MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Hughes, Shakespeare, and the Goddess


There’s no shortage of “upstart crows” when it comes to Shakespeare studies: scholar-mavericks who challenge the self-appointed gatekeepers in academia. And it’s no surprise that (after discounting the obvious crackpots) many of these turn out to offer little more than half-baked theories that crumble under closer scrutiny.

But one of the most significant unconventional readings of Shakespeare of recent years belongs to a class of its own: the poet Ted Hughes’ Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. Is this a truly paradigm-shifting vision or an absurdly reductive idea that sacrifices too much to in pursuit of a “hedgehog” theory?

Ann Skea offers a sympathetic portrayal of the scope of Hughs’ great project:

In his long introduction, Ted outlined the religious and psychological conflict caused by the Calvinist Puritan suppression of Old Catholicism in which the goddess of earlier pagan beliefs still flourished. The religious aspect of this conflict was particularly relevant during Shakespeare’s lifetime, but the universal psychological aspect of the suppression of natural human energies, especially sexual and imaginative energies, is clear to see.

It was in Ted’s writing on Shakespeare that what he called “the tragic equation” was explicated: the love goddess, enraged by the puritanical suppression of sexual energies, becomes the ‘Queen of Hell’ – the demonised boar who destroys the hero.


Much of Ted’s discussion of Shakespeare’s ‘great theme’ can be traced back to [Robert] Graves’ arguments in “The White Goddess,” but the psychological aspect of Ted’s “tragic equation” shows just how much he was also influenced by the work of Carl Jung.


Ted was well aware that Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being was a difficult book: difficult to write and, for some readers, difficult to read… Ted’s own knot of obsessions meant he was uniquely qualified to recognise an underlying theme that others had never noticed…Most importantly, he was a poet bringing his poetic sensibilities to the work of another poet; and in the whole body of Shakespeare’s work he recognised a progressive exploration of many of his own beliefs, difficulties and questions.

Filed under: poetry, Shakespeare, theater

A Shakespeare Forgery or Rediscovery? The Latest Take on Double Falsehood


The controversy over the play known as Double Falsehood; or, The Distrest Lovers — a 1727 drama by Lewis Theobald (1688–1744) — is back in the news. Theobald famously claimed he’d adapted his play from a now-lost Shakespeare manuscript, and scholars have been at it ever since. It turns out that Double Falsehood likely represents double authorship.

Based on an episode from Cervantes’ Don Quixote — who died less than two weeks before Shakespeare (if you adjust the traditional date of the Bard’s death to the Gregorian calendar) — Double Falsehood is also one of the candidates that has been speculatively identified with the long-lost play known as The History of Cardenio. The latter play is believed to have been a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, a playwright for the King’s Men company. Cardenio was performed by the company in 1613 but was subsequently lost.

The controversy over Double Falsehood is therefore hardly new; nor is the more or less definitive claim of Shakespearean involvement. But this latest crack at identifying Falsehood‘s true authorship uses the tools of modern psychology and linguistic statistics.

Most of the news reports refer to the authors of the study by the catchall term “researchers at the University of Texas in Austin.” It’s worth nothing that said researchers — Ryan L. Boyd and James W. Pennebaker — are actually professors of psychology, not literary critics or Elizabethan scholars. Their research has been published in the journal Psychological Science.

From the Abstract:

Specifically, we created a psychological signature from each author’s language and statistically compared the features of each signature with those of “Double Falsehood”’s signature. Multiple analytic approaches converged in suggesting that “Double Falsehood”’s psychological style and content architecture predominantly resemble those of Shakespeare, showing some similarity with Fletcher’s signature and only traces of Theobald’s.

Closer inspection revealed that Shakespeare’s influence is most apparent early in the play, whereas Fletcher’s is most apparent in later acts. “Double Falsehood” has a psychological signature consistent with that expected to be present in the long-lost play “The History of Cardenio,” cowritten by Shakespeare and Fletcher.

Soon after Theobald made his claim in the 18th century, Alexander Pope declared it must be a forgery, and there will surely be skeptics who remain unpersuaded by this latest analysis. Still, the method of a kind of creating a kind textual psychological profile to identify Shakespeare’s “Weltanschauung” is pretty intriguing.

