Monday, September 23, 2013

Review of "Living With Shakespeare" Edited by Susannah Carson

Collections of essays are usually not at the top of my list of literary genres to devour.  Yet, the subject matter of "Living With Shakespeare" intrigued me enough that I ordered the book.  How grateful I am that I did so.  Equally grateful are the scores of women and men to whom I have already recommended this fascinating book.

One of the beauties of this collection is the broad range of writers, actors and directors who have been asked to write about how Shakespeare has impacted their careers and their lives.  On one end of that spectrum are the classically trained members of the Royal Shakespeare Company and similar serious theater companies.  On the other extreme are those who have taken a more whimsical look at Shakespeare - his language and his oeuvre.  The overall effect is to "demythologize" Shakespeare and make him and his work more broadly accessible and enjoyable.

Over the few weeks I was working my way through the 33 essays, I carried the book  with me everywhere I went - to meetings, on the subway, to the tennis court!  On several occasions, the context of a conversation called for me to pull out the book and share an excerpt.  The passage I most enjoyed sharing is taken from Ben Kingsley's essay:

"Since acting is so essentially expressive, it's about getting close to other human beings, real or imagined.  It's about overcoming the distances between us, and it's about exploring our affective and intellectual potential.  n our world, however, technology is taking over and getting in the way.  The antidote is not just Shakespeare,it's each other.  It's the joy of that landscape which we mustn't allow to shrink - and yet it seems to be shrinking with every generation.  So I find that my biggest hope for the future is that we don't sacrifice human contact.  There's no substitute for it, either in life or in art." (Page 55)

Actor Brian Cox makes a strong statement about the paradoxes of life that Shakespeare explores throughout his career as an actor and a playwright:

"The ultimate paradox, of course, is that even though we're all going to die, we've all got to live in the meantime. - and so all of Shakespeare's plays are, in some form, a debate about existence.  Why?  To what end?  How do I create my life?  And he asks these questions in all sorts of modes: theologically, romantically, spiritually, hedonistically, and politically.  Shakespeare is such a great friend because he's constantly - and with as much patience as insistence - throwing the important questions at us.

I think that Shakespeare wasn't a long liver because he had lived in the middle of these paradoxes for so long that he simply didn't have the endurance to keep it up.  He got worn out by the endless debate, I believe, and his life became tragic.  But that's what the artist does: he enacts that debate.  Actors such as myself do it night after night in a form of ritual sacrifice that's performed on behalf of others.  We pretend to be you, and we reflect back to you what it is to be human so that hopefully you come away with a slightly different perspective  on your own life." (Page 218)

Joining Kingsley and Cox are the likes of Julie Taymor, James Earl Jones, Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Germaine Greer, Joyce Carol Oates, James Franco and other familiar names from the worlds of stage, screen and books.

I was particularly taken with Mr. Jones' essay, since he wrote about his portrayal of Othello opposite Christopher Plummer as Iago. Jones took issue with the way in which the director had interpreted the role of Iago and how he had Plummer play the role.  I remember seeing the show at the old Wang Theater in Boston.  I was too young and too in experienced in the ways of Shakespeare to make any negative critical judgments about the performances.  I was just thrilled to be able to see Jones and Plummer live and on stage.   But in retrospect, Mr. Jones' comments seem right in terms of the portrayal of Iago as a bit "over the top."

This book marks a singular addition to the long shelf of Shakespeare commentaries.  As I finish this review, I am getting ready to mail my copy to an actor friend who is about to appear in the "Scottish Play" at Lincoln Center.  I know that this volume will enrich his evocation of the role that he will play, and thereby, will enrich the experience that the audience will have as Shakespeare continues to live and speak to us in the 21st Century.



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