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Globe On Screen presents The Merchant of Venice (2016)

I went to see Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice recently, as part of the Globe On Screen series (similar to NT Live, a live recording of a stage play in London).

merchant-of-venice

I don’t think it’s terribly arguable that this is Shakespeare’s most anti-Semitic play: it centers around Shylock, a Jewish moneylender who agrees to make a loan with “a pound of flesh” as the collateral. He then insists on taking his pound of flesh, even when the principal is offered back to him by the borrower’s friends. A court case ensues in which he is defeated and forced to surrender his wealth and convert to Christianity. This, it is implied, is a just ending. The other side of the plot involves a courtship that ends in (classic Shakespeare) a double wedding and a happily-ever-after for two playful couples. Oh, and a third couple: Shylock’s daughter elopes & converts herself to marry a Christian. Oh happy day.

It is a very fine play, with perfectly pitched wit and humor as well as a few memorable dramatic scenes, perhaps most famously Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. And it was beautifully performed, of course, by the Globe’s professional team. And yet… it’s hard to watch the nastiness that is inherent to the play itself. (There is some casual racism, in addition to the anti-Semitism, when the heiress expresses dismay at a suitor’s dark skin, and hopes for no more “of his complexion.”) As is so often the case with Shakespeare–himself a shadowy historical character, if you’ll excuse the pun–we wonder now what exactly he meant: arguments have been made that this play actually intends to draw attention to anti-Semitism so as to work against it. I think of The Taming of the Shrew, a play I read as sneakily feminist rather than the opposite. But The Merchant of Venice feels pretty hateful to me.

As my parents and I recognized, this production highlighted the religious conflict, especially through the physical performance of Shylock’s daughter Jessica, who speaks volumes with her facial expressions; and especially-especially in the final scene. Shakespeare’s text finishes with the lovers’ lighthearted, celebratory lines. But this stage production followed those lines with a painful scene in which Shylock is baptized while his daughter wails and mourns. It made me physically uncomfortable. Finishing on this note, rather than kissy-kissy, drives home the play’s more sober points.

So was Shakespeare merely using the material he knew, speaking in the slurs of his time? Was he a Jew-hater with an ax to grind? Or was he slyly hoping to point out the hypocrisies of anti-Semitism? Shylock is indeed an abused underdog: he lists the crimes committed against him, says he wishes only for fair treatment, points out that charging interest on loans is how he makes a living, and isn’t it his right? In these points he is sympathetic (in the sense that the reader/viewer naturally sympathizes with him). When Antonio defaults on the loan, his insistence on the pound of flesh is increasingly vindictive and unreasonable, especially when the principal loaned is offered to him again, then doubled. I remain unclear on how exactly the default occurs: were they just late getting the money back to him? Anyway. Shylock is less and less a likeable character as he rages on, demanding blood–although he does have a point about what the legal system owes him, and likewise, that he is only handing out the kind of treatment he’s received in the past.

If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge.

Still. Nobody likes him when he waves his knife around.

But then, upon legal defeat, the forced conversion really rankles with me. I was left unsettled by the whole business. The romance is nice, and the comic disguise-and-other-capers business between the lovers is as great as Shakespeare always is when it comes to that stuff. But I can’t sit right with the treatment of the Shylock character. How are we supposed to work with this kind of material today?

I don’t have the answer to that. I give this performance a good rating: it is a good play, well-produced. But it didn’t leave me sighing with pleasure.


Rating: 8 uncomfortable moments.

iDiOM Theater presents Hamlet

My third visit to iDiOM Theater, and I would love to be able to say it won’t be my last. It will be my last, because I’m moving away; but I have seen nothing but outstanding performances (one, two) here, and it will be a loss.

hamlet2Confession: I’m not sure I’ve seen Hamlet performed before, and I’m not sure I’ve read it, although I think I did, in high school. The story feels familiar, of course, but I could have gotten that through osmosis. Because I haven’t seen many Hamlets, I’ll defer to my parents, who have seen a number of them, including two or three in a single recent summer: they agree that this is the best Hamlet they’ve ever seen.