Now if only they could devise a study to put to rest the silly claims of the Shakespeare truthers once and for all…

Filed under: Shakespeare

Sigmund Shakespeare

Steven Pinker has published a thought-provoking essay titled “Shakespeare: One of the First and Greatest Psychologists”.

Pinker focuses specifically on the scene in which Isabella pleads to the puritanical interim authority Angelo to spare her brother Claudio’s life in Measure for Measure (which is currently playing in a Seattle Shakespeare production directed by Desdemona Chiang):

Isabella compares the administration of an idealized divine justice with the all-too-fallible human justice. She reminds us that humans are capable of meting out patently cruel and pointless punishment judgments with complete confidence they are doing the right thing.

Aside from Shakespeare’s ceaselessly relevant “universality,” Pinker points to how uncannily spot-on he is with regard to the findings of contemporary psychologists:

Worse still, we humans are the last to notice our own limited nature. In seven words, Shakespeare sums up a good portion of the findings of modern psychology: “most ignorant of what he’s most assured.”

A recurring discovery of social and cognitive psychology is that human beings are absurdly overconfident in their own knowledge, wisdom, and rectitude. Everyone thinks that he or she is in the right, and that the people they disagree with are stupid, stubborn, and ignorant.

People reliably overestimate their own knowledge, and misjudge their own accuracy at making predictions. A common theme of both Shakespeare and modern social psychology is the human species’ overconfidence.

On the Bard’s use of his psychological insight to intensify the drama:

These two perspectives — that of the perpetrator or scientist, and that of the victim or moralist — color every analysis of human behavior. And here, we see Shakespeare suddenly flipping from one to the other for dramatic effect.

Filed under: directors, Shakespeare

Another Wagner Comedy

No, Die Meistersinger is not Wagner’s only comic opera. Ahead of Seattle Shakespeare Company’s new production of Measure for Measure, here’s a taste of the German’s operatic take on this “problem comedy.”

Reviewing a production of The Ban on Love at Glimmerglass Festival back in 2008, the critic Philip Kennicott remarked that this youthful outing “is 99 percent a study in everything the mature Wagner is not.”

Kennicott goes on to note:

Wagner turned away from so much of the spirited energy he let loose in “Liebesverbot.” When it premiered in 1836, he stood, briefly, for free love and revolution and the creative destruction of the collective libido. By the end of his life, in 1883, he viewed sexuality as a kind of sickness, and his final work, “Parsifal,” celebrated a monkish cult of men devoted to celibacy and arcane religious rituals.


“Liebesverbot” is fascinating — not because Wagner discarded its musical and ethical worldview, but because he would spend his life thrashing its remnants out of himself.

Filed under: Shakespeare, Wagner

Dazed, Confused, and Lovestruck: Twelfth Night at Seattle Shakespeare

Jay Myers as Orsino and Allie Pratt as Viola. Photo by John Ulman.

Jay Myers as Orsino and Allie Pratt as Viola. Photo by John Ulman.

“Why, this is very midsummer madness!” exclaims Countess Olivia in the middle of Twelfth Night — just as the whirligigs of the plot against Malvolio start cranking away. Olivia’s normally uptight steward has been set up to believe his boss is suddenly overcome with uncontrollable passion for him and is putting on a display that makes for one of the most outrageously funny scenes in all Shakespeare.

But Malvolio’s (David Quicksall) crazed behavior is easily matched by the antics indulged in by Olivia herself (Elinor Gunn) in Seattle Shakespeare Company’s deliriously unconventional new production, which opened this past weekend and which plays through Nov. 16 at the Center Theatre at Seattle Center. Visiting director Jon Kretzu approaches Twelfth Night as if it were a vastly elaborated version of the nocturnal spell cast in the Bard’s decade-earlier A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Just about everyone seems to wander about in a woozy haze of confused, mismatched desire.

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Filed under: directors, review, Shakespeare

All Joy of the Worm

Cleopatra Bitten by the Asp, Guido Reni

Cleopatra Bitten by the Asp, Guido Reni

“I wish you all joy of the worm,” says the Clown bearing a fatal asp just before the final climax of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. What a strange scene – a clown, with all his Shakespearean-fool punnery, malapropisms, and word games.

