`Forty and a bittock`

From across the pond an idea for keeping theatrical creation alive despite social distancing comes this way via Folger bulletin. Door Shakespeare — from 1995 performing in the fascinating Garden of Björklunden, a wide peninsula estate located on the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan, ended up being hoovered by the net too. How that happened, is what makes it peculiar in the details.

Brainstorming on the above, artistic director Michael Stebbins and managing director Amy Ensign came up with a rather unique approach to their virtual production. First and foremost opting for a quite neglected Shakespeare-inspired play — J.M. Barrie’s Rosalind, furthermore for the use of Zoom as rehearsal environment rather than a `live` performance `stage`. 

The aim being to produce a `filmed` version of a `new` production — as for in `old `productions available online from other companies around the world, some other adjustments had to be made. So that actors could perform in their individual homes, but rehearsing and performing on, and with, the `same` set, props and costumes, `as if` sharing one `common space`.

That is how set designer Jody Sekas built three identical fireplaces and mantles, — which director himself delivered at each actor’s place with a U-Haul cargo, and props, — three pairs for each item, from teapot, to tablecloths, framed photos, steins with flowers, candles and bases, and also two pairs of pocket photo holders, plus one knapsack for `Charles` via Amazon.

Each actor used his or her iPhone to record, improvised as `light designer` manipulating table or floor lamps, while partners or spouses lent a hand — literally, `doubling` actors in passing objects. FaceTime was used to show how the shots were framed, while Zoom to record the scenes in real time. Eventually, Ryan Schabach, self-taught film-maker, edited the sequences — `shot` from different angles, together. 

The final product is neither a film, nor a theatrical experience but a quite memorable mirabilia of this specific time of distance which calls for art to be, `despite`. Something quite similar to what Shakespeares’s heroine of Arden is called to accomplish in order to just `be`, — in (as a character per the original), and off (as an actress per Barrie’s script) stage.

Shakespeare Rosalind’s `labour` to educate Orlando in the matters of love in order to enter marriage on her own terms demands quite a journey into the `green` space of transformation — the forest. Barrie’s `Rosalind`, — Mrs Page, `Beatrice` (of all names), also has to sacrifice quite a lot in order to serve art, whilst be true to herself. Forever 29, `despite` her (longed for?) middle-age. 

CHARLES: My dear, I want to be your Orlando to the end. Do you hear me?
CHARLES. I will take you out of that hurly-burly and accompany you into the delicious twilight of middle-age.

`We’re no-when…`

Disjointed times call for disjointed measures. Disarticulated in its best recognitions, this `beauty` joints me back to `Shakespeare AF` at sunrise via headphones. David Visick`s Waiting for Hamlet — winner of the Windsor Fringe Kenneth Branagh Award for New Drama Writing in 2018, is now available as a `radio theatre` encounter on Soundcloud

Due to be touring around the kingdom up to Edimburgh, `locked down` for the notorious reasons, this production preferred the aural dimension to the visual one to reach its audience. Hence, built up a net of efforts on the distance between actors — a couple of `hug-you-I-would`, Nicholas Collett, as Yorick, and Tim Marriott, as the King, and sound engineer/director Trevor Datson

Dead, interacting into an absurdist inspired Limbo on paper, mirroring duvets-made sound booths in real life, the fool, in a mournful, yet jolly manner is bound to discourage his `lost-in-majesty` companion `to go out`, or `back`, to instruct his son, Hamlet. The conversation is mesmerising, if this can be said of ears with no eyes participating to the theatrical adventure.

Yet, this is where the `beauty` stands. And the `why` of an audio-only alternative in these strange days. In Visick`s words, their venture meant to: `Let [people] create their own magic`. Imagination activating a personalised scenario. Sealed eyes, headspace on task to: `Build their own sets and backdrops, dress and age the characters and direct their gestures and facial expressions`. 

Too much of screen these days, in work time, so that entertainment could use some detox and go another way. Welcome to this reviewer, the script does what it is meant to do. Guide `by voices` into a realm of `visualisation of the story`. Help to get lost arising a `unique personal interpretation`, which somehow anticipates a strong desire `to see`, later, in the times to come. 

Some minor amends needed to adapt it for a `non-stage` (waiting for a space to become available and filled in), Visick`s writing captures for its deep understanding of `Hamlet`, in a dense yet limber 45 minutes, `comedy` rooted prompting and questioning about a number of matters, in and out the Shakespearean lines. Renaissance flutes and drums welcome the `listener` and the dialogue nails immediately. 

That`s right. `Dramaturgical` in expression, `philosophical` in essence, it is the tale of a `meta-hierarchical` friendship liaising opposite hats bearers. A jester `speaking the Truth` to a king in denial. A `wise`, patient, yet sharp tone of voice, he discloses reasons beyond `actions` — Gertrude’s for instance. As a professional in `acting`, though, he cannot but give up, and train the ghost, setting up the first `act`.

