Theatre Review: The Rover

 


Photo credit: Zabowski via Foter.com / CC BY-ND

The Rover by Aphra Behn; Directed by Eamon Flack

Cast: Gareth Davies, Andre de Vanny, Taylor Ferguson, Leon Ford, Nathan Lovejoy, Elizabeth Nabben, Toby Schmitz, Nikki Shiels, Kiruna Stamell, Megan Wilding

Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, until August 6

I was so looking forward to seeing this play, to seeing Aphra Behn psyche on stage. I’d never seen her work brought to life. This was going to be my first time.

The show was fun, funny, exhuberent, raunchy and altogether, very, very big! It was set in a Naples carnivale-mardi gras and the look and tempo of the performance was of a circus side-show – excitement and otherness was paraded and celebrated. There was lots of physical stage business, lots of sight gags and buffoonery. Their comic timing was impeccable. It seems like every comic device was employed to get a laugh – and received it. The cast played it up to the audience on every opportunity. The way that the sight gags were unravelled- or in the case of Gareth Davies, disrobed – was luxiourously allowed to develop and grow and build mirth with each prolonging gesture. In their silence and indulgence in each mime-like, clownish nuance (or drunken slip and crawl – in the case of Toby Schmitz’s beleaguered attempt to climb his courtesan’s window) there was no holding back – no skimping on the possibility to draw out the laughter. Megan Wilding, as Lucetta and Moretta was masterful in the way she played the audience – cajoling them with unencumbered silence, coyly approaching her lover, pulling faces, hammering obscenity or drawing out laughs with each puff of her cigarette. Beholdng such a spectacle was marvelling at their talents. Yet where was Aphra Behn in all of this business?

But she was there, you may point out. Just there, at the beginning of the play, an entr’acte all her own – her own soliliquy – her defence of her playwrighting and female playwrights. You may want to point out that Aphra Behn’s work is not so well known as Shakespeare’s and that the english used is obscure at times, so that following a verbose 350 year old play is aided by horsing around and bucking off the words. The problem is that in telling a story on the stage the physical metaphor that’s presented by the actors has to be felt to be understood. This metaphor was too often laid aside to keep its momentum as an emotional thread.

So, the first act was a joy ride, perhaps too much of one, as the second act paid the price for frittering away the opportunity to build the emotional connections between the lusty and the love-lorn. The first act down-played the script and up-played the physicality. There wasn’t enough attention to the script to build the empathy needed to allow the second act to reach its denouement plausibly. Toby Schmitz’s Willmore is more a larrikin than a cad who actually needs to fall in love to presumeably mend his roving ways and marry Helena (Taylor Ferguson).

Where the playwright makes her voice heard directly – via Angellica Bianca (Nikki Shiels) the noise and colour of the carnivale is muted by the veracity of Nikki Shiels’ performance driving home her point. Exotic, sensual, pitiable, garboesque, Nikki Shiels’ gave the story heart and intellect. We can feel for Bianca but in the convolutions of the storyline involving Don Pedro, Don Antonio, Belvile, Florinda, Willmore and Hellena, the suspense and subsequent release is missing.

With the number of jaunts into carnivale mode there was always the danger of big acting becoming ham acting. Big and ham are two differnt kinds of deliveries that look identical in performace photos but deliver different results in the auditorium. Foreign accents can blur the distinction too. Clowning and miming require big acting. Interject a steady stream of laughter and minimise the script, and big could devolve into ham. Ham doesn’t matter in the style of jokes being built – it probably aided them –  but it didn’t aid empathy to be drawn on in the second act.

The use of asides to explain obscure terms was a brilliant stroke and worked well with the carnivale atmosphere and the use of the whole auditorium as a performance space. The audience connected with the show. It was a lot of fun, a really good night out. The academic in me was left a little cheated but nothing too serious.

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If the 17th Earl of Oxford wrote the works of Shakespeare, where is his paper trail? He had to have let the cat out of the bag to someone. He liked to brag. He talked over-the-top – especially in Europe – Duke of Oxford. He dressed over-the-top, an Italianate fop, apparently. He lived over-the-top, over-the-top of his income. His was an expansive personality. Why wouldn’t he have written letters speaking of his literary output? Not to have seems contrary to the vanity of his ego. So where is it? Where is the letter regarding his background reading? The personal response to the reception of his plays and poetry? The whine over his enforced anonymity?

Has history overlooked him? Has something more sinister been enacted? Was it a case of damnatio memoriae in the New Rome, London? A government conspiracy to silence him? Was it compounded by the involvement of acrimonious in-laws (the Cecils)? It wouldn’t be the first time in history that such a white-wash was enacted – think of Ancient Egypt, of King Tut.

King Tut, Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, Cairo, Egypt

King Tut, Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, Cairo, Egypt

Photo credit: Rob DeGraff via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

 Or is the lack of evidence due to something a little more mundane? Could it be that his history is mouldering away in a provincial attic because his name and signature are obscure? When the family tree is being drawn up, the document with his signature may be put aside as his name doesn’t belong on the family branches.

He signed his name ‘Edward Oxenford’ or ‘Oxenforde’, or used his title, the Earl of Oxford, but doesn’t seem to have used his family name, Vere, outside of his acrostic poems or perhaps to thinly veil his identity. ‘De Vere’in signature form doesn’t seem to figure at all during his lifetime. Yet today, he is most commonly referred to as ‘Edward de Vere’.

Does a rose by any other name still smell as sweet? In this case it may wreak of damp or be riddled by bookworms (literally). You see, if he wrote about his creative output in letters they may have been addressed to any part of the English, French, Italian, German, Latin or Greek speaking world of his day. Potentially these letters are not restricted to Great Britain but an extensive part of Europe as well. Perhaps they have been thumbed through and pushed aside as a curiosity because his signed name, Edward Oxenford, is not recognizable. A mild curiosity may persist – what was he to the family? the local school teacher, curate, scribe? Eventually the weight of constructing that family tree relegates his name to obscurity once more.

