Shakespeare in Michigan

Some of the residents of Ann Arbor are glum after the recent loss by the University of Michigan to Ohio State, but thousands of others are celebrating a more lasting event: 21 performances during a three-week residency by the ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY, Oct. 24-Nov. 12. Great Britain’s most respected classical theater occasionally travels to this side of the Atlantic to showcase its wares, and one of its favorite destinations has been Powers Center for the Performing Arts, a 1,368-seat theater on the Michigan campus. (Recent residencies were in 2001, offering 12 performances of the three Henry VI plays plus Richard III, and in 2003 when they offered 16 performances of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Coriolanus and a play by Salmon Rushdie, Midnight’s Children.) The presenter, University Musical Society, estimated that 26,000 people would attend the 2006 residence, which also featured 140 educational activities, such as lectures and exhibits.

I made the trek the weekend of Nov. 11-12, the culminating weekend, because it enabled me to see all three productions in two days time: Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and The Tempest. And there was an additional reason I was attracted: I’ve been a longtime Star Trek fan, especially admiring the work of British actor PATRICK STEWART, who portrayed Capt. Jean-Luc Picard. A classically trained actor, Stewart was playing leads in two of the three productions, works that are being developed for presentation at RSC’s home theater in Stratford-upon-Avon, in addition to London and an annual residency in Newcastle Upon Tyne.

The first production I watched was JULIUS CAESAR, and I went to the theater with lower expectations: This was probably the first play by Shakespeare I ever read, and I’ve seen it staged many times. What could possibly make it worth seeing one more time? Well, how about riveting acting and a production on a monumental scale, in keeping with the epic story of the overthrow of an emperor?

From the opening crowd scenes, awash in colorful gowns and riotous behavior, this was a riveting production. The senators, many of whom become conspiratorial assassins, wore pristine white robes that became bloodstained following their attack on Caesar (who also wore a white robe, but with a scarlet sash).

Every sense was stimulated by this production, especially with sound: Two groups of musicians were on the right and left sides of the stage, providing a musical soundtrack for the story with percussion and rhythmic wind instruments. During the prophetic thunderstorm the night before the assassination, a large sheet of metal was lowered and “played” by a man who struck it, scratched it and made it speak in a fearsome voice. He was in dim light, barely able to be seen, but it was a powerful effect. Likewise, an illuminated bar of projected clouds was suspended above the action, sometimes lowered or raised to create different atmospheres.

But the really impressive dimension of this production was the acting: Not to take anything away from our local Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, it was a pleasure to watch actors playing roles for which they are the correct age. James Hayes, who played Caesar, is in his fifties; Finbar Lynch as Cassius, the leading conspirator, is probably in his early forties, and John Light, as the ethically conflicted Brutus, is only slightly younger. They brought a gravitas and moment to their actions that shed new light on the play’s content.

Ariyon Bakare, an actor of African descent, played the manipulative Mark Antony. His slightly accented speech (perhaps he’s Nigerian) set him apart in a way that was entirely appropriate as he subtly castigated the assassins’ motives and turned the populace against them. I have never been more exhilarated by a production of Julius Caesar.

Up next was ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, a Shakespearean play less often staged, although I had the privilege of seeing it at Cincinnati Shakespeare just a year ago. Again the acting made this a feast for fans of theater: Patrick Stewart played Mark Antony, a man much older than the brash leader in Julius Caesar, still full of charisma but vacillating between his public responsibilities and his personal desires. He sets aside a wife, marries another, but continues to carry on with the regal but sexy Egyptian queen, played with mature charm and fierce passion by Harriet Walker. The ebb and flow of their passion and their fury as they pull apart is the engine that drives this story, and Stewart and Walker were perfect for these roles of people who are icons with human weaknesses that lead to their downfall.

If you know Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek, you could appreciate his acting skill fully by watching him in this production. No longer the steely “Captain,” here he’s a man often at the mercy of his emotions, frequently laughing at his own diminished state.
But Stewart wasn’t the only actor to notice onstage: John Hopkins offered an Octavius Caesar who was hard to like, full of twitches and awkward stances, a man whose desire to lead is exceeded by his lack of charisma. His conflicted role made him always interesting to watch.

As with Julius Caesar, design was an important component of the production: Everything was dramatically backlit, and ropes were frequently used to divide scenes, to climb upon and — at one point — to lift the dying Antony to Cleopatra. Antony and Cleopatra is a daunting string of scenes that move from Rome to Egypt and points of battle in between; this production moved so swiftly from scene to scene, however, that we spent less time trying to recall the whereabouts and more locating the emotional centers of action in the characters we were watching.

