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).


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.

National Theatre Live at the Pickford presents Les Liaisons Dangereuses (2016)


I am so glad this is a text format and I don’t have to try to pronounce this title for you.

NT Live always does an amazing job, and Les Liaisons Dangereuses is no exception. The play by Christopher Hampton is based on the 1782 epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, and I came in with little prior knowledge of either play or novel: I did see a certain 1999 Hollywood movie based on the same plot, which I’m a little embarrassed to admit, but that’s the background I had coming in. And actually, the feel of the thing was recognizable, although the sumptuous costuming of NT Live’s period-appropriate version was a decided improvement.

In brief: this is a very sexual and sexy play. I find the Pickford‘s plot summary too perfect not to simply repost here.

Former lovers, the Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont now compete in games of seduction and revenge. Merteuil incites Valmont to corrupt the innocent Cecile de Volanges before her wedding night but Valmont has targeted the peerlessly virtuous and beautiful Madame de Tourvel. While these merciless aristocrats toy with others’ hearts and reputations, their own may prove more fragile than they supposed.

It is a story of sex, power, gender politics, revenge and spite. I have said before that the NT Live screenings sometimes come with too much exposition – that is, speechifying before the play and during intermission – but in this case I enjoyed and benefited from the background. Playwright Hampton makes some interesting points about the original being a feminist novel; I saw this interpretation in his strong female star, who may not be always likeable but certainly knows her own mind, and works with great awareness against the confines of her society.

This is more than a simple soap opera of who slept with whom and who was angry about it. Although I think it works, and titillates, on that level, I found it rather more political than shallow. And visually gorgeous, and emotive, and affecting; and as always with NT Live, the acting was outstanding and the cinematography perfect. Sorry, I’m raving again. But again, catch some NT Live if you can!

Rating: 8 letters.

iDiOM Theater presents The Love of the Nightingale

nightingaleAnother perfectly lovely, intimate performance from iDiOM. (See an earlier one here.)

The Love of the Nightingale is a play by Timberlake Wertenbaker based on the Greek myth of Philomele. The iDiOM describes it as “a tale of sisterhood, betrayal, and revenge, in a poetic, beautiful, funny and modern retelling.” I’m not so sure about the modern part – it seems the play was written so that it could have been staged with or without modern dressings, but this version was fairly stripped down. There were a few moments of commentary on modern times by comparison to the tragedies of Philomele’s story. Essentially, it felt very Greek to me: deeply tragic, gory, inexorability revolving around a fatal flaw; willing and inevitable murdering of immediate family members. Wonderful stuff, if you’re in the mindset for a really dark storyline.

The acting was as wonderful as ever. These are extraordinary players, and I feel lucky to see them. Not that there weren’t a few faults: when the chorus speaks in unison (particularly the male chorus), they are not quite in unison, so their words are garbled; and the set’s steps and platforms, constructed of wood, squeaked and creaked loudly enough to obscure some of the actors’ speech. (Also, we found use of a ventriloquist-style dummy for the young child an odd choice. I think it would have been less distracting to just have an adult actor take the part.) As I’ve said before, though, these small imperfections just remind me that we are part of a small community watching incredibly talented but basically amateur performers do what they love.

Rating: 7 questions.

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.

Mount Baker Theatre presents: Flashdance the Musical

I went with my parents to a local theatre to see this musical version of Flashdance. First I shall confess: I have never seen the movie. But now it’s on the list.

flashdanceThe musical started on Broadway, but I’m a little vague on its route to us. This local performance employed a New York-based company, but not the same folks who performed on Broadway, and the Broadway-associated website states the last show took place almost a year ago. It was impassioned and fun, but not perfect: the sound was surprisingly poor for a theatre that specializes in musical performances, tinny and muffled. The voice casting was probably imperfect as well; several actors were much better in some parts of their range than others. Overall, the sound quality was poor enough to effect our understanding of the songs & story, which is really unfortunate.

But when the singers hit their areas of confidence and belted it out, they were generally stellar. The dancing was great fun. (Pops reports that he remembers more street-style dancing from the movie, where he found more burlesque here, for what that’s worth.) It’s a cute story. Musical theatre necessarily involves some cheesiness, so the audience is required to make some allowances there, but I’m on board. And I really like the premise, that our protagonist is a welder by day and exotic dancer by night: I love the juxtaposition and the acknowledgment that shit, we’re all complicated beings. This one is based on a true story, you know.

Not perfect, but good enough for me. Movie next, please.

Rating: 7 high kicks.

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).
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