Setting the Stage Once Again for Shakespeare, and Live Theater

This post was originally published on NY Times - Theater

Written by: Matt Wolf

With coronavirus restrictions easing in England, several venues have plans to give classic plays new life.

LONDON — Shakespeare is coming back, and I can’t be the only person who has missed him.

There are signs of renewed activity at Shakespeare’s Globe, and talk of at least one star-studded production that is, after many delays, scheduled to be performed — can you believe it? — live. This comes after a year of a pandemic that has affected in various ways what has, and hasn’t, been staged, with Shakespeare a particular casualty.

Understandably so. Amid a theatrical state of affairs dominated by Zoom and a brief return of live performances of small-scale shows in London that came to an abrupt halt in mid-December, the logistics of Shakespeare have seemed pretty daunting. How do you accommodate a writer whose capacious narratives depend on size, scope and dimension in these strange, socially distanced times? It’s far easier to return to the two-character environs of, say, “Love Letters” or “The Last Five Years,” to name just two titles that could be (and were) easily married to coronavirus rules.

A lining of sorts to this bleak cloud came in the form of theatrical archives. With playhouses less inclined to revive Shakespeare, recordings of past productions were made available, giving theater fans a new chance to see or revisit notable performances. Shakespeare’s Globe, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theater were among the venues in Britain that drew upon a sizable back catalog. The Globe reported an increase of nearly 500 percent in its video-on-demand GlobePlayer service.

What better chance was there to be reacquainted with the National’s thrilling 2018 production of “Antony and Cleopatra,” which remains among the few productions of this play in my experience with an Antony, in Ralph Fiennes, worthy of his Cleopatra, the sinuous Sophie Okonedo. The R.S.C.’s extensive archive offered up a 2015 “Othello” that, in a first for that company, cast a Black actor, Lucian Msamati, as Iago, opposite Hugh Quarshie as Othello; the result was both riveting and revelatory.

But it wasn’t until the start of this year that theatermakers appeared to find a way to present Shakespeare afresh, even if the same few titles seemed to be under consideration. (My visions of numerous anxious Hamlets subjecting their best “To be or not to be” to the vagaries of YouTube went unrealized.)

Sam Tutty, who won an Olivier Award for the West End production of “Dear Evan Hansen,” widened his range in a newly conceived “Romeo and Juliet” that was streamed online in February. In accordance with pandemic-era requirements, the play was filmed with the actors in isolation for the most part, then joined up in the editing. For all its best intentions, this approach just couldn’t deliver the reactive thrill that comes from performers sharing a scene in real time and space.

The Royal Shakespeare Company offered the tech-intensive “Dream,” which filleted the multiple plot strands of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” into a brief if ambitious exercise in interactivity that was arresting to look at but didn’t reveal much about the oft-revived play itself. The result may have suggested new ways of looking at Shakespeare, but it didn’t help us hear him anew.

A direct contrast was the rehearsed reading this past Wednesday of the same play, directed by Jenny Caron Hall, whose father, Peter Hall, founded the Royal Shakespeare Company and was Laurence Olivier’s successor running the National Theater. As might be expected from such a lineage, Jenny Hall’s emphasis on her starry reading of the play via Zoom lay very much with the text, which looked to be in safe hands at a rehearsal I eavesdropped on the previous week: It helped, of course, to have doubling as Titania and Hippolyta the supremely accomplished Rebecca Hall, Jenny Hall’s younger half sister, who brought clarity and a welcome playfulness to some of Shakespeare’s most ravishing verse. (Rebecca Hall played Viola in her father’s final production for the National, a mortality-inflected “Twelfth Night,” in 2011.)

Looking ahead, audiences have every reason to anticipate a marriage of sumptuous visuals and textual expertise from a new screen version of “Romeo and Juliet.” For this heavily cut rendering of the play, Simon Godwin, the director of the National’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” is refashioning on film a production that had been intended for the National stage. The change means that the leads, Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley, will be joined by a heady lineup that includes Tamsin Greig, Adrian Lester, Deborah Findlay and Msamati — deft Shakespeareans all. (This “Romeo and Juliet” will air on Sky Arts in Britain and PBS in the United States.)

John Wildgoose

As for breathing the same air as the actors, even through a mask, that enticement draws nearer daily. Shakespeare’s Globe has announced a mid-May reopening, albeit with a capacity of up to only 500 in a popular auditorium that can hold as many as 1,700. The coveted standing places that allow the so-called Globe groundlings to jostle one another, and on occasion the actors, will be replaced by seats; a lack of intermissions will further limit unwanted contact. The idea is to return to normal practice, assuming restrictions ease as the summer season continues.

Not to be outdone, the West End’s most recent Lear, Ian McKellen, is opening his deliberately age-blind Hamlet in a repertory season that will include “The Cherry Orchard” and is due to start at the Theater Royal Windsor, west of London, on June 21.

That’s the very day long earmarked as the end to the social restrictions in England that have been in place to varying degrees since March 2020.

Will these productions go ahead, returning actors and spectators alike to the mutual discourse and interplay upon which the theater thrives and that no degree of technical finesse or Zoom-era sophistication can replace? As ever, time will tell. But the London theater seems poised for action, and the readiness, as Shakespeare knew so well, is all.

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