Cheek by Jowl – The Winter’s Tale

Eleanor McLoughlin, Chris Gordon. Copyright Johan Persson.jpg

In Cheek by Jowl’s production of The Winter’s Tale, directed by Declan Donnellan, the operation of time is given thematic pride of place. In fact, Time herself (Grace Andrews) frames the action of the story. From the opening of the house and the commencement of the play, to the transition to the pastoral world of Bohemia, to the play’s closing moments in Paulina’s “gallery,” Time guides this Tale’s major turnings. The production’s choice to highlight Time’s involvement in human events beyond what is explicitly provided in Shakespeare’s text makes perfect sense when The Winter’s Tale is considered in its generic context, as part of the body of Shakespeare’s late romances, or tragicomedies. Many of the genre’s defining features—namely the flouting of the classical unities—may be seen as directly related to its fascination with time and to its overlapping interests in movement, transformation, and the sudden, unexpected revelations brought about by time’s passage. Indeed, the sheer pleasure of a romance like The Winter’s Tale is due, in large part, to the interconnected work of these very elements, in their ability to generate the wonder excited by what Sir William Davenant referred to as “the plot’s swift change and counterturn.”

While some elements of Donnellan’s production (such as the aforementioned pervasive presence of Time, the modality of the sparse
set pieces, and the fluid use of projections) cleverly uphold romance’s interest in change of all sorts, the work of these same elements is often undercut in a production that also features choices far more static.
While Mamillius (Tom Cawte) indeed declares that “a sad tale’s best for winter,” the set design by Nick Ormerod is unchangingly cold (2.1.25). The house opens to a dark, nearly bare stage, an almost void-like space that resists any ascription of time or place. The lights (designed by Judith Greenwood) then come up at the commencement of Act I where we are introduced to Leontes’ (Orlando James) Sicilian court, but the light is harsh, largely cool, and somehow just as alienating as the darkness. The members of the court, moreover, are attired by Ormerod in black, white, and shades of grey, and in styles as resistant to any particular periodization as the set. Such stark choices might have been more effective for the disturbed Sicilian kingdom if they had been met with a marked transition into the Bohemian pastoral world. Bohemia, though, is just as harsh as Sicilia. In this production, Bohemia is dark and rain-drenched from the requisite shipwreck that lands baby Perdita (Eleanor McLoughlin) on the coast all the way through the sheep shearing festival sixteen years later. The drab (gray palette) costumes of the first half of the play are matched by the similarly drab (brown palette) overcoats, wellies, and stocking caps featured at the festival. As the cold downpour continues in the dark outside the festival space, the only real visual hint at the regeneration traditionally signaled by the move to the pastoral world is found in Perdita’s flowers (which now seem strangely incongruous).

But it is also the alterations to play text itself that deprive the last two Acts of much of their warmth and downplay their investment in the power of restorative change. One of the most obvious examples is the short, comedic altercation between Mopsa (Joy Richardson) and Dorcas (Natalie Radmall-Quirke) at the festival that, here, is exploded into an overly long, Jerry Springer-esque showdown complete with catfight between scantily-clad, sequined combatants and audience participation. While this is certainly a fresh, modernized rendition of this moment, the trashy daytime talk show interpretation undercuts the earnestness of the country festival that functions in the text as another one of the romance’s celebrations of renewal and which, ultimately, points us forward to the play’s maybe-miraculous revivification of the Sicilian queen (also Natalie Radmall-Quirke). Other examples include the brutal groping of Perdita by the disguised Polixenes (Edward Sayer), the downplaying of Leontes’ penitence prior to the courtiers’ trip into Paulina’s “gallery,” and the trimming of the play’s final social resolutions to exclude the pairing of the faithful servant Camillo (Abubakar Salim) with the widowed Paulina (also Joy Richardson). The final moments of the play feature little Mamillius’s ghost walking the stage, sensed by a freshly anguished Leontes.

At least for this viewer, the sum of these edgy choices lends the impression that perhaps nothing much has really changed in Sicilia (or anywhere or anytime else). Certainly, they only add to the residual ambiguity that Shakespeare himself invites us to grapple with at the story’s end: the drama is indebted to fairy tale and myth, but what should be a happy ending is tinged with sorrow. The young Mamillius remains dead. Leontes’ family is not quite whole. The fairy tale is ruined. But romance isn’t just a fairy tale—is also the literary heir to the Gospel narratives and to the late medieval miracle and mystery plays still familiar to Shakespeare and his original audiences. For these stories, as in The Winter’s Tale, time, mistakes, death and sorrow are painfully real. But they are not allowed to have the final word. It is the warm and hopeful counterturn, the growing through such pain, that this Winter’s Tale seems to lack.

