FringeReview UK 2023
An invigorating not to say complicit evening by the end. Whilst I have questions about the limits of the texts used, and the understanding of how the texts developed and still – with some academics – the deeper questions of syntax which some adaptors clearly work with – this is exciting.
Led by Dr Will Tosh, Lue Douthit, Migdalia Cruz, Ishia Bennison
This is less a review than an account and overview of a one-off event at the Globe on July 12th. It’s a key moment too, because inherent is a discussion of what language we use in order to perform Shakespeare. That’s paradoxical of course. And we’re not talking any language than English.
The American Play On Shakespeare company from Oregon, led by Business Director Cheryl Rizzo, are hosted by the Globe’s resident academic director Dr Will Tosh, and on stage are Lue Douthit who led the discussion, and Migdalia Cruz, dramatist who adapted Macbeth in particular. And actor Ishia Bennison for long associated with Northern Broadsides.
Founded in 2015, the not-for-profit company commissioned writers to modernist line-by-line )leaving some alone) each play of Shakespeare bar one, though including Edward III. They tend to use the Arden edition.
The following is a verbatim account expanding on the notes I typed at the time. Whilst I critique and make conclusions, the point of which was to carry the report of an important occasion and with it, the liveliness of the moment. If corrected on any points, I’d be delighted to amend.
Douthit enjoys a button-holing style and a laconic delivery. Gleefully she recounted James Shapiro says they’re the work of the devil. Only half-jokingly.
After some examples and two actors (currently I can’t track their names) producing excerpts of original and revised versions, we moved through each to a Q& A.
We started with the famous Act III quote from King Lear, focusing on words like “superflux” quotes and unpacking it to an audience. It’s incidentally a good word to use of obscene wealth and forcible taxation of the super-rich.
Questions – 1
At is point I confess to being part of the experiment and asking questions. The first was around language being apprehended before being comprehended. But most of all, where the fixation has been on obscure words, surely syntax is the thing that challenges, especially in the later plays, for instance The Winter’s Tale.
Dr Jonathan – seconded that. We then focused again on the language and enjoyed a few questions. Strikingly from someone I the Pit “Do we need a non-binary playwright etc to translate? Emphatically Yes! Was the answer to universal cheers.
There was then another one what constitutes an original version? To thorny issues of Bad Quartos Douthit and the scholars realised this would get off-piste quickly- though it luckily spawned more centred questions.
If, one asked, we’re updating political won’t it become as swiftly obsolete? My own response is that like every translation you need to revisit each of these undertakings ever 2030 years. Keep updating? Why not?
Douthit I could sense can become defensive, even when there’s supportive remarks. I made my point about Middleton meddling with Macbeth and Measure for Measure (according to Gary Taylor, widely accepted), so that to discuss ‘original’ would also be to recognise what Shakespeare’s near-contemporaries had done, modernising and adapting Shakespeare almost before his ink was dry.
But also – and here was the nub of my question. Every play’s included in Play One’s own ‘canon’, even gratifyingly Edward III, bar Sir Thomas More (147 lines not enough in themselves, admittedly, but interesting to use). So since Theobald in 1727 modernised the recent (2010) Double Falsehood or Cardenio at least halfway to modern usage, would Play On adopt it?? No! shouted Douthit. Laughter. But Arden and others have adopted it.
Here’s the rub. There seems despite the democratising of Play On, a lack of engagement with the knotty problem of authorship. Not who wrote Shakespeare of course, (brought up with scorn later) but collaboration, posthumous editing and revision. That naturally isn’t their business, complex enough, but it seems artificial boundaries are drawn, a few opportunities lost.
It is after all part of what Play One themselves are collaborating with: dead editors, playwrights and scholars who’ve flued and sanded Shakespeare over centuries, to the gleaming Arden 3rd Editions we enjoy today and which Play On it seems take their bearings from. This fixity though is in itself a jump-off. Play On require a stable platform. Douthit confesses she’s no Shakespeare scholar and this insecurity destabilises some of the richer conversations we might have.
We move swiftly to Migdalia Cruz’s Macbeth presentation. Quotes used started with the “If ’twere done it ’twere best were done quickly.” Listen for “if” Douthit and Cruz commented and went through the translation line by line.
This brings us to a really creative, sensible choice of writers like Cruz, when adapting.
