Spring into Summer with Shakespeare

Robin Brenner | March 23, 2017

The first time I encountered the work of William Shakespeare, I saw Julius Caesar performed in my school cafeteria in sixth grade.  I was always a bookish kid and loved all forms of storytelling, including prose, television, movies, and live performances. Somehow, though, I had yet to encounter Shakespeare. Before I was ever assigned to read any plays, I saw this weighty political drama performed by actors wearing bed sheets as togas with no set, no lighting effects, and minimal props.  In retrospect, I would not think that Julius Caesar would be the most engaging Shakespeare play to present to eleven- and twelve-year-olds. As the actors strode around the stage, I sat amid hundreds of my fidgety peers and tried not to notice the odor of the last lunch while I watched ancient Rome come to life.

I was mesmerized. Did I understand every turn of phrase? No. Did I fall in love with the language and characters of Shakespeare’s play? Yes. Did I want more? Immediately, however I could get it.

As so many students are required to do, I plowed through Romeo and Juliet in seventh grade. (I remain unconvinced that this is the best time to read Romeo and Juliet, as it’s hard to have any perspective on the young lovers when most of us are just about to enter that level of romantic mooning in our own adolescences.) I dove into a range of plays during my high school and college studies, buoyed by a selection of fantastic teachers who were fans as much as they were instructors.

I was also lucky enough to be living in the decade that included a resurgence of compelling Shakespeare films hitting movie screens, including Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, Baz Luhrman’s divisive Romeo + Juliet, and Oliver Parker’s Othello, (it still surprises me that Lawrence Fishburne was the first black actor to play the title role in a major studio film). I won’t confess how many times I saw Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing in the theater. I’m always ready to argue that Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night is one of the best versions in any medium.

A key element to falling in love with all of these texts was seeing the plays performed before, or at least at the same time, as reading them. Parsing all of the clever phrasing, character details and personalities, and emotional truth in Shakespeare’s works will always keep scholars busy, but, for me, the performances are necessary to get the full effect. Plays aren’t meant to be read but to be seen. A long speech that may seem impenetrable on the page becomes perfectly clear when a talented actor shifts their voice, adds pauses, and winks at the audience while delivering a bawdy joke.

Like many Shakespeare fans, I also truly enjoy when talented writers and producers of plays and films toy with the rich worlds and characters the Bard left us. I am no purist, and I will admit that 10 Things I Hate About You is my favorite version of The Taming of the Shrew (in part because it fixes all of the issues I have as a modern reader with the ending). Tim Blake Nelson’s O is a brutal but striking reimagining of Othello in a Charleston, SC, prep school. Shakespeare in Love is crammed full of Easter eggs for fans while also bringing a wonderful fairy tale version of the writer’s world into focus. Lastly, my favorite snide but fond TV show, Slings and Arrows, reminds us why Shakespeare is always worth performing, even if the endeavor drives a successful theater company to the brink of ruin.

Because I will take any chance to see Shakespeare, I am eagerly anticipating our new series, Spring into Summer with Shakespeare.  The Trustees of the Brookline Library have sponsored this exciting program, which brings together not just one special performance, but a whole string of performers to spin different takes on the Bard.  The first event–Sunday, April 2, at 1 PM–should be a delight for all ages as the Knighthorse Theater Company invites the audience to collaborate with them to create a classic play. The audience’s input is vital, and everyone’s imagination adds to the experience.

Expect all kinds of fun from the Knighthorse Theatre Company.

Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar.

At the end of April, the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company is returning to our  Brookline Village location to bring us scenes from Julius Caesar, presented right on the main floor in front of the circulation desk. Seeing Shakespeare in the middle of the stacks surprised a few patrons last year, but, once they realized what was happening, they stopped to enjoy the performances. Be sure to join us upstairs in Hunneman Hall after the performances to hear from the actors, talk about the production, and participate in a workshop about the ins and outs of Shakespeare’s language. Last year, we learned all about Shakespearean insults, which are so wonderfully varied and full of venom.

May will bring us the Boston Theater Company’s Teen Touring Troupe, presenting their version of Much Ado About Nothing. Through the month of June our weekly movie programs, Midday Movies at Putterham and Movie Matinee at Coolidge Corner, will screen favorite Shakespeare related films, Scotland, PA, a 1970s reimagining of Macbeth, and Kiss Me Kate, the classic musical riff on The Taming of the Shrew.

Finally, in July, the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company will return to bring us our very own Shakespeare in the Park, except that this time each performance will be right on our library lawn.  Bring your own dinner and chairs, and settle in for a fantastic time. These productions, one complete play per evening on July 27 and 28, will bring the full experience of live theater to the Public Library of Brookline.

I had the great joy of visiting London in early March. While there, I couldn’t resist making the trip to the Bankside area to see the meticulously recreated Globe Theater, rebuilt using the same materials and methods of the Elizabethan era.  It was a bit of a dream come true to see the theater set up for a production (in this case, Love’s Labours Lost was in rehearsals) and imagine sitting in those seats watching a play on that ornate stage. While we can’t quite bring the Globe to you (my small paper model on display at the information desk notwithstanding), we are delighted to provide our patrons with these opportunities to see Shakespeare’s words brought to life.

It doesn’t take much more than a sheet and a commanding actor to remind us why Shakespeare has the reputation he has. The words work their magic. Join us to find out (or rediscover) just why we still fall in love with this author and these plays, even after 400 years.

To tide you over in between our events, here’s my list of favorite on-screen Shakespearean adaptations/reinventions, and film speculations on his life.