Category Archives: Stage to Page to Stage and Screen

National Theatre Live: Othello

England’s National Theatre has undertaken a project very, very dear to my heart: screening the very best NT productions, live, to cinemas worldwide! I’m very excited about this, and always feel butterflies in my stomach when I enter the Canadian movie theatre but hear the murmurs of the live audience at the National in London.

images-4Last week, I had the privilege of seeing National Theatre Live’s production of Othello, starring theatrical heavy-hitters Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear, and directed by NT Artistic Director extraordinaire, Nicholas Hytner. The result was outstanding. Before the play, emcee Emma Freud interviewed Hytner about his dramatic vision, and he explained that Shakespeare’s Venice, in which the text begins, is not culturally important in itself as much as it’s a byword for bustling commercial centre. To Hytner, the play could just as easily begin in central London, which we see in the when the play begins with Iago and Roderigo shooting the shit on a set made to look like a generic English pub. Kinnear puts on a working-class accent, which helps us understand why Iago is so frustrated when Othello chooses the young, Cassio over himself for the post of second-in-command, even though Iago is an experienced officer and Cassio has “never set a squadron in the field.”

This play revolves around the theme of truth, the tales people tell, and what listeners trust as truth. Lester appears onstage as Othello, and instantly I trusted him as leader of the Venetian military. Why did he deserve my trust? It probably had a lot to do with the fact that Lester looks a lot like another “O”, Barack Obama! He’s handsome, but his graying temples only add to his sexual allure; we can see why Desdemona is so attracted to him, despite the age difference. Hytner doesn’t overdo the Obama parallels, but when Lester sits at the head of a boardroom table with reading classes on, I can see how Othello claims the respect of his fellow statesmen.

When Desdemona’s father storms into the war council after finding out that she’s eloped with the Moor, Othello welcomes Brabantio’s rebukes with an offer to tell the “round unvarnish’d tale” of his courtship with Desdemona. By saying “unvarnish’d”, Shakespeare calls up the black/white imagery that haunts the play, and shows that these colours extend beyond questions of race to questions of morality and truth. When he says that his tale will be “unvarnish’d”, Othello means that his story will be one of truth, dignity, and propriety. He wins over the council, and Brabantio storms off, warning the Moor that “She has deceived her father, and may thee,” the first of many foreshadowings of the couple’s ultimate doom.

Othello1_610_407shar_s_c1Soon after a plan is devised for the military to head to Cyprus, Iago reveals his plan to drive Othello mad with jealousy. Critics like Samuel Taylor Coleridge believe that Iago is a villain of “motiveless malignity” – that he doesn’t have a reason to wreak emotional havoc. I disagree. His first motive is being overlooked for promotion. He tells us of the second during one of his many soliloquies (speeches made alone onstage, directed to the audience):

I hate the Moor:
And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety.

Iago has heard rumours that Othello is sleeping with his wife; he doesn’t know the rumours to be true, but decides to take his revenge without of seeking official confirmation. Tales run rampant in this play, and the fatal flaw of almost every character is that they refuse to communicate directly with their spouse. Iago plans to cure his jealousy by fighting fire with fire: just as the rumours of Othello sleeping with his wife drive Iago mad with jealousy, so Iago will drive a rift between Othello and Desdemona. Iago plans to “put the Moor / At least into a jealousy so strong / That judgment cannot cure.”

While the war with the Turks that brought the Venetians to Cyprus ends almost before it even begins, Iago intends to fill their time in Cyprus with other types of fighting. First, Iago gets the recovering alcoholic Cassio drunk, and Cassio brawls with another commander. Othello is upset and disappointed when he finds out, and Cassio sees this moment as his own personal tragedy. He cries: “O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.” Like Othello, Cassio’s sense of self comes from a sense of duty, and the respect of those around him. Without his title, Cassio is left with the shame of his indiscretion and calls himself “bestial”, driven by his animal spirits and the opposite of his best, most civilized self.