Stephanie Kucsera  is a doctoral candidate in English at Loyola University Chicago, where she specializes in early modern drama with a focus in inter-religious encounter and constructions of  English nationhood. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago, an inter-disciplinary MA from the University of Chicago, and her BA in theatre and English literature from the University of Indianapolis.

Cheek by Jowl – The Winter’s Tale

07_Guy Hughes, Orlando James, Joseph Black, Chris Gordon. Photo Johan Persson_CROP.jpg

I saw the Cheek by Jowl production of The Winter’s Tale on December 20, the longest night of the year, and it haunted me well into the dark hours of the early morning. It’s a play I’ve seen often before, including memorable productions at Chicago Shakespeare in 2002-2003 and 1994-1995. But Declan Donnellan’s stunning, sometimes even shocking, direction made me see things in it I never saw before—which often happens in a really good production of a familiar Shakespeare play.[1] The central plot is simple enough:

Jealous King Leontes accuses his innocent (and pregnant) wife Hermione of cuckolding him with his childhood friend Polixenes; he has her imprisoned, where she bears the child and dies. Leontes sends the newborn girl off to be killed by exposure. When their young son Mamillius sickens and dies, grieving for his mother, Leontes realizes his error and is overcome by self-loathing.

But, in fact, the newborn girl does not die; she is found by a shepherd, who raises her as his own daughter. Fifteen years later she meets and falls in love with Polixenes’ son, Florizel. When the young couple appears in Leontes’ court, it transpires that Hermione, too, did not die after all, but merely went into hiding. She emerges now, and they all live happily ever after.

Ah, but do they really? The term “winter’s tale” signifies the coziness of sitting around a fire but also the coziness of a familiar and implausible fairytale. The Winter’s Tale makes fun of its own implausibility, as when the long lost daughter—whose lostness is so basic to her that she is named Perdita—has been found, and people in Leontes’ court keep saying things like, “This news, which is called true, is so like an old tale, that the verity of it is in strong suspicion” (5.2.28-30). And when Hermione, long thought to be dead, is found to be alive, they say, “That she is living, / Were it but told you, should be hooted at / Like an old tale: but it appears she lives” (5.3.115—227).

When Hermione asks her son Mamillius to tell them a story, he remarks, “A sad tale’s best for winter” (2.1.25), and this is, all told, a sad tale, despite the unbelievable happy end. An inspired touch in this production illumi­nated the sadness for me, a haunting moment at the end when, as all the couples are assembled (Hermione and Leontes, Perdita and Florizel, and others in subplots I haven’t space to tell you about), and they all hug together in one big collage of bodies, and freeze in a stop-frame, the happy ending seems glued in place. But then the dead boy, Mamillius (or rather, presumably, his ghost), wanders soundlessly on stage and walks to the petrified group of happy enders and sadly walks away, reminding us that even a happy ending has a tragic edge in a late Shakespearean romance—the dead child, who does not come back to life as Hermione and Perdita seem to do, not to mention the tragedy of the fifteen years of lonely misery for both Hermione and Leontes.

A more pervasive innovation in this production offers the answer to a question about this play that has haunted me for years: Why is Leontes so unreasonably jealous? Unlike Othello, Leontes has no Iago to blame; he does it all by himself. But under Declan Donnellan’s powerful direction, the actor Orlando James, a brilliant Leontes, is constantly in motion. His frenetic agitation reveals a man about to explode, a man overpowered by his own physicality. His boyish roughhousing with Polixenes, and with Mamillius, and eventually, most inappropriately, with his extremely pregnant wife finally explodes into mad rage, as he throws her down and kicks her pregnant belly, bringing on the premature birth of Perdita. His violence is also obscene. His overheated sexual imagination is brilliantly illuminated, in this production, during his anguished soliloquy about his sexual jealousy. As Hermione and Polixenes freeze like statues, Leontes moves them into the positions of a copulating couple, making his imagined fears come vividly alive for him, and for us. “Your actions are my dreams” (3.2.82), he says to Hermione.