And there’s no equivalent of the Bard’s source, Plutarch. What to make of the tone, the odd insistence on the image of the “worm”?

Richard F. Whalen deciphers evidence for the theory that Shakespeare was really the Earl of Oxford: “‘worm’ in French is ‘ver’ — and, of course, the Earl of Oxford’s family name was de Vere.”

Others perceive Masonic symbolism.

In her biography of a few years ago, Stacy Shiff reminds us of Cleopatra’s own identification with an asp:

Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than as seductress; it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent. (Menander’s fourth-century adage — ‘A man who teaches a woman to write should recognize that he is providing poison to an asp’ — was still copied out by schoolchildren hundreds of years after her death.

But what of the Clown’s phallic punning?

From the ending of Ted Hughes’s poem Cleopatra to the Asp:

Drink me, now, whole, with coiled Egypt’s past
Then from my delta swim
Like a fish toward Rome.

Filed under: Shakespeare

Speak What We Feel: King Lear at Seattle Shakes

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!

“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” Dan Kremer as King Lear; photo by John Ulman

To grapple with the challenge of staging King Lear has to be the Shakespearean equivalent of trying to produce an entire Ring cycle. The play is so vast, so all-encompassing, its web of theatrical and emotional motifs so intricately woven, that it’s no wonder old-fashioned — well, OK, ancient — critical opinion deemed the play simply “too huge for the stage” (A.C. Bradley).

But visionary productions over the past century have dispelled that misgiving. Or maybe it’s just that the course the world itself has undergone makes us more receptive to Lear‘s devastating dramatic truths. Sometimes it almost seems as if Shakespeare had written the script for our times — and we’re just bumbling along, trying to act it out. Things don’t just fall apart; they coil toward entropy.

In Seattle Shakespeare’s new production, the play’s apocalyptic dimensions are essentially eclipsed by the familial — and all-too-familiar — realism of dysfunctional relationships and personal psychology.

Linda K. Morris, Patrick Allcorn, and Dan Kremer; photo  by John Ulman

Linda K. Morris, Patrick Allcorn, and Dan Kremer; photo by John Ulman

Director Sheila Daniels conceives the tragedy as an intimate echo chamber of unstable characters who are progressively losing it. What they undergo entails a series of variations on the theme of Lear’s crack-up. Scene by scene (with the whole divided here into three acts), their attempts to impose order on events, to get closer to their desires, become increasingly desperate. The overriding impression isn’t so much of the grim inevitability of consequences — Shakespeare’s merciless updating of classical “fate” — as of psychological meltdown.

As the ex-monarch, Dan Kremer underscores this approach through the unpredictable variability of his temper. It works very well for the first sections of the play — particularly in how it clarifies the relationship between Lear and his daughters that has already charted the course of the tragedy long before it begins.

We see how Goneril (Linda K. Morris) and Regan (Debra Pralle), given neatly differentiated portrayals here, aren’t just self-serving but have been brought up to fear daddy’s mercurial outbursts. Elinor Gunn’s Cordelia shows a steely stubbornness she must have learned first-hand. That’s what keeps her from seeing the danger she puts herself in — not a martyr complex to speak truth to power.

As for their husbands, while the Duke of Cornwall compresses into a sadistic psychopath (Gordon Carpenter), Shakespeare gives amplitude to the Duke of Albany (Patrick Allcorn) to grow in self-awareness and influence.

What lacks the needed emotional force are the actual climaxes marking each way-station in Lear’s descent. Kremer’s scene on the heath becomes just another fit, his verbal torrent more a fest of self-pity. By the same token, the Lear Kremer depicts in the final scenes fails to stir any deeper pity than he already has at the beginning of his long humiliation.

Kremer is more compelling in his interactions with “the other half” — with the fellow victims of ruin who never seem to faze him as they cross his path and all head toward the final confrontations at Dover. His reunion scene with the blinded Gloucester (Michael Winters) is especially resonant in its unsettling blend of horror and comic absurdity.

