SAA 2016

The Shakespeare Association of America conference is usually a useful but punishing experience: useful to meet people, to share ideas, and to be exposed to new ways of thinking; punishing because physically and mentally exhausting. It can be a frustrating and isolating experience: it is very easy to feel alone in a crowd. This year the experience was different for me because, for the first time, I co-organized a seminar. This was my fourth SAA and I’ve had some frustrating experiences in previous conferences – just trying to get a word in can be a challenge when you are a PhD student in a big seminar alongside numerous loquacious high-profile academics. Running a seminar is different. It was scarier than I thought it’d be – I didn’t feel nervous until the morning when I suddenly realized we were in charge of the bloody thing – but it was also a great experience. It’s much easier to meet people (at some seminars I’ve been in I’ve left without properly speaking to everyone) and you get a great perspective on your chosen subject. We were lucky to receive excellent papers that challenged us to think about our topic – reprints, revivals and other renewals of Renaissance plays – in new and surprising ways. We were grateful, as early career academics, to have the opportunity to run a seminar and it’s great to see the SAA supporting early career academics in other ways: Next Gen Plen was again a success and the conference offered contingent faculty grants for the first time. But I can’t help thinking that what was, for me, a profitable conference experience (this time) may have been a frustration or disappointment to someone else. We probably don’t admit to these difficulties as much as we might do. Certainly, I haven’t always done this in the past. I feel a lot more confident and secure in conferences now, but it’s still scary. Twitter has been helpful in giving me more confidence to talk to people (even if it was a shame not to have internet access during the conference itself) but it’s not a substitute for the actual conference experience.

Anyway, there have been some useful reflections written on SAA 2016 already. Steve Mentz has written about communities; Joseph Wallace has written about specialisms. I think it’s useful to look at Shakespeare (and Shakespeare conferences) with a critical eye, so I appreciate these responses. My own response would be somewhat narrower, partly because, unlike previous years, I didn’t put myself under pressure to go to everything. SAA can be a great intellectual experience but it often feels like you’re being beaten over the head with all of the stuff you don’t know. I stuck more to my own subject this year which was better for my well-being, if not my critical development! I was pleasantly surprised to find so many panels and seminars placing Shakespeare in direct dialogue with other Renaissance authors. This wasn’t a major surprise – SAA has always been open to that kind of study – but given the peculiar force Shakespeare is exerting in 2016 it was still pleasing to see that Shakespeare was not utterly eclipsing everything else (giant Shakespeare head aside). For example, in the excellent ‘Race and… seminar Shakespeare sat next to The Spanish Gypsy, The Masque of Blackness, The Jew of Malta, The Fair Maid of the West, The Revenger’s Tragedy, The White Devil, The Battle of Alcazar and The English Moor. It was fascinating to see these plays being brought into a variety of conversations with such an important topic. Elsewhere, the wonderful ‘Before Shakespeare: The Drama of the 1580s‘ seminar kept Shakespeare in the picture without making him central. Robert Wilson, John Lyly, Thomas Lodge, George Peele, Christopher Marlowe, Henry Porter, and ‘Anon’ all featured. And in our seminar topics ranged from the Elizabethan period to the Restoration (including the understudied period between 1642 and 1660) and discussion centred a range of authors and stationers. The final day also featured an excellent panel on Theatre History which opened up valuable discussions about attribution studies and lost plays.

Later this year the International Shakespeare Association’s World Shakespeare Congress will open in Stratford-upon-Avon before transferring to London. Later still, the British Shakespeare Association Conference will open in Hull. Shakespeare will be celebrated (and why not?) but I’ll be interested to see how not-Shakespearean Renaissance drama features. SAA struck a useful balance, I think, but it remains to be seen how these UK-based conferences handle the topic.