Polixenes, too, is well played by Edward Sayer with that same excess of energy, both violent and sexual. These qualities come out when he attacks his son Florizel for falling in love with the low-born (as they think) shepherd girl Perdita. Shakespeare gives Polixenes sharp words—he threatens to have Perdita’s face scratched with briars to destroy her beauty, and to devise a “cruel death” for her if ever she might open ”these rural latches” to Florizel’s entrance. But Donnellan has Polixenes accompany this sadistic sentiment with an equally sadistic action, brutally groping her between her legs. At this moment I realized, for the first time, why Leontes and Polixenes were indeed such boyhood pals—they are two of a kind, which is why it is Polixenes who stirs Leontes’ jealousy. This double dose of pent-up violence and sexuality is what this play has in place of a Iago. The jealousy is all the more appalling because it comes from within Leontes, whom we come to view not as a particularly twisted individual but as a member of a male world that nourishes sexuality and violence in boys from their very childhood. And the pent-up negative energy of the two men is enhanced by the extraordinary choreography of this production where, unlike most stage presentations in which everyone stands still whenever the main characters are speaking, here everyone seems to be in perpetual motion, like electrons around the nucleus of an atom, like matter itself, expressing in the ensemble the inner restlessness of the two central male characters. Moments like that change one’s understanding of a great play forever after.

[i] Woody Allen (in “The Kugelmass Episode,” in Side Effects [New York, 1975]) once satirized the way that we experience the same classic differently at different times, in a short story about a Jewish businessman from New York who got into Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary and had an affair with Emma Bovary at the Plaza Hotel in New York, so that anyone who read the book at that time read about the businessman and the Plaza Hotel. A Stanford professor, encountering this new character and new episode, explained to his class, “Well, I guess the mark of a classic is that you can reread it a thousand times and always find something new.”

Wendy Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. She earned her BA at Radcliffe College, her PhD from Harvard University, and a DPhil from Oxford University. She is the author of over forty books, most recently The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was (2005), The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009), On Hinduism (2013) and Hinduism in the Norton Anthology of World Religions (2015).

Spymonkey – The Complete Deaths


When watching a Shakespeare tragedy, I always look forward to seeing the death scene(s) “done right.” What this phrase means for this theatergoer is that I prize seeing the characters themselves, as “real” people, hope against hope that this death will not in fact occur, that fate can be averted and a happy ending achieved for all. A successful performance makes me believe that just this once, Richard III may possibly find that elusive horse and rally the troops, or Romeo will prolong his rambling speech for a few more stanzas, just until Juliet rouses herself (as no doubt he easily could). Occasionally I hope along with these characters that they will talk their way out of it, as pale Desdemona begs merciless Othello, “I hope you will not kill me” (5.2. 37), or believe in a miracle as haggard King Lear desperately vacillates between despair and hope, crouching over Cordelia’s body: “She’s dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass; / If that her breath will mist or stain the stone, / Why, then she lives” (5.3.260-263). At other times, this suspense builds my wicked satisfaction at a villain getting his just deserts, as when Macduff delivers the gloriously chilling line, “Macduff was from his mother’s womb / untimely ripped” (5.11.15-16), to trembling, whey-faced Macbeth, at once bereft of magical protection by that most unforeseen of medical events—a Scottish cesarean section in the Middle Ages. I want to see the sneer wiped right off Macbeth’s face, replaced with a knowledge of the grisly death in store for him. Within a death scene, Shakespeare often builds words upon each other to heighten suspense and to stave off the inevitable, speeches temporarily interposed between a character and their impending death. When the words stop on a Shakespearean stage, life ends.

A recent performance of Spymonkey’s The Complete Deaths at Chicago Shakespeare Theater interjected comedy into the usual unalleviated pathos of such scenes, causing me to marvel at how some deaths can be both touching and uproariously amusing depending on atmosphere and tone. For an informative look at the entire performance and an important request for the same treatment of Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, which I heartily second, see my colleague Andrea Stevens’s recent review for City Desk. Adapted and directed by Tim Crouch and co-produced with Brighton Festival and Royal & Derngate Northampton, this dark comedy was enacted by the four members of the British comedy troupe Spymonkey, Aitor Basauri, Petra Massey, Toby Park and Stephan Kreiss, who work together as artistic directors and/or performers to craft and perform each show. A remarkable amount of physical activity went into each of the seventy-six deaths, which were counted down on one neon sign to the right of the stage, while another above the stage helpfully listed the person and play (i.e. Queen Gertrude, Hamlet). Particularly, I was impressed by Petra Massey’s girlish leaps and bounds to get up on Juliet’s tombstone, energetic asp-dance as a writhing, sensuous Cleopatra flanked by serpentine back-up dancers, and gravity-defying antics inside the giant plastic bubble during the rebellion against Toby’s vision for The Complete Deaths. During the bloodiest death scene that “went through” a variety of deaths at one sitting and utilized an Asian-themed chopsticks-and-sponges “sword-fight,” Aitor and Stephen went from sedate “touching” to all-out bucket-dumping, wrestling, strangling, and attempted murder in a pool of fake stage blood, the former furious at having his own successful hits ignored and Stephen’s accepted by the omnipotent neon sign, whose approving buzzer signaled the end of a character’s life. Playing out thespian animosity through the medium of successive stage deaths was a great choice, channeling vicious urgency into the most humdrum of minor character interactions.

The two deaths I laughed and cringed at the most, however, were acted out through objects, not people, using flies at the end of sticks and puppetry. One depicted Cinna the Poet’s violent death in (conscious) mistake for Cinna the Conspirator in Julius Caesar. Wandering out of doors in answer to a fateful impulse, “I have no will to wander forth of doors, / Yet something leads me forth” (3.3.2-4), the poet encounters a rowdy mob of plebeians looking for trouble. The company acted out the menacing lead-up to the murder with small marionette stick-figures on a table who surrounded the poet-figure menacingly, while a projector portrayed the marionettes’ maneuvers on the big screen overhead. Herding him into the midst of a circle, they shrieked, “Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses!” The figure, crying, “I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet! I am not Cinna the conspirator!” was then torn apart by a baying crowd and set ablaze, burning while the company stood calmly around, satiated (3.3.28-36). Seeing such calculated, yet uncontrollable violence consuming Cinna’s proxy effectively stimulated the viewer to imagine how horrific the actual encounter must have been, and reflect on how useless words are in some Shakespearean deaths to counter or even forestall violence and hate.

One of the most famous deaths in the Shakespeare canon, due to its unusual method of execution, is the drowning of George, Duke of Clarence by First and Second Murderer in a cask of Malmsey wine at the behest of Clarence’s wicked brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the future Richard III. To portray this death, three members of the cast solemnly re­cited lines from the scene as ominous music played in the stillness, holding fly sticks, which they moved to vibrate the flies in time to the words:

FIRST MURDERER Take him on the costard with the hilts of thy sword, and then throw him into the malmsey butt in the next room.
O excellent device!—and make a sop of him.
No, we’ll reason with him.


All eyes were trained on the overhead screen, where the mason jar full of water sitting on the table acted as the offending Malmsey butt. Fly Clarence awoke and eloquently pleaded for his life:

CLARENCE How darkly and how deadly dost thou speak.
Your eyes do menace me. Why look you pale?
Who sent you hither? Wherefore do you come?
To, to, to—
To murder me.
Ay, ay.


Despite pleading at some length (which was curtailed somewhat as the lead-up to the murder stretches to 190 lines in the original play), no argument fly Clarence can make will preserve him from his liquid doom. The two Murderer flies forcibly hold struggling, frantically buzzing Clarence down in the depths of the mason jar for an impossibly long time until he relaxes, floats to the top, and remains in place. Cue buzzer! No human-acted performance of Clarence’s death has ever moved me to such helpless laughter and strange emotion: seeing his murder in fly-form reveals the utter helplessness of the duke as a character, ganged up on and completely surprised at the sudden reversal of everything he believed in and thought he knew about his world, the kingdom, and his beloved brother, Gloucester. He dies knowing the awful truth of his brother’s betrayal, but such knowledge does not save him.

Seeing these deaths all at once is a rare opportunity to catch a glimpse of what Shakespeare means to say about the precariousness of life and suddenness of death by the way he pictures, speaks, and writes last words and actions before snuffing out the candle that can never be relit. Through its surface buffoonery and slapstick, especially in its appreciation for allowing contemplative stage time to certain deaths such as Clarence’s and Cinna’s, The Complete Deaths illustrates Shakespeare’s philosophy of theatrical death at large: a good death is memorable and eloquent, a bad death is quick and obscure, because a good theater death needs to live on in audience memory. What weds the maudlin and absurd in this particular show, at least for me, is its full-hearted embracing of chaos as an existential concept contributing to tragedy and comedy alike insofar as such chaos recalls the uncertainty, inevitability, and apparent unfairness of death. In fearing, responding to, and experiencing their grotesque demises, Shakespearean characters mirror us, having no idea when, where, and by what method they will die. While laughing at the ridiculousness of some characters’ dramatic exits into the afterlife, we as the audience acknowledge our own fragility, apprehension, and find comfort in (still) being part of the dark comedy.

Lydia Craig is a doctoral candidate at Loyola University Chicago, where she specializes in Victorian studies, with an additional focus on early modern drama. She holds an MA in English literature from Loyola University Chicago and a BA in English and history from the University of Georgia.