This is a battle of words, no one left alone, followed through an unearthly breeze — fatefully power side winning. Flutes and drums metamorphose into rock sounds in the end, tearing the thin curtain isolating the `no-where` from the `some-where`, leading from the `no-when` of a Time free zone to the `some-when` of the quite possibly…

Liberate the Poet!

In the end, a Shakespeare-related `online theatre` experience that is worth recounting, comes this way. And an artist of substance was needed to shift this new phenomenon into a measure of careful thinking as well as performance. With the Zoom version of his I, Cinna (The Poet) `under the direction` of Naomi Wirthner for Unicorn Theatre, Tim Crouch comes to explore this new `district` with intensity, grace, and — fatefully, poetic sensitivity.

Finally, not a crowded screen where `unthought` actions and untameable words squeeze the wish of connecting in times of isolation into an antsy sequence of noises landing into boredom. Crouch’s choice is simple because it is thought: the encounter happens on `stage` — webinar mode, precisely as in a `normal` theatre. The broad vision, not just an `undirected` focus on his face, betray a study on how to play the role of actor into long and short plans. Also, it does not forget `scenic` props: a desk, a laptop — perpetual connection with the outside world, a sealed room, a coat, a kettle, a smartphone. Especially, though, a pen and paper.

Right, because at the heart of this `play` are the words. It is possible to access the `theatre room` about half an hour before, and you will see him struggling with an empty log where words just cannot stick. Help is required from an audience. And the audience comes. First of all he reads all the names of the `attendees`, — mine included, and explains how the connection with the virtual `fourth wall` will be established, way up until the moment that — at the end only, and this is not a minor detail, those present will be turned into `participants`. This being the moment he likes the most.

This `script` — fifth in the I, Shakespeare series, including I, Malvolio, I, Banquo, I, Caliban, I, Peaseblossom, formerly composed for Jude Owusu in a 2012 RSC production, takes out from Julius Caesar a minor character with an inauspicious fate. Already revived by Crouch himself as an actor last February, Justin Audibert, artistic director of the London theatre still producing it, ended up convincing him to set up this new version.

Conceived for a solo performer, this brilliant text offers Crouch the chance to stand out for narrative mastery and dialogic capability, especially with the youngest in the `virtual audience`. It is to them, as a matter of fact, that he asks primarily to raise the `virtual hand` and interact — in a few, essential moments, via Q&A. This one is a reflection on life, its specific `gravity`, in-between two deaths: the one of the `dictator`, — literally he who dictates the words, bearer of a crown of king in the bosom of a republic which cannot take off (neither then, nor now, nor anywhere) and the one of the wrong Cinna, not the conspirator, but the poet. Killed not once but twice: in the flesh and in his property of thinker of the beautiful and the just. His words suffocated by a crowd calling him `out` because he cannot and does not want to `live in brackets`. An almost unbelievable echo of the current events which arguably could be of help to the intensity of the final product.

All, in this `theatrical interaction` Crouch sets up, aims to activating — thus keeping Cinna (both the real one, and the symbolic one) alive, the poetic capability inhabiting each and every one of us. Some sort of `poetising`, so to speak, generating a `philosophising` in the simplest of manners. He builds the latter up from the smallest of words — those which are `slaves` to other words, moves ahead to the words which exist already, — `substance words` or things, carries on to the words which `give meanings` to other words, — adjectives, up to the words which did not exist until we gave them a name — abstract concepts.

It is into this `republic` of words that the `conceptualisation` actually begins. `What would you die for? What would you kill for?`. These are the questions entrusted to the audience, giving them time to reflect and share. Especially the youngest. The cast Crouch’s `theatrising` is made from stands precisely into the closeness to the people attending, and this paradoxical contingency makes that happen here in an even more pertinent manner despite the real distance.

Some documentary `interludes`, — images of social turmoils forwarning the fall of the `king`, formerly conceived for the backdrop in a real theatre, become here part of the `narrative performance`, contributing to giving breath to this `live video`. Undoubtedly are to be blessed the gods of internet for having been so benevolent in the course of this particular encore, and having prevented from any `bad connection` to occur. The news about Caesar’s death comes on TV after the reflections on life and its specific `gravity`, and it cannot but revolutionise Cinna’s unnatural claustrophobic present, his own poet’s vocational property calling him to go out into the world in order to `poetise`, as there cannot be poetry without exiting.

Have you ever felt like that? Like brackets. 
(I’m in brackets to real life.) 
Do you understand? Brackets

This is how he embraces his destiny of death by cause of homonymy. It will be the audience’s duty to honour his act, — by means of the `reflected words` and the just manifested action, with an intimate yet communal poem to be composed along a five minutes silence bringing all those present close, even though far away and invisible to one another. Valediction and gratitude come from Cinna’s `ghost`. Thereafter, `curtain`. The most touching moment for us is the one Crouch himself likes the most. The brief one when lights are back on the `room`, out of the webinar mode, to shift gracefully, just for a few, gracious minutes, in the meeting mode.

Smiling, waving to each other, recognising each other, all seems to be a mutual gift that each participant delivers — indeed, as a `statement of presence`, before getting back, all of us, into our own republic.

Seen online on July 14 2020