If the name, Edward Oxenford, were to be promoted in the same way that Edward De Vere is, could more of his story come to light? Could that irrefutable piece of elusive evidence finally emerge to elucidate Edward’s enigma?

Happy 466th Birthday, Edward Oxenford(e)!

2 monuments, 1 church, 2 Shakespeares

“Shakespear’s Monument in the Chancell (not in the Parish Church of Stratford Upon Avon) by adjoyning it (I have seen it) Mr Garter Anstis offer’d to get me a cast of it his face . . .( I have got it)”

George Vertue, c.1737

So what if there were two monuments in or adjoining the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford? What’s the big deal? So what if the Darmstadt Death Mask is the cast of the now long forgotten other monument? What is the significance to history and to Shakespeare?

Droeshout’s Engraving for the First Folio.

 

Shakespeare is a shadowy character. He is a body of work with a whisker of a biography. The only images of him that we are supposed to acknowledge as true representations were made after his death. The first is the Droeshout engraving in the opening pages of the First Folio of his collected works and the other is the funerary monument set into the chancery wall of the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. The high domed head, the goatee, the gravity-defying shirt collar of the Droeshout and those intense, heavy-lidded eyes are instantly recognizable. But are they true representations?

File:Dugdale sketch 1634 Detail.jpg

A thumbnail sketch, from life, of the monument by William Dugdale (1636). Notice the sack of grain? wool? agriculture! See the differences in the top of the monuments.

The Shakespeare Monument as it has appeared since the 18th Century and can be seen today in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford

The Shakespeare Monument as it has appeared since about the 18th Century and can be seen today in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford

The earliest visual reproduction of the Stratford monument depicts a very different figure to the portly fellow with the beatified features we see in the Holy Trinity Church today. The original sketch by Dugdale in 1636 shows a leaner man with a drooping moustache whose hands jealously covet his sack of agriculture. The quill and paper are missing. The cupids and square pediment above the entablature are different. Could the Dugdale sketch be an accurate depiction of the monument Vertue saw adjoining the church in 1737? If it is, how did the church come to have two monuments? What is the implication of the difference in the two monuments?

For those who question the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, the Dugdale sketch is evidence in their favour. Shakespeare is depicted in his relationship to the town – a successful grain merchant, not a renowned poet. Apologists have attempted to explain away the sketch by postulating hypotheses that the sketch is inaccurate because it was a quick depiction, copied from another monument and finished later. Another view follows the idea that the Dugdale depicts Shakespeare’s father. The monument would have to be altered to accommodate the bardolatry of the son. But what if the monument was not altered but remade? Remade to be more inline with the Droeshout engraving? What if the Dugdale-depicted monument is not of the father but of the son who was miserly in his grain dealings and not a magnanimous, philosopher-poet?

For the true-believers, the Stratford Monument is the one , the only, the ever-present (since sometime after April 23, 1616) icon of the true Bard. Intransient. Immutable. Omnipotent. Vertue’s jotted notes in his Notebooks wreak of brine, in the same way the Dead Sea Scrolls may have. Vertue’s notes confirm that there were two monuments. Taking Dugdale into account, they were different. One is of a merchant, the other is of a writer. Were the writer and the merchant the same person? When did the one monument replace the other? Was the earlier bust replaced in an innocent practice of bardolatry or was a concerted cover-up involved?

photo credits

 – Droeshout Engraving

Photo credit: The British Library / Foter.com / No known copyright restrictions

 – 1636 thumbnail sketch by Dugdale (1605-1686) of the Stratford Monument, from Wikimedia Commons

 – Stratford Monument as we know it:

Image from page 183 of “Shakespeare’s England” (1895)

Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images /Foter / No known copyright restrictions

An Interview with Rambler

If the 17th Earl of Oxford was the creative force of the works of Shakespeare, how is it that no one let the cat out of the bag? Ok, he was an aristocrat and writing was beneath him – he couldn’t disparage his own reputation. But he didn’t live in isolation and certainly having his works publicly performed invited commentary. Where is it?

Bought Wit is Best, or Tom Long’s Journey to London to buy Wit, is only the surface of commentary on the Earl, his relationship with other writers and William of Stratford. What lies beneath is a watery wonderland of allusions and in-jokes waiting to be explored. Rambler does just this on Quake-speare Shorterly blog. His blog is an eye-opener.

Plays of the time are full of insider jokes and references that he fastidiously unpacks in his posts. His blog demonstrates how well playwrights of the time knew each other, worked within each other’s circle of influence, and responded to Oxford/Shakespeare.

1. How did you first come to doubt that William of Stratford wrote the works?

I wasn’t interested in Shakespeare until my curiosity was aroused by reading a paragraph in a non-literary newsletter about J.T. Looney’s book. (“Shakespeare” Identified as Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.)

2. Did you discover allusions to Oxford in the Elizabethan drama first, or did you have an idea that Oxford was the one and go looking for him?

Reading about Vere (as I prefer to call him) in Looney was my first exposure to early modern literature. So after reading Looney I was already intrigued. Only later, after I’d read an Oxfordian book by H.H. Holland, did the identification of Vere in certain Shakespeare plays set me on my present path.

Shakespeare/Vere aka “Unknown Man clasping a Hand” By Nicholas Hilliard, with the kind permission of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.(1)

3. What is the most painfully, obvious allusion to Oxford that has been overlooked by mainstream scholars?

In the world of literary allusion, nothing is obvious.To put it another way, with circumstantial evidence there’s no such thing as ‘too much’. My approach entails an accumulation of allusions, such that the sheer weight of numbers becomes as close to irrefutable as possible in this kind of investigation.

