The Taming of the Shrew—We saw this live at the Globe in London back in September of last year. This play is problematic for most modern audiences who have been accustomed to feminist thinking about the relations between the sexes. As I once told a classmate back at the start of the '90s I consider myself untouched by feminism, and reject its basic worldview. Consequently I am one of thefew who find its message of unrepentant male chauvinism acceptable. In actuality, it is feminism that is out of touch, not with philosophical and social ideas, but with reality in its emotional and biological realms. Petruchio is, as Shaw says, a matrimonial adventurer, but his wooing of Kate is both touching and funny, and in her grudging acceptance of Petruchio's courtship, and her obedience we see the transformation from the shrew to dutiful wife. Is it possible to see this, and the contrast between Kate and Bianca, and not think of Matt. 21:31, which concludes the parable of the two brothers? One says he will obey, but does not; the other says he will not, but does. If, as C. S. Lewis says, God is the great masculine before Whom we are all feminine, can the play be read as having an allegorical sense, admittedly rare in Shakespeare, in which we are enjoined to Christian obedience. I won't push that too far, because it's probably not a justified reading, but it is one way to make the play more acceptable to modern audiences.
The play hasn't been released on DVD yet, but the performance in London was very funny, and Pearce Quigley, who played Petruchio's servant was quite funny. There was a good deal of farce and slapstick, including a bucket that was periodically stumbled over when death was mentioned. When it's released on DVD, if it ever is, grab a copy.
All's Well That Ends Well—This is one of Shakespeare's problem plays. The term originated in the 19th century, primarily with reference to Ibsen, though Dumas also wrote the kind of play that came to be regarded as problem play. These dealt with some social issue, or problem, such as prostitution, venereal disease, or some other ill. The plays of Shakespeare that are problem plays are dark in tone, and involve some kind of social crux. In this case it's the marriage of Helena and Bertram. Helena loves Bertram, who doesn't love her, but winds up marrying her. He tries to bed another girl, but winds up taking Helena to bed, not the girl. In the end he accepts Helena as his wife. The problem is that the transition between reluctant husband and wedded lover takes place between lines at the end. So how is Bertram conceived, and how is he played? In the Globe's production he's young, and like most young men is out for a good time. Helena's devotion is supposed to win him over. In the current production I think it's fairly convincing.
Sam Crane who was a twenty-something when he starred in this production is a recurrent player in the Globe's productions. He appears as Roderigo in Othello, as Hotspur in Henry IV, part 1, and as Pistol in Henry IV, part 2. He manages to pull off the finale's change from hesitant husband to lover in a fairly convincing fashion. His own youth makes it appear that his earlier lustiness is more a matter of adolescent wild oats than determined infidelity.
Dr. Faustus—This isn't by Shakespeare, but by Christopher Marlow. There is an abominable version with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and while Dick was a great actor, and Liz was a beauty, their version fails to convince. This version is about an hour longer, and has the comic scenes, which may not be Marlovian. The devils are giant puppets, and the scenes frightening even for a jaded modern audience. Marlowe had a bit of a bad reputation during the Elizabethan era, and was reputed to be an atheist. I'm not sure if that was true or not. I don't think there's any evidence for that in Faustus. If anything it strikes me as being very much in the tradition of the Medieval morality plays.
Henry IV parts 1 & 2—Falstaff is the great part here. He's been played by Orson Welles and Robbie Coltrane, and others. While Falstaff may be the embodiment of the Medieval vice character, and in fact embodies the more amiable of the seven deadly sins, lust and gluttony, as well as greed and sloth to some degree, with anger, pride, and envy not being too much in evidence, it is precisely those vices that make Falstaff seem so capacious. Falstaff's lust and gluttony draw the entire world into him, they incorporate the world into him, so that there is an element of truth in his equation of Harry's rejection of him with Harry's rejection of the world. What is striking about Harry's rejection when he assumes the crown and becomes Henry is that his new found asceticism is rather frigid and repellent. Ralph Allam, who plays Falstaff is a great addition to the line of actors who have attempted the fat man.
Henry VIII—This deals with the reign of Henry VIII and covers the time from Henry's ascension of the throne to the birth of Elizabeth.
Love's Labor Lost—This is the most intellectual of Shakespeare's comedies. There is a considerable amount of word play, and logic chopping. It is consdierably frothier and lighter than many of Shakespeare's comedies. Even in the lightest of the plays, such as As You Like It, or Midsummer's Night Dream there is a threat of death hanging over the participants, but that is largely absent from this play.
