For me, Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth is as much about Falstaff as it is about Henry. Why the author’s abrupt bellicose turn to begin with? I think the playwright was afraid of Falstaff. He had already devoured two plays, Henry IV parts 1 and 2. Something had to be done.
This most famous quote, precariously balanced, elevates the word question to existential status. Hamlet is a play of questions. Could Gertrude following hard after, have saved Ophelia from drowning? Did Hamlet ever love Ophelia? Is the ghost real? There is a glimmer of hope—Hamlet lets us know very clearly that if he had more time, being blessed finally with the proximity of death and its widening of perception, he could tell us more. Perhaps he could answer some of these questions.
As life in the city slows down, life in the country west of Boston ratchets up. I went out to the Berkshires to catch as much as I could of Tanglewood’s fiftieth Festival of Contemporary Music, this year curated by Boston composers and longtime Tanglewood faculty members John Harbison (a composition fellow in 1959) and Michael Gandolfi (a fellow in 1986).
HIP (Historically Informed Performance) is not so hip as it used to be. William Christie does Baroque opera with cutting edge directors. René Jacobs records a Matthew Passion with tempi that rival Furtwängler’s. The information age was what made historically aware performances possible. It did not give us all the answers. In fifty years will we have HIP performances that are more like the 16th or 17th century than they are today? And how will the information we gain then be applied? Will not the actually application of it be indelibly tied to the decade?
Just reading the program builds anticipation for the Barrington Stage Company production of Kiss Me Kate. The songs listed—“So In Love,” “I Hate Men,” “Wunderbar,” “Too Darn Hot”—are among the best from Broadway’s golden age. The first number, “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” adds more anticipation. Then the show builds and builds and builds until it is, unfortunately, way over the top. Barrington Stage Company, always so reliable for exceptional musical theatre, this year embellished a Cole Porter gem. They shouldn’t have. Kiss Me Kate gleams on its own.
Much credit must be given to Theatre Company of Hubbard Hall’s John Hadden for putting up an “Ondine” that was not an exercise in nostalgia. There was also an excellent kind of sharp energy in the Ondine of Autumn Hausthor. This was not a passive immortal, but a quirky, even annoying, young creature. Her performance flavored the whole production. I also was invested in the performance of Gino Costabile, who did all of his roles, especially The Old One, convincingly. Maizy Scarpa was a model of versatility as Hans, all again with a kind of sharp insouciance that kept the play from sentimentalizing. Best of all, as so often, was Doug Ryan as the King. Ryan has a true comic gift in which we see the tears behind the laughter, the pathos in the one-liners. He did a superb job of portraying the King’s sad bewilderment and also his kindness. Mr. Ryan’s performance, brief as it is, is well worth the trip to Cambridge, NY.
Die to Live — says the Priest to the falsely accused Hero at a crucial moment in Much Ado About Nothing, and so ushers in a new perspective in Shakespeare’s comedy. We already hear intimations of it in those lines of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, called “Bottom’s Dream.” The buffoon recalls that he has had a vision “past the wit of man to say what his dream was.”
We post-moderns know there are no real characters, right? A Falstaff is just a bunch of words, marks on a page. When the play is over, so is he. But is this true? Thinking that way absolves us of all risk when we enter the theater. Just a fiction, such stuff as dreams are made on, and the word is the only reality. Love’s Labour’s Lost is basically a battle between what we might call word and what we might call reality. It is entirely unclear at the end of the play which combatant has won. In page after page, scene after scene, words rule. We hang onto the plot line in desperation. The play is essentially a bunch of word games. But there is a catch, and his name is Berowne, wonderfully played by Mark Bedard in Shakespeare and Company’s new production. Berowne rejects Shakespeare’s need to show the university wits that he can best them, something he did splendidly in his “Rape of Lucrece” or “Venus and Adonis.” Berowne stands against the chatter and speaks for the reality of the word, the power of the word. And above all, the necessity that the word comes from the heart. Another thing Berowne represents is risk. Since the essence of the play is wordplay, speaking real is the ultimate risk, both for the playwright, and the actor. Not only does Shakespeare send up his fellow wits in the person of Berowne, he makes their whole method a thing of nought. Very like Orpheus, his agon is to come close to silence, guiding his own Euridice out of Hades. As Beethoven wrote, “from the heart, may it go to the heart.” In a wildly verbal play, the real struggle to speak directly and play no games. His success is uncertain. The title, after all, is Love’s Labour’s Lost.