Dan Kremer and Michael Winters in Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production of “King Lear.” Photo by John Ulman

Dan Kremer and Michael Winters; photo by John Ulman

Some stand-out performances by others in the cast tilt the focus of the play in interestingly unexpected directions. Eric Riedmann’s chillingly embittered Edmund — possibly the most accomplished single interpretation — conveys the malign intelligence of a Iago yet always feels human. It’s one of Daniels’ strengths to clarify each character’s motivations in a way that makes them psychologically persuasive, further emphasizing the intimacy of family connections in this production.

Riedmann moreover revels in Shakespeare’s poetry, articulating its sonorities and rhythms with a relish and variety I wish were not otherwise the exception in this cast. The only misstep is the close-to-campy exaggeration of the sexual dalliance between him and Regan.

Linda K. Morris and Eric Riedmann in Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production of “King Lear.” Photo by John Ulman

Linda K. Morris and Eric Riedmann; photo by John Ulman

Winters makes Gloucester’s wishful gullibility work, and the scenes with his two sons are among the most vividly realized. In his guise as Poor Tom, Jorge Chacon draws on physical hints he’s shown us as the nervous if good-natured Edgar.

King Lear is notable for the overdetermination of the fool archetype. Along with the official fool (Todd Jefferson Moore), the disguised Kent (played as a “Duchess” by the splendid Amy Thone) and Poor Tom on the heath reinforce the fool’s function of bearing witness to the truth as they retreat most deeply into their roles. Thone and Jefferson have a winning dynamic together and help re-introduce some of the play’s larger perspectives — particularly, its obsession with the power of language to shape reality, both positively and negatively. This is what gives the humor they interject its edge.

After all, they continue to subject Lear to the treatment that outraged him when it came from Cordelia. But even to “speak what we feel” is a kind of rhetoric, if the mirror side of Lear’s fulminations and curses. Language is the one thing the dispossessed king is left with — the very language he obviously abused throughout his reign.

Dan Kremer, Craig Peterson, Sophie Paterson, Amy Thone, and Jonathan Crimeni in Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production of “King Lear.” Photo by John Ulman.

Dan Kremer, Craig Peterson, Sophie Paterson, Amy Thone, and Jonathan Crimeni; photo by John Ulman

The scenic conception is notably weak and lags far behind the many fine nuances of the ensemble’s acting. Daniels, who collaborated with set designer Craig Wollam, opts for a colorless, ultra-minimalist playing space with a backdrop of hanging plastic and linen sheets and a scaffold that rolls to and fro. It is a way of making the stage the world, but the process of stripping away so essential to the play’s arc has already happened by the start.

Melanie Burgess’s abstract-pattern, cheerless costumes seem out of sync with the high contrasts of Jessica Trundy’s lighting. I do like the effect of cruel illumination upon the arrival at Dover, but the veer toward a horizontal Rothko glow at the end puzzles. Robertson Witmer picks up on the script’s references to drums to create a sternly percussive sound design.

Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production of King Lear plays through May 17 at the Cornish Playhouse (formerly Intiman) at Seattle Center, Wed. – Sun. Tickets here or call 206 733-8222.

(c)2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: directors, review, Shakespeare, theater

Shakespeare at 450


“Time … thou ceaseless lackey to eternity.” Today, by convention, the world celebrates Shakespeare’s birthday.

Here are some ways to pay tribute to the Bard:

–Take a look at a list of familiar phrases that may have been coined by Shakespeare. A sample:

A dish fit for the gods
A plague on both your houses
fair play
good riddance
salad days
love is blind
set your teeth on edge
up in arms

–Take a Shakespeare quiz

–As the Globe Theatre launches its ambitious Globe to Globe Hamlet initiative, enjoy this portfolio of 45 Hamlets selected by Michael Billington. Some of his choices: John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Richard O’Toole, Ralph Fiennes, Sarah Bernhardt.

–Listen to the Sonnets:

Filed under: Shakespeare

Stirring Up a Storm


Quite happy to see Tom Adès take the Best Opera Grammy for The Tempest. I had the opportunity to write this essay for the Met when the production staged by Robert Lepage first appeared there:

When The Tempest opened at London’s Royal Opera House in February 2004, the anticipation couldn’t have been more intense. Composer Thomas Adès—only 32 at the time—had already been thrust into the international spotlight in the previous decade and found himself having to live up to recurrent comparisons with his similarly precocious compatriot and predecessor Benjamin Britten. Despite all this pressure, the overwhelming, almost unanimous response to Adès’s second opera seemed to confirm the parallels. “Only time will tell whether the first night of The Tempest in 2004 was a moment to set alongside the first night of Peter Grimes in 1945 in the history of British music,” wrote The Guardian the day after the occasion. “But it felt that way in the theatre.”