For example, one of the most powerful discrete observations was made in Holland’s book, Shakespeare Through Oxford Glasses, published in 1923. While studying, Romeo and Juliet, he noted certain lines which seemed to him to bear on Vere’s genealogy. Here’s a transcript from pages 71-2 of his book:

Turning to the Oxford allusions, we will first consider Romeo’s remark in Act 1, Scene 4: “For I am proverbed with a grandsire phrase. I’ll be a candleholder and look on.” It is admitted that this may be taken for a very ordinary remark to be used in the play. So far as the play is concerned, it presumably means that as the proverb – which is as old as the time of his grandparents – has it, he will be a candle-holder and look on. This is quite a natural thing to say, assuming that there were such a proverb in existence, and there is no reason to question it. When, however, a lookout is kept for personal allusions, there are points in the remark which are noticeable. If it is not a presumption to say so, it does appear a clumsy way of expressing the meaning, to say he is proverbed with a phrase; and if this clumsiness is admitted, and it is consequently accepted as not the real meaning, then it appears that Romeo had some family motto, or something of that nature, to which he is punningly alluding. There is nothing, however, in his name to cause such a remark. Now turn to the Earl of Oxford. His grandmother’s name was Elizabeth Trussell. “Trussell” is an old way of spelling, “trestle”. [OED: “16-17 trussell”, under the entry for “trestle”] and an old meaning for the word trestle is a stand or frame for candles or tapers burning in religious worship [OED:”Obs.”]. It can, therefore, be literally said that through his grandmother, the Earl was a candle-holder. In his grandmother’s name of Trussell, he is, in fact, proverbed with a grandsire phrase, and consequently he will be a candle-holder and look on. If it is merely a coincidence it is a most extraordinary one.

Quite some time – several years, probably – after reading Holland, I saw a remark by Gabriel Harvey: “I cannot stand nosing of candlesticks, or euphuing of similies, ala Savoica,” which seemed to refer somehow to Vere and his relationship with Lyly at the Savoy. I wondered whether the “candleholder” (Vere/Shakespeare) and the “candlesticks” (Harvey) might not be a kind of related literary argot for Vere, a marker for someone not to be named outright. I was faced with the daunting task of exploring large areas of early modern prose and poetry and drama in order to confirm or explode my suspicions. Naturally there are considerable areas that I’ve not touched, because the field is so vast. Nevertheless, there are very, very strong indications that the word, “candlelight” is an allusion to Vere. So there seems to be a constellation incorporating candleholder-candlestick-candlelight. As more ground was covered in my investigation, it emerged that contemporary writers expanded the circumference of this marker group to include other concepts associated with light when they wanted to allude to Vere.

So Holland’s claim that Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet was alluding to Vere by means of the word, candleholder, was compelling but not conclusive, and of course has been dismissed by orthodox scholars, because you can’t prove a one-off. So far I’ve seen about a half-dozen uses of the word, candlelight, by several different authors, which seem to indicate Vere. You can either interpret this as sheer coincidence or as deliberate strategy by Vere’s contemporaries. That’s the way it is with circumstantial (textual) evidence and inductive reasoning: you take your choice. The candle/light constellation isn’t the only one I’ve discovered.

4. Do you have a favourite allusion?

See question 3. I also have a favourite type of allusion. As we know, the orthodox, i.e., Stratfordian chronology of Shakespeare’s plays is sacrosanct, broadly speaking. Hamlet, 1599-1602. Twelfth Night, 1601-2. No real wiggle room. It’s particularly gratifying to uncover allusions to Shakespeare plays in works by other writers at a time when Shakespeare’s plays had, according to the scholarly consensus, yet to be written.

For example, the character of Dowsecer in George Chapman’s, A Humorous Day’s Mirth. This successful play was written in 1597 and published in 1599. There is one scene which is clearly derived from Hamlet; in fact much of Dowsecer’s manner and personality shadows that of Hamlet. Millar Maclure, preeminent Chapman critic in his day, wrote in his 1966 literary biography of Chapman that, “Premonitions of Hamlet abound in this scene”. A less challenging explanation than that some mysterious psychic powers were bestowed on Chapman is that Hamlet was already in the domain of Shakespeare’s fellow writers.

Another instance relates to Twelfth Night. In his 1599 play, Every Man Out of His Humour, Ben Jonson supplied a remarkably accurate precis of the plot of Twelfth Night, a play which, we are confidently told, wouldn’t be composed for another two years. Still, the presence of more, yet more, psychic phenomena amongst Shakespeare’s contemporaries has made some critics nervous – as it should. The late Anne Barton, one of the most respected critics of recent times in 1981 called Jonson’s summary an, “alarmingly prescient account of Twelfth Night, a play Shakespeare had not written”. Three years later she wrote her literary biography entitled, Ben Jonson, Dramatist, by which time she had somehow suppressed her anxiety. She substituted for the phrase, “alarmingly prescient account of Twelfth Night,” the more quaint, though almost equally fantastic, “wistful anticipation of Twelfth Night“. Trepidation alleviated by a sprinkling of magic dust.

5. In his day, Shakespeare was not the most popularly patronised playwright. In light of the allusions, on the whole, how do you think other playwrights/poets saw him?

Every other writer perceived Shakespeare differently, and their views must have changed over time. So there is no, “on the whole.” A repeated theme seems to imagine Vere as an ass-genius, idiot-savant, wise fool. As a man who squandered his birthright, and violated the traditions that accompanied it. When they discuss him at all, other writers see Shaxper(2) as an ambitious parvenu in London, an aspiring man-about-town, someone whom Vere had taken under his wing but who ultimately disappointed the earl.

6.“Exit pursued by a bear,” – what does it mean?

