Monday, January 18, 2021

Shakespeare in a Divided America


Design by Keenan

Shakespeare in a Divided America by James Shapiro.  Faber & Faber 2020.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
Monday January18, 2021

James Shapiro, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, has written the ultimate STEAM book.  Of course, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics have their place as they should in this story of why the United States of America remain divided.  But the Arts – Shakespeare’s art, surprisingly – has the central role, as surely we all would want to claim for it.

“Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true!” as Aesop is said to have written in his Fables,  some two and a half thousand years ago.  On Wednesday this week, American time, as King Lear’s presidential career ends, in favour perhaps of Brutus, Shapiro’s study of Shakespeare in America explains what it means when we say every child must experience the arts throughout their education.

Shakespeare in a Divided America is essential reading, in my view, for all citizens and especially for those we choose to elect to our parliaments.  It is both a structurally dramatic work of art, exciting and surprising, while its academic research is telling.  Like Shakespeare himself – telling often what we might not like to know.

My characterisation of the outgoing president as King Lear is not in Shapiro’s book, published on 12 March 2020.  It will be interesting to see if Trump realises that so many who voted for him are Edmunds, Gonerils and Regans. Will he feel sad for the loss of those Fools who tried to tell him “Thou should’st not have been old till thou hadst been wise”.  And will we feel sad that he was never able to understand, receive and offer genuine love until too late?  Still wanting to believe Cordelia lives, as he dies politically, will Trump – as Shakespeare’s Lear perhaps seems to in his final madness –  realise that his obsessive self-centredness is the cause of her death and his failure?  

Shapiro’s story begins “… it was the election of Donald Trump in 2016 that convinced me to write about Shakespeare in a divided America….I wasn’t the only one turning to Shakespeare to make sense of the moment….On the eve of the election, Stephen Greenblatt published a powerful op-ed in the New York Times likening Trump to a Shakespearean tyrant….And a month after Trump was elected, Oscar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, decided to respond to this seismic event by directing a production of Julius Caesar the following summer at the Delacourte Theater…in Central Park.”

Since the open air theatre was built in 1962, “spectators – by now, more than 5 million – have flocked to see Free Shakespeare in the Park.  Fifty thousand more would see this timely Julius Caesar….That production and reactions to it, powerfully shaped my understanding of much of what follows in these pages….”

And my understanding of American culture, and the many roles played by Shakespeare in it, has been powerfully re-shaped by what followed.  The chapter titles, each centred on a date of significant change, must stir anyone’s thinking and raise our concerns about social harmony and conflict – past, present and future:

1833: Miscegenation
1845: Manifest Destiny
1849: Class Warfare
1865: Assassination
1916: Immigration
1948: Marriage

concluding with
2017: Left / Right

Australia’s story, of course, runs in parallel with America’s since their War of Independence of 1776.  That took place between Capt James Cook’s fateful arrival on Tasmania’s shore in 1770 and the redirection of Britain’s convicts from America to Australia with the appointment of Arthur Phillip as the first governor of New South Wales on 12 October 1786 – and his invasion with the First Fleet in 1789.

The close cultural connections between America and Australia, which we still perhaps take too much for granted, jump out of these pages, even though Shapiro writes entirely from the American viewpoint.  For example, being an immigrant here myself, directly from Britain, I have learned from “1916: Immigration” key points of new understanding about my Australian experience.  

In particular there is the interpretation of the nature of Caliban, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, by Joseph Quincy Adams among many others:  “…in the person of Caliban, Shakespeare represented the treacherous nature of the natives, as reported by the colonists”, which supposes that Shakespeare knew of the new colony of Virginia. Caliban’s island was taken to be an island off the American east coast. Fake news of 1 November 1611, when The Tempest was first performed?  Maybe or maybe not: the colonists first landed there in 1607, but there’s no evidence that Shakespeare was aware of or interested in this.  

But, Shapiro notes, after compulsory education  for the young was instituted (beginning in 1852), and the study of Shakespeare’s plays was made a requirement, Adams could gratefully say in 1932, in his inaugural lecture opening the Folger Shakespeare Library, this was: “Fortunately about the time that the forces of immigration became a menace to the preservation of our long-established English civilization.”  

Restricting immigration via a literacy requirement came in 1917 and, writes Shapiro, the “anti-immigration forces achieved their ultimate goal: the institution of racially driven quotas in 1921, and even more restrictive ones in 1924, that would be the law of the land until overturned in 1965.”  A White America/Australia policy which took us until 1973 to overturn.  All the result of a glorified  racist dead-white male Shakespeare showing us the sub-human example of Caliban, never to be admitted into “our long-established English civilization”.  

So keep your wits about you when you wish for everyone to be educated in the arts.  James Shapiro has a surprise in every chapter, with amazing background details (I loved especially the story of the writing and many re-writings of Kiss Me, Kate) and concluding with what happened when Brutus, full of concern about preserving democracy but terribly anxious about using violence to do so, stabbed a Caesar who looked like Donald Trump in 2017.