Time has proved that the initial verdicts weren’t idle hyperbole. The Tempest belongs to that rare group of contemporary operas whose critical acclaim is matched by the ultimate practical test of stage-worthiness. In fact, The Tempest—still less than a decade old—can already boast an astonishing track record of five different productions: the original Covent Garden staging (which was revived in 2007 and recorded for EMI’s award-winning CD), the American premiere at Santa Fe Opera in 2006, two separate productions in Germany, and now the opera’s premiere at the Met, which promises to be among the highlights of the new season.

Robert Lepage’s staging is a co-production of the Met, Opéra de Québec, and the Vienna Staatsoper and will also feature Adès (pronounced AH-diss) making his company debut as conductor. Reprising his performance as Prospero is baritone Simon Keenlyside, whose combined vocal and physical presence were widely admired as ideally suited to the role he created at the Royal Opera House.

The once-obligatory references to Britten became a kind of shorthand for English critics eager to spell out the high expectations pinned on Adès. In fact, he is an artist whose voice is unmistakably and audaciously original. Many gifted young composers demonstrate an eclectic, anxiety-free facility when it comes to claiming elements from the musical past for their own creative tool kit, but what was especially striking about Adès, while he was still just in his twenties, was the uncanny confidence with which he forged a rich, complex, allusive language with a coherence all its own.

Even more, before the millennium Adès had already found exciting ways to develop his flair for formal, abstract structures, vivid orchestration, and spirited detail while also demonstrating a compelling theatrical instinct. His range was apparent, whether in writing for a large Mahlerian orchestra (the symphonic Asyla, commissioned for the Berlin Philharmonic, for example) or in his first work for the stage, the chamber opera Powder Her Face (1995).

The latter, which used the scandalous story of an aristocrat’s fall from grace to ironically turn the mirror back on a tabloid-saturated culture, also revealed Adès’s extraordinary feel for portraying characters in music. With the far vaster canvas of The Tempest, he progressed to a mature mastery of his art, taming the often volatile energy found in his youthful scores into a sustained, emotionally gripping arc.

Shakespeare’s beloved final romance, remarks Adès, “is famously full of references to music, while the intangibility of some of its characters has always inspired music.” Purcell, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, and Berio are just a few of the many composers who have fallen sway to its spell; even Mozart, near the end of his life, may have contemplated turning The Tempest into an opera. Yet instead of finding himself daunted by the weight of associations bound up with the source material—above all by the sheer power and poetry of Shakespeare’s language—Adès discovered a fresh approach to “translating” the Bard’s vision into opera.

The composer collaborated closely with librettist Meredith Oakes, an Australian-born playwright and poet whose talent for evoking traditional poetic patterns through “a very specific, archaistic style” felt particularly appropriate. Oakes distilled the original verse into pithy, condensed couplets that echo the play’s most famous passages in eminently singable phrases—instead of competing with them. Many of the couplets take the form of half-rhymes or slant-rhymes that acquire an extra charge by being ever so slightly off. The result, Adès says, “is a translation of Shakespeare into modern English, to be all the more faithful and concentrate the drama.”

Yet the three-act opera remains remarkably true to the arc of Shakespeare’s story and the spirit of his characters, while at the same time opening up the creative space necessary for Adès to add the unique perspective of his musical imagination. “I want it to be The Tempest. I want it to be Shakespeare and to bring that vision into the opera house as faithfully as possible,” the composer points out. “We actually started further away from the play than we ended up but found ourselves going back to Shakespeare’s structure much more.” But to achieve such fidelity—as opposed to a pale imitation—Adès and Oakes determined early on that they needed to swerve away from dogged, literal re-creation.

The most striking shift involves the opera’s conception of Prospero, the former Duke of Milan who, in the back story, has been usurped by his brother Antonio and shipwrecked on an island with his young daughter, Miranda. Prospero’s desire for vengeance is more pointed in the opera, as is his related assertion of control over the island’s indigenous creatures—Ariel and Caliban—and over Miranda’s emerging emotional autonomy as she falls in love with Ferdinand, his enemy’s son.

