After watching scores of Shakespeare productions, as well as teaching and directing Shakespeare for decades, I have a clear philosophy about contemporary Shakespearean production. Though the acting is usually excellent, particularly after Dominic Dromgoole took the artistic reins from Mark Rylance, I don't like the approach toward Shakespeare exemplified by the productions at Shakespeare's Globe in London. I think the interplay with the audience can be very effective, but all the Elizabethan drag just places Shakespeare's work in some other world. We can look and enjoy, but we don't have to think about it. I prefer productions of Shakespeare that are geared to expressing what the play is about for us in the twenty-first century. Shakespeare should be both timeless -- not necessarily rooted in his historical past -- but also timely. If I think about great Shakespearean productions I have seen recently, I recall Nicholas Hytner's production of HAMLET with Rory Kinnear, for instance, a production that not only set the play in the present, but also made us see its title character in a new way. A production of Shakespeare doesn't have to be set in the present, but it should make its audience think about the play, not merely watch it. Of course, however one does the play, it needs to be spoken well. Everything one needs in Shakespeare is in the language.
Julie Taymor's new production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, now on view at the brand new Polonsky Shakespeare Theatre in Brooklyn (the new home of Theatre for a New Audience), is without doubt the most visually beautiful production of Shakespeare I have ever seen. From beginning to end, one is surprised and awed by gorgeous visual effects, all at the service of the play. Es Devlin's simple but visually arresting sets, Constance Hoffman's costumes, Sven Ortel's projections, Donald Holder's lighting -- all of these elements cohered in Taymor's appropriately dreamlike and often scary production. This was far from a mindless, ornamental production. Taymor had clear ideas about the play. The woods at night was a place where chaos could and did break out at any point. The central character in Taymor's vision of the play is Puck, the central agent of chaos. Played by the androgynous, amazingly flexible British actress Kathryn Hunter with a croaky voice and a body that can do just about anything, Hunter is the agent of magic, which can be good or bad. Fairies, after all, were mischievous creatures. The army of fairies -- called Rude Elementals -- are played by twenty or so talented children.
Every moment in this production is clear story-telling. Time is relative. If Theseus and his court seem to be of a different time, Bottom (Max Casella) and his fellow actors are definitely from Brooklyn or a nearby borough. Oberon (David Harewood) and Titania (Tina Benko) are definitely from another realm. Trap doors and stage elevators as well as some magical aerial effects underscore the difference between the earthbound mortals and the non-humans who rule the woods. Emotional stakes are always high in this production as they should be.
Shakespeare demands large casts (though in his time thirteen or so actors played multiple roles), and acting in Shakespearean productions on either side of the Atantic is seldom consistently excellent. In the United States, this is in part because young actors don't get enough chance to play classical roles in training or in their early careers. Duke, where I taught for eons, hasn't mounted a full Shakespearean production since I retired in 2008. Any good training program should mount a Shakespeare production at least every other year. It is not surprising that this cast had actors with less technique than others. This was particularly evident in the four young lovers. Demetrius and Helena (Zack Appleman and Mandi Masden) simply had better control over their voices and bodies than Hermia and Lysander (Lilly Englert and Jake Horowitz). I'm not always crazy about Kathryn Hunter's acting, but she was perfect as Puck. Veteran British actor David Harewood and Tina Benko brought both power and sensuality to Oberon and Titania. I was particularly impressed with Nick Bottom and his cohorts who found affecting contemporary counterparts for their characters, and who played the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe honestly instead of obviously playing it for laughs. Zachary Infante, acting Young Francis Flute who is assigned the role of Thisbe, actually performed the tragic heroine as if he were playing Juliet, a surprising and moving choice.
I like to be surprised by a revival of a classic, but also feel that the surprises are justified by the text. From beginning to end, Taymor's DREAM was surprising, but also an act of understanding and love for this oft-performed play. Awesome.
The design for the brand new Polonsky Shakespeare Theatre, right across the street from BAM in Brooklyn, has obviously been influenced by the former Cottesloe Theatre of the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-Upon-Avon, though this theatre is more intimate than these spaces. The audience sits on three sides of a deep thrust stage. There are two balconies, each with one row of seats (elevators for those who can't handle the stairs). Everyone has an excellent view of the stage. The lobby areas could be a bit roomier, but this is an important new theatre. Taymor's DREAM gave it the opening production it deserves.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Theatre. December 28, 2013.