June 14, 2019
Day 20: “Shakespeare leaves a lot of room.” Lloyd Suh, who translated Henry 5.
The year of 1599 officially begins! This is the year in which Shakespeare will write H5, As You, JC, and Hamlet. It was, as one might say, a very good year!
I brought a blanket to CSC tonight. My hot pink promo-for-a-drug-for-breast-cancer blanket. I got it after an annual mammogram. It’s a little odd to be given swag after one of those. I sit in the last row of the center section at CSC and I swear there’s an a/c vent right above my head. I’m always cold as my body temperature is lower than average, which I’ve always used as an excuse for my cold demeanor. But I’m losing feeling in my toes.
But before I settle in the frozen tundra known as Seat 201, row E, it’s a full day of practice for three other readings. Each of these requires creating a kind of performance protocol based on the principle of “essentialism” – in other words, how few props, sound cues, and movement do you need to tell this story in this readers theater format? Every play has different needs, and for Hamlet, director Ellen McLaughlin has decided that we need a skull. Fair enough. We order that right away online. She is also wrestling with how to stage the duel between Hamlet and Laertes at the end. It is integral to the action of the play, and we don’t want to spend any time choreographing this. But miming it, or just reading a stage direction is unsatisfactory. Mostly because it is such a famous moment.
She decides that perhaps there is an elegant solution using wooden dowels. And so Savannah, one of our PAs is sent to the hardware store, where she takes a picture of a bin that has dowels of different circumferences. Taylor and I choose a smaller dowel, as if they could stand in for the delicate foil. Sometimes it feels a little like putting on a play in your garage for your neighbors.
Then there is the business of Gertrude drinking the poisoned cup and wiping Hamlet’s brow with a handkerchief. At first, Ellen thinks we don’t need an actual cup, that we could mime that, but after working on the scene today, she asks if we can find something. It takes quite a while to find a plastic goblet that looks somewhat like crystal.
We have a set of sound cues that each director can use. There are a lot of trumpets announcing battles and kings. Thunderstorms and doors being knocked on. In Hamlet there is the cock crowing. Diane, the SM, plays the cue on her phone, and it’s hilariously wimpy. Not sure that’s going to stick. We listen to a trumpet cue and it sounds like the opening of Churchill Downs. “And they’re off!” That definitely isn’t the tone we need.
I walk into the 12N room and they are engaged in a gender performance conversation, which this play begs more than most, I suppose. Like As You Like It and Two Gents, there would have been a young man impersonating a woman (Julia, Rosalind, Viola) who then pretend to be a man (Sebastian, Ganymede, Cesario). In our theater practice, it is most often a young woman playing a woman who impersonates a man. For these readings, I will not allow the gender pronouns to be changed. Because I want us to just read the plays, as if we were invited to the playwright’s house and we sat around and read an early draft. I’m not asking anyone “to act like a man.” Whatever that is. I find Shakespeare to be even more relevant these days because we are growing so much more aware of the fluidity of gender.
I drop in at CSC to catch the opening scenes of JC. It has been my observation that the rehearsal process reflects the kind of play that one is working on. I take comedy incredibly seriously, for instance, and those rooms are always the most dour. In JC, which dramatizes the ecstatic build up to and the chaotic afterwards of a political assassination, the energy in the rehearsal room can feel like that mob, pent up, ready to burst. Now that they are in the space, they are discovering many different ways to stage the crowd scenes. I’ve learned that too many choices aren’t better, and I try to keep the number to three. Somehow, when you have too many choices, you begin to think that there are more choices to consider, and going down that rabbit hole ends up being beside the point. It’s called “analysis paralysis.” After trying the scene a few different ways, director Sabrina Peck finds a clever way to use the CSC stage space for the scene between Cassius and Brutus when everyone is offstage at the Games.
H5 reading is as elegant as the play itself. This is the last major history that Shakespeare will write (I’m not sure that I would call H8 major?), and in many ways, it is the culmination of all the ones before it. It has multiple tone shifts of high comedy, and deep moral questioning. And, always, a reflection on what it takes to be a good leader.
In the talkback afterwards, playwright Lloyd Suh talked about what attracted him to the play. It contains themes that he thinks about. And he’s been interested in examining characters in other time periods than our own.
Andrea Thome, a well-known translator of Spanish plays as well as the translator of Cymbeline for this project, talks about the act of translation as “writing a play in the voice of another writer.” And through that process, you find muscles you didn’t know you had. Lloyd looked at this assignment as an exercise and he felt like he was an adventurer. Which is a rather lovely way to think about that, isn’t it? Also, kind of a great philosophy for life, methinks.
He talked about how Shakespeare leaves space for interpretation and he grew fascinated by how Shakespeare does that. And how could he incorporate that into his plays? What the rehearsal process taught him is that everything is a choice for individual actors to make, and the key is to keep them in the present tense.
As for the famous parts of the play, there were some things that he just wouldn’t touch because he was aware that such famous bits mean something to people and he didn’t want to disrupt that. But what does “O for a muse of fire” literally mean, he wondered. Then he realized that “There are things in my plays that I don’t know what they mean.” And so what are those moments in Shakespeare that serve a different function than just literal plotting?
I asked the playwrights to assess that line between clarity and poetry. Sometimes, the function of a gnarly speech is to match the emotional state of a character. And sometimes we just need to know what the hell is being said. This is why I asked playwrights to look into this. They have a special eye for dramatic arc. How things change. And when they need to change to keep our interest. And what I want help with is knowing when a character isn’t speaking clearly on purpose, versus a character isn’t speaking clearly in my ear. There is a subtle difference.
Lloyd spent a lot of time thinking about the Chorus. It’s the only play in Shakespeare that uses this convention so thoroughly. Every act begins with a Chorus direct address to us, and the play ends with an Epilogue. Some plays have choruses and some plays have epilogues, but this is the only play that has prologue, choruses, and an epilogue. I find that formal frame very informative. Shakespeare has set this story in a container, with a solid beginning, middle, and end. It may be the tightest frame in the canon. But in that “open way” of Shakespeare, there is room for a range of interpretation from rousing, pro-Henry to something more ironic. And perhaps it’s the play that can contain those extremes?
Tomorrow: talk about extremes! AS YOU and JULIUS CAESAR. It’s going to be a rousing day!