This past week, I’ve experienced the joys of being a nerd in a college town, with the arrival of the annual Murray State Shakespeare Festival. As an English major, it may seem cliche to love Shakespeare so much, in the way that you’d wonder about a baseball fan who’s favorite player was the star. If you’re really a fan, you tend to move beyond the big names and find someone who really speaks to you, someone who is all yours, whom you aren’t likely to find fans of everywhere you go. That’s why my current favorite Cub is Darwin Barney and not Castro or Rizzo. Though in taste, I tend to lean towards 20th century American writing, I make a special exception for Shakespeare, because I really do believe he’s the greatest writer in English, even 400 years after his death, and even though we don’t even talk that way anymore. But, casual reader, don’t leave yet–this isn’t just going to be a love letter to Shakespeare–I’m going to try to go somewhere with this beyond waxing about sonnets and dudes dancing around in tights.
In the past two weeks, I’ve read two plays: Corialanus and Twelfth Night, or What You Will. When I’m about to watch a Shakespeare play, I really like to read it before I see it, waiving my theory that you should see the movie before you read the book. It’s much easier to keep up with the dialogue and actually know what’s going on. The International Cinema night was a version of Corialanus directed and starred in by Ralph Fienes, the dude who played Voldemort. As the guy introduced the movie, a hand went up from a very concerned woman who wanted to make sure there were subtitles. This wasn’t just a curiosity, from the tone in her voice. It sounded like she had been burned by watching Shakespeare with no subtitles before, and, by God, she would not let it happen again. I discovered with a recent Netflix, that this can be a major item of contention with Shakespeare movie goers. One of my Netflix, earlier this week, was Orson Welles’ Othello. I didn’t plan this at all, which makes me think I was fated to be inundated in iambic, English major nerd heaven this week. The movie is nothing you should run out to rent right now unless you’re really into Shakespeare or Orson Welles, but as I was reading reviews, I found a few irate reviewers who rated the movie poorly just because there were no subtitles. I kind of get it. If I rented a Japanese movie and there were no subtitles, it wouldn’t be a great movie watching experience. But, I mean, they do read this stuff in 9th grade at pretty much every high school.
Anyway, later in the week, I got to go see a stage performance of Twelfth Night, or What You Will done by the American Shakespeare Center http://www.americanshakespearecenter.com/. One of my favorite things about living in a city is that I can see plays again. I decided to go to the Thursday 10am performance, which meant I was essentially the only person there not in High School. So, I was either way too into it to fit in with the 14 years old surrounding me, or a little too subdued to laugh out loud with all the 50 something year old teachers. I don’t think most people realize that a Shakespeare comedy is just as filthy as The Hangover, only clever and well-written. You don’t pick up on it, most of the time, when you read it, because the jokes are often plays on words that we don’t use any more (imagine 100 years from now listening to the rap songs that are big today and trying to figure out what they are really talking about). But, when you see it acted out, the actors tell you with body language what is going on, and they didn’t hold back for these hormone infused, sexually repressed adolescents. I looked around to see what the reactions were to this, because there were dirty jokes throughout the play. I couldn’t tell what the teachers were thinking. I figured it was either: “Dear Lord, please don’t let the kids mention this to their parents. I’m get to get out of teaching iambic pentameter to go to this play,” or (in nasaly, geek voice) “You see kids, Shakespeare was cool. Snort, snort.” The kids, who weren’t whispering to someone, would occasionally have looks of surprise on their face, but I couldn’t really figure out if they were genuinely amused by the jokes, creeped out by what they were seeing, or were just shocked that people acting out Shakespeare knew what sex was.
Honestly the kids behaved fairly well. They were attentive at the beginning. I had a group of boys to my left who, when one of the actors tried to get them to sing, sang out in loud voices. They then ducked down and laughed together like they had just killed at open mic night. They thought they were soooo funny for ironically singing like they meant it. This looked just like some of my friends from high school. But, hey, if you’re having fun and not hurting anybody, whatever. As I said, I was impressed with the kids actually paying attention until about 30 minutes in. At that point, the attention spans began to wane. We all know that attention spans are terrible for young people, and it only gets worse every year. Honestly, I feel like this is happening to everyone. But, about 30 minutes in (which if you haven’t put it together is the length of most sitcoms), a collective fidget began to wash over the auditorium. You could honestly feel the power of about 150 people shuffling in their seats. It was as if the auditorium was having stomach pains or a giant was beginning to wake up. So, it seems 30 minutes is the time it takes for smart phone withdrawal to have physical effects.
I’m sure I also fidgeted when my high school class went to see Othello at Playhouse on the Square in Memphis. I remember two major parts of that play. At the beginning, Othello (who is black) kisses his wife Desdemona (who is white). I remember some of my white classmates turning around making the “ewww gross face,” and even then, I thought, ” good Lord, these are my friends.” Then I remember towards the end of the play where Othello choked Desdemona. It was a stage choking technique, where the choker put his hands around the chokee’s neck, and the chockee grabbed onto the choker’s arms and pulled herself up. She was lifted off the ground, it looked like by her neck, but she was actually holding herself up with her arms. She wasn’t actually being choked, but it really looked like it to me. I was thinking, “Oh my God, be careful man. You might really choke her. Isn’t anyone going to do something about this?”
For most of Twelfth Night, or What You Will, it is a string of mishaps full of pranks and mistaken identity. There’re certainly some points being made, but they are almost always veiled in laughs. But there was one point in this production of the play, between Feste the fool and Malvolio the steward, that got serious for such a short time it was easy to miss. Malvolio has been the butt of a pretty cruel set of pranks which Feste has helped out in. Towards the end of this prank, Malvolio asks why they did this to him–what had he done to deserve this humility and misfortune. Then, Feste the fool, who in this play has never been serious, gets serious for just a split second, and mentions how he is the butt of their jokes every day. Then it goes right back into its lighter mood. I looked around at this moment, wondering if the students picked up on this and how applicable it was to their lives. How high school can be a similar tangle of cruel pranks, and the ones who are retaliated against don’t understand why it happened, while those who finally do retaliate don’t know why they waited so long. The play was all about how things are not what they seem and how people disguise themselves and hide their true feelings, and how that can result in some crazy misunderstandings. I wondered if the students saw themselves in any of these moments. I certainly saw versions of my high school self there.
I was happy to hear some of the kids talking about how they enjoyed it as we all filed out. I think it is such a novelty to see a play these days. Nothing is air brushed out in editing. You get to know the cast in a way you can’t on a screen. And, for some reason, some of us are still reading plays that were written so long ago it wasn’t even the same English. I’ve found myself this week, thinking thoughts a little more Elizabethan. I’ll catch myself wanting to answer Allyson with a “’tis true, m’lady,” rather than a simple “yes.” My thoughts are arranging themselves in iambic pentameter. This obsession will fade to something new in a few days, until it comes back around again. But, for now, I’m entranced by the show, by the wordplay, by characters. I will stage walk through these next few days watching this whole world put on a real life play. I will play my role, hoping to be the wise fool when all is said and done. And, I hope by the end, we will have put something on worthy of an ovation.