As I would say of any top-class drama: not to be missed.

James Shapiro
Photo: Mary Cregan









Friday, January 8, 2021

THE MERRY WIDOW - Opera Australia

Julie Lea Goodwin with male ensemble

Directed and choreographed by Graeme Murphy – Conducted by Brian Castles-Onions 
Set Designed by Michael Scott-Mitchell – Costumes designed by Jennifer Irwin 
Lighting designed by Damien Cooper – Sound designed by Tony David Cray 
Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House until 16th January 2021. 

Opening night Performance, 5th January 2021, reviewed by Bill Stephens

Julie Lea Goodwin (Hanna Glavari) with male ensemble 

“The Merry Widow” was the perfect choice for Opera Australia’s return to the Sydney Opera House after an absence of 10 months because of Covid-19 pandemic restrictions. 

Attending the performance however was a slightly unsettling surreal experience with the faces of the audience unrecognisable behind masks, social distancing, and no bars operating during the intervals. Not that the carefully monitored restrictions dampened the enthusiasm of the audience, which enthusiastically cheered and applauded the performers at every opportunity.

Graeme Murphy’s sumptuous production was first seen in Sydney in 2018 with Danielle De Niese as the widow, Hanna Glavari and Alexander Lewis as Danilo. 

Julie Lea Goodwin (Hanna Glavari) - Alexander Lewis (Danilo)

This 2021 revival has been carefully restaged by revival director, Shane Placentino with Julie Lea Goodwin, who played the widow at the matinees in the 2018 season, and with whom Lewis was so successfully teamed for the Opera on Sydney Harbour production of “West Side Story”, stepping into the role of Hanna Glavari. They are a thrilling combination.

Julie Lea Goodwin gives a genuine star performance as Hanna Glavari. Confident, elegant and beautiful, with a crystalline soprano, she was every inch the beautiful widow worthy of the adoration of the bevy of males surrounding her. 

Matching her every step of the way, Alexander Lewis, with his rich tenor voice, manly swagger and confident sex appeal, was funny, moving and compelling as the lover whose ego had been bruised by their previous encounter. 

Both are superb singers, accomplished actors, and most importantly for this production, excellent dancers. It was fascinating to watch them mine Justin Fleming’s witty English translation for subtle nuances to bring unexpected depth to their characterisations as two former lovers who suddenly find themselves in a position to rekindle their relationship.

There’s a particularly memorable moment when Danilo hides in shadows of the garden pavilion to listen to Hanna sing “Vilia” knowing that she is really singing for him. His presence, although subtle, provides context for a song which is often just a set-piece for Hanna.

Julie Lea Goodwin in "Vilia" with ensemble

Murphy’s staging for this scene is particularly masterful in a beautiful setting inspired by Monet’s water lily paintings. As the song ascends to its climax, he has Hanna seated on a giant water-lily frond gently lifted skyward by three male dancers. The result is pure magic.

His stagings of the duets and ensemble numbers are also inventive, and his choreography for the large ensemble of excellent dancers often surprises with its originality. Indeed his first act finale waltz drew cheers from the first night audience.

The Grisettes

It’s a pity therefore, during a dance by the grisettes in the third act, a disappointing lapse in taste has the girls drop to all fours to display their red knickers in a move so vulgar and demeaning that one can only feel embarrassment for the dancers required to execute it.

Richard Anderson - David Whitney - Tom Hamilton -  Brad Cooper
 - Alexander Lewis - Luke Gabbedy - Alexander Hargreaves.

An impressive supporting cast of Opera Australia heavyweights including David Whitney (Baron Mirko Zeta), Richard Anderson (Alexis Kromov), Tom Hamilton (Konrad Pritschich), Dominica Matthews (Praskovia), Jane Ede (Sylviane) Luke Gabbedy, (Viscount Nicolas Cascada) and Brad Cooper (Raul de St.Brioche) all returning in the roles they created in 2018, revelled in their over-the-top operetta characterisations, while Benjamin Rasheed (Njegus) almost stopped the show with his outrageous antics in “Quite Parisian”.

Stacey Alleaume (Valencienne) - Virgilio Marino (Camille de Rosillon)

Stacey Alleaume was again a delightfully flirtatious Valencienne, but took a little time to adjust to her new Camille de Rosillon, Virgilio Marino, who despite his fine tenor voice seemed miscast as the ardent lover. But of course, as beautiful as this production is, it is Franz Lehar’s gloriously tuneful score that keeps audiences coming back to “The Merry Widow”.

Conductor Brian Castles-Onion clearly delights in its riches. He confidently guides his orchestra and cast from the overture, which he takes at an exhilarating clip, through the dreamy duets, the lush waltzes and stirring national dances, all superbly played by the Opera Australia Orchestra, leaving the singers room for romantic flourishes while never allowing the evening to flag, providing the perfect ambience for Murphy’s gorgeous production to work its magic.

                                             All photos by Prudence Upton

This review also published in Australian Arts Review.