It means that he exits and a bear is chasing him. Or it might allude to the Earl of Leicester, whose family emblem was a bear and ragged staff. Or it might be a metaphor for something else entirely. That’s what I mean by an accumulation of evidence. If the same or a similar stage direction or text were found elsewhere, it might give you some indication of what the direction in Winter’s Tale means. As things stand, the Winter’s Tale phrase remains a singleton, a one-off, with no precedent and no subsequent (which is a noun I just invented). There are no referents available for corroboration, so any interpretation remains guesswork.

Thank you, Rambler, for your detailed responses throwing light on Vere and his peers and allowing me to interview you for my blog.

Image Credit

(1) Nicholas Hillard’s Unknown Man clasping a Hand, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

(2) One of the many variations of the name used by the family of the countryman from Stratford who went to London and donned the mantle, William Shakespeare. (Crafty Theatre)

 

2. Voila! Silenus Spoila?

He had the legs of a goat, the tail of a horse and a magnificent and outstanding phallus. Silenus the satyr, like Pan, has a very long association with the theatre, particularly comedy. He raised Dionysus, the god of wine and theatre and is best remembered for his love of indulgence and mischief.  Comedy is said to have arisen out of the hijinks of satyr-figures like him in villages and at harvest festivals(1). It’s not hard to imagine men dressed as satyrs running through crowds and processions with their horseplay. When St John Chrysostom (349-407 C.E.) wrote his homily on  I Corinthians (2) he was aghast at the goings-on at pagan weddings. He disparaged the night-time parade of bride and groom through the city streets with its requisite singing of licentious songs, dancing, music, carousing and laughter. Were his ministrations provoked by a myriad of merry-making Silenus’ bobbing through the streets? Did their glorious masculinity, ribaldly heralding the consummation of the marriage compact, offend him? It was a pagan world.

Satyr, Thasos Archaeological Museum

Satyr, Thasos Archaeological Museum

Silenus and his satyrs were institutionalized very early in theatre history.The first theatres were built on hillsides, where goats grazed freely and Dionysus was worshiped in adjacent sanctuaries. The earliest chorus leaders were said to have worn goat’s heads. Looking like goat-men, their ceremonial origins weren’t lost. Was it during a religious ceremony, revering the goat that both fed and clothed him, that Thespis broke away from the singing supplicants and addressed them? Becoming the first actor, he created the first audience.

When the dramatic festival, the Dionysia, was given in Athens, the competing playwrights had to give three tragedies and a satyr play as entry into three days of dramatic competition. A day of procession preceded. The only surviving, complete, satyr play, The Cyclops, was written by Euripides. It’s a satire poking fun at the mythology that was treated so seriously in the tragic plays. Its chorus is made up of satyrs and its chorus leader is Silenus. Menander’s comedy, O Dyskolos, also features a satyr, Pan. When you consider costuming in ancient comedies – the masks, the micro-mini tunics, the elevated footwear, and the ostentatious phalluses, the link to Silenus with his cloven feet, forthright phallus and sensuousness is obvious.

Archaeological Travel guides to Thasos

Archaeological Travel guides to Thasos. The Silenus Gate, featuring a 2.4m high relief statue of Silenus is featured on the left

On Thasos there was a stong cult of Silenus. Up on the hillside there remains ruins of a temple to Pan. In the oldest part of the archaeological site Silenus enters the city through large stone walls, the Silenus Gate. This is the best preserved section of the ancient city. Here successions of inhabitants built over and extended residences of previous ages. Their progress can be traced in the masonry. The brickwork became smaller and more refined as time progressed. The Ecole Francais D’Athens’, Directory of Thasos, pictured above, describes how single story dwellings became double, roads were added and the neighbourhood spread. Missing from the monumental gate is its overhead lintel stone. If it had survived we would walk beneath a massive stone. Would it have carried carvings? In Argos, a citadel of comparable masonry sports a pair of lions over its gateway.

The Lion Gate with its monumental lintel, from the Citadel at Argos, Greece.

The Lion Gate with its monumental lintel, from the Citadel at Argos, Greece.

Would the Selanus Gate have been adorned with goats?

Co-incidentally, in another part of the Island about 2 km inland from the Agora, a small Christian chapel can be found amidst tired, olive groves. It too, is built of stone bricks.

St Marina's Chapel, just a few kms north of te Ancient Agora of Thasos.

St Marina’s Chapel, just a few kms north of the Ancient Agora of Thasos.

It too, features a rather small creature with cloven hooves, horns and a tail. A  goat-man. He, too, has been associated with wanton desires and incontinence. He is not a pagan god, however. He is a Christian devil. He is bestial desire and wantonness. He is temptation. He is what St John Chrysostom preached against. Was he once a satyr? Selanus? Was this once his place? How old is it, St Marina’s Chapel? Is it old enough to be pagan? Was it his, before it was hers?

Icon stand, St Marina's chapel. The needlework cloth depicts St Marina holding a hammer that she used to pummel to death a devil who tormented her when she was in prison.

Icon stand, St Marina’s chapel. The needlework cloth depicts St Marina holding a hammer that she used to pummel to death a devil who tormented her when she was in prison. The devil has worn away in the icon in the chapel.

The fixtures inside the chapel are definitely not ancient, but then they aren’t as permanent as the building itself. St Marina’s lintel is a riddle. It looks ancient and out-of-place with the rest of the brickwork. Does being ancient preclude being Christian? Could those goats really be sheep, and so symbolic of Jesus flock? Early Christian archaeological features found on Thasos have included this capital:

Early Christian Capital found on Thasos

Early Christian Capital found on Thasos, Thasos Archaeological Museum

Could the chapel have been demolished and rebuilt? Was the lintel part of the original structure? It’s hard to tell for a layperson. Could the lintel be spoila from the archaeological site? If so, it isn’t the only Christian Church that’s taken pagan, architectural features and recycled them.

