August Blogroll: New News Edition

Dear readers,

Yesterday, I rewarded a day of syllabi- and lesson-planning with an afternoon trip to Powell’s bookstore here in Portland. It was completely brilliant, as famed and expected, and I managed to pick up a few gifts for friends and a little something for myself. While I can’t believe I still haven’t found a free moment to read James Shapiro’s award-winning The Year of Lear yet—having loved his 1599—I did discover an anthology I didn’t realize he had edited: Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the revolution to Now (Penguin Library of America, 2013). With a forward by former President Bill Clinton, who has been much in the news of late with forthcoming election, I was reminded of the several Shakespeare-centered news stories the circulated this summer.

Brexit Book Deal

London Mayor Boris Johnson, who we thought would become Prime Minister after the Brexit debacle this summer (thankfully not!), signed a book deal to writer a Shakespeare biography back in late 2014. He received a £500,000 advance for the biography, to be part of the 400th anniversary celebrations. Why any book agent thought a Churchill pop-historian was suited for the job—not to mention the fact that the market couldn’t possibly sustain another one of these—is anyone’s guess. This past July, shortly after pulling out of the PM race he also shelved the project, currently (and ego-manically) titled Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius. The last thing we need is one more white man showing us what a genius he is because he can mansplain the “genius” of Shakespeare.*

The Curtain Squared

Late in spring, some of the initial findings at the MOLA excavation site of the Elizabethan amphitheater known as the Curtain began to make headlines. Some of the stories are quite goofy and implausible, such as original artifacts from Romeo and Juliet  and so on. The big news is that the theatre was thought to have been designed like the three other major excavations underway—in a round or semi-round shape with access to a thrust stage on three sides. Not so! The Curtain was in fact a rectangle! Holger Syme explains the implications in excellent detail, with comparison charts, in his “Post-Curtain Theatre History” post.


Speaking of Holger, he found himself in the middle of a strange media blitz when a few outlets caught whiff that he had posted nearly 500 live-tweets in response to some very dated, stodgy, and largely inaccurate scholarship. (I.e., More mansplaining of Shakespeare’s genius by  certain Sir to one’s own brilliance.) After he posted the #1Lear responses to Storify in early June, it blew up in masthead articles at Inside Higher Ed, Times Higher Education, Verge, The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times, among others. While two white men fighting over a dead white guy’s play about a king could seem farcically navel-gazing on the surface, as a scholar in the field what Syme is critiquing is incredibly important: there is a very dated form of scholarship that willfully neglects archival data for effusive “human condition” arguments that validate a certain set of privileges and assumptions. I look forward to his forthcoming LA Review of Books piece on the experience.

Happy reading!

December 2016 Update:

In the last several months, the #1Lear debate took some interesting turns via the Los Angeles Review of Books:

  • Syme’s initial piece, “The Text is Foolish: Brian Vickers’s ‘The One King Lear,'” was published 6 September here.
  • Vickers’ “A Response to Holger Syme” ran on 6 November here.
  • Syme’s final piece, “‘King Lear’ at the Stationers, Again: A Response to Brian Vickers,” ran 18 December here.

*What biographies do I actually like as a Shakespearean? Put these two together and I think you have the most measured account of the man called Shakespeare’s life and times:

  • Holland, Peter. William Shakespeare. Very Interesting People. Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Shapiro, James. A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599. Harper Perennial, 2006.
A theatre-history haul from the main branch of Powell’s in downtown Portland.

In the Playhouse / At the Cinema: “Romeo and Juliet”

I felt particularly spoiled this weekend as a play-goer. On saturday, all I had to do was walk a few block down to my local independent theatre to be completely and intimately immersed in the Globe experience. Opus Arte, an international arts production company, has in recent years began filming and distributing unique arts and theatre events to be screened widely when the production would not have otherwise been seen by those who could not physically be there. This weekend I was transported to a summer in London to see a beautiful production of Romeo and Juliet.

The production can only be described in terms of beautiful and accurate opulence. The Globe Theatre Company today specializes in original practices and reconstructing performances. They incorporate period music and instruments, continuous action, sparse props, and period costumes (not so lush as they could have been cast-offs from a wealthy household). The camera work was especially impressive in that I never once caught sight of a cameraman despite their ability to shoot the stage action from a variety of angles and depths of field. In fact, the only thing that may not have been accurate was the three-hour running time; no lines seem to have been cut from the playtext, which seems a fair enough trade off I suppose. Drums enhanced the excitement of the sword fights (choreography by Sian Williams), and the production even ended with a traditional jig–something entirely accurate but rarely done as many contemporary directors feel it doesn’t jive with tragedy.

The production was incredibly conscientious, sensitive to not only the visual but auditory nature of early modern drama. The ensemble was unwaveringly balanced, each player bringing a well-considered meaning and depth to their verse performances. The leads were surprisingly youthful: according to the theatre manager, Juliet (Ellie Kendrick) is only in her late teens and Romeo (Adetomiwa Edun) in his very early twenties. Kendrick played a fully-embodied Juliet, with the impetuous of youth but a girl thoughtful of her own future. Edun’s Romeo, while physically hyperbolic at times, was able to find a balance between morality and lovesickness.

In fact, the only scene that didn’t ring true was the lark-and-nightingale debate after Romeo and Juliet have spent their first night together. It is a scene that rarely falls flat in the many renditions I have seen, but there was no sense of intimacy between the lovers. And yet, the balcony scene was supurb, ironically suggesting the Kendrick and Edun do their best work apart. Mercutio has always been a favorite character of mine, and Philip Cumbus lent him a touch of madness not unnatural but that which springs from feeling too much of the world. Director Dominic Dromgoole did not shirk from the sexualized content nor gloss over phallic puns which are rife in the play. This is an adult production that does not pastoralize nor devalue love. The Globe is a massive performance space, and Dromgoole puts his actors to work to use all of it. The sense of largeness and mobility, coupled with the camera pans of the audience, captured the particular rowdy ambiance of the Renaissance stage experience. At moments that aura and vastness of the space, in a place and a time so far away, seemed overwhelming and yet maintaining an accessible sense authenticity.

  • Films like these are event cinema, meaning that they often have a very limited run constrained to one weekend or even a single evening. However, the Opus Arte website suggests that the film may eventually go on sale, so check for details.
  • For more information or directions to Champaign-Urbana’s Art Theatre, check out their website, here.