The libretto provided Adès with clearer “musical emotions” that motivate the dynamics of enslavement and liberation in the story as well as the transforming power of love and compassion. The real turning point, observes the composer, comes when Ariel tells Prospero that the suffering he has caused his enemies to endure would soften Ariel’s own heart if he were human. “And it’s the moment when Prospero realizes he’s gone too far and has to stop.”

Lepage, familiar to Met audiences for his stagings of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust and Wagner’s Ring cycle, praises the opera for capturing the “magic” of what is often considered the playwright’s final artistic testament. Not surprisingly for this wizard of theatrical illusion, the figure of Prospero has long fascinated Lepage, who has directed numerous productions of Shakespeare’s play. Each time he returns to it, he uncovers new insights. For his own concept of the opera, Lepage has expanded its aura of magic into a metaphor for artistic performance itself, envisioning Prospero as an 18th-century impresario of La Scala, the opera house in Milan, which he has recreated on the island of his banishment as a reminder of home.

“In those days, La Scala was a very magical place to set operas because it had all of the new state-of-the-art machinery,” Lepage explains. “The beach where everybody is marooned is actually a stage that’s been planted there and constructed by Prospero.” Lepage adds that each of the three acts presents a different perspective—from the stage itself, from the auditorium, and what goes on behind and off stage—to encompass this “opera-within-an-opera house.”

Members of his creative team will be making their Met debuts: Jasmine Catudal designed the sets, and the costumes are by Kym Barrett (known for her collaborations with Baz Luhrmann and her work on The Matrix films). The overall look will marry a sense of the island’s “native, aboriginal culture” with the Italian Baroque sensibility imported by the European interlopers.

Lepage’s mastery of both traditional stagecraft and its most up-to-date technological forms provides an ideal complement to the composer’s unique fusion of a classic play with a contemporary vision of opera. In his musical characterizations of the five leads, for example, Adès developed wonderfully effective alternatives to the vocal type casting that might have tempted a less-imaginative composer. While Ariel, a male character played by a soprano, sings in a stratospheric tessitura (frequently perching on Ds, Es, and Fs above high C, even reaching to G), “this isn’t a way of expressing high emotion and shouldn’t feel like the top of the singer’s range. That’s where she lives.”

Ariel is an elemental force of nature who—in another alteration of the original source—sings the final airborne phrase and becomes the wind again. Her island counterpart, the “monster” Caliban, is depicted not as a “lumpen, earthy brute” with a bass voice but is a lyrical tenor. “He’s often described in the play as being like an eel or a fish, and I suddenly thought he could be more like one of those exotic, wonderful voices from the East, with a weird elegance. And of course he is an aristocrat, not only in his own mind,” says Adès, who gives Caliban one of the most radiantly beautiful passages in the score: his aria reassuring the shipwrecked newcomers not to fear the island’s “noises.”

As for Prospero, the composer created a fully dimensional baritone role (with shades of Verdi’s and Wagner’s authoritarian father figures) who nevertheless defies the stereotype of the wise old sage. Adès was especially inspired by crafting the role for Keenlyside. “Simon’s a terrifically physical performer who projects youth. In a way, it’s that characterization, as much as the extraordinary voice, that was on my mind. I don’t think of Prospero as an old man. This is the only play of Shakespeare which observes the classical unities of happening in one place, in one day. When Prospero meditates on the evanescence of life, my feeling is actually it’s not that he does that every day and has been doing it for years and he’s an old bore. It’s that he’s just realizing it at that exact moment. That’s the first time he’s thought this.”

While Adès writes for the voice with great character, his score is also distinguished by its symphonic intricacy and architecture. This quality provides the opera with a richly satisfying cohesion and unity. Adès achieves this not through conventional leitmotif technique but by expertly manipulating his uniquely evocative harmonic language. He explains: “The music has its own internal logic of relationships; it doesn’t just do what it wants to do because the characters suddenly decide to go somewhere. It’s a tissue that’s woven in, so that everything is related in the music, and all the elements create a view of the world that’s whole, a sphere.”

(c) 2012 Thomas May – All rights reserved.

