Hamlet, Henry IV Part One, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, and Throne of Blood, performed by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, February-October 2010.

 Geoff Ridden
Southern Oregon University

 Geoff Ridden. “Review of Hamlet, Henry IV Part One, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, and Throne of Blood, performed by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, February-October 2010.." Early Modern Literary Studies 15.2 (2010-11): 20.1-42 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/15-2/revthron.htm>


Hamlet. Director: Bill Rauch. With Dan Donohue (Hamlet), Jeffrey King (Claudius), Armando Duran (Horatio), and Susannah Flood (Ophelia).

Henry IV Part One. Director: Penny Metropulos. With John Tufts (Prince Hal), David Kelly (Falstaff), and Kevin Kenerly (Hotspur).

Twelfth Night. Director: Darko Tresnjak. With Brooke Parks (Viola), Miriam A. Laube (Olivia), Michael Elich (Feste), and Christopher Liam Moore (Malvolio).

The Merchant of Venice. Director: Bill Rauch. With Anthony Heald (Shylock), Vilma Silva (Portia), and Jonathan Haugen (Antonio) .

Throne of Blood. Director: Ping Chong. With Kevin Kenerly (Washiku), Ako (Lady Asaji), Cristofer Jean (Forest Spirit), Danforth Comins (Miki).

  1.  The 2010 season marked the 75th anniversary of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It was a season that included three outdoor productions of Shakespeare plays (including the two plays, Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice, which were the Festival's very first offerings), an indoor staging of Hamlet at the Angus Bowmer Theatre , and a world premier production of the stage version of Throne of Blood, also in the Angus Bowmer Theatre. Unusually, there were no Shakespeare productions this year in the smaller New Theatre, but the outdoor season on the Elizabethan Stage/ Allen Pavilion was, once more, entirely devoted to Shakespeare, for the first time since 2007.

  2. All of these productions did excellent business, in most cases completely selling out (the exceptions being Henry IV Part One and, to my surprise, Throne of Blood). The Festival's Artistic Director, Bill Rauch, who won the 2010 Visionary Leadership Award from the Theatre Communications Group, really hit his stride this season, even if, as will be clear below, his own interpretations of Shakespeare were not always to everyone's taste.

  3. The OSF serves and supports its audiences very well, offering them a range of talks and question-and-answer sessions with actors, directors, critics and dramaturgs. In addition to backstage tours, there are times when it opens its costume and scenery departments - although I did wonder whether the unusual opening moments of The Merchant of Venice should have been revealed at a scenery-workshop event in April, some weeks before that production opened. In addition, the Festival's season evoked theatrical responses elsewhere in the region - there were local productions of Illyria the Musical (in Ashland) and of I Hate Hamlet (in Talent) in the summer of 2010.

  4. Hamlet opened in February and ran until the end of October. Dan Donohoe’s was an outstanding performance, in every sense, including stamina (since there was thirty minutes of onstage action before a line of the play was spoken, with a lengthy depiction of the end of the funeral service of the dead King, and the play itself ran for some three hours and twenty minutes, Donohoe was in character for almost four hours). Donohoe looked young enough to be credible as a student fresh from Wittenberg and that youthfulness was underlined by his modern costume (the production as a whole was eclectic in its setting and dress, mixing guns and swords, for example, in a manner that Bill Rauch seems to favour). Hamlet's madness was expressed by a form of self-harm which involved him using scissors to cut up his clothes, and the clothes of those around him. He was in close communication with the ghost of his father, in part because that Ghost was played by a deaf actor (Howie Seago in Desert Storm camouflage) and Hamlet knew sign-language - thus he had a unique understanding of the Ghost's message. 

  5. The set was quite bare for the first half, its most striking feature being a grey wall at the rear, the top of which served as battlements, and from which the lights of red security cameras shone out on the audience throughout the play. This was a world of surveillance, in which, for example, Ophelia was given a hidden microphone, so that she could spy on Hamlet all the more effectively. 

