In her interview about the book she has co-authored with Tina Packer, When Action is Eloquence, the distinguished actor and teacher Bella Merlin reflects on how she came into contact with Shakespeare & Company and her three year progression through the completion of a manuscript based on her own deep knowledge of acting and her participation in the Company’s month-long intensive course.
Shakespeare and Company, a presence in Lenox since its foundation in 1978 by Tina Packer and Kristen Linklater, has undergone some seismic challenges in recent years, and there has at times been some concern about its future, but it continues to soldier on with its richly and solidly matured education programs and performances that seem to only to get better and better. Now, following a brilliant season (2016) and looking forward to what promises to be another equally exciting program this summer, all the upheavals seem basically of academic interest, and I’ll let you wait until someone publishes a history of this company, which wears its laurels so lightly that some, I believe, underestimate just how important it is, not only for the history of Shakespeare performance in this country, but anywhere.
Is Shakespeare loquacious? Reading the last pages of Richard III one might think so. King Richard speaks his way into oblivion.
He seems to be made of words—his actions secondary, the description being all. This, after all, is a character who succeeds in wooing a widow over the coffin of a close relative, and after the deed, tells us about it as if we didn’t get it the first time. His comeuppance arrives eventually, and true to form, he is ready with a virtuoso description of the situation. He is always and everywhere a soliloquist. Richard’s words are a virtuosity. Hamlet’s words are long-considered, pondered. Richard finds his demise at least as theatrical as his life, and when the end comes, Marlovian rant rules. Needless to say, this requires spectacular acting.
Try this for starters. Read a scene in rhymed couplets to someone you know, and ask them if it sounded natural. Not easy, is it? Great rhyme masters, from Alexander Pope to Richard Wilbur, require their readers to use these couplets on stage or page, and this is no small task. It asks from the performer something like singing. The regularity of the rhyme scheme, its dominance, can be treacherous. Peter Hall maintained that a script of Shakespeare’s can be read like music, but iambic pentameter is too strong and unbalanced to accept this kind of strictness all the time. Rhymed (sometimes called heroic) couplets need, indeed require, a balancing act. The listener knows instinctively when the rhymes are over-sung. I am saying there has to be a large and flexible middle to the actor’s method. This middle might be defined as the place that is returned to.
Shakespeare and Company’s touring production of Hamlet was swift and sharp. It had something of the intransigence of youth about it. The focus was sharply on Katherine Abbruzzese’s performance in the title role. All other roles were ably, nimbly taken by several actors who needed to be able to move quickly. This necessarily pushed the play toward melodrama. This was not bad. Ms. Abbruzzese was well-able to provide us with the energy and the virtuosity made necessary by the fleet, never-stopping direction. She seemed to be able to inhabit a world between genders without effort, like Hamlet seems to. This made me see Ophelia as more female than female, and that had a knife-edge tenderness.
For lovers of Shakespeare and those new to or fearful of the bard, Tina Packer’s “Women of Will, The Complete Journey,” aka “WOW,” playing in Parts I-V on five evenings and matinees through July 10 at Shakespeare & Co’s Bernstein theater, is more than a wow—it is a tour de force for acting, conception, and for what theater was for the Elizabethans and what it can be now, but often is self-consciously not. These performances hold to the Elizabethan venue with imagination leading the way. The five parts illustrate a different theme, repeating in a sense the five-act dramatic structure of Shakespeare’s plays.
One Christmas my magic daughter gave me a picture of a baboon. Above it she wrote Prospero’s valedictory line: “I’ll drown my book.” The animal had an expression of imponderable grief on its face. Words are exclusively human. But could it be said that animals sing? Music sets words free, back to their primal origin, leaping into the heart. Music is a language of knowing, of certainty. It has the raw truth of the baboon’s face. Maybe Prospero, whose name signifies hope, begins to sing when the book is drowned and the grief is past.