Theatre yesterday and today



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I can’t let today go by without acknowledging that it is the birthdate of the most produced playwright of the past four hundred plus years: William Shakespeare, born on this date in 1564. His plays are still done the world over, even with the potential to sell out, especially when they are star-studded, such as the recent Othello that played Off-Broadway last year with David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig. Coming up this summer, Oscar Isaac will take on the title role in Hamlet at the Public Theatre, and you can bet that will be a tough ticket as well.

It’s kind of astounding, since the plays still need to more to attract audiences for more than their built-in familiar titles and popular stories or fulfill some well-intentioned cultural responsibility. No, the reason they continue being performed on every corner of the planet is because they are great pieces of theatre. They can be studied for another 400 years by scholars, but they were written to be performed, and the greatest joys and insights come from actors interpreting them. No writer before Shakespeare had ever possessed his complexity of language, deep feeling for poetry, or psychological insights into character, long before a term like “psychological insights” was even invented. And few writers have been able to scale the dramatic heights of Romeo and Juliet or King Lear ever since — and The Lion King’s ripping off Hamlet doesn’t count (uncle steals his nephew’s rightful place as King). What? You never noticed? …

Both big box office hits, too!

My first exposure to Shakespeare was watching the Laurence Olivier film of Hamlet on television before I was twelve years old. I remember thinking it very moody and that poor guy Hamlet being rather tortured, which I’m pretty sure is exactly what Olivier was striving for. A short time later, I saw my first Shakespeare on stage — which was also Hamlet — a story I recount in my book Up in the Cheap Seats. And I guess today is as good as any to offer it up here:

In 1969, I was twelve years old, and at the very beginning of my self-appointed task to see a Broadway show once or twice a week. Play #17 (yes, I kept count) was a production of Hamlet with an all-British cast, headed by Nicol Williamson, an enfant terrible renowned for behavior of the worst kind, much of it onstage in front of paying audiences.

En route to New York during its Boston engagement, Howard Panter, the production stage manager told of how “the first night was going very badly. The audience was restless … and the performance was deteriorating.” Williamson, angry with himself, threw down a goblet during the first scene and walked off the stage. As stage manager, it was Panter’s call and he brought down the curtain. “Everyone was so shaken. … I didn’t think it was a stunt at all. He was deeply depressed.”

Years later, on two separate occasions, Williamson’s unprofessional antics again made the papers. In 1976, while appearing as King Henry VIII in the musical Rex, Williamson slapped a chorus member across the face at the curtain call when he thought he heard something negative said behind his back.

In 1991, things got even more contentious when during an onstage duel in Paul Rudnick’s I Hate Hamlet, Williamson struck his co-star, Evan Handler, in a way that Handler instantly knew was no accident. Dropping his sword, Handler walked off the stage, out the stage door, onto the street, and never returned to the production. It played another seven-and-a-half weeks with Handler’s understudy — and without further incident — but the die was cast. Williamson returned to the New York stage only one more time before his death in 2011 — in a 1996 solo show, taking no chance interacting with other cast members.

Nicol Williamson as Hamlet (1969).

With little knowledge of who he was at the time (let alone his reputation), I had no idea what was potentially in store for me going backstage to meet Williamson. I was so fired up and excited by what had just transpired that as soon as the curtain came down, I ran from my box seat and raced to the stage door. Arriving breathless, I was met by a brusque doorman who blew me off. “Wait outside,” he said.

This was a first. What happened? Was my kid charm wearing off? Maybe I wasn’t as irresistible as I thought.

After a long wait, during which time about two dozen people had gathered on the sidewalk surrounding me, the doorman popped his head out, looked straight at me and in the same gruff manner said, “You!”

I looked back at the others as if to say, “So long, suckers.”

Once inside, my new friend pointed upstairs. “First door on the right.”

I went up, knocked, and a deep voice ordered me to enter. And there was Nicol Williamson, an imposing sight at 6’ 3”. He barely looked up while attending to buttoning his cuffs, a cigarette dangling from his bottom lip.

“Hello.” Then, looking past me, he asked, “Where are your parents?”

I said, “At home.”

A look of surprise crossed his face. “You came by yourself?

“Yeah,” I said. “I couldn’t get anyone to go with me.”

Williamson laughed. I didn’t realize I’d said anything funny. It was the truth. No one I asked was interested.

“Did you enjoy the show?”

“Oh yes. Very much.”

“Did you understand it?”

“I think so. I do have one question. When you saw the ghost, did you really see him or was that in your mind?”

Williamson stared me down. For a moment, I believe he considered having a real conversation with me. But after a brief deliberation, he smiled, went back to his cuff-buttoning and said, “I think I’ll leave you to consider that.”

He then signed my program with a flourish and I was on my way.

Here’s my review. Take note of the price ($2.75) and the plot summary (I think I was trying to be funny):

“Instead [of] talking in his mind, he talks right out to the audience; you become involved.”

I imagine that was due to this being my first time seeing a soliloquy.

The second time I attended a professional Shakespeare production, was an Othello brought into New York at the tail end of a tour that had begun at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut. It starred Moses Gunn as Othello, an actor with a powerful bass voice and a larger-than-life presence who was perfect for the part. His Iago was another smooth-voiced actor, Lee Richardson, perhaps most famous as the stentorian narrator of the 1977 film Network. As a thirteen year old, I saw this Othello cold, with no knowledge of its story, save from its one-line plot description. Even though I was aware it was one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, I was still surprised that three of its four leads were all dead by the time the curtain fell. You’d think Hamlet would have set me up for that, but no.

My third, in 1970, was thankfully, a comedy. Celebrated to this day as one of the most original stagings of a Shakespeare, Peter Brooks’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream, first staged in England with the Royal Shakespeare Company. His was the first Tony ever awarded a director for a Shakespeare (one of only two in the awards 70 year history). I still remember the acrobatics of Brooks’ staging — actors swung from trapezes — all while speaking their lines and carrying on in a magical world, sprung from the director’s imagination and the athleticism and magnetism of the cast, among them then-unknowns Ben Kingsley and Patrick Stewart, twenty-seven and thirty years old, respectively.

And this 1970 Midsummer won the Tony Award for its bare minimum set as well.

And a reminder (as always), that this spring and summer right here in New York City, Shakespeare will be available for anyone of any social strata who chooses to take advantage of it. Views from up in the cheap seats and — and possibly even closer — are better than cheap, they’re free, courtesy of the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Public Theatre.

Beginning in May, Julius Caesar will play the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, following by A Midsummer Night’s Dream in July. The productions will star such illustrious actors as Corey Stoll, John Douglas Thompson, Elizabeth Marvel, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Nikki M. James, Annaleigh Ashford, Danny Burstein and Shalita Grant. It requires lining up early in the day for the chance at the free tickets, but that’s all part of the fun. I’ve been doing it since I was a teenager in the 1970s. Give it a try. You can do worse things than to waste a summer’s day in Central Park.

And Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare. You still got it!

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is available now, exclusively for sale by Griffith Moon Publishing: