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Column: Notes on a truly Shakespearean year: An enlightened boldness brings out the best in the Bard

Aus Greidanus Jr., left, and Eelco Smits in Toneelgroep Amsterdam's "Kings of War," directed by Ivo van Hove at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
(Richard Termine)
Theater Critic

For better or worse, 2016 has been a truly Shakespearean year.

It has also been the year of Donald Trump, a figure who could no doubt hold his own in one of Shakespeare’s ruthless history plays. In an election year rife with melodramatic intrigue, the plays were ransacked for character analogies, political wisdom and memorable lines reminding us of a time when rhetoric was still able to soar.

Off-stage politics aside, the Bard was in heavy demand in this 400th anniversary of his death. The commemorations brought forth a rich banquet of productions from the tamely traditional to the wildly outlandish.

Enlightened boldness won out. The offerings that left the deepest impressions were those that combined directorial freedom with textual familiarity — those, in other words, that weren’t afraid to take liberties but knew where the gold was buried.

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Getting this balance right is admittedly still one of the rarer arts.

I had high hopes for Forced Entertainment’s “Complete Works — Table Top Shakespeare,” which was presented by the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA over six days earlier this month in a bill directed by Tim Etchells. Audience members were seated on the stage of Royce Hall. Before them at a table was a performer who would amiably synopsize one of Shakespeare’s plays while using household objects (condiments, glassware, bottles of booze) as surrogates for the characters.

Forced Entertainment's "Complete Works -- Table Top Shakespeare" came to Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA.
Forced Entertainment’s “Complete Works -- Table Top Shakespeare” came to Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA.
(Hugo Glendinning )

This wasn’t really a puppet show. Neither was it wholly Shakespeare. It was another of Forced Entertainment’s experiments investigating the essential building blocks of the theatrical experience. This British company, which came to UCLA in 2005 with “Bloody Mess,” has long been interrogating with loopy earnestness the nature of performance itself. Here, the research boiled down to a fascinating question: How much incentive does the audience’s imagination need to spark theater?

Even more than an homage to Shakespeare, “Completed Works” was a salute to the communal power of storytelling. The proverbial campfire scene was reenacted with tales from Shakespeare retold with minimal illustration.

Portia in “The Merchant of Venice” was represented by a bottle of rose water. When she went in disguise in the courtroom scene, the bottle was turned upside down. Similarly, Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was represented by a glass jar of paintbrushes. The moment he was partly transformed into a donkey, the paintbrushes were turned upside down.

I attended the first day of performances and caught three of the 36 installments, each running just under an hour. I wasn’t inclined to become a completist of “Complete Works.” Not that I wasn’t charmed by the laid back ardency of the three narrators I saw. But Shakespeare’s glory lies more in the language of his plays than in his plots (most of which are borrowed), and the paraphrasing of dramatic poetry began to seem increasingly anticlimactic.

What’s more, the subtleties of Shakespeare’s dramas were lost in the rush for cruder narrative pleasures. “The Merchant of Venice” has elements of romantic comedy, to be sure, but the work is far too dark to be treated as just another modern rom-com. Bassanio, no longer a playboy trying to marry his way out of debt, was said to be rushing to Portia’s island with a heart aflutter with sincere affection. Shylock, a comic villain as well as a suffering father, wept copiously after his daughter ran away from home with suitcases full of jewels and cash.

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“Richard II” was too knotty to comprehensibly distill. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” lost most of its magic in the prosy outline. Shakespeare’s genius lends itself to many different formats, but these recaps seemed like coloring book versions of the plays.

It has been a dirty little secret of mine that some of the best Shakespeare productions I’ve seen have been performed in languages I don’t know at all. Ingmar Bergman’s Swedish “Hamlet” and Yukio Ninagawa’s Japanese “Macbeth” are still the best versions of these tragedies I’ve encountered. The reasons for this are complex but in both cases I was startled into a new awareness of the plays by having my focus redirected from the textual to the theatrical language.

I have a new foreign production to add to my greatest hits list: Ivo van Hove’s marathon staging of “Kings of War,” a 4.5-hour compilation of Shakespeare’s history plays presented by Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in November. Performed in Dutch (with English titles), the adaptation (by Bart van den Eynde and Peter van Kraaij) began at the end of “Henry IV, Part 2,” moved through a condensed version of “Henry V” and the three parts of “Henry VI” and culminated with a mesmerizing trot through “Richard III.”