The face that launched a thousand tweets. Oh, wait, that was the other guy

Doll Drama

This year, Measure for Measure has been a popular play. After the excellent Cheek by Jowl Russian language Measure came what sounded like a more straightforwardly comic production at the Globe in the summer (I didn’t see it, so will refrain from further comment) and now The Young Vic have offered their own dark take on what is, surely, one of Shakespeare’s best plays. I suppose this recent glut means the play will have to take a back seat for a little while though presumably the RSC will tackle it at some point in Greg Doran’s tenure. I’ll wait for that, though not with too much hope.

Hope, however, was  in abundance for the Young Vic Measure directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins. And hope, on this occasion, was rewarded. When it comes to theatre, I’m fairly easily pleased yet somehow usually disappointed. I only really need one moment of brilliance to enjoy and I’ll be pretty happy. This production served up several. It ended, wonderfully, with the eerily awkward comedy of a tableau. The Duke (Zubin Varla) forced each of the cast members into an unlikely and unhappy partnership. This obviously included Angelo (Paul Ready) and Mariana (Cath Whitefield), as well as the Duke and Isabella (Romala Garai), but, more unexpectedly, it meant Escalus (here, played as a woman by Sarah Malin) and Barnadine (Matthew Wynn) were paired and the unhappiness of the situation cast a shadow even over the the one consensual coupling: Claudio (Ivanno Jeremiah) and Juliet (Natalie Simpson). It’s a brilliant way to end: funny, but also disturbing, a balance that so many modern productions of early modern plays manage to get wrong. There were lots of other grace notes. For example, in a perfect piece of modernising, Mariana’s doleful tune was transmuted into the Alanis Morisette’s breakup song ‘You Oughta Know’. But my favourite moments involved the use of a large quantity of inflatable sex dolls (that’s a sentence I hadn’t ever imagined having to write).


At the beginning of the production, the stage was filled with inflatable dolls and Escalus and Angelo each unpicked their way through the mass of breasts, open mouths, and erect penises, looking deeply uncomfortable in doing so. Soon after, the novice nun Isabella prayed amidst the plastic bodies creating one of the production’s many scenes of incongruity (throughout the production, the heavy use of video projections was coupled with images from medieval and Renaissance art). But the sex dolls were obviously not just sex dolls. Writing in The Guardian Michael Billington commented on the logic of the design’s excesses:

The plastic sex dolls evoke the hedonistic decay into which Duke Vincentio’s Vienna has fallen. With the installation of his stiff-backed deputy, Angelo, the dolls are swept behind close doors. Thanks to video cameras, however, they are never wholly out of sight and we are constantly reminded of the secret world of vice and torture that exists behind the puritanical facade of Angelo’s city.

But Billington captures little of the extraordinary effect created by these dolls. It’s true that they might, broadly, evoke hedonistic decay but they are not just dolls. They start off as dolls, for sure, but in the sequence to which Billington alludes (the incredible moment when all of the dolls are removed from the stage) they are not merely dolls but bodies. In an interpolated scene, Angelo entered declaiming scripture. An alarm sounded and the big doors at the back of the stage opened. The cast members pushed, shoved, threw, and kicked the sex dolls through the doors – some of these bodies floated up into the air before falling again. It had a kind of graceful beauty, to be sure, but it also struck me as extremely violent and seemed evocative not only of the physical violence to which sex workers are subjected but also the social violence (invisible to many) served down by authority to the detriment of the most vulnerable members of society. Angelo’s restrictive legislation was here seen to have its immediate effect. By suggesting that the dolls evoked the seedy world of ‘vice and torture’ that Angelo tried to hide, Billington, I think, misses the point. It’s not that Angelo wants to hide this corruption – he wants to get rid of it, after all – but that he wants to hide only his own corruption. The biggest problem, then is not with the underworld, but rather with the way in which that world is handled by authority. The dolls are pushed and kicked around not only by the bawd Pompey (Tom Edden) but by everyone in the play and never more terrifyingly than by those who wield authority. At the end of the production, the sex dolls are still visible but by this point they have been shaped into a formation that calls to mind the terrible atrocities of the last hundred years. They are sex dolls, of course, and not bodies, but they speak of a powerful violence that lives, not only in the play’s world, but in our own.

