Monkeys are smart. Though they haven't created cars or trains or weapon, they are educated through simplicity. They flourish on what they have, and if something doesn't work, they don't give up, but they evolve to overcome it. Like monkeys, Shakespeare had no thesaurus, no dictionary, no laptop and no editor. But when he came to a spot where he was at loss for words, he made up his own words. Through practice, perseverance and certainly trial and error, he created works that will last forever.

I am a 13 year old kid who is trying to read and attend live performances of all 37 Shakespeare plays (plus 3 possible collaborations) in 2 years. This is a record of my experiences.

I am now a 19 year old college freshmen at Northwestern University, pursuing a degree in Theatre. The spark of love for Shakespeare that began this blog has grown into a roaring fire. That fire burns a little bit brighter each day. This is where it all began.


Monday, May 28, 2012

The Last Play: Henry VI part I (in Serbian), The Globe Theater, London

         On May 13, the late Sunday morning humdrum of strollers along the south bank of London’s Thames River contained an unusual number of Serbians. A colorful mural on a wall across from the river describes the reason for this influx. It was a visual representation of the Globe-to-Globe project, an international Shakespeare festival, during which the Globe (the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s theater) is hosting a performance of each of Shakespeare’s 37 plays, each in a different language from a different international troupe. This makes each performance unique, as the plays are set in the culture of the language. On that Sunday, it was the National Theater Belgrade’s turn to perform Henry VI part I in Serbian.

Globe-to-Globe exhibits Shakespeare’s words breaking the barrier of language. It captures the impact of his words on a deeper level. Shakespeare asks the big questions. Significant themes and ideas not specific to a certain time or place fill his plays. Each of his plays explores recurring themes from different perspectives, with unique depth and subtlety. His plays raise profound issues that show extreme cases of a theme. If his play is about leadership, then he writes about whether or not one can control their kingdom. If his play is about psychology, then he writes about whether or not someone is going insane. Even though not everyone speaks the same language, or shares the same beliefs about these issues, the questions Shakespeare invokes are universal.  

            While the multicultural impact the Bard has is a function of his core ideas, each nation understands his text differently. Translating Shakespeare into a variety of foreign languages and cultures presents obstacles. For example, in the Japanese production of Romeo and Juliet, the play had a very different interpretation from the tragic love story we think it is. In Japanese culture, suicide is thought to be a noble solution to an unsolvable problem. Therefore, the ending was made out to be a practical way for the lovers to be together on a new spiritual plane.

Even though a good number of Serbians occupied the theater, the Globe is still in London, and it was clear that some of the audience members spoke no Serbian, including me. This did not deter National Theater Belgrade, who made it understandable on more than just a verbal level. No doubt, the absence of subtitles made this much more difficult. But no one got lost because the Serbians physically portrayed each line as it was spoken. They were fine physical actors, prancing around, acting out stories as they were being told. Even the stage would illustrate the scenes.

The chameleon of a set first seeming like nothing but a large circular table. Looking more closely, I could see that the table was actually 9 separate tables pushed together. Four large arc-shaped tables formed the outer ring of the circle; four similar smaller ones formed the inner ring. In the center was one circular table. Each had the same reflective, yet not shining, iron hue. 12 identical chairs were evenly spaced around the table. The one farthest upstage had a silver box on it.  That was it, and it worked.  Over the course of the next 2 hours those tables and chairs morphed to become a castle, battleground, city, wasteland, court, a slaughterhouse and a church. The actors also helped transport the scenes. The crawled and jumped over, under, around, in-between and on top of these tables. The tables started together as a unit, reflecting England, secure in the legacy of the late King Henry V. His ashes were in the silver box, which was blessed by all in the first scene. But as the kingdom divided, the clashing and bickering lords pulled each piece of the circle apart. Returning from intermission, the tables were not even in a circle at all, but snaked across the stage. The final scene had each table overturned and uneven, showing the upside down state of things in England. Two peasants spilled Henry V’s ashes to end the play, showing his legacy was scattered. When John Talbot died, the center table was moved offstage, showing that the heart of England was lost. Joan of Arc was killed in that hole, as she was the heart of France, as well as having killed Talbot.

            The lack of emphasis on verbal communication led to the play being cut in a way that left out scenes that normally define Henry VI, Part 1. For one thing, having only one woman in the cast caused all the female roles but Joan of Arc to be exempted. This negated Shakespeare’s intent to show that in a world in such disarray, women take over. The most striking change to the text was the near absence of John Talbot, the one man who kept the English hopes alive. The production relied heavily on the ensemble element (there were no exits and entrances off stage, except for the final exit), causing Talbot to fade into mass of soldiers. He is meant to shine out against the French, the last defense keeping England in the war. Talbot is a symbol of England. Even today, his character is a source of unity and inspiration to Englishmen everywhere.

