion that “working on it” is enough by our mere attendance? Am I numbered among those chanting “KISS! KISS! KISS!” despite (or because of) my silence, guilty by association? What but our continued, insistent presence can change the demographics of the decision makers? What more should I be doing?

Hamilton & hybridity: a response to Adam Gopnik

I’m taking a break from early modern stuff today to write about a more recent bit of theatre history: the Broadway musical Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s second venture on the Great White Way and the most popular American musical of the year, if not the century. Pitched (reductively) as a “hip-hop musical”, it retells the story of Alexander Hamilton–“The ten-dollar founding father without a father” who “Got a lot farther working a lot harder, / By being a lot smarter”, as the show’s opening number tells us–through an astonishingly complex amalgamation of musical styles, including but certainly not limited to rap and hip-hop. Miranda, as both composer and star, is undoubtedly one of the greatest musical minds of his generation.

Obviously, I’m a fan. But the discourse around Hamilton‘s rise to fame is about much more than musical prowess and progress on Broadway–it’s about the way Americans tell our own histories, and critical responses to the show demonstrate just how fraught that question is. “You have no control / Who lives, who dies, who tells your story”, George Washington tells Hamilton before the climactic Battle of Yorktown. In Hamilton, the story of these white historical figures is being told by a deliberately mixed-race cast: Miranda himself plays Alexander Hamilton; Daveed Diggs, a hip-hop artist by trade, plays Thomas Jefferson; Phillipa Soo plays Hamilton’s wife Eliza Schuyler; and Reneé Elise Goldsberry plays her sister, Angelica. Musically, thematically, and aesthetically, it’s a kind of fantasy portrayal of the “melting pot” we’re constantly told America is. It’s curious and disturbing, then, that Adam Gopnik’s recent review for the New Yorker ties Hamilton expressly to the white musical history of America in classic Broadway shows such as South Pacific, My Fair Lady, and Camelot. 

Respectfully, Mr. Gopnik, I disagree. In musical theatre terms, Hamilton‘s ancestors are not the American book musicals, but operas and operettas, as Hilton Als writes for the same publication (I think it’s worth noticing here that the New Yorker‘s only black critic to have reviewed the show, did so when the show was Off Broadway, whilst its transition to the Great White Way has been covered by its share of white critics who are able to do so without so much as accidentally mentioning the issue of race’). Hamilton is also more like pre-Showboat Broadway, when shows drew explicitly on popular music, than it is like Camelot. But Gopnik’s article also ignores more recent musical theatre history: Miranda’s work clearly builds on the legacy of Rent (whose closing production also starred Goldsberry), Spring Awakening (which also featured Jonathan Groff in the original cast), and In the Heights (also written by and starring Miranda). In some ways, the rap/recitative and leitmotif that drive its plot draw on the tradition of through-composed megamusicals and “rock operas” like Les Miserables and Jesus Christ Superstar, too. Perhaps more importantly, however, Hamilton’s musical influences and its sampling of popular forms run the gamut from jazz and blues to BritPop and Destiny’s Child–there’s a reason Audra McDonald’s recent cover of “Say No to This” as Billie Holiday works so well. Miranda is not the first to attempt this kind of hybridity, but he’s perhaps the first to apply it directly to American Revolutionary history. So trying to tie this achievement down to an all-white, elite, Broadway legacy headlined by South Pacific and My Fair Lady just won’t cut it.

Gopnik’s not the only one to misunderstand this: much of the white press on Hamilton has tried to circumvent or ignore the complex intersections of race, storytelling and American/Broadway history that the show plays with, particularly in the context of Barack Obama’s presidency and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. See, for example, this interview with Chris Hayes of NBC, who manages to talk about Hamilton with Miranda for seven and a half minutes without really talking about the casting, although he euphemistically tells us that Miranda is “re-making our vision of the founding fathers”. And even though Gopnik is quite right to point out some of the contradictions in the casting of Hamilton as an unambiguous hero, his subsequent assertion that the mixed-raced casting of the musical doesn’t change its story is absurd. “Washington and Jefferson and Hamilton and the rest of the Founding Fathers (and Mothers) are all played by black, Latino, or Asian-American performers using an African-American musical idiom—and within seconds this seems neither jarring nor even particularly daring: it just makes sense”, he tells us: “Who else and in what other range? “Hamilton” [sic] is about the mutability of identity in American history. The players change, the story stays the same.”