Spymonkey – The Complete Deaths

48CompleteDeaths.jpgThe United Kingdom-based physical comedy troupe Spymonkey’s members include Toby Park, Petra Massey, Aitor Basauri and Stephan Kreiss, all of whom play fictionalized, exaggerated versions of their own “real” identities in The Complete Deaths, which ran recently at the theater Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare. The premise of the show is as follows: an ensemble troupe is performing an evening of avant-garde, serious, “anti-capitalist” Shakespeare in which all the onstage deaths in the canon are to be presented, each death commemorated on a neon sign counting down to “76.” This is “art” and, as the ostensible leader of the troupe, Toby, proclaims—real art is meant to be challenging: “the first death is of the audience’s complacency.” There are in fact only seventy-four onstage deaths in Shakespeare’s plays; if the first “death” is of the audience’s horizon of expectation, the final death is of the “black ill-favored fly” from Titus Andronicus. This fly, in turn, poses something of a recurring gag through­out in that a fly-camera is also stuck at the end of a record­ing stick that occasionally travels up actors’ noses and into their mouths, the resulting visions projected onto a screen at the back of the stage.

Part of the ongoing conceit of the piece is our glimpse into the complex group dynamics of the company as the performers occasionally rebel (and eventually briefly revolt) against Toby’s artistic vision: leading lady Petra’s insistence on playing Ophelia, even if that death technically happens offstage; German clown Stephan’s penchant for pulling focus with his physical comedy; Spanish clown Aitor’s ambition to become a “serious” Shakespearean actor, in part encouraged by his occasional solo communions with Shakespeare, represented as a giant face projected on a screen who coaches Aitor from the great beyond on how best to act (“point your fingers a lot”). The show was written by Tim Crouch, whom Chicago audiences might recall from his one-man show I, Malvolio (indeed, many of Toby’s direct addresses to the audience seemed to echo, if only tonally, moments from I, Malvolio).

Unfolding at a rapid pace, then, are a series of dazzling set-pieces—some pure slapstick, others incorporating recorded and live music and dance, still others performed via puppets and/or screen projections, all involving innovative costuming—brilliantly realized by these four seasoned performers with extensive training in physical theater, including especially clowning. The show moves from the lesser-known deaths toward the more notable ones—Romeo, Juliet, Hamlet—which conclude the show. It should also be clear that prop blood flows in abundance, especially within a blood-wrestling scene between a dueling Aitor and Stephan that precedes the intermission.

Notable stand outs for me included the musical song and dance number performed in chef hats and aprons for Titus Andronicus, this tableau also including a kazoo for Lavinia’s tongue and a prop meat grinder into which bodies are fed, sausage links emerging from the other side. The death of Richard III was set to blaring club music, the performers wearing gas masks and black latex bondage gear right out of a Berlin sex club. In a shift into puppetry, the company manipulated unnerving marionette stick-figures for the death of the poet Cinna at the hands of an angry mob in Julius Caesar (this death scene was also projected live onto a video screen). Time and time again innovative costuming helped contribute to the overall success of each scene, perhaps most memorably in the death of Cleopatra: upon intoning her “I am fire and air” speech Cleopatra whips off her dress to reveal asps dangling from each nipple of her prop breasts—and then whips up her skirt to reveal even more adders dangling from between her legs (the show was advertised for mature audiences). To be sure, the designer Lucy Bradridge deserves all praise for her efforts.

I found myself most taken, however, with the death scenes that incorporated some note of seriousness. For example, the slaughter of the Macduffs was initially performed within a riveting modern dance sequence that was both theatrically vibrant and poignant in spite of the contrast between the precision of the movements and the silly Scottish “drag” of the dancers: bare chests, yellow kilts, and Petra done up in a red beard and red chest hair.

As his colleagues push back harder and harder against his “serious” vision (Aitor deciding that bubbles are of the utmost importance), Toby eventually quits in despair—his cue to perform the death of Enobarbus, the only character in Shakespeare who dies of a broken heart and another stand-out moment for me. In Toby’s absence artistic hell breaks temporarily breaks loose—Aitor and Stephan run amok in elaborately absurd clown costumes, bubbles are blown, Petra rolls in as Ophelia within a giant plastic sphere—but the cast reconcile, reaffirm Toby’s vision, and the play concludes with last act of Hamlet—followed by, of course, the final (and protracted) death throes of the fly, as seen on the video screen.

The show as a whole ought to convince American audiences who might associate clowning with all things Bozo of the rigor and seriousness of professional “clown” training: each member of the company was an extraordinary physical performer, dancer, acrobat, and musician. If within the fiction of The Complete Deaths Petra was hell-bent on playing Ophelia, my wish would be for this company to devise a similarly acrobatic, physically challenging, irreverent and Grand-Guignolesque production of Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, the black camp tone of that play matching the aesthetics evident throughout this production.