St Marina's Lintel. Notice the difference in the brickwork and the lintel. The goats too, seems to have been exposed to the elements more than the shelter of this chapel allows.

St Marina’s Lintel. Notice the difference in the brickwork and the lintel. The goats too, seem to have been exposed to the elements, more than the shelter of this chapel allows.

Another possibility is that the site was pagan. That the shepherd who guarded this flock revered Pan, the goat-man That the chapel was built to subsume the site into the Christian faith. That by dedicating it to St Marina, the satyr would now be re-imagined as a devil. The presence of the icon of St Marina killing the satyr, is a strong symbol of the tenacity of Christianity over the pagan worship of Olympian Gods. Were the early Christians trying to make a point? Did it always belong?  Or is it just spoila from the Temple of Pan? Or a vestige of what the chapel was earlier in its history, Christian or pagan?

One thing it definitely isn’t, is the lintel to the Silenus Gate.

 Traditional Icon of St Marina, from St Andrew’s, Constanta, Romania
the bubu / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

References / Further Reading

(1) Hartnoll, Phyllis, The Theatre: A Concise History, Thames and Hudson, 1985, The Greek and Roman Theatre.

(2) Clark, Elizabeth A., Women in the Early Church, Michael Glazier Inc., 1983, Volume 13:Message of the Father’s of the Church, p.71

Mc Gilchrist, Nigel, “McGilchrist’s Greek Islands”, Genius Locii Publications, London, Volume11: Thasos.

Ecole Francaise D’Athens, “Odigos tis Thasou”, Galliki Scholi Athinon, 2012, Vol 3: Sites et Monuments. There is no English translation of this book. The original is in French. I have referred to the Modern Greek translation.

Shakespeare’s Marina, St Marina?

My gentle babe, Marina (whom, For she was born at sea, I have named so) here…”

Act III Scene III, lines 12-13

In my recent posts chronicling my attempt to find physical connections between the island of Thasos and Shakespeare’s Tharse, from Pericles, I withheld my misadventure of the mind. You see, I postulated my hypothesis and then had the wonderful opportunity to visit the island before completing the necessary background reading.( In no way does my lapse impact on my argument that Thasos was intended for Tharsus.) When I returned I was so excited about my time on the island that I couldn’t wait to start writing. So I did. That was wrong. You see, I had read about the source for the play, John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, but hadn’t read it until after I had started posting. I had assumed that because Shakespeare gave Marina her name that he had actually added the character to the story. This is incorrect. Marina is part of Gower’s plot but her name is given variously as Taisa, Thaisa and Thaise, after her mother.

On Thasos, having passed the ancient submerged marina that would have sheltered Pericles; walked through the ancient Agora and around Roman floor mosaics, fit for a governor’s residence;  and spotted violets in the archaeological site, I was exhuberant. These are all inherent in the text. I went looking for a reason he renamed Gower’s character, a church, chapel or site that may have been the inspiration behind the name, Marina. I ignored the text. There had to be more to it, right?

Icon of St Marina, from St Andrew’s, Constanta, Romania
the bubu / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

When I read Pericles, it struck me how saintly Marina was. The girl could be placed in a brothel and turn the patrons away from their libidinous purpose. The portrayal brought to mind the early christian saint from Antioch(1), St Marina. St Marina was born at the end of the 3rd Century C.E., about the time of the earliest surviving renditions of the Pericles story. (2) Similarities between Shakespeare’s Marina and St Marina include that they were both “only” children; both came from nobility; both were raised by a nurse after the death of their mothers; both were said to be beautiful women; and both rebuked the advances of prevailing Governors. Whereas St Marina’s father disowned her completely, Pericles abandoned his daughter for many years. These are their similarities. In the icon above, the Silenus-like creature is a devil who St Marina pounded to death when she was in prison. You can read more about the life of St Marina on the wonderful Mystagogy website. By sheer coincidence, I found myself on Thasos on St Marina’s Day, July 17. This was fortuitous as there are no churches dedicated to St Marina marked or written about in Thasos’ tourist literature – ie maps or books – but St Marina was within shallow access of people’s minds.  After a quick enquiry at the Archaeological Museum, my companions and  I were given rough instructions on how to find St Marina’s Chapel. It is about two kilometers inland from the Ancient Agora.

St Marina's Chapel, just a few kms north of the Ancient Agora of Thasos.

St Marina’s Chapel, just a few kms north of the Ancient Agora of Thasos.

The small chapel, easily forgotten on such a small island with so many important archaeological and religious drawcards is built in a clearing amongst olive groves. The simple chapel is neat and small. Its stone and brickwork tell nothing of its age. That it was St Marina’s day meant that the Chapel would be host to a liturgy and festivities. The yard was decorated with flags.We arrived late for the festivites but were able to ask the odd faithful straggling in how old the church was. “Old” was the repeated answer. But how old? Could it have stood in the 16th Century? Above the door the lintel stone shows the carved figure of sheep/goats. It looks like spoila from the archaeological site. It is not the only christian edifice on Thasos to have benefited from the once abundant ancient masonry. Could the chapel be so old as the early Christian era? The icons within aren’t that old. Their pigments haven’t decayed in that murky brown vacuum that nulls out all detail. Traced silverwork encasing brown, voided faces in frames, are nowhere in the chapel. Its icons are all painted on panels and have retained their colours. In style they appear much younger than 400 years old. The fittings are fairly recent too, but the building?

Very old olive grove by St Marina's Chapel

Very old olive grove by St Marina’s Chapel

Just over the fence of the chapel’s enclosure are olive groves. Their trees are very old. Their broad and gnarled trunks belie their age. If only they could talk. Olive trees can survive thousands of years. One of my companions, an olive grower from Chalkidiki, assured me that the orchards were easily 400 years old. An orchard, not 100 m along was even older.