othello23april2013twoOnce Cassio is out of the Moor’s favour, Iago steals Desdemona’s handkerchief, a token of love from the Moor, and tells Othello that Desdemona betrayed him by giving the token to Cassio. The beauty of this production is that Iago’s moment of greatest triumph happens in a washroom! A washroom of all places! But it’s perfect: for once, washrooms aren’t just for places for women to gossip, but for men, once again, to shoot the shit! Othello attempts to take Iago’s words as nothing but idle washroom gossip, saying, “It is not words that shake me thus.” In moments, his words fall as flat as he does; Iago has tormented the Moor so far that falls into a seizure on the bathroom floor. Kicking his prostrate commander with his boot, Iago tells the audience:

The Moor already changes with my poison:
Dangerous conceits are, in their natures, poisons.
Which at the first are scarce found to distaste,
But with a little act upon the blood.
Burn like the mines of Sulphur.

In the past, I’ve heard critics make much of the “ocular proof” that Othello asks for to back up Iago’s claims of Desdemona’s infidelity. After seeing this production, I’m not convinced. Iago shows that Desdemona doesn’t even need to cheat on Othello: his words are all Iago needs to turn the Moor against his wife. Because everyone trusts him, calling him “Honest Iago”, Iago is able to spread his “poisonous” rumour and let it fester until Othello ultimately murders his wife.

Iago’s dark genius lies in his knowledge that Othello is just like him. As such, he knows that all Othello needs is to hear a rumour to make him unsure of his wife and unsettled in his rule as leader. If he can’t prevent his wife from cheating, if he can’t prevent his second in command from getting drunk, or sleeping in his wife, what can he do? Like Cassio who fears the “bestial” in himself, Othello tells us that without these cornerstones of his identity, “Chaos is come again.”

And chaos does, indeed, come to Cyprus. The council that had trusted Othello at the beginning of the play arrive on the scene to see Othello a fraction of the man he was: paranoid, inarticulate, and above all, violent to his wife. Hytner’s contemporary military backdrop at no point overshadows, but rather compliments this story, showing that although Shakespeare’s great tragedies tell tales on a national scale, the real tragedies are domestic.

 

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The Stratford Festival’s 2014 line-up

I’m just coming off the most tremendous post-Shakespearegasm high after learning that Kenneth Branagh will be re-imagining his Manchester International Festival production of Macbeth for the New York stage. It makes me so happy to know that great theatre is not exclusively reserved for UK consumption, and while I have every intention to book a flight to the Big Apple as soon as I have my ticket for Macbeth, I am also relieved that I’ll be able to see an as-live broadcast of the Manchester production at my local movie theatre in October, courtesy of National Theatre Live.

Festival Theatre, Stratford

Festival Theatre, Stratford

But my enthusiasm over international productions in no way suggests that, as a Canadian, I am living in some sort of cultural wasteland. Far from it! I’ve been quite vocal in my excitement over the Stratford Festival’s excellent productions, and their 2014 lineup offers a lot to look forward to!

Although my involvement in Shakespeare is mostly research-based, the fan-girl I am has been known to daydream about being the artistic director of a fabulous Shakespeare festival. Choosing a season that offers great individual plays that also work in harmony with each other reaps its own rewards, but ever since I spent an entire semester studying Hamlet during my MA, I’ve thought about how interesting it would be to present the same play, but through multiple different productions.

By showing multiple versions of a single play side-by-side, the festival would be able to show viewers that Shakespeare’s texts can take on any number of meanings. Is Hamlet really mad? Is Hamlet himself a puritanical quack, or is he totally justified in objecting his mother’s remarriage to her brother-in-law? Does Gertrude love Claudius? Was she in cahoots with him for Hamlet Sr.’s death? Was the Dane a tyrannical husband? Or perhaps one play could be set in different countries or time periods: Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado was set in the Italian countryside, sometime in the past, but not entirely early modern; the Donmar production was set in the 80s, complete with 80s soundtrack; Joss Whedon’s Much Ado shows how well the text can fit into today’s romantic drama. Rather than being force-fed one interpretation, people can see that Shakespearean dramaturgy is fluid, allows for so much breathing room, and ultimately lets people devise their own opinion of what meanings best fit these open-ended plays.