The Ivo van Hove-directed production of "Kings of War" from Toneelgroep Amsterdam.
The Ivo van Hove-directed production of “Kings of War” from Toneelgroep Amsterdam.
(Richard Termine )

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It was a spectacular exposé on masculine ego and power — even more revelatory than the “Access Hollywood” video of Trump boasting about predatory behavior.

Van Hove has had a very good year by any measure. He won a Tony for his direction of Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge,” which was presented at the Ahmanson this fall. His Broadway revival of Miller’s “The Crucible” was equally acclaimed. But I don’t think I’ve seen a more thrillingly directed production this year than his “Kings of War.”

There was nothing especially medieval about all this jockeying for the crown in 15th century Britain. The multimedia staging incorporated swanky leather furniture, boardroom tables and even a DJ booth (replacing the earlier orchestra) into the chic architectural design scheme of the director’s close collaborator (and life partner), Jan Versweyveld. Live video expanded the playing area to rooms that included a hospital cabinet in which the coveted crown was safely stowed like a dangerous drug that must be put out of easy reach.

These kings of war, playfully evoking at times Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush, were elucidated less by the words they spoke than the way they comported themselves. An ongoing saga was being recounted through the contemporary swagger of royal masculinity, through the vocal tone and volume of those in and out of power and through the uninhibited theatricality of a company that had no trouble negotiating between classical and super-contemporary performance styles. I may not speak a word of Dutch but I know great acting when I see it. Van Hove’s troupe translated the quest for political domination into a universal language as timeless as it was modern.

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Meanwhile in London, gender was being dismantled as an obstacle to portraying Shakespeare’s greatest characters. Glenda Jackson, returning to the stage after her long detour in Parliament, scaled the Himalayan part of King Lear in Deborah Warner’s Old Vic production. And Harriet Walter tackled Brutus in “Julius Caesar,” the title role in “Henry IV” and Prospero in “The Tempest” in the Donmar Warehouse’s sensational “Shakespeare Trilogy,” which I hope one day reaches our region even if only one of the plays can make it over.

The inconsistencies and contradictions of Warner’s production, which tried to reconcile a somewhat presentational style (part Brecht, part postmodern gimmickry) with introspective emotion — kept it from becoming a “Lear” for our time. But Jackson’s ferocity — an ethical outrage inflamed with disgust for the charade of authority and laden with anguish for human frailty — made for a bracing reencounter with this unflinching tragedy.

Sheila Atim, left, and Jade Anouka in "Henry IV", part of the Donmar Warehouse "Shakespeare Trilogy" in London.
Sheila Atim, left, and Jade Anouka in “Henry IV”, part of the Donmar Warehouse “Shakespeare Trilogy” in London.
(Helen Maybanks )

Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female “Shakespeare Trilogy” took its own Brechtian liberties by relocating the plays to a women’s prison with a theater program. Actors were playing convicts who were bringing to life Shakespeare’s illustrious dramatis personae. The production concept provided a diverse company with opportunities that are still too rare in today’s theater.

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Music ran through the stagings as did a fair amount of rehabilitative psychology. A purist would find much to quibble with. Shakespeare’s work is more capacious than Lloyd’s interpretive scheme. But the textured acting compensated for any deficiencies.

The ensemble was as fluid as it was united, and Walter raised the bar with her magnificence. What was the secret of her success? A fluency with Shakespeare’s language that allowed her to manifest the minds of her characters without resorting to imposed psychology. The freedom of Lloyd’s production was earned by this high level of poetic dexterity.

The best Shakespeare production in Southern California I saw all year was Kathleen Marshall’s graceful outdoor staging of “Love’s Labor’s Lost” at the Old Globe in San Diego. World-class local Shakespeare may have been in short supply, but I still managed to catch several first-rate offerings less than a mile from my home in the Beverly Hills flats.

One of the exciting developments of this media age is the global accessibility of work being done on the other side of the pond. By riding my bike a short distance to the Ahrya Fine Arts cinema on Wilshire Boulevard, I was able to see Donmar Warehouse’s “Coriolanus” with an intense Tom Hiddleston, the Almeida Theatre’s chilling “Richard III” with Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave, Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s “The Winter’s Tale” with Branagh and Judi Dench, and the Shakespeare’s Globe revival of “The Merchant of Venice” with Jonathan Pryce’s affecting Shylock.

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Seeing these productions in a movie theater is different from seeing them live. The broadcasts don’t subsume their distant audiences in the same way; the investment of our attention isn’t as profound. These offerings nonetheless have the potential to sharpen our working knowledge of plays that, in the right risk-taking hands, still have the potential to light our way through the ever-murky present.

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

Follow me @charlesmcnulty

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