  6. The intermission came after the play-within-a- play (III.ii) and there was a change in the set in the second half, so that the single sweep of the stage was divided up at times into smaller rooms. This sorted well with the emphasis on intrigue, spying and eavesdropping, and led to a most unusual treatment of Claudius at his prayers (III.iii) which opened the second half. Whereas the production had begun with Hamlet at prayer, its second half began with the dividing of the stage and with Claudius rushing into a lavatory (the toilet bowl came up from beneath the stage) to vomit. This was a very twenty-first century reaction to Claudius's realisation that his secret has been discovered, and  it was a piece of business which made Hamlet's mistaken belief that Claudius was at prayer all the more ironic: Claudius was in effect praying to the porcelain god.

  7. In addition to having the Ghost played by a deaf actor, the production also had female actors playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with a Stoppardian confusion among the court as to which was which. However, the feature which grabbed most headlines, and which angered some members of the audience, was that the play-within-a-play was performed as a hip-hop performance. The entire staging of this part of the play cannot have occupied more than a few moments, but the reaction to it could easily have led those who had not seen this production to believe that the whole play was done in this style. The letters to the local press signalled outrage among some of the audience, one of whom dubbed it 'Fake-speare'. I did not have such an adverse reaction: it seemed to make the Players more part of the culture of Hamlet than that of Claudius, and to make it all the more credible that Claudius did not immediately realise what the subject of their play might be.

  8. One of the many problems for a director of Hamlet must be how to contrive it so that the stage is empty at the times appropriate for Hamlet to deliver his soliloquies. That issue is first tested in I.ii, and Bill Rauch solved the matter brilliantly: none of the court left the stage, they simply froze in position while Hamlet spoke. The soliloquy was thus not just a man speaking to himself, but rather a man speaking but heard only by the audience and not be those on stage - a perfect parallel to a Ghost whose language is understood only by Hamlet.  For the record, Hamlet's flesh was 'solid' in this speech, and the queen in the Player's speech in II.ii was neither 'mobled' nor 'innobled' but 'ignobled',

  9. There was a great deal to admire in Susannah Flood's portrayal of Ophelia, and I much enjoyed the way she echoed Polonius' lines of advice in I.iii, which had the effect of at once undercutting the seriousness of his advice and also suggesting that this advice was part of a familiar and familial ritual.  What I found much harder to understand, however, was that Ophelia was on-stage in IV.vii , acting out her death in dumb-show while Gertrude reported what she had seen; I could not but feel sorry for Gertrude at having her best speech upstaged in this way. 

  10. My final reservation was of a different order. Armando Duran is a fine actor, but I thought that he was miscast as Horatio: in part this was because it was difficult to accept that his was not the major role, and in part because his costume seemed to be from a different play altogether, and proved a distraction to this member of the audience, if to no other.

  11. Henry IV Part One was staged in the open air theatre, and made good use of the scope of this space. There was a large picture of the crucifixion at the top of the set, stairs between the levels, and a table at the centre of the stage on the lower level. Crossbeams built into the set were illuminated at frequent intervals, in this production, perhaps to emphasise that this was a play in which fear of God was still a potent force. Such lines as Hal's 'In the name of God' in III.ii were given an extra resonance in this setting. Parts of the backdrop to the stage also recalled the patterning of a chess board, and this sorted well with a play so much concerned with tactics and territorial gain.
  12. The play actually began with the deposition of Henry's predecessor from Act IV of Richard II, presented on the upper level of the stage. In contrast, the next time this upper level was in use was in the second scene of the actual play itself, when a curtain was drawn back to reveal a bed in which lay Hal, Falstaff and a woman. That this was an earthy low-life milieu acted out here on an upper-level was further underlined by the presence (and use) of a chamber-pot in this scene. However, good as John Tufts was in the role of Prince Hal, I was never convinced that he was really part of this tavern life: his innate nobility could not be disguised. David Kelly, on the other hand, was utterly commanding as Falstaff, to the extent that it seemed impossible to recall that he had played Benedick in Much Ado only twelve months before. The decision to use Elizabethan costumes was probably an advantage in the casting of Falstaff, allowing David Kelly to carry the necessary extra weight all the more easily. 

  13. The role of Poins was played by Howie Seago, a deaf actor, and this casting worked very well indeed: although Seago is normally silent, he was able to voice his call for Francis in II.iv; indeed, he had several increasingly frantic voices. Poins is perhaps the only one of the tavern characters to whom Hal reveals his real self, and the casting of Seago meant that Hal spoke aloud the words which Poins signed, and thus the dialogue between Hal and Poins became something close to a monologue from the Prince.
  14. This is one of those Shakespeare plays in which differences between British regions figure prominently, but the actors in OSF productions tend to use their own Americam accents, so there was no attempt at North-Eastern accent for Kevin Kenerly's Hotspur; although understandable, this was something of a loss. In contrast, when Glendower's name was mentioned by other characters, it was given a Welsh inflection, with the accent on the middle syllable. Kenerly is a wonderful actor, and it was a joy to watch him in all of his verbal jousts across the whole of the play. The size of the stage also gave broad range for jousting of a more physical kind, and the director took full advantage of the opportunities offered for staging the battles. The Gadshill robbery was very amusing, not least because there was a pause in Falstaff's screaming as he ran from the stage, only for the scream to be taken up again once he was out of sight.
  15. There were several occasions on which the text was handled with great intelligence; for example, Hotspur's gesture on the word 'unjointed' in I.iii clearly gave that term the sense of 'limp-wristed', with all its contemporary connotations. Similarly, 'audience' in the same scene very evidently meant 'hearing', as it should, and, when Falstaff used the phrase 'Depose me' in II.iv, he was able to evoke the deposition of Richard II because we had seen that staged just an hour before. The joke on 'reason' and 'raisin' at II.iv 238-40 could not be carried through because shifts in pronunciation since Shakespeare's day have meant that these two words are no longer homonyms. For a rather different set of reasons, the reference in IV.i to Harry with his 'beaver' on was changed to 'helmet'. There were two other moments of detail which I much appreciated. One was in III.iii, where the gesture which accompanied the phrase 'Newgate fashion' made it abundantly clear that this meant 'in handcuffs'.  The other came at the death of Hotspur in V.iv, when Hal did not simply complete the line 'food for worms', but Hal and Hotspur were allowed to say it together, making them two sides of the same coin.
  16. The intermission took place at the end Act II as all the characters in the play began to prepare for war, and it was clear from conversations in the audience that some people were finding the political parts of the plot hard to follow: it was probably no easier for them in the second half. I have the greatest respect for Anthony Heald as an actor, but his accent as Glendower was not secure (and he had little time on stage to make it more secure), and, coupled with his flowing costume and flowing locks, he was uncomfortably reminiscent of the Scots comedian Billy Connolly. However, we did have real Welsh speaking and a Welsh song in this scene (III.i), and the music was particularly affecting. In contrast to Heald, Jeffrey King seemed to have no difficulty at all with his accent as Douglas and was a credible Scot in all of his scenes in the second half of the play.
  17. In 2011 the Festival will stage Henry IV Part Two, and in all likelihood we shall see Henry V in 2012. The difficulty with Part One is essentially the problem identified by some audience members in the intermission: however engaging the Falstaff, however amusing the comic business, the historical burden of the political parts of this play is a heavy load, and might have been more tolerable if there had been a revelation when the wastrel Hal became the noble Hal: in this production there was no such revelation. 

  18. Twelfth Night was a visual delight. The set consisted of a central green, grass-like flat, extending up to the balcony level, with a hinged flap let into it near the top. Thus, there were three levels to this principal piece of scenery: the lowest level, which had a door in the middle and curves on each side of that door, down which some characters were able slide;  a window which could be brought into play from time to time (notably in the box-tree scene, II.v, and in the final Act), and an upper level used less frequently. This central flat was flanked by columns and chandeliers, and the set became even more attractive as the night wore on, especially with the lighting effects playing across the upper stage. It was possibly as beautiful a staging of any Shakespearean production as I have seen, and brought to my mind Terry Hands’ 1983 Barbican production of Much Ado About Nothing.

  19. This production emphasised once more the strength in depth that the Festival has in its acting company.  Michael Elich and Rex Young clearly relished their roles as Feste and Aguecheek (each having the opportunity to slide down that grassy flat), whilst Michael J. Hume was a not-especially-fat Sir Toby, and Christopher Liam Moore perhaps the youngest Malvolio I have seen except in student productions.

