"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Indecision at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2010

The voiceover at the beginning of Olivier’s film version of Hamlet says, “This is a play about a man who could not make up his mind.” It isn’t. But if it were, the directors of this year’s Shakespeare plays at Ashland would have far outdone Hamlet in indecisiveness. All four productions, two in other respects quite good and two rather weak, suffered from the attempt of the directors to satisfy the demands of three often contradictory principles of direction: clarity of text, political correctness, and attention-grabbing surprise.

Henry IV, Part I, directed by Penny Metropulos, was drab, not because John Tufts as Prince Hal didn’t do his best to make his character come alive, at which he succeeded rather better in the second half than the first, but because David Kelly as Falstaff was simply not up to the part (at least on the night we saw the show). His voice was wrong, the voice of a thin man in a fat suit, and his characterization was monochromatic, lacking the very wit and humor that are the essence of Falstaff. The best of the actors was Kevin Kenerly as Hotspur, but apart from Anthony Heald as Glendower, he was almost alone in effective characterization. Lady Percy was angry without cause; Mistress Quickly, also played too thin, lacked the honest gullibility that makes her attractive; Worcester was whiny instead of dangerous; the King was competent but uninteresting, only pretending to weep when he claimed to be shedding tears over his son in a speech that I cannot read aloud without weeping in fact, even though, unlike the King, I know full well that Prince Hal is not what he is accused of being in the speech.

And then there was the deaf and speechless actor, Howie Seago, competent enough in movement but with whom conversation could apparently take place only with signing. Enter political correctness. Seago was cast as Poins in I Henry IV, as Tubal in The Merchant of Venice, and as the Ghost in Hamlet. In all three roles he signed, and the actors playing opposite him either signed without speaking, or signed and spoke, or did a little of each, Seago using American Sign Language (so I was told) and the others a series of pidgin gestures mocked up for the occasion. The other actors would often speak Seago’s character’s lines, as when Hamlet uttered bits of the Ghost’s speech, and rather too often did not, so that those who did not already know the lines could only guess at what was being communicated.

All this was intended to educate the audience, ostensibly about the condition of the deaf and dumb, but in actuality about the Festival’s determination to embrace unprejudiced diversity. In fact, in addition to mystifying those who did not already know the missing lines and annoying those who did, it had the effect of distracting everybody by breaking both the rhythm and the focus of any scene. Here is a perfect example of trying to walk a middle path where there is no middle. They could have hired an actor who could speak and someone to sign the whole play for the deaf (as will happen for certain of the performances later in the season). They could have inverted the normal signing process and hired someone to speak off to the side the lines the deaf actor was not saying. Instead of these practical alternatives, they thought they could make up for the words of our greatest poet with a series of simplistic symbolic gestures, like those of a tourist asking for a drink of water in a country whose language he cannot speak. For me, apart from the annoyance of the distraction, there was exasperation at the triumph of sentimental absurdity over commitment to the integrity of the play.

The production of Hamlet, directed by Bill Rauch, the Artistic Director of the Festival these days, was riveting because Dan Donohue is such a fine and compelling actor, with depth, variety, intensity, intelligence, and humor. He certainly carried the production, supported by a very fine Polonius in Richard Elmore, a Claudius strong (as an actor) in his weakness (as a person) played by Jeffrey King, and an uncharacteristically strong and impertinent Ophelia, played very interestingly by Susannah Flood. The play was in modern dress set in an old-stone castle with modern contents (like the contemporary black toilet into which Claudius vomited in reaction to the play within the play or the battery pack whose use I will not give away). Except for Hamlet’s final T-shirt and dirty-hippy jeans, the costumes and sets did not obstruct my appreciation of the action and the speech, which, as I say, were riveting.

It was an engaging and perhaps even memorable production. Only it was indecisive. The director did not take a stand on whether Hamlet is ever actually mad (he’s not), or on whether Hamlet really loves Ophelia (he does, though he has more pressing duties to attend to first), or on whether Claudius is afraid of Laertes’ gun. Yes, there was a gun, but then there was also a fencing match at the end. It was not clear what was to be gained by casting two attractive young women as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern or by making Horatio look like a derelict hitch-hiker rather than a highly rational fellow student of Hamlet’s. (There is little to be said about the actress playing Gertrude except that she was utterly incapable of the role.)