Romeo and Juliet—I saw a production of Romeo and Juliet back in 1964 at the Washington Monument. This was the summer after the murder of JFK, and the Civil Rights movement was in full swing. This production wanted to take a stand for integration so Romeo's family was black, or Negro as we said then, and the Capulet's were white. In the intervening years I've heard of the play being used to send messages about teen suicide, and about other causes. It even morphed into a Broadway musical (West Side Story) under the hands of Bernstein and Sondheim. I don't know how Shakespeare would feel about all of this. While Juliet is not quite 14, and is underage by our current standards, she was not by the standards of the Renaissance, or of the ancient world.* Juliet's father wants her to put off marriage until she was about 16. Also, it should be kept in mind that despite all of the blather about young people's brains not being fully formed, etc., that it wasn't up until the Romantic era and after that childhood was regarded as it is now. There were adults and children. There were not children, adolescents, and adults. So the whole teenage thing simply wasn't there in Shakespeare's eyes. In the production at the Globe Romeo is played by a young Black actor (Adetomiwa Edun). His family though is white. Some of Juliet's family and retainers are also black. So the first thing they've done is gone against the non-trad casting of the families as belonging to opposing ethnic groups.
*Marriageable age in ancient Greece and Rome may have been as young as 10 years old, but was more usual in the early teens. When Augustine meets his prospective wife, if I recall correctly, she was two years shy of the marriageable age, or between 8-13.
Mercutio is young and properly mercurial. In this he contrasts with someone like John Barrymore who assayed Mercutio when he was 54 in the 1936 film version with Leslie Howard. (Howard at 43 was also too old for Romeo.) Other age-inappropriate castings include the 42 year old Katherine Cornell as Juliet in a 1935 production; the 34 year old Maurice Evans as Romeo in the same production with Cornell. You can browse around and find other examples. In this production the casting seems to be age appropriate.
Merry Wives of Windsor—Falstaff in love. Christopher Benjamin rather than Roger Allam plays the fat knight. The play centers on the knight's attempts to woo and win two married ladies. When it is found out that he has been sending form love letters to each complications and hilarity ensue. In Shakespeare it never happens that adultery and fornication go unpunished.* So as you might expect Falstaff, much like Don Giovanni, who gets neither girl nor dinner, goes away unsatisfied.
*Romeo and Juliet are married by Friar Lawrence. Someone better versed in the ins and outs of canon law can argue the legitimacy of the marriage. Presumably the banns, etc., would have been read, and a more formal wedding performed if they had survived.
Othello—In many respects this is one of the dirtiest plays in the canon. There are many references, euphemistic and otherwise, to sexual intercourse, and there is a constant atmosphere of corruption that pervades the play. Othello is played by Eamonn Walker who has appeared in Oz and Chicago Fire. Walker is black, so unlike Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Anthony Hopkins, Patrick Stewart, and Orson Welles he is spared the indignity of acting in blackface. It is open to dispute whether Othello's moorishness equates to blackness, as we understand it, or whether it simply means someone who is swarthy. In any case the primary requirement of Othello is that he be convincing as a warrior and as a lover. This Walker is.
I've commented before on non-trad, or non-traditional casting. Here the casting seems to be fairly random. Desdemona is white, Emilia and Bianca are black while their husbands and lovers are white. The race element, while present here, is not forced as it might be in some productions.
Desdemona is young, and pure, which is what the role demands. In all a very satisfying production.
As You Like It—George Bernard Shaw made a comment that some of the titles of Shakespeare's plays such as Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, or What You Will and the present play indicated Shakespeare's opinion of them. In other words not As I Like It, Twelfth Night, or What I Will, Much Ado About Something, which would indicate that Shakespeare was writing for himself rather than for the taste of his audience. That may or may not be the case, like many things that Shaw said it's probably false, in any case the play is a favorite of many audiences. Like many of the comedies it balances between tragedy and comedy. Rosalind is exiled from court, and forbidden to come into the court upon pain of death. She winds up in the forest of Arden disguised as a boy, and hijinks ensue.
In this production Rosalind delivers some of her speeches at breakneck speed, something which Naomi Fredericks manages to do with verve and aplomb. Jamie Parker, who has appeared in other productions at the Globe also appears. Jack Laskey as Orlando, the young lover of Rosalind is a convincing love interest.
I've found that a good part of the fun of watching these productions is connecting with the theater, and recreating the experience that we had at the presentation of Taming of the Shrew. If you're going to London, it's worth going to the Globe to see the plays on the kind of stage they were first presented on. If you can't afford to go to London, you can afford the $20–30 for the DVD or Blu-Ray disc.