Performing this play without him, in England, impacts more than the plot, it takes away from the rush of emotions that Talbot triggers. He is also supposedly the only man who stays a real man. In a world without order, Talbot stays strong. He is the only Englishman who does not operate out of pure self-interest. While everyone else flees to save themselves, Talbot fights and dies to save others. But this contrast is not only lost with the absence of women, but also with the absence of men. King Henry VI and Charles, ruler of France, were played with the same manly countenance as every other character. This diminished the idea that the leaders were feeble at this time.

The scenes that were cut were essential to the plot, and I came away with the feeling that if I understood the Serbian, the play may have actually made even less sense, as I found myself assuming they were saying certain lines, though I’m not sure exactly what lines were cut, but it was clear that women were cut completely, and Talbot spoke very little. The scene order was enough to show the adapted storyline had some holes, even when the physical comedy made up for it.

            Henry VI, Part 1 was the first play the Bard wrote, and the last play I needed to attend to have seen all of his works. Sitting at the last Shakespeare play I will ever see for the first time, in the closest thing to the theater he first intended them for, I was filled with a sense of wonder: a play written almost 450 years ago, about an event some centuries before, was still being performed today. Not only that, it had become such a global phenomenon that it was being performed in the language of a country that was not even fully formed when Shakespeare put his pen to paper. Far above my head, a helicopter whirred by. I looked down, and a woman standing below me had her Iphone out, following along with a complete text of the play right there on her phone. These new additions to the groundlings craning their necks to see the actors and the birds fluttering above would have seemed extraterrestrial to Elizabethan English. Shakespeare would never have dreamed of such things, but his work was still a part of them. As I ended my quest, I thought to myself that though Shakespeare lived and died long before us, and his words will live long after us.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Richard III, BAM Harvey Theater, Brooklyn, New York


One sweep of the eye easily took in the white, wooden floors and doors lining each side of the stage. This focused attention on a man sitting in a chair in the middle of the floor. Above his head, a plain and unadorned picture frame hung, appearing as an inanimate piece of scenery. A sudden noise broke the stillness. The frame sprang to life with a video of a man dressed in a military uniform, clearly of a high rank. Abruptly the seated man produced a remote, paused the video, and spoke: “Now is the winter of our discontent.” And so Richard identified himself.  

An understated use of basic furniture, mainly chairs and doors, expressed things that a billion-dollar set could not. The only other effect used were faint blue light, which signaled the presence of the supernatural, casting pale, inhuman shadow on the stage. The lights also came up each time a major character was killed, and ex-queen Margaret appeared, the messenger of doom, and drew a chalk X on one of the doors that around the stage.

Less worked as more because the layout left everything, save the voices, up to the imagination. Rather than painting a specific picture, the director handed each audience member a blank canvas and told them to draw what came to mind, making each individual experience unique. For me the set was first a marble hall, full of palatial ornaments and nobles, and then a barren wasteland, full of bloody soldiers. But that individual image was only in my mind.

Spacey made Richard a kind of comedian, always mouthing insults to the audience when his enemies spoke to him. Speaking or gesturing to the audience helped fill the barren stage. However, though he often mouthed or spoke out of character, he also played all aspects of the social chameleon that is the hunch-backed politician. 

He morphed to his surroundings; each time a different character entered the stage, he changed his personality ever so slightly, but yet so fluently that it seemed almost untraceable. He would accent certain syllables to sound more proper in front of the king, or drag out his words just a little when trying to seduce a woman, so that she hung on every word. He even managed to shape his physical appearance, changing his posture, though he could not abandon his disability. He strode around for the entire play, often running, always his leg twisted sideways at an awkward angle.

          Spacey was surrounded by a strong supporting cast. From the shine of his shoes to the perfectly folded pocket-square in his suit jacket, his second in command, Buckingham, was perfectly kempt and restrained. This attire gave him the precise, clean-cut look a man who knows exactly when to say what. His diction mirrored his image, impeccable down to the last syllable. At first glance, he seemed almost like a holy man, with a black suit and royal purple shirt. But then, as his character was revealed, he a flashed his true colors, unfolding his dark plans to control the kingdom with Richard.  However in the second half, his shirt was changed to white, as if cleansed of blood. This was correlated with the fact that he was trying to wash his hands of the treason he and Richard had committed.

Queen Margaret also made a lasting impression, holding the stage like no one else in the cast, even when she didn’t speak. Her curses rang in each ear drum like the deep echo of an enormous bell, as if calling forth beings from a different world.

Little was cut from the production, which explained the full story behind many scenes that are confusing when the play is shortened. This also brings out many political aspects of the text, and each one further complicates Richard’s character. Rather than just act as a psychopath, he has to change his voice and body language repeatedly. He is forced to use every shred of energy to project the deep, multidimensional layers. Spacey’s portrayal of the infamous cripple also becomes twice as taxing; on top of that, he performs six nights a week, a full play and walking with a severe, though artificial, limp. Once his nephew actually jumped on his back, and, still walking with a limp, he stumbled, turned, and then smiled and laughed, all in the space of 10 seconds.

His performance headlines director Sam Mendes’s final production in his series The Bridge Project. The energy and life of the production, as well as the chance to see an uncut version of Shakespeare’s most complex villain make this production one to remember.