The surprises came with the soliloquies (very effectively played as sudden interruptions in unexpected places in their scenes), with Hamlet’s turning on Ophelia (put later than usual, not very effectively), with a fourth appearance of the Ghost (a relatively harmless choice where it comes), and with some rather painful cuts in the text (the worst being Hamlet’s “So oft it chances in particular men” and the Ghost’s words describing his own murder).

There were two places place where the director was unfortunately not indecisive. The question of whether or not Ophelia wills her own death is intended by the playwright to remain a question, the point being that so long as we are enclosed in bodies, one human soul cannot certainly know what is happening within another. The lower-class grave diggers and the upper-class Laertes and Priest debate the question precisely to point out that we cannot know whether Ophelia is damned for willful suicide or saved because she could not know what she was doing, just as Hamlet could not know when Claudius was kneeling that he was not in fact repenting. But Rauch forced us onto one side of that argument, without textual evidence to support him, with the result that the gain in surprise was attended by a far greater loss in meaning. Another equally wrong decision was to make Fortinbras a conqueror of Denmark at the end instead of a humble receiver of an unexpected gift of Providence, the reward for his earlier submission and obedience to his uncle-king.

But back to indecision. The most significant flaw resulting from lack of decision was the obscuring of the two real changes that take place in Hamlet during the play. The first is Hamlet’s terrible fall into the cruelty and arrogance of attempting to cause the damnation of his uncle (Act III, Scene iii). The second is Hamlet’s redemption through humility, his achievement of the “readiness” that is “all,” his acceptance of the “divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will,” his final forgiveness of his own murderer (Act V, Scene ii). As a result of trying to have everything every way—Hamlet is and isn’t mad, is and isn’t bad, is and isn’t in love, is and isn’t indecisive, villainous, virtuous, changed, and so on—the real through-line of the drama was entirely obscured in particulars and the play never came to coherence. Rauch is not to be singled out for such a failure. For over a century such confusion has been held to be the essence of the play, and directors achieving this intellectual chaos that passes for meaning have been lionized as Shakespeare’s truest modern interpreters.

In reality, while they may have great swaths of marvelous understanding of bits of Hamlet’s mind, they simply do not understand what Shakespeare’s play is essentially about. It is not about indecision or excess intelligence or religious doubt or Oedipal guilt or existential angst. It is not even really about revenge, though revenge is the medium of the story. Hamlet is about the moral regeneration of a prince who has fallen by pride into sin and is redeemed thence by the combination of the gifts of Providence and his own corrected will. If you don’t believe me, just read all the words of the play, in order, and take them seriously.

Ah well, perhaps in the next production of Hamlet I shall find what it is I’m looking for—clear and profound meaning unpolluted by obscurantizing modern sympathies.

The Merchant of Venice presents one huge but fairly obvious difficulty. Either one directs it as Shakespeare meant it or one must turn it on its head. Shakespeare meant it to be the story of a villain who values possession, justice, the letter of the law, and revenge countered by two heroes and a heroine who value giving, mercy, the spirit of the law, and self-sacrifice. It was a stroke of brilliance on Shakespeare’s part to dramatize that opposition by making the former into a Jew (as Christians mythically believed Jews to be) and the latter into explicit Christians. The problem for our time is that Christian anti-Semitism took a path through the 19th and 20th centuries that Shakespeare could not have imagined. As a result, to do the play as Shakespeare meant it risks contributing more psychological fuel to the fires of anti-Semitism as we know it. The alternative is to make believe, against all the evidence, that Shylock is an unjustly persecuted victim and Portia, Bassanio, and Antonio are gloating, falsely superior hypocrites.

Guess what? More indecision from Bill Rauch, the director, who again tried to have it both ways. Antonio’s speech of self-sacrifice for love of Bassanio moved me to tears at one point. Shylock was very strong, believable, and legitimately villainous. He says he wants revenge (always an evil in Shakespeare, except in Hamlet, where it is explicitly divided into its good and evil spiritual parts) and gladdens us with his defeat. Portia’s attempts to get him to be merciful before she puts the full force of the rest of the law upon him were genuine. The lovely lines about the music of the spheres and about seasoning justice with mercy were not cut.

