19 April 2012

'Being Shakespeare'

Shakespeare "shows us what it is to be human," writes Oxford University English don Jonathan Bate. "But what was it like being Shakespeare? That is the question," Bate tells us, "we ask in our play." Bate's talking about his Shakespearean compilation, Being Shakespeare, which was in performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from 4 through 14 April with ace Brit actor Simon Callow (Mozart in Amadeus, Faust in Goethe's Faust, Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, among many others, including also film and TV—a few of his multiple media) as our tour guide and explicator. Diana, my usual theater companion, and I caught the performance on Wednesday evening, 11 April, at the Harvey Theater in Fort Greene. While I'm not sure Bate, who’s principally a literary scholar and biographer, really answers his own question—“that’s what the plays are for,” rightly observes David Cote in Time Out New York—he and Callow, under the direction of Tom Cairns, do provide some entertaining and provocative glimpses, mostly through the words of the Bard himself, of the world in which Shakespeare (1564-1616) grew up, lived, and worked during the reigns of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and James I (1603-25).

As performative as Being Shakespeare is, I'm also not sure I'd call it a “play.” (That's not to say it's not theater—how could it not be with that material and Callow on stage looking after it?) If there's a plot, it's the arc of Shakespeare's theatrical career and times—not his life, since we know so little about that—which Callow demonstrates by using the plays and a little of the poetry as illustrations and examples. (The schoolboy William Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor becomes a self-portrait of young Will Shakespeare at the grammar school in Stratford, for instance.) Most of the text is taken from the well-known plays, though we do get to hear a piece from the seldom-performed King John and Callow even recites a speech the great poet contributed to the collaborative Sir Thomas More (a play of multiple authors written anywhere between 1591 and 1604 for which Shakespeare’s believed to have penned one scene). The central concept is based on Jacques's “All the world's a stage” passage in As You Like It and the performance proceeds on a structure provided by “The Seven Ages of Man” from that speech as Bate and Callow pass through each stage as the pearls on the string, starting with the “mewling and puking” infant which Bate modeled with a speech from King John. (Did you know, by the way, that Shakespeare coined the word ‘puke’? That’s among the little fun facts dropped throughout Being Shakespeare.) It’s a workable idea, if a little contrived, though some of the “ages” are somewhat forced into a fit with Shakespeare’s life: for the “soldier,” Bate had to invoke the recruiters that roamed the countryside since Shakespeare was one of the few Elizabethan men who never served under arms and for “justice,” Bate drew on the many legal quarrels with which the poet contended in his life. (Bate makes all this acceptable by arguing that as an actor and play doctor, the young William Shakespeare was both observant and a quick study, soaking up everything that came within his orbit. Anything’s possible, of course.)

The New York Times reviewer likened Being Shakespeare to the old TV show This Is Your Life and in the Daily News, the review called it E! True Hollywood Story about William Shakespeare. Along the way, Bate raises the question of the authorship of the plays and disputes that an ordinary grammar-school boy like William Shakespeare wouldn't be capable of creating the deep, complex, and knowing characters and situations of the greatest stage literature in the English language (if not the entire western world). Besides, Bate points out, the rivals for the ownership of the plays all have disqualifying points—such as the death of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, in 1604—before 12 of the 37-play canon were written. That's amusing, of course, and so are the connections Bate finds between the texts and what we know of Shakespeare's life details or what we can suppose based on his circumstances and the times. And in Callow's hands (and voice, to be sure), it's prodigiously entertaining, like the most illuminating illustrated lecture, but is it a play? Sorry, Professor Bate, but I don’t think so. (Some of you all may have looser definitions of “play,” but that’s your look-out.)

The performance (because that it unquestionably is) took place entirely center stage where a roundish platform had been erected, like a little wooden island on which Callow’d been shipwrecked à la Viola in Twelfth Night or Ferdinand in The Tempest. (The set was designed by director Cairns.) There were very few props—a wooden sword, a stack of books (of which Callow used just one), some chairs, a paper crown, a few trees (the Forest of Arden)—and even fewer effects, such as a fire in a trap from beneath the platform and some sounds from off stage (created by Ben and Max Ringham), though for the most part these all seemed unnecessary and perfunctory. (The few sound effects, like the blood-curdling scream that announced the death of Lady Macbeth, struck me as unfortunate because they called attention to modern technology for little reason and broke the low-tech atmosphere of Callow and the Bard’s words. They intruded.) Callow didn’t don any costumes to spur our imaginations, for instance—he was attired like a bearded, tweedy professor in a sports jacket and slacks—but like Prospero, the actor used his alchemy to conjure up visions and people that ranged from the warrior king, Henry V; to little William of Merry Wives; to Rosalind and Orlando of As You Like It; Mamillius, Hermione, and Leontes of Winter’s Tale; three of the rude mechanicals from A Midsummer Night’s Dream at once; and many more. He gave us children like William Page and Mamillius, adolescents like Romeo and Juliet (yes, both), young men like Henry V, women like Rosalind, buffoons like Jacques and Falstaff, and old men like Lear and Prospero, even the ghost of Hamlet’s father (played originally by Shakespeare himself, I learned)—all by just altering his voice the smallest amount and just taking on the psyche and feelings of the character. Man, he made it look easy! Along the way, he evoked goblins, witches, fools, and monarchs; war, legal disputes, capital punishment, and plagues. You name it, if it happened in the 16th and 17th centuries in England, Being Shakespeare gave it to us. And Callow’s imaginary Wooden O managed to contain some pretty vasty fields.

