The Norton Shakespeare Tragedies
"Whenever you write say a word or two on some passage in Shakespeare that may have come rather new to you …" (Keats) That and the 400th anniversary.
There’s too much death in the news--which is hardly news. Word about Prince came the morning after I attended a memorial concert at Disney Hall for the late Steven Stucky. He had been L.A. Phil’s composer-in-residence for years, but obviously his role was more various and extensive. He seemed to be a discerning, genial, encouraging presence that helped make the orchestra what it is.
The first half of the program was devoted to his own work. I discovered what everybody else there knew—that Stucky composed compelling music. It’s not programmatic, didactic or confrontational. He was neither an abstractionist or revivalist. There was no label to attach to him, other than humane modernist. Which is probably the reason he found a receptive audience in the town where many forms of modernism (fine arts, architecture, design) found domestic and genial modes.
The Four Album Leaves (2002) for solo piano were delicious, as was The Music of Light (2016) for unaccompanied choir. But the revelation was Nell’ombra, nella luce (2000), a compact—17 minute—string quartet that is rich and dense as a symphony, and lyrically direct as a pop standard. It was radiant and light, but intermittently troubled. The different moods are given equal weight.
Then there was a series of homages and works by colleagues. This was movingly staged. The six brief solo piano works (by James Matheson, Anders Hillborg, Mandy Fang, Joseph Phibbs, Magnus Lindberg, Esa-Pekka Salonen) were performed by six local heroes of progressive pianism (Nic Gerpe, Susan Svrcek, Mark Robson, Vicki Ray, Steven Vanhauwaert, Gloria Cheng).
The emotionally-charged event ended gracefully, with Hila Plitmann’s wonderfully vivid and funny performance of Lutoslawski’s Chantefleurs et chantefables.
[Image: Open window with hills (Juan Gris, 1923)]
Here we are, commemorating the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, housesitting with Sid, the chickens, and the other (offscreen) livestock.
Most of us know a Juliet, a Brutus, a Hamlet and an Othello or two, but almost everybody, at one time or another, has been a Timon. Who hasn’t lived beyond their means? Mistaken things for relationships? It’s a very 21st century disease. Of all the tragedies, this is the only one about a conflict that concerns everyone, everywhere.
But instead of being the most familiar of the tragedies, The Life of Timon of Athens is unread and unperformed. (Though the National Theatre experimented with a clever update recently.) Probably because the language doesn’t move. The absence of poetry is really shocking. The language has none of the richness of Othello or the others.
Scholars have suggested that it’s a first draft. It’s certainly plausible to imagine WS (or WS and Middleton) working out the story in rough. After the roles were cast, the language could be customized and heightened according to the actors’ abilities.
That being said, Timon’s servants are given a scene in Act 4. After he’s lost all his money, and his household is dispersed, the servants say goodbye to each other, “All broken implements of a ruined house” ...
If anyone's keeping track of the things George Fridrich Handel could do better than me, don’t forget reading John Dryden’s poetry. If there was ever a demonstration of a silk purse made out of stuff not nearly so fine, it is Alexander’s Feast.
Last night I sat watching Dryden’s inane couplets flash up on the back balconies of Disney Hall with increasing exasperation. Dryden’s poem assumes the existence of readers who can catch an allusion to the legend that Alexander the Great was conceived when his mother, Olympia, was ravished by Zeus disguised as a snake, but who, on the other hand, need to be informed that “Sweet is pleasure after pain.”
But it didn’t matter. The words were a pretext for Handel to show off everything solo and massed voices can do, with movements from harp and organ concerti thrown in for added spice. It’s a complete musical variety show, circa 1736 London. Individual numbers are instantly recognizable, but the piece as a whole seems never to have been recorded. Major thanks to Grant Gershon for making it happen. The Los Angeles Master Chorale was tremendous.
The staging (Trevore Ross) and lighting (Azra King-Abadi) provided all the context that was needed. The chorus were the guests at Alexander’s party. The soloists stepped aside to share their arias with the audience. Handel the inspired reader discerned the story latent in Dryden's poem: a story of music fueling feelings of triumph, drunkenness, sorrow, love, anger …. And then when Alexander and his party gets out of control, music as harmony and order appears in the form of Saint Cecilia at the organ. This bit was especially well staged with Disney’s dramatic organ loft. "Music won the cause" hands down.
[Image: The Banquet of Cleopatra (Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1744)]
Last month’s Magic Flute wasn’t a fluke: here’s another fantastically imaginative use of video projection on stage. And not just projections, but scenery, costumes and handful of props. It was not lavish, but there was the effect was hilarious excess—including a decapitated head bouncing across the stage like a basketball. As with the Flute, it worked because the visual elements were synchronized with performances by the actors that were not only spit-second accurate, but gracefully funny.
