The World Beaumont Congress

This week I’m attending the World Shakespeare Congress, with hundreds of people from around the world. I thought it would be funny to do some (very light) trolling of the conference hashtag #WSCongress16 by tweeting about Francis Beaumont, who also died 400 years ago this year. Others have joined in – it’s fun to imagine the impossible absurdity of hundreds of Beaumontians gathering together to discuss their favourite author. Several of us have also enjoyed the idea of different factions arguing over the relative supremacy of their writers. So, in some tweets, Marstonians clash with Jonsonians, and Middletonians and Dekkerites either band together or fight each other, depending on who you listen to.

Naturally, these tweets, and others like them, are jokes. To my knowledge, nobody has caused a public disturbance by insisting that James Shirley is better than Thomas Heywood. And yet, jokes have meaning too – these tweets do suggest something about how we conceive of Renaissance dramatists. The focus on single authors – whoever, they might be – often results in the elevation of one chosen individual. Often, this elevation is itself brief. The victim in these instances is not Shakespeare, but the other writers who are left in the shadow of the newly elevated author. This ought not to mean an end to single-author studies, nor to single-author collected editions, both of which offer many great benefits, but those of us interested in the drama of the English Renaissance (and I very much include myself in this) might think of other ways of promoting our subject.

Beginning Beaumont

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A couple of weeks ago, I gave a paper at Beaumont400 entitled Beginning Beaumont. I decided I’d post it here in case anyone who missed it is interested. It’s about the challenges of writing single-author studies, the problems with determining canonical boundaries, and the difficulty of trying to advance a critical argument. I’m happy to talk about all of these things with anyone who’s interested!

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.

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

Hinamatsuri Hamlet

A couple of months ago, I saw an esteemed director – Terry Hands – direct Hamlet. Yesterday, I saw another Hamlet by another famous director: Yukio Ninagawa. This was, in fact, Ninagawa’s eighth Hamlet and his second time working with Tatsuya Fujiwara, who first played Hamlet for Ninagawa in 2003 at the age of 21. It was, though, my first time seeing a Ninagawa production and I’m delighted to have had the chance to see his work. In many respects, the show was, perhaps surprisingly, conservative in scope: Kevin Quarmby, with a hint of dissatisfaction, described it as ‘a Western production performed in Japanese’. Nonetheless, there were some really effective moments. I discussed the set of the Hands Hamlet here; since the Ninagawa set was also interesting, I’ll offer a few thoughts by way of comparison.

At the start of the production, a surtitle board informed us: “This is a poor quarter of Japan in the 19th century, when Hamlet was first introduced to Japan. Now in the 21st century, we Japanese begin our Hamlet“. This is a fascinating way to begin: ‘this’ and ‘now’, 19th and 21st century, are brought together, even as they seem to be kept apart. The core of the set suggested the ‘poor quarter’ – shafts of light broke through the dusty windows of apparently abandoned buildings – but the court was, probably appropriately, opulent: an elaborate chandelier hung from the ceiling, and the set was bathed in a red glow. Much later, the production seemed temporarily to forget itself and the sound of a helicopter was used to signify an approaching army: in the main, though, a 19th century setting was maintained.

I really enjoyed how often the set offered an echo of an earlier event. When, at the end of the production, the youthful Fortinbras (Kenshi Uchida) appeared on the upper level, it recalled the first appearance of old Hamlet’s Ghost (Mikijiro Hira). Earlier, after delivering his ‘To be or not to be’ speech – here, with Hikari Mitsushima’s Ophelia onstage throughout – Hamlet threw open the doors around the edge of the stage looking for spies: this recalled the scene in which the Ghost urges Hamlet and his companions to ‘swear’ (each time he spoke a door would open to reveal a glow of light). There was a sense, then, of Hamlet’s Ghost being present during the main course of the action and yet this was achieved without having him onstage in a way which would probably feel hackneyed (though he did appear, as expected, in the closet scene).

But the most memorable and brilliant staging choice was saved for the mousetrap. After a dumb show which Claudius did not seem to be paying attention to, a giant curtain was pulled down to reveal a magnificent set styled like a Hinamatsuri doll set. It was, by far, the most theatrical moment of the production and it reminded me (in a way that plays sometimes forget to do) of the joy that can come when you know you are watching a play.girls-day-hina-ningyo-set

Above: a tiered Hina doll set.

A Vegas Tragedy

When I spoke to RSC 18-25 summer school students about The Two Gentlemen of Verona back in August, we talked about genre and some of them were surprised that The Merchant of Venice was listed as a comedy in the First Folio. They were convinced it was a tragedy. It seems the RSC agree. As I noted in a blog post back in early September, the RSC are promoting The Merchant of Venice and Othello – two plays from their 2015 summer season – as ‘Venetian tragedies’. Another promotional blurb refers to the two plays as ‘uncompromising tragedies‘. I’m not sure what I’d call Merchant, but it doesn’t seem to be a tragedy in the same way as Othello, does it? Nonetheless, this RSC rhetoric was ringing in my head as I travelled to the Almeida to see Rupert Goold reprise his 2011 RSC Merchant of Venice. His production, set in Vegas, might also be called a tragedy, though I’m not sure if it was advertised as one. There are two elements to Goold’s ‘tragedy’. On the one hand, there is the tragedy of Shylock and on the other, of Portia. 

The characterization of Portia, assisted by Sussanah Fielding’s extraordinary performance, is by far the most striking and interesting aspect of the production. Portia, portrayed as a southern belle, is a reluctant reality TV hostess who, ingeniously, fronts a gameshow called ‘Destiny’ in which a series of suitors arrive to try and win her hand in marriage. She is, for the most part, an appealing and sympathetic character: in the reality TV scenes she displays a winning comic wittiness, in first her interactions with her husband, Bassanio, she takes off the blond wig and the high-heeled perspex shoes and reveals a surprising and affecting vulnerability, and in the trial scene, she saves Antonio with her quick-witted arguments. Moments of apparent racism – she is grateful that the Prince of Morocco chose the wrong casket and she pursues Shylock’s demise with anti-Semitic vindictiveness – do not, on balance, stop the audience from sympathizing with her final fate, which is to fall into a state of breakdown at the thought of her husband loving Antonio: she totters on a single high-heel and speaks her lines as if half in a trance. Here then, is a touching, personal, domestic tragedy. 

If Portia’s characterization is the brilliant and unexpected invention of the production, Shylock’s is disappointingly, and even, at times, offensively, conventional. Ian McDiarmid, replaced Patrick Stewart from the original RSC run, but, as in the earlier production, his Shylock became increasingly ostentatiously Jewish. When claiming his pound of flesh, ShShylock.jpegylock enters wearing a yarmulke. There were differences between the way the two productions handled the character, but, in both cases, Shylock’s deepest cruelty was associated, unfortunately and unnecessarily, with his religion. The production does strive to show the abuse meted out to Shylock – he leaves the stage on his hands and knees having being spat at and having had his yarmulke taken from his head, all while Gratiano films the incident on his phone – but the production seems far more interested in Portia, than Shylock and the
ugliness of that scene becomes obscured by the final revelation of Portia’s unhappiness. The new RSC 
Merchant will almost certainly not match the brilliant Portia of Goold/Fielding’s creation, but it is hoped they do a better job with their Shylock.