Andrea Stevens is an associate professor of English, theatre and medieval studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she specializes in the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Virginia, an MA in literature from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and a BA (Honors) in English from Huron University College in London, Ontario.

Tim Crouch – I, Malvolio at Chicago Shakespeare Theater


Staged in the intimate black-box “Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare” venue, Tim Crouch’s I, Malvolio retells the plot of Twelfth Night from the perspective of the puritanical steward of Olivia’s household. Some of the play’s earliest readers and spectators were likewise struck by the rules-obsessed Malvolio, who seems wholly out of place in a romantic comedy; in a diary entry describing a 1602 performance, for example, John Manningham ignored all other plotlines to focus exclusively on the steward’s public shaming, and in his own copy of the Second Folio, King Charles II crossed out Twelfth Night and wrote in its place Malvolio. In Shakespeare, Malvolio is made to pay for his puritanism by being tricked into thinking his mistress is in love with him, after which he’s locked in a “dark house” and treated as if he were mad. Crouch sets his production in the immediate aftermath of this ‘notorious abuse.’ As the audience files in we see him already standing onstage in a ridiculous hat, yellow stockings, and stained underwear, a sign reading “Turkey Cock” hanging off his back. And quite possibly a little bit mad after this poor treatment, although he keeps insisting he isn’t.

The performance’s central conceit is the character’s adversarial relationship to the audience: if Malvolio is on the side of restraint, order, and moderation, we as theatrical spectators must necessarily be aligned with his enemies, the pleasure-seeking Sir Tobys, Festes, and Marias of the world. Throughout the roughly seventy-five-minute production Malvolio interrupts the narrative to sneer “you find this funny, do you,” also reminding us that he’ll eventually “have his revenge on the pack of us,” one of the few lines drawn directly from the play. At times Malvolio’s complaints seem eminently reasonable, if crankily delivered: it would be irritating to suffer a house guest like Sir Toby; it is odd that Olivia—having fallen in love with one person—happily accepts a substitute look-alike of the “appropriate” gender. As Malvolio, Crouch, moreover, movingly evinces the hurt and humiliation of being tricked into thinking that Olivia loves him.

Given its recurring threat of “revenge,” I, Malvolio repeatedly asks its audience to reflect on the ethics of spectatorship—what exactly is funny about watching someone’s humiliation? Behind this we might also consider the resentment of the actor who nightly walks onstage to solicit the approval of strangers. For the most part, however, I suspect the audience felt no particular qualms at all about watching what is an ultimately lighthearted take on the source material.

To be sure, those singled out for individual attention and abuse seemed to enjoy his improvisational banter very much. The majority of these “improvisatory” moments were clearly carefully scripted, for example appeals for members to come onstage to help him with various costume changes, but in no way seemed forced; Crouch is a dab hand at reading and interacting with his audience. Perhaps the closest the play came to eliciting more nervous, self-conscious, or complicit laughter was a bit of stage action that veered altogether from Shakespeare’s plot: at one point it looks as if Malvolio is going to hang himself with the help of two spectators pulled from the crowd, one holding the chair, the other the rope, only for Malvolio to abandon the enterprise altogether. If he’s going to get his revenge, it won’t be this.

Instead, at the end of the play we see him literally reconstitute himself by stripping down to a thong only to don period costume, wig, and whiteface makeup, Malvolio once more his authoritative self (and if we laughed at the sight of his exposed buttocks well, more proof of what Malvolio already believes about the moral probity of playgoers). Earlier in the play Malvolio had admonished the audience to sit up straight and pay attention while he briefly exited. He does the same again—only this time, he never comes back. Malvolio’s revenge is thus to deny the audience the expected rhythms of theatrical closure—no real ending, no curtain call, just a trailing off, with the audience unsure as to what to do next.

I, Malvolio is the fourth in a series of solo plays that, in Crouch’s words, “look at things through the eyes of Shakespeare’s lesser characters.” If these earlier plays were written with younger audiences in mind, the program notes tells us that I, Malvolio was designed to appeal to a broader age range, but I still thought it seemed to imagine younger audiences who may not be that familiar with Shakespeare—this show a gateway drug to the real thing, as it were. Given his talent for improvisation, I would love to see Crouch engage with riskier or edgier material and to push the idea of the audience’s discomfort to an even greater degree.

Andrea Stevens is an associate professor of English, theatre and medieval studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she specializes in the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Virginia, an MA in literature from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and a BA (Honors) in English from Huron University College in London, Ontario.

Oxford Playhouse – Sancho:  An Act of Remembrance

CST_SANCHO_By Robert Day (1).jpg

What stories get to appear on our great stages and who gets to tell them?

