Sunday, October 05, 2008

Ode to the Bard

Last Friday, I went to a lecture on Shakespeare at the Philoctetes Center and I have to say that I was a tad disappointed. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I felt that the evening fell far short of what was promised in the handout. I have a great love and appreciation for the Bard of Avon. When I first decided to become an actress, my biggest dream was to one day perform Shakespeare with the Royal Shakespeare Company. That was before I realized that I would have to be British to accomplish that one.

We didn't really touch the Bard much when I was in college. So I made it my mission afterwards that if I was going to take acting classes in New York that I would focus on Shakespeare. I managed to find a mentor in Eric Hoffmann at The Riverside Shakespeare Company, and then to get to study in London at BADA and The Royal National Theatre Studio. One of my fondest memories is watching Mark Rylance play Henry V in the inaugural season of the Globe in London, standing in the pit. Shakespeare in Love is one of my favorite films and I even watched Michael Wood's 4 hour Searching for Shakespeare program. Now the bar was set a little high for me.

There certainly was a distinguished panel of experts, Robert Brustein, the former artistic director of Yale Rep and the American Repertory Theater was the moderator. Daniela Varon (who practically saved the evening) from Shakespeare & Company represented the director's eye, Alvin Epstein, who has had a distinguished career in the theater represented the actor's point of view (and said practically nothing all evening. At one point, I thought he had fallen asleep), Ron Rosenbaum who has written a book called The Shakespeare Wars, Eugene Mahon, a pyschoanalysis and playwright. But there was something missing. Perhaps it was the Bard himself. I would have liked to have seen perhaps some readings of the Sonnets or some of Shakespeare's monologues. It would have taken the discussion from the abstract into something more concrete.

Interesting points were brought up and then dropped. Robert Brustein mentioned the idea that Shakespeare was a mysognist and that was never really addressed. And other ideas were brought up and then just dismissed. One of the most interesting was who was Shakespeare? Was it the man from Stratford? Was it a committee of men as put forth by Delia Bacon? Was it Edmund de Vere, the Earl of Oxford? Brustein dismissed the idea out of hand because Ben Jonson said that Shakespeare was Shakespeare. J.P. Wearing spoke about Shakespeare as a working playwright, who not only had to work with a company of actors, and tailor parts to suit them, but he also had to write plays that pleased the audience. The fact that he managed to do so on so many levels is amazing.

For me, the 400 pound Gorilla in the room was the fact that no one even really mentioned Merchant of Venice. Critics and Scholars have been divided for 400 years about whether or not the play is anti-semitic or not. I would have liked to have seen the panel delve into that. One of my favorite episodes of John Barton's playing Shakespeare is the one in which Patrick Stewart and David Suchet talked about playing Shylock and how they approached the role, particularly David Suchet since he's Jewish (or his father is, I'm not sure if he was actually raised in the faith). Daniela Varon mentioned in terms of The Taming of the Shrew that audiences have to look at the play both from a 21st Century point of view but also to understand how modern Shakespeare was in the context of his time in writing this play.

I disagreed with Ron Rosenbaum that you can't find Shakespeare in his writings, and is his notion that what was the point since we don't know anything about Homer apart from his blindness yet we continue to read The Odyssey and The Iliad. I think that almost every writer, whether he does it consciously or unconsciously reveals something about himself in his writing. I know that I personally have used themes that I'm interested in, emotions that I've experienced, things that have happened to me, in my fiction writing, not just what I write here on the blog.

So while I was disappointed in the evening ultimately, I'm glad that I went, if only to hear Daniela Varon speak. I'm sorry that I missed the production of Robert Brustein's play about Shakespeare that she directed, because I'm intrigued now to see what she would do with Shakespeare on stage. I was also struck by a question that an audience member asked of the panel. He said that he hadn't quite gotten a clear picture of each person's Shakespeare and I thought that would be such a great campaign for The Public Theater, to have famous actors who have worked there to describe their Shakespeare.

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