For instance sometimes Shakespeare being so quickly proverbial means you can keep “the be-all and end-all’ and phrases like “poisoned chalice”.
Questions – 2: New Language
Question came in about groundlings? At what level did groundlings apprehend or hear what lawyers did?
The answer’s speculation – and an ingenious reminder. It’s good that Dr Jonathan was on hand. English at this period is sucking in language from other countries in early modern. Everyone’s making up words. Shakespeare, famous for crating more words than anyone else, in fact didn’t: he was no more inventive of new words than anyone else- a fact that I confessed escaped me. We all know how the language was accelerating and all were creating words, but the sheer level of it, meaning Shakespeare’s no more than playing his coining part, is something to take away.
For instance we’re told: Assassination’s a new word Shakespeare introduces, but its context makes it readily understood. And “be all and end all” new but perfectly understood to its use as a cliché swiftly thereafter.
The culture’s excited by new words we’re told again. For instance “Accommodation” first appears in Henry IV – its first use, and clearly the etymology of ‘accommodo’ …
Philip, Actor next to em made a penetrating observation. “In Bolt’s Beaumarchais that I took part in, I’m still hanging on to conscience of the verse – it’s a question of how we remember and receive it: it’s personal.” That might be scrambled in my notes, but important.
Douthit brought up a key point – the King James Bible’s been translated to the New Oxford! In 1971 yes, and of course this 1611 work despite its textual authority and indeed apparently sacrosanct language, ah been ‘translated’ over 50 years ago. Even if the TLS sneered that it seemed rewritten by agnostic bishops!
When it comes to the superflux, Chaucer himself used it once.
An A level student asked if there was a risk of losing language? “But” she added, “I would have wanted to engage far more than I did if I saw this when 15-16. Would have done far better!” Great laughter.
Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet
With Much Ado About Nothing we were treated to the badinage quotes from the first pass of Beatrice and Benedict. Some of the latter sallies made more immediate sense, though most was kept intact.
We then passed to an equally early part of Romeo and Juliet with the servant Gregory’s badinage. This, often cut, made infinitely more sense, with tis cutting of maidenheads and other unpleasant moments such as thrusting maids to the wall which needed no translation at all. There was then an interval.
Second Half – Ishia Bennison and Northern Broadsides
After the break there was a brief account of Beth Miriam’s Flowers, and movingly Cruz in tears recalling her best friend raped and murdered at eight. Cruz describes herself as Bronx but Roman Catholic and both bisexual and queer.
Then Ishia Bennison an actor collaborating with Douthit and Cruz as dramaturg came in. “I do come from Hull.” There’s expectant laughter. Bennison joined Northern Broadsides’ first shows and relates its genesis.
Shakespeare had been long appropriated by the upper and middle classes but NB founder Barry Rutter could only play servants. Bennison herself was aware of this, and the heavy weight of tradition was literal, with absurd encrusted props. One production was so expensive it was cancelled.
Costumes are fine for coronations but not Children’s Hour they decided. Northern Broadsides’ first production was Richard III and the tremor as: will they take us seriously? It was a great success played at Richard III’s own castle and tower. It marked a cultural sea-change. Then Bennison worked at the RSC with John Barton, Cicely Berry et al.
Bennison commented: “As an actor I’m not intellectual, but trying things to sound in my mouth. Using the last word of a sentence to get the whole story. So make sure that word is strong.“
She added a point already hinted at: “Keep the lines everyone knows. Don’t change what people understand don’t treat them as stupid!”
Will Tosh and Migdalia Cruz
Will Tosh asked Cruz about how it feels as a writer.
Cruz answered: “I like to write visiting burial places of Macbeth and asked his pardon. It’s important. It nearly drove me mad and ill looking for all the key places mentioned, but In had to do it. It gave me a boost and brings it all to life. Let the beauty of it go through them.”
Philip the actor asked again. About the clarified word and its impact on analogies and jokes. And what it’s like doing the work of a dramaturg. This clearly thrw the question bak to Bennison.
Bennison talked of the clues Shakespeare gives to the outcome, in the way the beginning of a speech is framed. Like Macbeth’s bloody Captain in the “doubtful it stood”.
Tosh and Cruz
Tosh asked what animates Cruz. “Clarity. Shakespeare’s a lyrical person and I’m a hard-assed woman who wants to understand and be felt.”
Tosh asked about what changes in the way Cruz approached the text
Cruz suggested that what happened is that “we initially thought we were being quicker, and had pretended we understand and hadn’t. But it became easier. That Captain speech took a week. It’s a seed for all. It’s a moment as religious as being Roman Catholic almost.” Hope I’ve transcribed that right.
Questions for Cruz
Someone asked about the order she ‘translated’ in. Did she maange the soliloquies in order? “No” Cruz was clear. “Basically I went through. Bennison interpolated that “Migdalia had me half in New York and half on the phone.” “It’s the first time I’ve worked with an actor” Cruz added.
We then had the reading of the Witches. The munching chestnuts speech. Again the latter as clarified though Bennison got plaudits for riffing the “I’ll do and I’ll do and I’ll do ‘im.”
Cruz added she preferred Macbeth to Coriolanus – “someone tried to get me to!” She pointed at Tosh!
More Questions for Cruz
Cruz added re Lady Macbeth, but in particular the Witches, that she understands being othered. A childless woman. Second best. Being a stronger warrior so she should have been chosen. Further, Lady Macbeth’s messy to start with. No child no heir no legacy of a line and perhaps impossible to conceive more: post-natal depression at the start.
She added that for instance Bennison would understand this, being half-Egyptian, Brown. A perfect choice for an empathic dramaturg.
Cruz asked again: “Who are we afraid of in the 21st century? Women of colour who are attractive and stronger so that’s why in my production the Witches sang.”
Cruz strikingly added: “And Fleance was brought back. In my version the Witches crown Fleance while Malcolm’s being crowned. The play I love – I took it out of the museum and put it on the stage…” Though one might counter that many have revisited and remodelled Macbeth.
Bennison to the Academics
Bennison asked Jonathan about speaking in a different rhythm not five but four bars. So the people realise the speakers of the four beats are dead ghosts, they’re other with four bars.
More Questions Generally
A woman from the gallery asked a question about “powerful women in the power-struggles for instance #MeToo, now it’s even more politicised.”
Cruz answered happily. “Yes always in my work we didn’t need to read Macbeth to know Witches are powerful. People talk more and more. Used to throughout the ages but have always been shut up. So these 11th century Scotland Women are from the Bronx.”
Tosh focused on humour.
Bennison chose to do the opening Porter speech with the knock knock. It was then translated. “Come in tailor here you may fill your carrot.” French panties have no gusset for access.
Another woman from the Pit asked about Shakespeare being a man of the people, a good grammar school and son of glover but people think he can’t have written his pays. Ho counter this?
Bennison said the court would know, with all tis bills and small communications. Then added that even Chaucer’s asking for time off was treated as too brief to be authentic by Victorians. Snobbery!
There was a further question about queerness.
Cruz declared that as bisexual she’s “always interested in queerness. What’s going on with the Witches translates to Manhattan in the 70s. For me always a thing but undercover. We cast drag queens and one woman (famous name I missed). “Queer in America’s bonkers right now. Bearded women! But these men. They want to sleep with those witches who they want dying – they’re horrible.”
Another woman from the gallery asked when in translating is psychology used, and can it be modern?
Tosh (I think, it might have been Dr Jonathan) added that John Hall, the first psychologist, knew Shakespeare so he was using his insights. There was a reference to Estelle Parsons reading listening with Richard III. “Now actors can just act.” It’s a testament to the project itself.
There was a further Invitation to look to translate for yourself with annotations appended – examples of parallel texts, and in green precisely how the translator highlights and alters pars of Shakespeare, unpacking and sometimes losing the rhythm, as is necessary to sense. These though one or two seemed otiose, lost none of that at all.
Our example lay in the four lines of The Comedy of Errors. Luciana sister of wife ultimately being seduced and furious. But here she chides her sister with “a husband’s office”. We threw in our translations with gusto and were invited to shout out lines.
It was an invigorating not to say complicit evening by the end. Whilst I have questions about the limits of the texts used, and the understanding of how the texts developed and still – with some academics – the deeper questions of syntax which some adaptors clearly work with – this is exciting. Does it show a way forward for the Globe? That, of course, introduces a whole new chapter of politics and heritage-twitting.