Filed under: Metropolitan Opera, new music, opera, Shakespeare

Mad for Shakespeare

Rosa Joshi

Rosa Joshi

This is a fuller version of my profile of the Seattle-based director Rosa Joshi for Joshi and her team at Seattle Shakespeare Company have staged Richard II, a play that’s been in the spotlight thanks to the BBC’s Hollow Crown series but that — at least in the U.S. — remains a relative rarity.

“I don’t choose easy plays!” admits Rosa Joshi. She’s explaining her selection of Richard II as the vehicle for her directorial debut with Seattle Shakespeare Company.

The match between Joshi and Seattle Shakes is long overdue, given what she has brought to the Bard’s twist on “sad stories of the death of kings.” For my money, her Richard II ranks among the finest of the company’s recent productions, achieving a delicate balance of clarity and forceful poetic imagination.

“Shakespeare is my greatest love to direct,” says Joshi, who has been on the fine arts faculty at Seattle University since 2000.

“There are no small choices in Shakespeare. He makes you go to the extremities of emotion and experience, from the heights of joy to the depths of despair. That to me is infinitely challenging.”

Extreme situations frame Richard II, which traces the downfall of its titular king. Ill-suited to the throne, the impolitic Richard is forced to hand the crown over to his cousin-made-rival, Henry Bolingbroke, before being imprisoned and assassinated. His dramatic reversal of fortune has its counterpart in Henry’s equally dramatic ascent.

Richard (George Mount) surrenders his crown to Henry Bolingbroke (David Foubert); photo by John Ulman

Richard (George Mount) surrenders his crown to Henry Bolingbroke (David Foubert); photo by John Ulman

Over the past decade, Joshi has made a splash in Seattle with her all-women versions of Shakespeare. In 2006 she co-founded upstart crow, a local collective devoted to producing classic theater with exclusively female casts. Their inaugural production took on the Bard’s King John; their second effort followed in 2012 with the ultra-violent Titus Andronicus.

A central aim of upstart crow has been “to create opportunities for women to participate in the Western classical canon for which they share a passion – in a way they don’t get to do in more conventional arenas.”

“Any time you have one gender onstage it makes you look at gender differently,” Joshi says. “I’m not so much prescriptive about what it means, but think of it as an experiment in how the audience relates to the work. For some people, the gender simply goes away, and some people really notice it. There isn’t just one experience I’m trying to make the audience have.”

Joshi is well-aware of the seeming paradox that with the conventionally cast Richard II at Seattle Shakes, she’s chosen a play featuring a predominantly male cast (with just two actresses). In fact, she points out, upstart crow has also gravitated toward heavily male plays.

“With Richard, there is a way of looking at him as a character who has a certain female energy in a male world,” Joshi explains. As he loses the confidence of his subjects, Richard becomes increasingly marginalized. The actual women in the play, meanwhile, “are the only ones who hold on to family while the others are torn by loyalty to the state.”

Richard (Geroge Mount) and his Queen (Brenda Joyner); photo by John Ulman

Richard (George Mount) and his Queen (Brenda Joyner); photo by John Ulman

In a similar vein, Joshi expresses puzzlement over another question she says is inevitably posed: “Why do you, as a woman of color, insist on doing this work by Dead White Males? Whenever I’m asked that, I point out that these plays are just as much my heritage, too.”

Joshi, who grew up in England and Kuwait, initially thought she was destined to become a doctor like her father. Still, she decided to keep her options open by studying in the United States and pursuing her love of theater on the side as a double major.

The turning point that made her decide to choose theater over medicine came when she was given the chance to direct during a semester abroad in London. Naturally, it was a thorny piece: Harold Pinter’s one-act “The Lover.”

After internships at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and Juilliard in New York, Joshi headed to Yale Drama School (during the Stanley Wojewodski era). Her classmates included Paul Giamatti, Liev Schreiber and the indie director Tom McCarthy. “I learned so much just from being around my peers,” she recalls.

Joshi relocated to Seattle during the 1990s, when the fringe theater scene was exploding. Legendary local director John Kazanjian of New City Theater, she says, became a key mentor. Kazanjian gave her the opportunity to produce her own shows — including her Seattle debut, a “Twelfth Night” staged on the steps of Capitol Hill’s Richard Hugo House.