"Reason and love keep little company together nowadays"

“Reason and love keep little company together nowadays”

So why do I bring this up? Because the Stratford Festival just revealed that it’ll be showing two productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2014!  One production will be directed by Chris Abraham, who has been blazing a trail of late in Stratford and Toronto, and the second by Peter Sellars, not to be confused with the Pink Panther comedian, whose surname is spelled “Sellers.” Sellars is internationally acclaimed, most recently directing Phillip Seymor Hoffman as Iago in 2009. Whereas the Abraham production sounds like a sweeter tale of love and hijinks, the Sellars production sounds more experimental. The latter’s production will feature only four cast members playing all of the roles, and will examine “the role-playing, mercurial mood swings, delusional fantasy, deep hurt, and forgiveness and release at the heart of human relationships.” While I’m excited to get some fresh ideas about the text by comparing the two, I am especially looking forward to Sellars’s production, because it will offer much food for thought to put towards my dissertation, which focuses on the darker side of affect in Shakespeare’s comedies.

Tickets for the 2014 season go on sale to Festival Members on November 11, and to the general public on January 4, 2014. Which production(s) will you be seeing?

 

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My trip to England, Part 2 + Review: Oxford Shakespeare Company’s The Merry Wives of Windsor

Shakespeare’s comedies leave themselves wide open for exhibitions of sexuality, nowhere more so than The Merry Wives of Windsor. Legend has it that after seeing I Henry IV, Queen Elizabeth commissioned Shakespeare to write a play in which Falstaff falls in love. A creature of such loose morals, though, cannot just fall in love.

Mistress Page, Mistress Ford, and Mr. Page

Can you imagine these women as gangsters?

The result is a play in which Sir John tries to convince two married women to forsake their husbands by sleeping with him, while these wives end up leading Falstaff on in order to take revenge on their husbands, who believe that if their wives remain “merry”, they cannot possibly be chaste.

Ali G, bruv.

Ali G: Note the chav’s range of postures

While I didn’t make it to Shakespeare’s Globe or to see the Royal Shakespeare Company while I was in England, I saw two fantastic productions by local theatre companies in Cambridge and Oxford. Yesterday, I posted on Cambridge Shakespeare Festival‘s The Comedy of Errors, and below is a review of Oxford Shakespeare Company’s spectacular outdoor production of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

The most impressive part of this production was the actor doubling: the ladies playing Mistress Page and Mistress Ford (the merry wives) also played the roles of Falstaff’s henchmen, Bardolph and Pistol! The director chose to make these characters chavs: think silly English “gangstas” like Ali G. They wore low-waisted pants and never stood straight: they were constantly moving as they spoke, which makes more sense when you see it yourself, but also reminds me of hype men at rap concerts. These performances were impressive on their own, but the director amped up the comedy by having these actresses then portray respectable housewives, one dressed in Hunter Boots and a handkerchief in her hair like the Queen at Balmoral, and the other in hot pink high heels. It took me a couple of acts to realize that the same women played such different characters; such a transformation just didn’t seem possible!

The Queen as inspiration for Mistress Page

The Queen as inspiration for Mistress Page

This play, like so many Shakespearean comedies, revolves around mistaken appearances. Mr. Ford catches onto Falstaff’s lechery, and decides to disguise himself as “Mr. Brook” in order to get Falstaff to inadvertently assist in his own plot to prove that his wife is indeed unchaste. To do so, he pretends to be a Texan, but in the most parodied way possible. “Brook” walks like a bow-legged cowboy, and every time his mustache threatened to fall off, the audience awarded him with laughs.

A horn-y Falstaff in Oxford

A horn-y Falstaff in Oxford

Smaller outdoor productions also necessitate smaller casts. In order to circumvent child labour laws, for instance, this company got audience members themselves to act as the children who dress like woodland nymphs and scare Falstaff into admitting his misdeeds. As much as I’ve been known to mutter at my paperback copies of Shakespeare’s plays, there was something much more fulfilling about wearing a child’s mask and getting to hiss at Falstaff myself!