From the theatre’s website:

While retaining Shakespeare’s language, director Heather Dyer has abridged Shakespeare’s text to focus on Hamlet’s “struggle as a lost young man whose foundation has been completely shattered” and reducing the emphasis on the international political machinations between Denmark and Norway, giving prominence to the emotional conflict and relationships within the Hamlet family and court. (This edit also reduces the running time to more like two-and-a-half hours instead of the typical four.)

This works very well: two-and-a-half is probably long enough for most of us, and it was dynamic throughout. I’m typically more stimulated by interpersonal and emotional stories than international political ones, myself. The website also makes reference to modern set and costuming, but I have to say that these were quite invisible: both were so modest as to entirely disappear, and by that I mean that the incredibly fine acting outshone everything else. (This is a good thing.) Wonderful things can be done with set and costuming, certainly, but I really think these should be bonuses, not at all requisite to awesome theatre.

The lead is played by Matthew Kennedy, and he was spellbinding. The monologues are at the heart of this work, of course, and he pulled them off perfectly: dramatic but not overly or falsely so, and with all the facial elasticity to make it real. The acting was all-around very good. I enjoyed Ophelia (Nan Tilghman) and Polonius (Jeff Braswell) especially – Braswell’s Polonius was delightfully hilarious, taking full advantage of the script. What a play! I had forgotten (or maybe never fully appreciated) how good this play was, not that I’m surprised; Shakespeare’s genius is timeless. This has all the tragedy and the comedy.

iDiOM continues to please with a tiny, intimate theatre* and professional-level acting that is also, discernibly, community-based. A few actors fumbled a few lines. I can handle it. Hell, I may find time to go see this play a second time. That should be review enough. Congratulations again, iDiOM.


Rating: 9 facial expressions.

See the theatre’s website for details on the new space: this is the last play in the tiny, intimate one I’ve enjoyed. I’m sure new space will bring new wonders for this talented group, though.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler successfully reinterprets The Taming of the Shrew in a modern, pleasingly nuanced novel.

vinegar girl

Vinegar Girl is the third in Hogarth Shakespeare’s line of retold classics by the Bard (The Gap of Time, Shylock Is My Name). Anne Tyler’s delightful, clever novelization sets The Taming of the Shrew in present-day Baltimore, Md., holding faithfully to Shakespeare’s plot and concept but presenting far more complex characters, with absolutely charming results.

Kate is 29 and lives with her absent-minded microbiologist father, Dr. Battista, and her younger sister, pretty and air-headed Bunny. She serves as housekeeper and chaperone, not that they appreciate her efforts. She also works at a preschool, where the kids adore her but the adults have trouble with her sense of humor. Her real passion is gardening. As Vinegar Girl opens, Dr. Battista faces a problem: his gifted foreign assistant, Pyotr Cherbakov, is in the U.S. on an extraordinary-ability visa that’s about to run out. Dr. Battista feels sure he’s on the verge of a breakthrough, but he needs Pyotr to be able to stay a little longer. The reader realizes well ahead of Kate that what her father has in mind is an arranged marriage.

The prickly Kate feels she’s been taken advantage of long enough; she finds Pyotr pushy, and she isn’t looking for a husband, anyway. Kate repeatedly corrects him: she is not a “girl” but a “woman.” As she sees more of him, though, it appears that some of his awkward heavy-handedness may be related to his difficulties with the English language. And her father’s plan to satisfy the immigration authorities doesn’t mean she’d have to be married forever…

Vinegar Girl‘s modern setting and language enliven a classic tale of controversy and gender politics. The novelistic form illuminates the inner workings of Shakespeare’s characters, revealing attractive nuances. Tyler’s Kate is more soft-hearted, and a view of her inner workings exposes her insecurities. This Kate is quite sympathetic in both senses of the word: she empathizes with her eccentric father and the homesick Pyotr, and calls upon the reader’s sympathies. Pyotr is awkward and lonely, but appealingly smitten by Kate’s independent nature. Even Dr. Battista (despite his objectionable motives) and the maddening Bunny are revealed as intricate and ultimately likable characters.

