Sunday, July 20, 2008

All's Well at Michigan Shakespeare Festival

Dear Oberon,

I am pleased to report that a merry troupe of Oberoners spent an entertaining Saturday at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival at Jackson Community College in mid Michigan. The plays, All’s Well That Ends Well and Julius Caesar, were well done and exemplary of the festival’s high standards, but the highlight of the day had to be dinner with our guest, John Neville-Andrews, University of Michigan theater professor and Artistic Director of the Festival.

Mr. Neville-Andrews provided the group with stimulating observations about the festival and the direction of Shakespeare’s plays. He emphasized the need to understand all that can be known about the author of the works and encouraged us to keep him informed of our activities, including the Hamlet Project. We feel that, now that we have had a chance to become acquainted with him, that we have gained a new friend.

Mr. Neville-Andrews was in fact the director of All’s Well, a production that tosses out old shibboleths that the play is a problem comedy or that it is a dark comedy. He, instead, has accepted Shakespeare’s challenge to frame the play more correctly as it was intended. He chose to set it in Regency England for precisely that reason, because it was a time open to new ideas about personal relationships and gender roles. He views it as a social comedy in the mode of Ibsen, Chekhov and Strindberg, recognizing of course that Shakespeare preceded those dramatists by hundreds of years. He even felt confident enough to send the audience home with a song in their hearts with a 50s tune crooned by Carmen McRae. The beginning (you must see it yourself) and the ending of this production certainly demonstrate that Mr. Neville-Andrews is not afraid to go somewhat over the top.

With all of that, Mr. Neville-Andrews correctly goes to the heart of Shakespeare. In the program, he writes:
View the characters in the play as vulnerable, emotional human beings, with wants, needs, strengths, and weaknesses, and the play comes alive.

It is this kind of innovative yet relevant thinking that has characterized Festival productions, especially those of Mr. Neville-Andrews. The lack of that thinking in traditional theater has steered other directors away from this play.

Oxfordians would provide an additional perspective, of course, which we did at dinner, suggesting that understanding connections between Oxford’s life and the works carrying the pen-name William Shakespeare deepens our understanding of the work and adds another dimension to the genius we find there. Traditional critics have spent much time, for example, on the play within the play in Shakespeare but have resisted any attempt to learn about the play outside the play, Oxford’s experiences filtered through the literary media of poetry and drama to create and express the truths of an intensely realized life.

Mr. Neville-Andrews concludes his director’s notes with the observation:
George IV’s situation mirrored so closely the events in All’s Well That Ends Well.

It may be that the Elizabethan years might actually provide an even better setting for this play than the Regency period since the events in the play mirror even more closely the situation of a certain 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere.

We will spend some time demonstrating that proposition in coming posts. Please stay tuned. You are invited to offer your thoughts on this matter, especially those of you who have seen Mr. Neville-Andrews’ production.

Also, we have a rare chance to compare productions, since this play which is so infrequently boarded, is being offered simultaneously in Stratford, Ontario. Richard Joyrich and I will be bringing you news from Stratford soon about their version of All’s Well. I am hoping only that the Stratford version is as insightful as that staged by John Neville-Andrews and the Michigan Shakespeare Festival.

Warmest regards to all,
Tom Hunter
Oberon Chair

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