It’s that lightheartedness that I’ve been missing over the past year. Going to England, for me, is always a mix of business and pleasure. I always make time to return to England because these trips are even more important as opportunities to study on my feet. No matter how much of a bibliophile I insist to be, by returning to England and watching these productions, I’m reminded to enjoy the wider world of Shakespeare that exists off the page.

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My trip to England, Part 1 + Review: Cambridge Shakespeare Festival’s The Comedy of Errors

So I’m a year into my time as an “All but dissertation” PhD candidate. Yay! I’ve spent a year reading and writing without the threat of comprehensive exams, which has been a pleasure, and even though I can’t say that I’ve put a complete chapter “to bed”, I’m proud of my work-in-progress. The most cohesive section that I’ve written so far is a piece on The Comedy of Errors, which, in its most primitive iteration, was an exercise to put into practice the research that I compiled on early modern medical tracts earlier this year.

The humours

The humours

I submitted the idea in abstract to The Symposium on Reading and Health in Early Modern Europe at Newcastle University, and was invited to give the paper in person. I reworked and refined the paper to argue that in Shakespeare’s comedies, the playwright shows individuals as inextricably social figures and that, consequently, their humours cannot exist in a vacuum. I discussed how Shakespeare depicts humoural shifts as the result of interpersonal interaction, and that the bodies of the individual and those interacting with him/her can be close-read like texts for evidence of these shifts. The paper was more esoteric than I’d like my critical style to be, but has been excellent practice and really helpful in getting my mind around bigger ideas that I’ll be tackling throughout my dissertation.

Cambridge: It's kind of a big deal.

Cambridge: It’s kind of a big deal.

After visiting Newcastle for the first time, and trying to understand the Geordies, I headed to Cambridge to catch up with my dear friend Charlotte Ellen, who was in rehearsals to play the role of Dromio of Ephesus in The Comedy of Errors at the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival. Seeing the wonderfully lighthearted production, I found truth in Wordsworth’s words: “We murder to dissect”. Spending the past year close-reading passages to explore the darker side of affect in Shakespeare’s comedies and this one in particular, I realized that I had lost sight of the lighter, brighter tones that dominate the comedies as a whole. As an homage to the genre that I’ve been “murdering” in order to fulfil the tall order of producing an original piece of Shakespeare criticism, I’d like to offer reviews of the CSF’s Comedy of Errors, as well as another post reviewing  Oxford Shakespeare Company’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. Going against my usual darker readings of the plays, these reviews will focus on the lighter side of Shakespearean comedy in performance.

I’ve been quite outspoken in my belief that we should not subordinate Shakespeare’s text to performance, because only by reading the text can we unfold Shakespeare’s countless potential meanings at once. On paper, I can mull over a word or phrase for hours but by contrast, I can’t press pause on live performance, and a director must confine his or her production to one interpretation at a time: Does the ghost of Banquo sit at Macbeth’s table, or should the seat be left empty to imply Macbeth’s insanity? Should Perdita depict a shadow of the dead Mamillius, or should the characters remain separate, played by separate actors? Is it Lear’s fool, or strictly his endeared “fool”, Cordelia, who is hanged?). Despite my bias for Shakespeare on the page, I have to admit that what I miss out on in only reading the plays is the physical act of performance. The two productions that I watched in England have reminded me how physicality is such an invaluable tool for bringing Shakespeare’s comedies to life.

posterIn Cambridge, Charlotte brought this physicality to life in her role as Dromio. In one scene, she performed acrobatic feats off the wooden slats at the back of the stage in order to hide in plain view from Antipholus who, upon finding his servant, would most certainly beat her. The trauma scholar in me tends to focus on Dromio’s fear of beating, but the Bardolator on vacation was just happy to be part of the happy audience, laughing in appreciation of the dramatic irony. Charlotte’s fellow Dromio kept this physicality going, and the two actresses, upon their characters reuniting at the end of the play, crossed the stage by cartwheeling over each other’s bodies. Because the two actresses didn’t look alike, the audience spent the earlier part of the play suspending their disbelief that these two were twins. This cartwheel action, though, made their twinship believable, and in a flurry of burgundy costumes, the two embodied the play’s spirit of mistaken identities by blurring the line where one Dromio ended and the other began.