There just isn’t much I can say about Simon Callow’s performance in Being Shakespeare. He’s the whole show, of course, and he’s almost unquestionably a worthy successor of his generation (he’s 62) to legendary actors like Gielgud, Olivier, Redgrave, McKellen, and Jacobi. (Among Callow’s many accomplishments is a book entitled Being an Actor. He should know whereof he writes!) It’s hard not to sound like a booster, but the man just does this kind of work with a naturalness that bespeaks prodigious talent and years and years of experience. He’s even done quite a few monodramas in his career, including The Importance of Being Oscar and The Mystery of Charles Dickens. (Being Shakespeare dates from 2010, when Callow toured it around the U.K. as Shakespeare: The Man from Stratford. It was retitled Being Shakespeare when the Ambassador Theatre Group brought it to the West End in 2011.) If Callow did anything wrong, it was dropping his voice from time to time to a level that was inaudible—a characteristic Diana suggested was common to a lot of British actors, though I’ve never particularly noticed. It seemed to me that Callow was so sure of what he was doing and saying, so familiar with both Shakespeare’s words and this performance, that he forgot that there’s a cavern out front filled with people who aren’t. Clearly, some of the blame for this falls on Cairns for not correcting it. In all other respects, Callow made every line, every image, every nuance spring to life from the almost bare stage with only the fewest necessary words that weren’t the Bard’s. All alone—and the few times he picked up a prop, it was clear to me he didn’t really need it—Callow held the stage (and us in the palm of his hand) for an hour and 50 minutes with a single break.

As an argument that the son of a glove-maker, grammar-school pupil, and actor from a backwater could and did write the great plays, Being Shakespeare may not be definitive. Like most of the arguments on both sides of the issue, it’s founded in personal conviction: if you believe Shakespeare wrote the plays, then the proof is strong; if you think someone else wrote them or that Shakespeare simply couldn’t have had the skills and knowledge to accomplish the job, then it’s weak. If you’re a conspiracy buff, no argument’s going to persuade you anyway. What Callow’s presentation does do is show what most theater people feel about this never-ending debate: it’s entirely irrelevant. The plays exist, we say. That’s all that matters. Whatever their origin, we have these gorgeous texts—Eric Grode hyperbolized them in the New York Times as “the most influential, soul-explaining body of literature the world will ever know”—to act in and direct, to adapt and endlessly reconceive, to relish and cherish, to enjoy and learn from. When someone like Simon Callow speaks the speeches (or Vanessa Redgrave, or Ian McKellen, or Derek Jacobi, or Judi Dench, or James Earl Jones, or Orson Welles, or any really good actor), there’s no pleasure in the theater that’s greater, and no other consideration even counts. If we found out tomorrow that some hack named Joe Schmo painted the Mona Lisa or that Karl Schmegegge composed that Fifth Symphony—it wouldn’t make the art any less magnificent. That’s how theater folk feel about the Shakespeare plays. Authorship debate be damned! (When I was a little boy, I was in what passed for a fast-food restaurant in those days—a Hot Shoppe, I think—and on the table was a little card in a plastic holder with what were presented as funny things school kids had written on tests. The one I liked most, and which I still think sums up this whole argument, went this way: Shakespeare’s plays weren’t written by William Shakespeare, but by someone else with the same name. So there!)

To be honest, the authorship issue is really just an excuse for the performance. Bate has put together snippets of the plays and poems and added some connective material of his own mostly to paint a portrait of the Elizabethan middle class, life in towns like Stratford-on-Avon and the contrast with dirty and crowded London (The Theatre held twice the entire population of Stratford—another fun fact), and the world of the theater in Renaissance England. This Being Shakespeare accomplishes marvelously, especially since it handed the magical part over to Callow. Aside from having devised the performance environment, which served the material perfectly well, all Cairns had to do as a director, really, was let his actor loose on the script (which doesn’t seem to have been published).

In his Times review, Grode expressed a few reservations about Bate’s text and Cairns’s staging, but none about Callow’s acting (which is “capable of making prose sound like poetry and vice versa”). He calls the production “invigorating”—an odd choice to me but it tells you what he thinks of the presentation—and “fleet-footed.” Joe Dziemianowicz called the performance “vivid and amusing” in the Daily News, and Frank Scheck, also praising Callow’s acting skills, said in the New York Post, “It’s like watching your favorite teacher suddenly morph into Laurence Olivier.” No one I read said anything but that in the end, it’s a pleasure and a delight to experience. If it was nothing else, it was a whole lot of fun—and I’ll buy a whole bushel of that any time.

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