This is a timely question and one that is particularly apt for Sancho: An Act of Remembrance. The one-man show about the life of Charles Ignatius Sancho (ca.1729-80) began when Paterson Joseph entered the theater in eighteenth-century dress and identified himself as a black Briton. Born to an African mother on the Middle Passage, Sancho would become a composer, a valet, a businessman and the first black man to vote in England, among other accomplishments.

But when Joseph took the stage and first spoke to us in direct address, he was not yet in character.

Instead, the actor, who also happens to be the playwright and co-director, begins the play as himself and recounts a brief history of other black Britons. There is Sancho from the eighteenth century, there are “too many blackamoors in London,” according to Queen Elizabeth I in the late sixteenth century, and there is Septimus Severus, an African who ruled Roman Britain in the early third century. This all serves as a rebuttal to every director or producer who refused to cast Joseph in the plays of Shakespeare or adaptations of classic literature. The problem of casting him was one of authenticity. If there weren’t black people in England in 1600, then how can there be, say, a black Hamlet? (Of course, there is never any worry about the audience going along with that bit about the ghost.) Joseph jokes that Sancho emerged from his “vanity,” and desire “to be in a costume drama.” Framed this way, the piece is about excavating a forgotten history, on the one hand, and about the politics of our present theatricality, on the other.

As Joseph ends his induction, he assumes the portly posture and slight lisp of Sancho. It is now 1768 and our subject is also the subject of Thomas Gainsborough, who produced a portrait of Sancho in the same year. Posing before a replica of the painting, Sancho recalls and acts out episodes from the first forty years of his life.

The theatricality of Sancho is pronounced. A white cloth that first serves as his gentlemanly cravat becomes his mother’s wimple as he narrates her birth pangs aboard the slave ship where she died, and then it transforms again into “the wretched screaming bundle” of the infant baptized as Charles Ignatius in New Granada. Soon after, our protagonist is “deposited … as a gift” to “three maiden sisters of Greenwich,” who costume him as a romance hero for their own entertainment. He is an Arabian Prince, a Pirate, and, finally, Sancho Panza, the clownish companion of Don Quixote. He is educated, secretly, by the Duke of Montagu not only in letters but in culture as well. To demonstrate the sort of music he composed and the dancing of the age, Sancho invites an audience member up to the stage for a quick and charming lesson. In a slight Irish brogue, he quotes a letter from Laurence Sterne, author of Tristam Shandy, and he affects his other friend, David Garrick, in his career-making role of Richard III.

All of these overtly theatrical acts highlight the conventions of dramatic performance. On stage, a piece of cloth can be anything. A single man can represent multiple characters, sometimes performing parts of other plays within the play of Sancho. It is make-believe and meta-theatre, but of the usual sort that has defined theatre for about the last 2,500 years. It’s what we accept when we enter the theatre. It’s why twenty-first century audiences don’t roll their eyes when the ghost enters in Hamlet. And yet, to return to Joseph’s opening monologue about black Britons and period dress, our imaginations allow for all sorts of pretending until the question of race comes up and then there is a sudden concern with authenticity and accuracy—in the theater of all places.

Joseph’s own quest for a leading role in an English costume drama is part of a larger conversation on the lack of race-conscious casting in classic and historical roles. Last September, 007 author Anthony Horowitz dismissed Idris Elba as “too street” to play the martini-sipping James Bond. In Sunday’s New York Times, a feature on diversity in Hollywood included an anecdote from Wendell Pierce on being told by a casting director, “I couldn’t put you in a Shakespeare movie, because they didn’t have black people back then.” Hopefully, they’ve gotten the Hamilton memo.

Where else is the Shakespeare in all this? you might be asking. Well, where isn’t it?

The improbable and remarkable life of Ignatius Sancho is part of the age of David Garrick and Dr. Johnson, that is, the point in the past 400 years when Shakespeare began to become Shakespeare. Allusions to the works appear throughout the play. Sancho refers to the Greenwich women as “the Weird Sisters,” he talks about his failed attempt at auditioning for Othello (a role only played by white men until 1833), and he twice punctuates his exasperation with racism by quoting Hamlet’s “words, words, words.” The first utterance occurs just after he describes the trouble he got into as a boy when he was found with a book by one of the sisters. They intended to keep him illiterate, a state suitable to his “rank,” not as a servant but as an African. Hamlet’s words appear again in the second act of the play, a single day in 1780 in which Sancho participates in parliamentary elections. Between pulling out publications containing arguments for “reducing the number of Blacks,” in England and being challenged to prove with his property papers his eligibility to vote, Sancho angrily repeats, “words, words, words.” Throughout his life, words, in their written form, have been used in an attempt to keep Sancho in his place. But he has become a man of letters.