King Hal

In the preliminary interviews to the live screening of the RSC Henry V (somewhat underwhelmingly advertised as ‘THE Shakespearean event of the autumn‘) Alex Hassell (Henry V, and, previously, Hal in the RSC’s 1 and 2 Henry IV) tried to wrestle with what he saw as the moral ambiguities of the title character. For Hassell this was not necessarily a straightforwardly nationalist play. It didn’t stop the ever-reliable Dominic Cavendish from writing a nauseating review in praise of Hassell’s Henry – for Cavendish the RSC production was (and this is a real quote) ‘just what the nation ordered’. Cavendish has previous form when it comes to willful misreadings of RSC productions in the service of his own political agenda – his review of The Shoemaker’s Holiday failed to mention that the production ended with the horror of a young boy’s conscription and preferred instead to emphasise what he saw as the fairy tale charm of the play. So, is Cavendish willfully misreading, or does Gregory Doran’s production, Hassell’s performance, (and, indeed, the play itself) give him cause to pen this nationalist celebration?Henry V

At this point I should probably reveal my own sense of the play. I don’t want to make excuses for Shakespeare or to sanitize the play by making it fit my own distaste for British/English nationalism, but I do think that Henry is a heavily ironized character and it really is not very hard to find examples which trouble the idea that he is an English hero. For example, when Henry disguises as a common soldier to assess the mood of the camp he is outwitted by the passionate and perceptive Michael Williams, who rejects the premise of the war and laments the devastation it causes, not only to bodies, but also, to souls. Henry’s soliloquy delivered shortly after meeting Williams demonstrates that he has missed the point. He laments his own responsibility and ignores his own privilege (which he dismisses as ‘ceremony’) and then labels the intelligent soldiers as ‘vacant’ wretches who sleep soundly in their beds. But we’ve just seen, of course, that what Henry says here is not true: Williams is not vacant and will not sleep soundly. So, when Henry meets Williams later, it has the potential to be really rather disturbing: when Henry reveals himself he humiliates and terrifies Williams and when he pardons Williams it is an act of ceremony which further enshrines his kingly power at the cost of allowing him to learn from the experiences of his subjects. This can be played in a variety of ways, of course, and in choosing their particular route, the RSC (to my mind) went a long way towards emblematizing the kind of production we were watching. Unfortunately, their staging choice served to exonerate Henry by allowing him to demonstrate his laddish chumminess. Again and again I kept thinking about Hassell’s Henry as a Hal-like figure and, to a certain extent, I felt invited to consider this to be part of his charm, appeal, and effectiveness.

So how was this staged? Simon Yadoo’s Williams initially reacted to the news that the man he had pledged to fight was, in fact, the king of England, with surprise, but, rather than stressing the danger of the situation – Williams has backed himself into a corner and now has to acknowledge he cannot keep his word without an enormous risk to his life – the RSC allowed Williams to keep his oath: he finished what appeared to be a deferential speech with an unexpected punch that caught Henry (and the audience) off guard. It’s a comic scene and the King laughs it off by giving Williams a reward, thereby demonstrating his essentially genial nature. But what’s the cost here? Henry somehow ends up coming out of this with the audience onside (or further onside than they might have been before) and all of the danger of the situation dissipated. There are times when Henry is presented as more malicious or cruel, of course, but the Williams scene and other moments like it work to make him a more palatable figure: by the end he is a somewhat chumpish would-be romancer. I thought Hassell brought out some of the childishness of Henry – some of his decision making smacks of playground revenge tactics: you hit me and I will hit you back – but while this might, at times, disturb, it also played into the hands of Cavendish and co. for whom an affable young man, rising into political and military prominence can be seen as what ‘the nation ordered’.