The play is an unusual blend of tragedy with spicing of humor, and it was a joy to watch it in Ann Arbor with an audience who understood many of the nuances of the language and the poetry. That’s an exciting dimension of a residency such as this, in that it attracts people who know the material and can enjoy the RSC’s sparkling interpretation of Shakespeare’s work.

Stewart also played the sorcerer Prospero in a production of THE TEMPEST that was like an Enterprise holodeck program with a computer glitch: rather than a typical setting on a Mediterranean island, this production played out on an arctic island with the characters stranded after the sinking of a Titanic-like ocean liner. I’m not a big fan of modern overlays, and when I read about this concept, I thought it would be odd. But with Stewart and RSC’s company of accomplished actors, it was fascinating and absorbing: In fact, it forced everyone to see the work in a new (dare I say cold) light. The production was clearly the favorite of audiences in Ann Arbor, where I overheard several people saying they returned to see the final performance on Nov. 12, having seen it earlier in the run.

This production featured the clearest rendition of Tempest’s opening scene, usually a cacophony of sailors and others bellowing to one another about a tremendous storm threatening their voyage. The RSC staging began with a projection on a curtain of a large, modern shortwave radio accompanied by an announcement about gale-force winds plaguing the North Atlantic. The large circular speaker in the radio slid open to reveal people below the decks of an ocean-going ship, crew members and others dressed in evening attire — which clearly delineated the two social orders that Shakespeare set up to be at odds in some of the play’s humor. Lights were swinging and chaos reigned, but it made sense.

With abstract, atmospheric video projections, scenes were “wiped” across the barren, windswept stage on a traveling curtain. Sound effects heightened the aura of a blizzard. Tempest is usually played out in lush environment; in this production the exotic element comes in the form of Eskimos and northern legends. The translation worked very successfully, using rites and music by those native peoples to extend the magical environment.

In addition to Stewart’s sometimes angry and erratic sorcerer, John Light (so tortured and eloquent as Brutus in Julius Caesar) played the “moon-calf” Caliban as a scuttling crab, dirty and tortured. Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, was portrayed as a lovely, simple but curious girl by Mariah Gale, who served as Brutus’ agonized wife Portia in Julius Caesar and Octavia, Mark Antony’s bride of convenience in Antony and Cleopatra.
But most memorable was Julian Bleach as Ariel, a role often played by a woman and characterized as a lighter than air spirit. Director Rupert Gould wholly reconceived this being as a haunted, lugubrious presence, slow-moving and gaunt (I was reminded of the vampire from Nosferatu, a classic silent film). Bleach would slink on and off the stage, wearing a floor-length robe and white-face makeup (and at one shocking moment he emerged from a bloody seal carcass); he delivered much of Ariel’s poetry with slow, steady tones. The character aids Prospero in hopes of being freed, and when Ariel is finally released, it’s as much a sense of weary relief after years of burdensome servitude. My vision of this role will never be quite the same.

I would say much the same for the overall production, which wholly integrated the imagery of cold weather. Stewart’s deftness with Shakespeare’s language made humor in moments when it was not expected (sometimes certainly not intended), but that worked well, too, because it kept the audience in on the fascinating and magical game being played.

All three productions were acted with confidence: Performers strode onstage and spoke with authority. The nuanced performances were by actors who knew their roles and had vast experience with Shakespeare’s plays. The proscenium stage at the Power Center was admirably adapted for each production, in several cases thrusting a platform toward the audience and effectively using a ramp that conveyed the actors off the stage while moving toward the audience. It kept our focus constantly on center stage. The concept of centrality might have been a controlling image in these productions: the focus on Julius Caesar, on the troubled but attractive relationship between Antony and Cleopatra, and the way Prospero swirled action across several strata of people (not to mention frozen expanses) made this an experience I will long remember.

If ever you have the opportunity to experience the Royal Shakespeare Company in Great Britain (or in another residency here in the United States), don’t pass it up. It will set a benchmark for subsequent theater experiences.


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One Comment on “Shakespeare in Michigan”

  1. The Dean Says:

    I’ve had the good fortune to see the RSC perform Richard III in Stratford, Shakespeare’s hometown.

    Richard III is the best bad-guy in theatre!

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