Me in a tree - almost. The older olive grove down the road from St Marina's Chapel

Me in a tree – almost. The older olive grove down the road from St Marina’s Chapel

My feeling from having read the text and visited the island is that Shakespeare, his collaborator, or source, may have visited the island but not spent too much time there. The chapel isn’t too far from the ancient marina to walk too, if you intend on looking for it. It is not something that you would stumble upon casually. Why did he rename Taisa/Thaise/Taisa, Marina? It seemed to me that he would have seen the parallel between Gower’s character and the Catholic/Orthodox saint: but how? There were two saints named St Marina and there exists some confusion between the two of them as regards to the afterlife of their relics. There are a couple of stories which you can read here and here. Essential to both stories is that her relics were transferred by the Crusaders from Constantinople to Italy early in the 13th Century. Having the power to cure illnesses, these relics have been venerated in Venice, among other Christian cities, for centuries. Many Englishmen travelled to Venice in Shakespeare’s day who would have seen the relics and heard of their miraculous healing power and the life of St Marina. It is not a great leap that Shakespeare may have made the connection. Am I reading too much into this? Early literature is full of two dimensional portrayals of women. They are either sinners or saints. Shakespeare’s women aren’t fully free of this blight. And then history is full of coincidences. Remembering his text:

My gentle babe, Marina (whom, For she was born at sea, I have named so) here…”

Act III Scene III, lines 12-13

it seems so.

Footnotes

  (1) Antioch is where the play of Pericles opens (2)That is the earliest renditions of the Apollonius story

Shen Yun: Theatre Review

Shen Yun! Imagine lively dance, flurrying colours, choreographed acrobatics, swirling handkerchiefs, and streaming sleeves gushing through the air. Now add an astounding staging of mythological proportions delivered through a synchronicity between the physical performer and a computer animated one onscreen. This is a mixed media production that talks of magic as it creates it before you. Shen Yun is also a coming together of Chinese music and dance traditions with traditional Western ones in a concert or revue format. It is Chinese culture with a dash of millenarian dogma and splashes of old Hollywood packaged for a Western audience. It promises a spectacle of, “the wonders of authentic Chinese culture.” On the whole, what it delivers is a good night out.

Capitol Theatre, Sydney

Capitol Theatre, Sydney

The review focuses on dance with a couple of arias delivered by talented sopranos, Haolan Geng and Tianling Song, and a duet of piano and erhu, a traditional two stringed instrument made of horsehair and snake-skin. The piano together with the erhu is lovely but in a night promising Chinese culture, the erhu, played by Xiaochun Qi, needed no accompaniment.

Chinese Classical Dance as presented by Shen Yun holds much in common with European balletic tradition: they both have developed over centuries; they both have developed a style of presentation that allows the central figure to dance out a story in graceful, lyrical movements; and they both share an interplay between a chorus of dancers and their leads.  But they both have nuances that mark them as different traditions. Gu Yun, a dance teacher with Shen Yun Performing Arts (1) points to an emphasis on circular movement in Classical Chinese dance as opposed to an emphasis on line in western Classical Ballet. But there is much more than this. What struck me immediately was the importance of costuming in determining the form of the dance movement. Costumes carry contrasting colours from the legs to the arms. While arms move expressing emotion and gestures, legs carry away the performer in a way that highlights the motion of the arms. Colours displace each other in circular movements of arms and legs that add to the sense of wonder in the routine. Chinese classical dance also has gesture, acrobatics and the influence of martial arts.

The dances, whether ethnic, folk, or more of a dance-drama routine are all interpreted through the studied performance of Chinese classical dance. It is enough like ballet to make it an easy vehicle for Westerners to understand. Each ethnic routine is infused with the flavour of its originating region e.g., Tibet or the Hmong. I can’t help wondering how much nuance from the original is lost by its presentation by a classically trained troupe and on an end stage.

The routines are all engaging and dramatic. They bring to mind the dance choruses of old Hollywood musicals. Having grown up learning folk dances of my own cultural background, I was struck by Shen Yun’s differences with Western ethnic/folk dance traditions. Through the Balkans, there is a strong motif of the connected group as a whole, as a single entity, a single animal, if you like, as it dances. Whether the dance is circular or in lines, the community presents a unified, connected entity. This kind of dancing does not translate well onto an end stage. To engage the audience, the audience must see the performers face and the movement must be presented to them. To achieve this on an end stage, the basic steps of the dance have to be reconfigured. Something of the original feel is lost. Did the choreographer of Shen Yun have to make such concessions in presenting the ethnic dances?

Concessions are also made in the presentation of the music. Theirs is a Western orchestra engaging with a skeletal selection of traditional Chinese instruments. The music is beautiful, but more of a fusion of East meets West than traditional Chinese. Strings and horns dominate the percussion. The nuanced relationship between the percussion instruments and the defining gestures of the dance is to some degree, watered down.

Shen Yun is presented by the Falun Dafa. It is a socio-religious group who have been outlawed and persecuted in China since 1999. If this concert could not be presented in China it is because it portrays their unjust treatment at the hands of the Chinese government. Two routines chronicle their treatment. Their hopes of a future time in the world of the ancient Chinese gods and in the presence of a golden Buddha figure are also danced out. It is not their only message. In a clever use of subtitles, to what we are told is a traditional Chinese song, the lyric,

“Yet some people are only interested in profit

And don’t bother to find out the oppressor’s lies

They dare not imagine that the gods are fulfilling their oath” (2)

confronts its occidental audience. In a performance that is so geared to a Western audience, this is the message the Falun Dafa has for us. The extension of that question must be, are we only looking to benefit from China in terms of the profits that can be made using her labour? Is not her labour her people? The people, whose wonderful performing arts we have just enjoyed, are suffering.