But changing the players always changes the story; that’s why Miranda’s mixed-race casting of white historical figures is so important and so revolutionary. It matters, fundamentally, that the person making this version of American history is the son of Puerto Rican immigrants whose father learned English whilst completing a postdoc. It matters, as Als points out, that, had Miranda’s family stayed in Puerto Rico, they would have been “American citizens [who] cannot vote”. It matters that Hamilton became one of the biggest hits in Broadway history in the same year that millions of people across America were calling for justice for Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, and too many other black men killed by police officers. It matters, equally, that Hamilton became one of the biggest hits in Broadway history in the same year that millions of others across America denounced #BlackLivesMatter activists as violent thugs or irrelevant shit-disturbers. It matters that Hamilton is the most popular musical of the decade while Beyoncé (but not Bruno Mars) is getting attacked for her Superbowl halftime show. It matters that Hamilton came to Broadway during a presidential election cycle. It matters who gets to tell those stories because when the players change, so does the story. And that, actually, is the fundamental innovation of Hamilton: it shifts the power of narrative in America’s founding mythology.

 

 

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.

Taking risks with Shakespeare: lessons from the Cumberhamlet

Although I haven’t yet seen the Cumberhamlet, it’s obviously been on my radar. Reviews and opinions from friends, professional critics, respected academics, and everyone in between flood my Twitter and Facebook feeds. Theatre reviewing etiquette has been breached, with reviews hitting front pages during previews, well before the official opening night. It’s the fastest-selling ticket in British theatre history. People who would not normally go to the theatre have flocked to see Benedict Cumberbatch have a go at the most famous Prince of Denmark. The combined star-power of Shakespeare’s tragedy and the darling of popular media is irresistible. It’s being broadcast to cinemas across the country. For many, this production will be their only viewing of Hamlet in a theatre; for them, this production will be Hamlet–its imagery, its voices, its style will form their mental picture of what the play is. 

It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that the critical establishment has taken the opportunity to highlight all the ways in which Lyndsey Turner’s production is not the Hamlet it’s supposed to be.

First, of course, there was the problem of ‘to be or not to be’, which were the first words of the play in early previews. Kate Maltby kicked off the backlash against the shifted speech by calling the change ‘indefensible’. Michael Billington tells us that it ‘mercifully no longer opens the play’, but that there’s still too much ‘textual fiddling’ overall. They’re replaced ‘hoar’ with ‘pale’ in one of Gertrude’s lines–shock! horror! Quentin Letts complains that ‘Ms Turner has still fiddled around with the opening and the order of other scenes’–but, then, he does work for the Daily Mail.

Critics are kinder to Cumberbatch himself than they are to Turner’s production, with most agreeing that he is, in Domenic Cavendish’s words, ‘a blazing, five-star Hamlet in a middling, three-star show’. The production as a whole is considered ‘half-baked’, full of ‘ostentatious act[s] of liberty-taking’ (Cavendish again). According to Andrzej Lukowski, Cumberbatch ‘doesn’t seem to have come up with much of a reading of the doomed Dane. Or if he has, it’s drowned out by Turner’s enormous production’ (how dare she, like, actually direct the play?!).

Turner is hardly the first (nor, I hope, will she be the last) to treat a Shakespeare text playfully. Matthew Warchus’s 1998 Hamlet at the RSC, which also famously moved the opening scenes around, attracted similar kinds of critical attacks, for example. What’s worrying to me is not just that opinions of Turner’s and Warchus’s ‘textual fiddling’ are scarily similar despite the distance of seventeen years–it’s that this kind of critique seems designed to quash theatrical risk-taking, especially with “classics” such as Shakespeare.

If we are to carry on producing Shakespeare and other classic, canonical writers (as I suspect we are), we have to get better at encouraging directors’ and actors’ risks. One of the best ways to innovate with these kinds of texts, to my mind, is to do precisely the kind of ‘textual fiddling’ that the critics so abhor, and to get past the persistent desire for the reproduction of an authoritative or “authentic” text.