Who’s there?

Question: Who’s there?
Answer: Benedict Cumberbatch. Everywhere.
Yes, last night was the live screening of the Benedict CumberHamlet, a show which has been sold out for what seems like several summers. The production opened to a flurry of controversy (or did it? It was reviewed in preview after all). The early decision to open the play with the cast performing ‘to be or not to be’ was criticised at the time and while I don’t object to experimentation, it sounds like it was unlikely to work (even if it was fun when, in the specially prepared live screening preview, Cumberbatch visited a school in which the children performed those famous words in a similar fashion).

Even still, the production made several changes to the opening scenes and I found myself somewhat disappointed by them. Cumberbatch/Hamlet spoke the opening lines: the focus was on him from the outset when the conventional staging keeps him offstage for some time. On balance, I think I prefer the conventional approach – the play is Hamlety enough as it is without the instant dose of Hamlet. I tend to think, if you’re going to make considerable cuts to the opening why not follow that through and cut the whole play more extensively? I’m happy to see shorter Hamlets but this was a fairly long production that cut some of the best bits. I found myself groaning through the opening and this wasn’t helped by what seemed to me the disappointing decision to stage all of the soliloquies (including ‘To be or not to be’) as if they were a retreat into interiority. For each soliloquy, the cast remained on stage but faded into the background and moved in super slow motion. Hamlet was free to deliver his lines apparently safe from the threat of eavesdroppers. ‘To be or not to be’ was staged in such a way as to completely remove the possibility of his speech being overheard. I accept that, in speaking to us, the sanctity of this interiority was called into question, but I felt as if the play’s insistent questioning of these ostensibly ‘private’ speeches is a good deal more complicated than the production was prepared to acknowledge. I sometimes enjoyed the beauty of the staging and the freeze frames were often evocative, but overall, I was bit underwhelmed.

That said, it did perk up a bit, rather suddenly. After what seemed to me a fairly dreary opening, Cumberbatch sprang into life. I noticed something similar with the last English language Hamlet I saw, although Cumberbatch was better. Based on the reviews I was half expecting the whole thing to be pretty terrible but, you know what, despite the hype, I thought it was pretty good.

RSC Summer Season

A few months ago, I wrote a disgruntled blog post about the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse winter 2015/16 season. My problem was that the Globe abandoned their commitment towards the wider corpus of Renaissance drama to stage a succession of Shakespeare shows. I was particularly irritated by the suggestion that the entire enterprise of staging non-Shakespearean Renaissance plays was merely an ‘experiment’. It’s not the end of the world, of course, but a bit of a shame, eRSCven given the 2016 anniversary. It was with a degree of trepidation, then, that I awaited news of the RSC’s 2016 Summer Season. Would they go all out Shakespeare too? Thankfully, the answer is no. In amongst the standard Shakespeare staples – their A Midsummer Night’s Dream sounds interesting; Hamlet is being done, again – is a Cymbeline (which may be contrasted with the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker production later this year) and, best of all, some more Marlowe and Jonson. Even if these shows are in the Swan, rather than the main house, it’s great to see them played alongside Shakespeare, rather than in some weird vacuum.

Maria Aberg, who directed a fine King John and what was, for my money, a hit and miss The White Devil at the Swan in 2012 and 2014, will direct Doctor Faustus. Polly Findlay, whose 2014 Arden of Faversham I rather liked, directs Jonson’s The Alchemist. The RSC’s Volpone was excellent, so if they can do anything like that again, I’ll be happy. In amidst the Shakespeare celebrations we shouldn’t forget the 400th anniversary of the Ben Jonson Folio and I hope there’ll be more Jonson to see in the next year. The burning question, though, is surely: will anyone be celebrating the 400th anniversary of Francis Beaumont’s death? After the Globe’s excellent Knight of the Burning Pestle will someone dare having a go at some more Beaumont?