The production was full of such physicality, bringing the text to life. For instance, they had Luciana, singleton sister to Adriana, binge-eating cupcakes while her sister droned on about her troubles as a married woman. Luciana took such refuge in those dainty cupcakes, and the frustrated Adriana closed the scene while stamping all over them. I derived special pleasure out of this moment, having seen the tech rehearsal the day before, in which there was much discussion over what baked good would provide the most laughs when stepped on.

Codpieces: they're just better in person!

Codpieces: they’re just better in person!

The funniest use of physical comedy goes to Doctor Pinch and his codpiece. I’ll be honest, I thought Charlotte was crazy when I found her up at 7 am, sewing together primary-coloured felt; it looked more like a child’s toy than a body part! Let me tell you, though: it got laughs! The actor playing Pinch thrust his hips to the beat of a bongo, infusing the ridiculous character with sexuality, while bringing up one of the play’s central questions: who’s the crazy one? Who is the doctor, and who is the patient, or is Shakespeare teaching us to blur the line between caregivers and genuine quacks? As much as I’d love to get this production on DVD so I can relieve the moment that Pinch made his way into the audience, it’s impossible to relive that sense of pee-your-pants laughter I felt as the actor shook his money-maker!

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Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing

In early April, I had the privilege of watching an advance screening of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing at the annual conference of the Shakespeare Association of America. Needless to say, the two hundred Bardolators in the room were pretty darn excited to mouth the entire play in unison. We were even luckier because the director himself sent the film over with a special introduction for us. In it, he gave his answer to that frequently asked question, “Why Shakespeare?” His gleeful response: “Why cake?” Those words assured me that Shakespeare’s text was in good hands.

A black-and-white romantic comedy in 2013? Joss Whedon’s 2012 Much Ado About Nothing

Why do I say “text”? Isn’t the whole point of this film that it’s a play performed, and then edited for the screen? Let me explain. The earliest buzz around 2012’s Much Ado was that it was filmed in black-and-white. That’s a pretty risky decision for someone producing a play by a 400-year old writer, and in the wake of Kenneth Branagh’s colourful Hamlet and Baz Luhrmann’s tripped-out R+J. Those were both released in 1996, and we’ve only gone further down the rabbit hole of CGI and HD ever since. I’d like to suggest not the reason (because that’s Whedon’s job), but the effect of Whedon’s decision to go black-and-white, and that’s that it reduces distraction. The party that goes on in this film is but a smaller version than that in Luhrmann’s recent Gatsby, but the difference is that in this film, you can enjoy the spectacle while also being able to pay attention to the words of “Sigh no more (Hey nonny nonny)“. Instead of looking at what Beatrice is wearing, we can focus on the way she “speaks poniards and every word stabs”. As long as Benedick shaves his beard and Hero wears white on her wedding day, it’s all kosher to me.

Old-school Ken and Em in Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

The other question that people have asked me about this film is: “How does it compare to Branagh’s 1993 film?” Good question. I’m going to go right ahead and say this: Whedon’s is better. And that’s not to say that I don’t love watching “Ken and Em” fall in love, because I really, really do, but that film came out two decades ago and even though none of us have aged a single bit, the play has earned a touch-up. Branagh’s version was sentimental and set with lovely ladies in white dresses, frolicking in the Tuscan sun. The “merry war” took on a more literal resonance in Branagh’s film, as he and the Duke’s men appear in military uniforms. Whedon’s version, on the other hand, is set in his own LA mansion. Don Pedro’s men wear finely-tailored suits, and lacking the swagger or any sort of non-WASP ethnicity to pass for mobsters, they seem like movie producers with concealed weapons. That prompts me to ask what this mise-en-scene does to illuminate the play’s themes of honour, chastity, betrayal, and second chances. In this case, the question for me is as follows: where does honour stand in 2013 LA, where people party all night and go jogging at first light? My answer is that this modern revision of the play concerns itself with pride rather than honour. But Whedon complicates this notion of “rather than”: his production brings to light how honour and pride are two sides of the same coin. The currency? Vanity. This play revolves around appearances: was it Hero making love to another man on the night before her wedding? Can Beatrice and Benedick really trust each other until they read each others’ sonnets? Whedon accentuates this obsession with the visual through an omni-present camera-person, closed-circuit security cameras, and mirrors. Four hundred years old and still rife for adaptation, Shakespeare’s plays offer themselves up for this sort of filmic imagery.