Gentleman’s Guide derives from the classic Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, which derives in turn from Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal. The similarities are obvious: in Kind Hearts Alec Guinness plays all eight members of the D'Ascoyne family, and in Gentleman’s Guide, John Rapson plays all eight members of the D’Ysquith clan, etc. But it’s not a staged movie, but it’s own thing entirely.
Othello really feels like a correction—Shakespeare readjusting his focus—after Hamlet. The mythical, haunted, Danish court is replaced by Venetian Republic businessmen worried about their trade routes. Instead of an introspective, irresolute Prince, the focus is a successful warrior. Othello is anti-Hamlet: all action, decisiveness, impulse. Part of his activity is a poetry that stuns with richness, music and delicacy:
Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust ‘em.
But Hamlet’s heir isn’t Othello but Iago. In the scene where Cassio pleads with Desdemona, Iago stands aside and makes his comments. It's outrageous: Hamlet wandered off in order to put on his performances, but Iago stays in the thick of things.
Then in the long pivot scene in Act 3, Iago dupes Othello, creating doubt, then suspicion, then certainty. I don’t think Iago’s being crafty: I think he’s just playing it by ear. It’s not a vision of evil ingenuity, but a vision of gullibility, of jumping to the worst conclusions, of guilt and self-hatred. Then in the next scene we see the result: complete breakdown of trust. Othello screams about the handkerchief and Desdemona blubbers in bewilderment. It’s brutal and unsparing.
The play also takes up the theme of performance from Hamlet. But here the parts Iago and the others play are so shabby and pointless. By the end, Emilia and Desdemona’s last words are shattering because they are barely coherent. They aren’t rhetorical exercises. Instead of performing for the audience, we—the audience—seems to overhear them.
Othello murders Desdemona as a performance called for by his honor. He goes through with the performance, but without conviction:
Put out the light, and then put out the light.
Even Desdemona picks up his doubt:
EMILIA: O, who hath done this deed?
DESDEMONA: Nobody, I myself. Farewell.
Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell!
OTHELLO: Why, how should she be murdered?
I hadn’t realized that Hamlet inhabits the world of social media—pretending and viewing others as performers is what’s wrong with the Danish court. No one lives in the present, or experiences things directly except Ophelia.
When she goes mad at the end it isn’t acting. What do you expect,? Her terrifying encounter with acting-up-for-Instagram Hamlet in Act 3 is deliberately set up by her father—Polonius literally gives her her mark and her prop as if he were staging a YouTube zinger.
She isn’t jaded enough to take it ironically, and it stuns her. Though she has caught enough of the self-monitoring bug to suffer, at first, in the third person: “And I, of ladies most deject and wretched ….” But she recovers herself: “… O woe is me, / T’have seen what I have seen, see what I see!”
Her line rhymes—phonetically and philosophically—with one of her last utterances in the next Act, “Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.”
Buika has become a jazz singer. The songs have become pretexts for extended, free improvisations. When I saw her before, she operated within the lines, showcasing her phenomenal vocal skills with just a piano to accompany her. But now she has a serious band. And the mood has gone from mellow to intense and erratic. There were moments she didn’t seem to know what she was doing. I don’t know quite what to make of it, but it was an honor to see someone who is so skilled risking it all, rather than repeating past accomplishments.
La Santa Cecilia's riotous performance and the rapturous ovation of the sold-out crowd may have sealed the deal on their becoming the official band of Los Angeles. Who could not love ranchera buskers from Olivera Street that listen to Pink Martini? I surrender, even though with my perfect ignorance of Mexican pop music causing half of their allusions to fly way over my head. I didn't even know who Pepe Aguilar was when he came on stage and redoubled the hysteria.
La Marisoul, like Buika, is a diva, and among other pleasures the evening provided a lesson in different modes of divadom. Where Buika’s expressive gestures come from high-strung inwardness, La Marisoul’s gestures and dances come from a street-performer’s outgoing exuberance. She was wearing an oilcloth skirt, for heaven's sake. The knowingness is part of the fun.
The first scene of the third act of Julius Caesar is extraordinary, endless, dark. It begins with Caesar strolling into the Capitol on the top of the world ("The ides of March are come") and ends with his corpse being dragged out.
Every word uttered becomes ironic. Caesar goes on about being the unmovable North Star a minute before he’s assassinated. Cinna cries, "Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!" as if he knows already that they are precisely what has just been murdered. Mark Antony’s expressions of compliance are so transparently fake that it becomes a demonstration of the fatuousness of Brutus and the other conspirators.
What could republican Rome matter to audiences and writers in Elizabeth’s monarchy? Base self-seeking disguised with noble rhetoric. All familiar stuff.