If the role of theatre is to inform, to confront and to motivate as well as to entertain, all of these goals can be seen in Shen Yun. Is it agit-prop theatre? It has its way. It is a little subtler, less repetitive, and presented to a well-fed, western audience. China needn’t worry.

References

(1) Shen Yun, promo DVD, 2015.

(2) Shen Yun Performing Arts, programme, Gold Coast/Brisbane/Sydney/Canberra/Adeliade/Melbourne, 31 January – 28 February 2015

Shen Yun: Chinese Opera or Agit-prop Theatre – P2

The countdown is on. There is less than a week before I see Shen Yun. I have been looking forward to this for a very long time. When I think of theatrical spectacles, arena productions like Aida, pageant’s like the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and the Circe du Soliel, come to mind. In terms of categorising them, there are labels and adjectives available that encapsulate their essence: opera, parade, acrobatics. There is an understanding of what to expect in these words. All due to the western tradition that they have evolved from. But what of Shen Yun?

Shen Yun’s advertising shows dancers and an orchestra and the slogan, 5000 Years of Civilization. Live on Stage! Elements of the production are further conveyed in their blurb:

“HEAVENLY REALMS and timeless legends spring to life through classical Chinese dance. Dazzling costumes, thunderous battle drums, and powerful flips fill the stage with color and energy. Exquisite melodies and animated backdrops uplift your spirit and transport you to another world.”

China has a centuries old tradition of storytelling. Many of its stories and myths have been preserved in the plots of the Chinese Opera. When I read the slogan, 5000 Years of Civilization. Live on Stage, I immediately jumped to the conclusion, the Chinese Opera (or one of them) was touring Down Under. The pamphlet confused me. In addition to the elements described therein, the Chinese Opera has speaking roles and exquisite singing. These are not mentioned, nor depicted.

To alleviate my fog I began asking my Chinese friends and acquaintances whether they had seen the show and, if indeed, it is Chinese Opera. Their responses were unexpected. My pronunciation was off. No one got, first off, what I was asking about. In an effort to clarify my meaning I started saying the promoter’s name, the Falun Dafa Association of Australia. That got a response.

That’s political. Chinese people don’t get involved with politics. That’s from here, it’s not Chinese. More people practice it outside of China than in China. It’s propaganda against the Chinese government. The show will be third rate, in a sorry theatre space with amateurs. How can they produce a newspaper and give it away? Propaganda in print and in the theatre. That’s why they are giving away the tickets. If it was really Chinese Opera it would be playing at the Sydney Opera House. Big money is backing them, blackening the Chinese government. Big money from the West.

None had actually been to see the show. Just the association with the Falun Dafa instigated a tirade against the show. The Falun Dafa is the practice of a form of Buddhism/meditation that, controversially, took China by storm in the 1990s. It is also called Falun Gong (Law of Energy). To quote its website, it is a discipline in which assimilation to the highest qualities of the universe—Zhen, Shan, Ren (Truthfulness, Compassion, Forbearance)—is the foundation of practice.(1) It is an organised group of practitioners under its founder, Mr Li Hongzhi, who teaches a way to enlightenment. It is a cultivation of ones thoughts and body. It is also considered a sect, allbeit a populous one.(2)

Sect. What a word? Sect and theatre. What a combination? What was I getting myself into? Memories flooded my head. . . Kenja, Bolsheviks, Living Newspaper, Oh! What a Lovely War!, Karagiozi inciting Greek patriots to arms and a didactic staging of all 900 plus pages (word for word, it seemed) of Ogburn’s, The Mysterious William Shakespeare. The performers of the Shen Yun are all said to practice Falun Gong. Is it more than just a warm up tool as they prepare to get into character. Will it be presented on stage?

As images revolved around my mind I wondered about the stage as a tool for progaganda. I thought of the Russian living newspaper, connecting with common people on the street through short, informative tableaus. Simple language with a strong, direct delivery. No reading between the lines. No subtext. No way of interpreting it other than the playwrights voice, reverberating in a chasm through which no other thought is allowed to traverse. I thought about Oh! What a Lovely War! and again popular theatre techniques came to mind. Headlines and news bulletins: all slogans brandishing the playwrights message like a sledgehammer. My mind then rested on a Kenja production I had seen: clowning, short tableau-scenes, opinionated, informative and long winded, repetitive and condescending.

Kenja has been considered more than a sect, a cult. It offers a cultivated way of seeing the world, as the Falun dafa do. But it is a different kind of organisation, it’s Western, miniscule by comparison, and unlike the Falun Dafa, it does not have the sympathy of the Australian press. Will Shen Yen be a political offering? Will it be anything like a Kenja production?

The most pervasive tool Kenja employed in their production was leaving the auditorium lights on. Why? As a norm in a Western theatre, we sit in a darkened room, the fourth wall is the stage. There may be 1500 people there but the darkness envelopes the audience with intimacy. In our own privacy we are allowed to interact cerebrally with the story and the subtext happening in the fourth wall. We are our own animal in the cave, watching the world in the sun without physically participating. What happens when the lights are on? The intimacy is broken. The performers see us, watch them, interpret them, judge them. Suddenly we have to be polite. Being polite means giving the performance the benefit of the doubt. It means appearing to agree with the actors, director and/or playwright for that space of time. Our socialization of politeness won’t allow us to feel freely and honestly respond to the performance.  In an almost bare auditorium, the light robs us and makes it very hard to walk out.

I don’t think I’ll have to this coming weekend. Shen Yun has more testimonials of its artistry than any other theatrical production that I have attended. Contrary to the tirade against it, it is now playing at one of the biggest commercial theatres in Sydney, with ticket prices starting at $80AUD. I am looking forward to seeing this show more than ever.

Shen Yun tickets are still available. Let me know what you think.

 

References

(1) http://en.falundafa.org/ Feb 11, 2015

(2) By 1999, as many as 100 million people in China were practising Falun Gong.