"Forget not that I am an ass."

“Forget not that I am an ass.”

Alas, I cannot make any comment on how the cast fits in to the other television shows and movies of the Whedon-verse, and thus I can’t address Nathan Fillion’s performance, but people were really excited about it, and tickled by his role as Dogberry the malaproping constable. What I can say is that you don’t need to have watched Buffy and Angel in order to love this movie. This is a must-see in theaters, a must-buy when it comes out on DVD, and if you want to recreate that feeling of hot summer nights, drinking wine and flirting with the rich and handsome, pick up the soundtrack, too!

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The Hollow Crown: Henry IV part 1

One way to fight the winter blues is to accept that it’s too cold for any sane person to leave the house. Instead, we must find ways to enjoy the great indoors. My proposed solution is twofold: the first is the miracle of slow-cooked applesauce. While you don’t get the pleasure of licking the tinfoil lid off the childhood favorite, eating it warm, straight out of the slow cooker, will change your life forever. The second part of the solution is to get into your jam-jams and comfiest robe, and watch lots and lots of movies.

Jeremy Irons as Henry IV

Jeremy Irons as Henry IV

…Shakespeare movies, that is! I’ve been downloading way too many BBC adaptations and watching too few, so last night I decided to change that. I’ve been on a little Tom Hiddleston kick lately (can you blame me?), so I started with 1 Henry IV. I consider this the most unfortunately-named Shakespeare play, as its boring title doesn’t signify its compelling main character (Prince Hal), the fun he has with Shakespeare’s most comic character (Falstaff), and coming of age that Prince experiences in this play.

Michelle Dockery as Lady Percy

Michelle Dockery as Lady Percy

This production is certainly well cast. Few actors make better brooding, guilt-ridden rulers than Jeremy Irons, slightly less lecherous than in his role as Rodrigo Borgia, and Hiddleston plays a bright-eyed mischievous Prince Hal. Michelle Dockery, fresh from Downton Abbey, glows, alabaster as ever, and I really enjoyed the way Richard Eyre amped up the flirtiness between Kate and Hotspur, who is often portrayed as loving his horse more than his wife.

Prince Hal and Falstaff

Prince Hal and Falstaff, besties for life?

Simon Russell Beale, who has been treading the boards of the English stage nonstop for the past couple of years, was a good Falstaff. Good, not great, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on why. I love the character, an irresponsible, lecherous, glutton who leeches off friends both high and low, yet his true devotion to Hal peeks through. What I don’t appreciate is that Richard Eyre thought it necessary to back each of Falstaff’s sympathetic speeches with an affecting violin track. I recognize that medium of film allows for certain enhancements to the text that the stage does not, but that does not mean that Shakespeare’s words themselves need more enhancing than an actor’s clear voice. Take, for example, the following speech:

Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is honour? a word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no. Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism.

This is one of the most profound speeches in the Shakespearean canon. Honour inspires me to fight, by why should I, when I might just die? What is the value of dying in the name of honour? Will honour heal my bloody wounds? Will honour take care of my family when I’m gone? The dead man can find few, if any, practical applications for honour, so why pursue it? Falstaff asks these rhetorical questions, offering a catechism in the name of the Abbot of Unreason, all the while showing just exactly how reasonable he is. Falstaff is the one to make us question the nature of heroism: is the king heroic for forcing his army to fight and kill a hundred thousand “rebels”, who on any other day would be counted as fellow countrymen? Is Hal heroic for leaving the tavern in order to aid the King in a war that was only brought on after his father took the crown from Richard II? Falstaff may be a leech on society, but Shakespeare’s words show he is the one shrewd enough to know the finality of death, a truth that need no violins to prove it.