Readers unfamiliar with The Taming of the Shrew will have no problem enjoying this novel, which is funny, fun-loving and uplifting. Those who know the original well will be intrigued by Tyler’s riffs: Is the new Kate less shrewish, or simply better characterized, her motives and anxieties better understood? In either case, the surprising ending, which deviates from Shakespeare’s in important ways, makes for a heartwarming conclusion to a quirky, timeless tale.


This review originally ran in the May 23, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 servings of meat mash.

National Theatre Live presents As You Like It (2016)

Back to the Pickford for a very fine production of As You Like It, a romantic comedy by Shakespeare which showcases his playfulness with gender reversals. This play introduces the line, “all the world’s a stage.”

photo credit: Mads Perch

photo credit: Mads Perch


I did not remember this one until we met Celia and Rosalind, and then I knew it. The plot, very briefly: Orlando is a frustrated younger son. Celia is the daughter of the new duke; her cousin Rosalind is the daughter of the banished duke. Thus they are both friends, and the respective daughters of rival brothers. Orlando makes a brave and foolhardy challenge, which he wins, but which puts him out of favor with several powers that be; he exchanges meaningful eye contact with Rosalind; the duke sends Rosalind away, and loyal Celia decides to go with her. Orlando and companion escape into the forest. Celia, Rosalind and their companion the court fool Touchstone likewise escape into the forest, in search of Rosalind’s father, the banished duke. Rosalind dresses up as a boy to help protect their little group. When she next encounters Orlando, then, he meets her as a boy named Ganymede. Ganymede convinces Orlando to court Rosalind with “him”self – Ganymede – as stand-in. In Shakespeare’s time these parts would all have been played by boys. So this is a boy actor playing a girl disguised as a boy pretending to be a girl. The play ends in the forest with a quadruple-wedding and a fascinating epilogue.

Shakespeare is a treasure, and this production was great fun. It begins modernized by an office setting, which I didn’t love but which was amusing in its own ways; but once we get into the forest it feels purely Shakespeare again, which is not to say dated so much as timeless. (National Theatre Live as usual gave us some expository narrative, which can get tiresome. But in this case I have to say: everyone who repeated over and over that Shakespeare is timeless and ever-relevant was perhaps not original, but absolutely correct.) The acting was great. Celia was played by Patsy Ferran, who starred so beautifully as Jim in NT Live’s Treasure Island. Celia is an interesting character, and Ferran is a joy to watch: she has a wonderfully expressive face. Rosalie Craig was outstanding as Rosalind/Ganymede, perhaps equally attractive in both roles.

But Orlando was my favorite, played by Joe Bannister who was too adorable as well as passionate, expressive, silly and dreamy. It’s a deep cast, both of great characters (Touchstone, Jacques, the Duke, Phoebe and Silvius – wonderful! – Audrey, on and on) and of fine acting. The singing Amiens was handsome and talented.

I like to study the plots of these plays before I see them. I think of that as being the right preparation for fully appreciating all the nuance. This time, I just fell down, and went in nearly blind: I had read this play before but it had been many years. But it cost me nothing. Shakespeare’s themes, emotions, passions and politics always feel fresh, and his work with language – well, he helped make English as we know it.* He coined or popularized many figures of speech we all take for granted today; and the dialog in his works, which sounds awkward to the modern ear for the first ten minutes, lapses into a very easily absorbed dialect in the next ten. He is still so funny – laugh out loud funny, which we don’t see all that often. (Mark Benton as Touchstone contributes significantly to that, too.)

A National Theatre Live review wouldn’t be complete without me mentioning, again, the cinematography. The more of these productions I see, the more I feel glad that I am sitting in a movie theatre, getting all the benefits of close-up shots and artistic angles, rather than the (considerably more expensive) single-angle view of the live audience. I’m not saying I wouldn’t attend live: I would love to. But I really appreciate the affordability as well as the high quality of this hybrid form. Oh, and set design: the transition from modern office to spooky forest is surprising, arty and intriguing, and surprisingly effective. I won’t ruin it for you.

Shakespeare and NT Live continue to make a winning combination. Don’t hesitate.


Rating: 8 necklaces.