At the play’s end, Sancho removes the more baroque parts of his eighteenth-century costume and stands before us as he began the play, in his white shirt and breeches. There was a moment there, a pause without the character-defining lisp, in which I didn’t know if it was Ignatius Sancho or Paterson Joseph who stood before me. In my confusion, I think I saw both, and I think I was meant to see both.


Gina Di Salvo is an assistant professor of theatre history and dramaturgy at the University of Tennessee. She is also a professional dramaturg and an Artistic Associate of Sideshow Theatre Company in Chicago.

Cheek by Jowl and Pushkin Theatre, Moscow – Measure for Measure

My esteemed colleagues David Bevington and Alfred Thomas praise Declan Donnellan’s Russian-language Measure for Measure at Chicago Shakespeare Theater almost as if it were two different plays, one “brilliantly faithful” to Shakespeare and the other speaking truth to power with “an important new non-Anglophone perspective.” How can they both be right (which I think they are)?

The simple fact is that Measure almost always feels like several plays woven together. Donnellan captures this halfway through, when the stage suddenly explodes. Claudio, naked to the waist, stands astride a stringed bass while the cast, hands linked, swirls around him to mad music. The Duke shouts out to the chaste Isabella and lascivious Marianna how they will trick his lieutenant Angelo out of rape and into marriage.


It is a stunning coup de theatre, utterly changing the pace and dynamic of the drama. Up until then, Vienna has been a quagmire of vice and hypocrisy, overrun with prostitutes, pimps, and fornicators. The Duke is indecisive, uncomfortable with power, and afraid of his own people. When he goes underground, leaving the “prenzie” Angelo to lead a crackdown in his absence, things get progressively worse. The Duke, disguised as a monk, seems overwhelmed by the social chaos from below and corruption of power from above. Then he hears the corrosive exchange between Claudio and his sister Isabella, in which Claudio begs his sister Isabella for his life after she refuses to submit to rape in order to save him. In a second, the Duke changes, the play changes, and everything in Vienna changes.

The manic dance around Claudio solves the three problems that haunt productions of Measure. What is it about—the general corruption of man, the abuse of power, the fear of death, or all of these? How are we to take this Duke, who seems derelict at the beginning and overly manipulative at the end? And what are we to make of an ending that forces the protagonists into marriages in order to put a “comic” cap on a savage satire? Modern productions have looked for a way to make sense of it. Should Marianna refuse to save Angelo, or Isabella refuse to marry the Duke at the end? Should she just kill herself? Or kill him?

What is the play about? All of the above. It careens through throat-choking moral issues without time for breath. Prostitution is no victimless crime here. Rape, murder, bribery are all in the air or before our eyes. As the Duke searches for a way to postpone Claudio’s execution—it’s really judicial murder—suddenly the Provost, who commands the prison, moves to the foreground. Until that moment, he has been just another Shakespearean extra known only by his title. But confronted with a clearly immoral directive, he must decide. Will he just follow orders? Step by step he rises to moral action, first protesting merely with words, then acquiescing to the Duke’s proposed subterfuge, and then finally devising the way to put a stop to Angelo’s crime.

The Duke himself puts off the monk’s habit in which he has disguised himself, and reemerges as a preening alpha-dog politician. With tightly controlled, Putinesque gestures (this is in Russian, after all), he manipulates his subjects in what feels more and more like a show trial, making each figure realize that his displeasure signals death. None can be sure who will be the victim, until the jaws of his malice close around Angelo.

So justice is dispensed, if justice it be, at the hands of an all-wise authoritarianism. As the couples pair off and begin their marriage dance, Donnellan stages his final coup de theatre. When Isabella tries to embrace her brother, Claudio turns from her in disgust, and takes in his arms his partner and their newborn child. Life and human warmth spurn cold moral rectitude. Gazing on their happiness, Isabella relents, takes the hand of the Duke, and submits to the dance.

How does one speak truth to power in the veiled police states of Elizabethan England or Putin’s Russia? Shakespeare rarely spoke truth directly into the face of power. He danced and mimed his way around it. This Russian Measure, without an actual Shakespearean word, does its own dance around power, toying with our desire for moral absolutes, and showing how power slyly speaks back to us with enchanting falsehoods.

Clark Hulse

Clark Hulse is a professor emeritus of English and art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and chair of the Board of Directors of the Chicago Humanities Festival. He is author of numerous books and articles about Shakespeare, Renaissance literature and visual culture. Hulse is a Guggenheim and NEH Fellow and curator of the award-winning exhibition Elizabeth I: Ruler and Legend at the Newberry Library.