“I think Seattle is a great place where emerging artists can sink their teeth into work. But it’s harder to sustain mid- and late-career artists.” Still, Joshi sees a positive development in the resurgence of adventurous theater in recent years from groups like New Century Theatre, azeotrope, Washington Ensemble Theatre, and Strawberry Workshop.

“A lot of these are companies started by artists who realize they need to self-produce: artists who have a shared mission and the expertise to produce their work, which is empowering. One of the things we try to promote here at SU to my students is the idea that they need to be nimble and able to do more than one thing.”

Joshi herself had taken that advice to heart during her early years in Seattle by self-producing. A stint as artistic director at the Northwest Asian American Theater got her involved in collaborations between Asian-American and Asian artists.

Since taking up her position at Seattle University, Joshi has guest directed at several Seattle theaters. She seems especially at home with Seattle Shakespeare, where she coaxes a poetically nuanced performance of the doomed Richard from George Mount, the company’s artistic director.

Cast of Richard II; photo by John Ullman

Cast of Richard II; photo by John Ulman

The complexity of Richard II, along with its confusing back story, poses daunting challenges for any director and cast. But Joshi and her actors bring a red-hot focus to what’s at stake for the two sides, and the story plays out with riveting dramatic rhythm.

It is Shakespeare’s ability to convey all of this through elaborately poetic language that particularly enthralls Joshi. Richard II is his only play written entirely in verse (even a gardener and his assistant carry on in lofty iambic pentameter).

“He’s able to use language to convey the inner workings of character and to externalize the souls and emotions of these characters,” Joshi explains. “At time we might feel the language is excessive: and that’s exactly the language we need in order to understand what’s going on with Richard.”

“I know lots of directors work from a very visual world, but I consider myself very text-driven.” Which hardly means Joshi’s work can’t be strongly visual — her production’s most indelible image reverses the moveable throne that dominates the minimalist set so that, in the prison scene, it becomes a looming gravestone — but she emphasizes that she wants such visual ideas to “emerge from the text. And what richer playground is there than Shakespeare, where the text delivers and encapsulates so much.”

Joshi is also intrigued by the ways in which Shakespeare blends the genres of history and tragedy in Richard II. And though it’s one of his less frequently staged plays, Richard II strikes a relevant chord because of the very modern crisis Richard faces, even within the play’s medieval setting.

Joshi points to Richard’s most self-reflective moments in the pivotal Pomfret Castle prison scene. “Take his lines: ‘but whate’er I be,/Nor I nor any man that but man is/With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased/With being nothing.’ The density of meaning in that has always struck me as something that could be out of Samuel Beckett.”

“The existential journey that Richard goes through is something I think contemporary audiences can relate to in terms of how we define ourselves in the world. Richard has to grapple with who he is when he’s no longer king.”

“How does he cope with the absence of that identity? How does Henry edit his identity in order to become a leader? And how much are both shaped by who they are versus the people they have around them? Do we get the leaders we deserve?”

Richard in Pomfret prison; photo by John Ulman

Richard in Pomfret prison; photo by John Ulman

In fact, Richard II appears to have become a hot theatrical topic of late. Recent broadcasts by the BBC of The Hollow Crown series (the cycle of four history plays that begins with Richard II) has brought the melancholy Richard into the spotlight – as has a much-touted Royal Shakespeare Company production starring David Tennant as the deposed king, which was widely disseminated via HD cinemacast.

For Joshi, it’s no surprise that Richard II is suddenly brimming with contemporary relevance. “The history plays seem to come up more and more in part because we live in a politically cynical age. These are plays that focus on what people do for power and ambition. The first week of rehearsals, one of the news stories was of how Kim Jong-un had his uncle executed to consolidate his power.”

Yet in this case, Joshi has seen no need to “modernize” the setting in order to emphasize its relevance. “I’m always interested in the artificiality of theater. What does theater do that film doesn’t do?”

“We don’t compete with the kind of verisimilitude that you get in film because theater demands that the audience’s imagination be engaged to complete the experience. It is this pact we go into – audience and actors and designers – to create this world together through this act of imagination.”

(c) 2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: directors, Shakespeare

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