*If you haven’t already, check out Bernard Levin’s “You Are Quoting Shakespeare” (text here; performed by Christopher Gaze here). There is also the perspective of this grumpy guy, who points out that Shakespeare was not the originator of every one of these phrases. I still think it matters to us that Shakespeare gave them to the world. For example: The Telegraph acknowledges the concept.

Branagh Theatre Live at Garrick Theatre presents The Winter’s Tale (2015)

winter's theatreBased on my love of the productions I’ve seen from National Theatre Live, I was interested to check out what the new Branagh Theatre Live is doing – especially since I read The Winter’s Tale within the last year, preparatory to reading The Gap of Time, an excellent retelling. Recall that these “theatre live” performances happen elsewhere – this one in London – and are live-taped for broadcast all over. I went with my parents to a local movie theatre for this showing.

I’m afraid the worst thing about this production came right up front: Kenneth Branagh gave a criminally long-winded lecture about the upcoming season of Branagh Theatre Live; about the plays they’ll be producing; and about this play. Bless his heart, he’s an actor, and it’s unsurprising that he loves the sound of his own voice. But his co-director Rob Ashford should have helped out by directing this speech: too much talking, Kenneth. It wasn’t just my annoyed mother and me: the audience was audibly frustrated with the intro. Those of you headed out to see later showings, feel free to go a little late.

And you should still go, because it’s a wonderful play, I think. It’s growing on me with familiarity: I’m glad I had some experience with the text, and recommend that. I found the opening dialog a little hard to follow, even with previous knowledge. Also, it starts out very dour; you have to stick around to see the mood lift a little, and it might help to have that assurance. But it settles out. I think the casting was solid, the acting quite good – Pops felt that Branagh overplayed the part of Leontes, but I thought he was fine here; Leontes is just crazy. Judi Dench was phenomenal, and challenged Branagh for the spotlight overall. The two that played the young couple, Jessie Buckley as Perdita and Tom Bateman as Florizel, were attractive, fun and powerful. I think Autolycus was a stronger character on the page than on the stage, somehow. And the Shepherd and Clown were as loveable as ever.

In conclusion, I think this was a perfectly good production of an underappreciated play. For those who love theatre, absolutely a good time. Maybe not the best introductory experience for newbies, though.


Rating: 7 ballads (looking charitably past Branagh’s opening lecture).

Maximum Shelf: The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on July 22, 2015.


gap of timeThe Hogarth Shakespeare project undertakes to reinvent the Bard’s classic works in novel form; the first installment is The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson (Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit; Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?), a “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale. In Shakespeare’s original, the kings of Sicilia and Bohemia are great friends until one accuses the other of sleeping with his wife. The jealous Leontes plots to murder his friend Polixenes, but misses his chance and instead takes out his rage on his pregnant wife, the queen Hermione. By the time his suspicions are proved false, he has lost both his son and his wife, and the baby girl Hermione gives birth to has disappeared. Leontes ordered the baby taken into the wilderness and abandoned, but the man he assigned this task died in the process, so the baby’s fate is unknown. Sixteen years later, a romance between Polixenes’s son and a beautiful, mysterious shepherd’s daughter may offer redemption and even a second chance.

The Gap of Time is set dually in modern London, just following the 2008 economic crisis, and the fictional American city of New Bohemia. Londoners Leo and Xeno were childhood friends and, for a time, lovers; as adults, despite very different values, the bohemian Xeno and the materialistic Leo have become business partners in Sicilia, a high-tech gaming company. Leo’s wife, MiMi, son, Milo, and his uber-capable assistant, Pauline, round out a highly functional, loving family of sorts, until Leo becomes obsessed with the idea that MiMi and Xeno are sleeping together. Leo reacts violently, and loses his son and wife. When he tries to ship MiMi’s baby daughter overseas to Xeno, whom he wrongly believes to be her father, the little girl goes missing.

