Setting the Stage Once Again for Shakespeare, and Live Theater


LONDON — Shakespeare is coming back, and I can’t be the only person who has missed him.

There are signs of renewed activity at Shakespeare’s Globe, and talk of at least one star-studded production that is, after many delays, scheduled to be performed — can you believe it? — live. This comes after a year of a pandemic that has affected in various ways what has, and hasn’t, been staged, with Shakespeare a particular casualty.

Understandably so. Amid a theatrical state of affairs dominated by Zoom and a brief return of live performances of small-scale shows in London that came to an abrupt halt in mid-December, the logistics of Shakespeare have seemed pretty daunting. How do you accommodate a writer whose capacious narratives depend on size, scope and dimension in these strange, socially distanced times? It’s far easier to return to the two-character environs of, say, “Love Letters” or “The Last Five Years,” to name just two titles that could be (and were) easily married to coronavirus rules.

A lining of sorts to this bleak cloud came in the form of theatrical archives. With playhouses less inclined to revive Shakespeare, recordings of past productions were made available, giving theater fans a new chance to see or revisit notable performances. Shakespeare’s Globe, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theater were among the venues in Britain that drew upon a sizable back catalog. The Globe reported an increase of nearly 500 percent in its video-on-demand GlobePlayer service.

What better chance was there to be reacquainted with the National’s thrilling 2018 production of “Antony and Cleopatra,” which remains among the few productions of this play in my experience with an Antony, in Ralph Fiennes, worthy of his Cleopatra, the sinuous Sophie Okonedo. The R.S.C.’s extensive archive offered up a 2015 “Othello” that, in a first for that company, cast a Black actor, Lucian Msamati, as Iago, opposite Hugh Quarshie as Othello; the result was both riveting and revelatory.

But it wasn’t until the start of this year that theatermakers appeared to find a way to present Shakespeare afresh, even if the same few titles seemed to be under consideration. (My visions of numerous anxious Hamlets subjecting their best “To be or not to be” to the vagaries of YouTube went unrealized.)

Sam Tutty, who won an Olivier Award for the West End production of “Dear Evan Hansen,” widened his range in a newly conceived “Romeo and Juliet” that was streamed online in February. In accordance with pandemic-era requirements, the play was filmed with the actors in isolation for the most part, then joined up in the editing. For all its best intentions, this approach just couldn’t deliver the reactive thrill that comes from performers sharing a scene in real time and space.

The Royal Shakespeare Company offered the tech-intensive “Dream,” which filleted the multiple plot strands of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” into a brief if ambitious exercise in interactivity that was arresting to look at but didn’t reveal much about the oft-revived play itself. The result may have suggested new ways of looking at Shakespeare, but it didn’t help us hear him anew.

A direct contrast was the rehearsed reading this past Wednesday of the same play, directed by Jenny Caron Hall, whose father, Peter Hall, founded the Royal Shakespeare Company and was Laurence Olivier’s successor running the National Theater. As might be expected from such a lineage, Jenny Hall’s emphasis on her starry reading of the play via Zoom lay very much with the text, which looked to be in safe hands at a rehearsal I eavesdropped on the previous week: It helped, of course, to have doubling as Titania and Hippolyta the supremely accomplished Rebecca Hall, Jenny Hall’s younger half sister, who brought clarity and a welcome playfulness to some of Shakespeare’s most ravishing verse. (Rebecca Hall played Viola in her father’s final production for the National, a mortality-inflected “Twelfth Night,” in 2011.)



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