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Trauma gravitates towards trauma

This post was originally published in my Secret Diary of PhD Candidate column for The Shakespeare Standard.

My 2012 recreational reading/listening list looks a bit like this:

–       Jane Austen’s Persuasion (audio book read by a wonderful librivox.org volunteer)

–       The Hunger Games (the entire series, twice; first in print and then over audio book)

–       Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms (also an audio book, extra points because Mad Men’s John Slattery reads it)

–       The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Twelfth Night Soundtrack

When I look at the list, I feel the satisfaction of having enjoyed good books and music – a pretty fair way to spend the time that I was recovering from some family trauma of my own.

Today, after a trip to see a previously-recorded version of the Stratford Festival’s 2011 production[1] of Twelfth Night, I realized that now, more than ever before, I had become addicted to trauma narratives. No longer was Twelfth Night the same old story of “girl-dressed-as-boy meets boy, boy loves other girl, but other girl is obsessed with girl-dressed-as-boy.”

Suzy Jane Hunt as Viola (disguised as Cesario) in Stratford's Twelfth Night. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

I mean, think about it this way: Viola of Messaline was on one of those Costa cruise ships with her twin brother, her counterpart, when it hits a storm and the boat capsizes. They each survive, but she lives in grief thinking that Sebastian has been lost to the waves. Viola lands in Illyria, the country against which her country is at war. How convenient – landing in the country of your enemy, a woman, escorted only a moment longer by the captain, who has survived (how are we not surprised?). She begs him to hide her identity so she can live under the protection, and enjoy some of the privileges, of a great house. Smart girl.

But Viola doesn’t pick just anyone to live with – at first she wants to serve Lady Olivia. We can tell by the similarity of names that there will be some similarity of character. Here is what Viola learns about Lady Olivia:

A virtuous maid, the daughter of a count
That died some twelvemonth since, then leaving her
In the protection of his son, her brother,
Who shortly also died: for whose dear love,
They say, she hath abjured the company
And sight of men.

Viola gravitates towards the person who can empathize with her grief – they both carry the burden of fresh wounds, having lost their brothers earlier in the year. Olivia’s father has also recently died and Viola, whose voice is high enough to pass for a eunuch, had experienced the same grief when only a couple of years before, her father had “died that day when Viola from her birth / Had number’d thirteen years.” Trauma on one’s birthday – I’ve been there and don’t recommend it. Before she decides to work as a boy for Orsino, Viola shows how that she had rather be a lady-in-waiting for a woman who “like a cloistress, … will veiled walk / And water once a day her chamber round / With eye-offending brine” – tears.

I could go on. Of course Maria thinks Olivia will order to “hang the fool” – he has abandoned her in her time of grief. Why is this? In this pansexual play, is he, too, grieving over the untimely loss of Olivia’s brother? The Stratford production offers some interesting sexual tension between Olivia and Feste – hath she abjured the sight of this man? She lets Malvolio stick around, and doesn’t even wholeheartedly cast off Sir Andrew. Interesting. Feste proves Olivia the fool by catechizing her into admitting that one mustn’t grieve for those living in luxury in heaven above. Only then can her heart begin to open for a return of our usual programming, throwing herself at the girl Viola, dressed as a boy, Cesario.

Percy Shelley wrote: “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” and I’d like to think that this production offers that same message of hope.


[1] Hilarious at the Festival itself, the filmed broadcast added dimension to my understanding of Des McAnuff’s production because I got to see the characters’ facial expressions close-up. It was excellent, but the machines playing it kept cutting out. On the bright side we got passes, so I’m going to try to see it in full on the 21st, when it’s playing at 7 pm for an encore presentation.

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