In New Bohemia, Shep and his son, Clo, who run a piano bar, come across a carjacking too late to save its victim, after which Shep is able to pull a baby out of the nearby hospital’s BabyHatch, a high-tech receptacle for abandoned infants. He is convinced this child is a gift meant for him, to help him heal after his wife’s death, and raises the girl as his own. Her name, according to papers found with her, is Perdita. He could never conceal from her that she is adopted: Perdita is white, while Shep and Clo are black; but she grows up in a home filled with love and music, never doubting that she is wanted. As in the original, 16 years will pass before Perdita encounters a romantic interest who, though equally ignorant of their connected past, will lead to her learning about her origins.

A very brief recap of The Winter’s Tale at the beginning of the book informs the reader, so that no knowledge of the original is necessary to follow or enjoy this retelling. Indeed, The Gap of Time will please readers who have never given Shakespeare a second glance, as well as his committed fans. Winterson has fashioned the ideal remake: paying respect to the original and faithfully following many plot points, as well as the general spirit, she simultaneously builds upon it, not only making Shakespeare’s work accessible to modern minds but providing a freshly felt and relevant emotional experience.

Shakespeare’s sympathetic and intriguing plot involving several twists and changes of heart plays well with Winterson’s nuanced tone, while her characters are more multi-faceted than the originals. Leo is a deeply flawed man who nonetheless attracts the reader; Xeno is magnetic, beautiful and sensual; and MiMi is a woman of more complex feelings than the dignity Shakespeare gives Hermione. The next generation, Perdita and Zel, Xeno’s son, are appealing, with passions and interests of their own. It is Shep and Clo, though, Shakespeare’s nameless Shepherd and Clown, who get the most reworking, and to great advantage.

Most of The Gap of Time takes place in London and New Bohemia, but also visits Paris, the Seine and, of course, the bookshop Shakespeare and Company. As realistic as these settings are, it is the gaming world invented by Leo and Xeno that is most imaginative and vibrant. Leo is obsessed with the scene in Superman: The Movie where Superman zips round the world and turns back time to save Lois Lane. Their game is creative, vividly rendered and evocative of Xeno’s disappointment in what his life has become, as well as Leo’s preoccupation with the idea of time’s malleability. It is a game filled with angels of death, and it is called The Gap of Time.

As the title indicates, Winterson’s version of The Winter’s Tale plays with the concept of time even more than the original did, asking questions about what is changeable about our pasts and our futures. Leo wishes he could take back his madness and its consequences; Xeno wishes he’d handled it differently. This is a stirring tale filled with waste, simple mistakes and regrets. But as in the original, it also offers hope, young love and the possibility of new beginnings. In an unusual twist, Winterson herself steps forward in the final pages to speak in the first person about what she hopes for from this story–and then she steps back to allow her characters to finish it.


Rating: 7 feathers.

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

I am working on a Maximum Shelf for the first book of Hogarth Shakespeare: The Gap of Time, by Jeanette Winterson. In preparation, naturally, I got myself a copy of The Winter’s Tale, which Winterson retells, so that I could see the connections clearly.

This is one of Shakespeare’s later plays, variously described as a romance, a comedy, or (as Winterson tells it) a play about forgiveness. It is indeed funny at times, although also tragic and pathos-ridden: in an echo of Othello, a jealous royal husband accuses his wife and best friend of being unfaithful together, resulting in deaths and betrayals he will deeply regret. The Winter’s Tale is indeed a more forgiving version, however, as the next generation gets a chance to correct these wrongs and start fresh; in fact, depending on your interpretation, even the jealous king himself gets a second chance.

There is the requisite Shakespearean clown, a lovable character known only as Clown; there is the requisite Shakespearean rogue, who successfully appears to the same people over and over in a variety of disguises. Which leads me to another Shakespearean requisite, the suspension of disbelief, as a father disguises himself successfully from his own son who knows him well, and a lost identity is easily provable after a lapse of 16 years. It’s all in good fun, though: these are accepted devices of the stage.

And fun it is, despite the unhappy scenes along the way. I also enjoyed a strong female character who stands up to the king and does not get damned for it: another shrew, if you will, but less ambiguously represented; this one is clearly a hero. The Winter’s Tale is a pleasing blend of humor and romance in the end, and I am excited to explore Winterson’s take on it. I only wish I could see it performed now that I’ve enjoyed Shakespeare’s telling. He remains a master.


Rating: 7 bears.
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