Minghui International brochure, Health Benefits, p 9.

Shen Yen: Chinese Opera or Agitprop Theatre?-1

Shen Yun is back in Sydney! I’m so excited, I’ve actually got tickets this time around. I’ve been wanting to go for a few years now but I have somehow missed out. Visuals of it are lavish: the colour, the pageantry, the orchestra, the dancers, the singers and its huge cast. Can it be Chinese Opera? I’ve studied Asian Theatre but have never attended a live performance of the Chinese Opera.  Most provinces in China have their own state funded Opera but it would be a rare occasion for one of these companies to perform outside of China. Shen Yun, as represented in its marketing pamphlets, CD and website, shares attributes with Chinese Opera.

A large cast performs in front of a backdrop of intricate detail and grandiose proportions.


Chinese Opera Burns! /Foter/ CC BY-NC-SA

Music is an important part of the storytelling. Shen Yun has a mixed orchestra delivering a fusion of traditional Chinese sounds and Occidental instruments.

Musical accompaniment
Stanley Zimny (Thank You for 10 Million views) / Foter / CC BY-NC

Detailed costumes, nuanced props and iconic make-up make up Chinese Opera’s ostentatious delivery. So too, in Shen Yun.

Chinese Opera performer
alcuin lai / Foter / CC BY-SA

But will there be a bit of this?

The Traitor – stock character, Chinese Opera ( photo credit see end of post)

Just a little? This much? A little bit of mythology? A little bit of acting? A parley of speech and movement not delivered in song? A parley for the sake parley!


Actors from the Chinese Opera
alcuin lai / Foter / CC BY-SA

Errrrrhhhh …can’t exactly say.

Well, I asked the ticket seller whether it was Chinese Opera.

“No, it’s from New York.”

That wasn’t the answer that I was expecting. I wanted to know if it was of the traditional form of Chinese Opera. The one with big acting, acrobatics and magico-real storylines. If each province of China has its own company, then it would follow that ex-pat Chinese who operate in a ex-pat Chinese community are capable of producing a Chinese Opera outside of China. So I asked another lame question.

“Does it tell a story?”

Hmm. There was a pause. Of course it tells a story. Of course it tells a story! So does Swan Lake, the ballet. There are no monkey-warriors with supernatural powers or comic servant figures delivered in big, stylized performances in Swan Lake. There is no subtext to ponder over as you leave the theatre after the ballet.

So I started telling my Chinese friends, acquaintances and neighbours that I was going to see Shen Yun. I wanted to know if they had been and if it is Chinese Opera. I was taken aback by the balance of responses I received to what was genuinely, an innocent question. I had no idea that I was asking a political question, a question that led to more on the nature and use of propaganda, human organ harvesting and the use of theatre as a tool of social revolution and social mollification.

What the ….! What the next Crafty Theatre post will be about!

Shen Yun opens at the Capitol Theatre in Sydney on Feb 6, having already played the Gold Coast it will continue its Australian tour. For tour tickets click here.

Have you seen Crafty Theatre’s Chinese Opera board on Pinterest?

The Traitor

Photo credit: jackyczj / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

The “thing” I do in Greece

When I visit Greece I have this, “thing,” that I do. I can’t help myself, I have to do “it.” If circumstances prevent me from doing “it”, I sulk silently, within. It’s just a little peccadillo. I feel somehow robbed if I can’t. So, as often as possible I do, “it.” I find myself an ancient amphitheatre and I photograph it.

I’ve photographed one in Larissa, and one on Delos.

Amphitheatre on Delos

Amphitheatre on Delos

In Delphi …

Amphitheatre at the ancient oracle, Delphi

Amphitheatre at the ancient oracle, Delphi

In the Peloponnese . . .

Epidaurus

Epidaurus

And in Athens, the Theatre of Dionysus . . .

The Theatre of Dionysus, South Slope, Acropolis, Athens

The Theatre of Dionysus, South Slope, Acropolis, Athens

Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes did not see their plays produced in this amphitheatre. Their time preceeded the stone stage. Their plays were produced on a wooden stage, perhaps at this very spot, but without the elaborate skene indicated by the row of decorative sculptures at the far end of this structure. Their protagonists would have shared the semi-circular performance space, the orchestra, with the chorus. This theatre is from a slightly later period when the actors treaded upon the front section of the skene (scene), the proscenio.

Theatre of Dioysus, the actor's view into the audience

Theatre of Dionysus, the actor’s view into the audience, featuring the “orchestra” ie the performance space

This theatre is situated on the southern slope of the Acropolis in Athens. It served the city of Athens, it’s said, for 1000 years. Below it, is the Temple of Dionysus, above it can be seen the fortifications that surround the Parthenon and Erechtheion. The much later (Roman), and still in use, Odeon of Herodotus Atticus, is a short way away on the walk to the summit. From the Orchestra, we see the koilon, the seating for the audience. It’s the seating of this theatre that bring the Ancient Greeks a little closer to us.

Proedria, reserved seating for officials and priests

Proedria, reserved seating for officials and priests

The best seats in the “house,” the proedria, were reserved for dignitaries. Some of their names can be still seen carved into the marble. They remind me of the patrons/sponsors plaques on the chairs of my former, high school auditorium.They are the ancient equivalent of the member’s stand or the royal box. These were, of course, the front row.

Farther up and along the path to the summit you will encounter a statue of Menander. He, the greatest writer of New Comedy, had his plays produced here. If you have the time, climbing the Acropolis from the Southern Slope, you will get a better sense of the value of drama and music to the Ancient Greeks and Romans, from the number of buildings dedicated to their appreciation there.

Further Reading

Greek Amphitheatres

http://www.greektheatre.gr/constr.html

Southern Slope of the Acropolis, Athens

http://www.greece-athens.com/place.php?place_id=30