But then the well-established modernizing tradition reared its ugly head, and Act V turned away from joy and fun and harmony and celebration to textually unsupported darkness and brooding and disharmony and separation. While the director avoided making Antonio explicitly homosexual, he did make him fairly obviously jealous of Bassanio’s love for Portia. Instead of joining the party at the end, having been given “life and living,” he stalks out of the world of shared happiness. Similarly, we are given the cliché of Jessica’s misery (presumably feeling guilty at her conversion and abandonment of her father), with the addition of drunkenness, apparently an attempt to drown her sorrow. Both these interpretations go utterly counter to the text, in which the loyal and self-sacrificing Antonio is delighted with Bassanio’s match and grateful to Portia for announcing that all his ships have come in, and in which Jessica not only is redeemed by having married Lorenzo and becoming a Christian but is instrumental in the redemption of her father.

For to Shakespeare and his audience, unburdened with our knowledge of pogroms and Nazism, the compelled conversion of Shylock is a gift of grace infinite in value. We need not believe it was, but not to believe that Shakespeare believed it was is to make a chaos of the beautiful order of a great play, whose essential values all good Jews and Christians share. The production almost got there and was in other respects very well done. It could almost have been true to the playwright’s vision but for the director’s inability to resist the temptation of the clichés of politically correcting Shakespeare to fit modern sensibilities. Succumbing to them, he turned integrity of meaning to existentialist hash, a resolution meant to be happy into an ending dark and disturbing and unresolved.

To this my response is “If that’s what you want, why not write your own damn play and let Shakespeare alone!?”

Finally there was the production of Twelfth Night (directed by the San Diego Old Globe’s former Artistic Director, Darko Tresnjak), where the same lack of resistance to the confusing cliches of making Shakespeare “relevant” were fully in evidence. Passionate friendship must be sex in disguise, so Antonio makes Sebastian visibly nervous by trying to kiss his hand rather homoerotically. Audiences can’t possibly follow sallies of verbal wit, so cheap stage tricks must rob attention from them.

But such commonplace impositions might have been borne were it not for the relentless driving of the play over the top: Olivia hysterically panted and wiggled for Cesario; Malvolio, reading the letter, was observed not only by the three sneaks but by almost the entire town, and later he appeared not only in yellow stockings and cross-gartered but in yellow costume, cross-gartered from head to toe, and wearing a flamboyant wig and extravagant greasepaint-rouge. Yes the setting was the 18th Century before the French Revolution, but that director-added background, so arbitrarily applied, couldn’t come close to justifying the exaggeration. And the observation of Malvolio’s punishment again by the whole town turned the comedy nasty.

Viola, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew were well performed, though they were less than truly witty and less than truly funny, but the latter two were left high and dry by a humorless Maria, and though he later improved, Sebastian began his part in a high monotone that had the effect of boring us into lethargy in the space of ten lines. The best in show was the talented Michael Elich as Feste, who, though absurdly and somewhat distractingly dressed as a circus-clown, got across the combination of good spirits and sad commentary that make Feste the oracle of the play. The appearance of the siblings together at the end was effectively done, but the overwrought dancing ruined the joy, and I left the theater glad that the thing was over without any actor’s having been hit with a blow dart aimed at popping the hot-air balloon of theatrical hype.

Poor Shakespeare. How he would shine if only the remarkable talents of the actors, designers, musicians, and crews assembled in Ashland were pressed into his service instead of his being pressed into that of directors possessed by the inharmonious demons of salesmanship, political correctness, bright (false) ideas, and the passionate conviction that Shakespeare has something they would like to capitalize on if only the playwright’s own intentions didn’t get so infernally in their way.

P.S. I want to thank the group that joined me in Ashland for inviting me to teach and critique the plays and for making the overall shared experience delightful. I also want to recommend that anyone intending to visit Ashland book a room in the uncommonly pleasant and hospitable Hersey House Bed and Breakfast.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Press Demonizes Israel

Here is the correct way to understand the recent conflict between Israeli soldiers and the Turkish flotilla ship: