The recent production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which closed August 13) at New York’s Shakespeare in the Park was an oddity for a number of reasons. It had a strange tonal consistency, flitting back and forth from drama to sitcom in an instant, and made the baffling (though not necessarily bad) choice to fill the court of Titania and Oberon with eighty-year-old fairies. Still, the most bizarre choice in the entire production was the many small interjections of modern language into Shakespeare’s verse.
This is not a new development. Directors have been “spicing up” the formalities of iambic pentameter for years now, throwing in contemporary words or phrases ostensibly aimed at connecting with their audience. This June, for instance, Shakespeare in the Park received attention for its Trump-inspired characterization of Julius Caesar. A recent off-Broadway production that closed last January, Othello: The Remix, went a step further by rewriting the Bard’s work as a ninety-minute-long rap musical. As a way to honor Shakespeare, it must be said, I found the musical worked quite effectively. That’s because the rhymes were clever, the actors each energetically embodied their roles, and, most importantly, the meter stayed relatively faithful to the original iambic pentameter.
This month’s Midsummer at the Delacorte served as a counter example. Director Lear deBessonet employed modern speak as a cheap gag, a crutch on which the bulk of the humor rested. DeBessonet drew laughs not from the subtle intricacies of Shakespeare’s puns, but from over-the-top spectacle, punctuated with double takes that could be seen from the moon. While I enjoyed the production, I felt the feeling was not plumbed fully from the text. The production felt akin to a glittery episode of the television show Friends rather than the portrait of envy, lust, and class that Shakespeare’s original text truly is. When one chooses to make a production go dark, particularly a Shakespearian comedy, it can become chillingly haunting.
The stunning Twelfth Night at the National Theatre in London (which ran from Febraury 15 to May 13, and which was directed by Simon Godwin), for instance, elevated gender-bending hijinks to extreme levels, but never forgot, underneath the glitz and bright colors, the emotional content. Malvolio’s declaration at the end of the play, as rain fell down upon the cast, sticks with me to this day. She would make them pay, and Tamsin Greig fully made me believe that one day, Malvolio would return to have her revenge on the young lovers. There was real darkness underlying the frivolity, and that is the standard for which Shakespeare in the Park should have striven.
The key difference is that the National Theater understood Shakespeare’s language to its full extent. They seemed to embrace his asides and his wordplay, and found humor in the twisting and turning of the verse. They read the original text on multiple levels, and, while the set was extravagant, and the gags plentiful, they found the largest laughs in the words as Shakespeare intended them. Greig transformed Malvolio’s monologue in the garden into a masterclass of scenery chewing and comedic timing. Annaleigh Ashford as Helena in Shakespeare in the Park’s Midsummer production, on the other hand, took up an equal amount of space, but, while she did draw out the laughs effectively, she never grasped the heart of a woman scorned. The actor resided on a surface level, never daring to peer underneath the thickly smeared mascara.
Shakespeare in the Park is, arguably, the most high-profile production of Shakespeare in the country (besides perhaps whatever Sam Gold is directing at the Public downtown). Does it really set a good example to impressionable young performers when the Public goes for style over substance? We might think of Midsummer as the gateway drug of Shakespeare plays: it draws playgoers in to then hook them on the harder stuff (to make a somewhat crude metaphor). Thousands of people waited in line this summer to see a production that skated over the text with nary a glance to its moral complexities. It shows a fundamental distrust in Shakespeare; a belief that the power of the Bard is no longer enough to draw in crowds.
So, what do shows such as this one do? They pull in gimmicks. The Public faced massive backlash last year over the all-female Taming of the Shrew, which featured unnecessary rape scenes and lacked a concise and clear vision. Earlier this summer, The Public was shaken by a Trump-inspired Caesar, which prompted prominent sponsors to pull their funding. This production, while decidedly less controversial, uses a literal whoopee cushion, and ends with a confetti cannon shooting into the night air.
Clearly, these gimmicks are not beneficial for the institution, though attendance was high this summer in the wake of previous controversies. Though the shows have been received harshly by critics, the packed performances indicate that people want Shakespeare in the Park to succeed; it has become an inherently New York tradition (the “city of waiting in line”), and many still talk wistfully of productions from days of old (such as The Tempest, which starred Sir Patrick Stewart as Prospero in the 1990s). I propose a simple solution to the Public’s recent trend of middling performances: go back to the text. Only when the Bard’s work is treated with the care and attention it deserves will Shakespeare in the Park become essential viewing once more.