  20. The casting of Sebastian can sometimes prove problematic, because the principal requirement can often be that that actor looks like the actor playing Viola; sometimes that criterion can take precedence over any demand to be a more-than-competent actor. Christopher Barillas did indeed look quite like Brooke Parks, but he was a fine actor in his own right, and was quite credible as a lover and a fighter. Perhaps more significantly, the reunion of Sebastian and Viola at the end of the play was both touching and credible: this was the relationship which seemed to matter, not the pairings involving Olivia and Orsino. Indeed, even at the end of that final scene, Olivia and Orsino were still choosing the wrong partners to go off with.

  21. The programme notes told us that this production would bring together that directors's twin interests in Mozart and in Shakespeare, and we had costumes from Mozart's time, with a white-faced Feste in motley, and even some of Mozart's music (although the on-stage music was also very effectively handled by the two performers on violin and woodwind). However, I did not agree that Malvolio's threat of vengeance at the end should be linked, as the programme said to the 'sound of a guillotine and a tableau of gorgeous, smitten characters, all clutching their throats': there was nothing in the previous 150 minutes to lead up to that. A further programme note suggested that the house of Twelfth Night was split-level, with the nobles upstairs and the revellers below: this simply was not carried through at all in this production.

  22. The performance began with what is customarily the second scene of the play. So we began with a shipwreck, just as in the film Shakespeare in Love, and we began with Viola still in a dress. When the discussion between Viola and the Sea Captain in this scene led to the naming of Orsino and Olivia, those characters appeared above on the upper levels, establishing very quickly and economically that this was to a production which would make good use of visual comic business, and, perhaps, pay less attention to the text. Thus we had, for example, some trimming of Feste's comic wordplay with Viola in III.i (only four lines of this interchange remained), and, instead much physical humour.

  23. There were several instances of interpolated comic business. In I.v, when Viola first visits Olivia's house, she encountered three women in veils, who took it in turn to change who was sitting in the single on-stage chair whenever Viola's attention could be distracted. When, in II.iii, Malvolio entered to quieten the revellers, his hair was in curlers, and he was in his nightshirt, which offered many opportunities for business, especially as other characters tried to look underneath it. In the box-tree scene, II.v, Aguecheek, Belch and Fabian watched Malvolio from the window-flap near the top of the central flat, but gradually other characters joined from both sides of the stage, so that many people overheard Malvolio's reading of the letter and his reaction to it. There was one moment in this scene which I especially treasured: when Malvolio mused on his potential future ('To be Count Malvolio'), Christopher Liam Moore paused after 'To be' just long enough to make it a reference to Hamlet (and Malvolio, too, believes that he is alone when speaking this line).

  24. The interval was taken after III.i, and, in some respects, the large set-piece scene in the second half was the gulling of Malvolio in IV.ii. Like the box-tree scene earlier, this was played as a scene involving many members of the cast, with a blindfolded Malvolio being wheeled in a cage about the stage, which was lit at that time in a lurid, hellish red. My problem with this scene was that its staging diverted attention from Malvolio, whose part at that moment could have been played by a body-double and nobody would have been any the wiser. I did not feel that this did justice to Christopher Liam Moore, especially since Malvolio's earlier transformation to yellow-stockings actually resulted in a total change of costume which made his resemble Mozart from Amadeus.

  25. Miriam A. Laube's Olivia was a feisty, rapacious woman, very much in the mould of Mark Rylance's version of this character in the Globe's all-male production in London in 2002. It was a performance which clearly delighted the audience, and one in which the mourning of the opening scenes quickly gave way to a sexy romp, and her black dress gave way to brightest red.

  26. There were some occasions when the interpretation of the text caused me misgivings. The reference to dancing in I.iii surely suggests a pronunciation of 'sink a piss' but this was not what was said in this production. The reference to a 'picture' in III.iv is usually taken to be something portable like a locket, but here a full-size portrait complete with a stand was brought on to the stage, where it stayed, hampering the action, for several minutes. And, as is often the case, Aguecheek was dressed in yellow, but when, in II.v, it is revealed that this is a colour which Olivia abhors, there was no sign of discomfort from him or of ridicule from the others on the stage at that time. Finally, I am accustomed to having Antonio left alone and stranded in the final scene after the other pairings have been completed, but much less was made of Antonio at the end of this production than is usual.

  27. The Merchant of Venice had, like Twelfth Night, an unusual opening, and one which had been revealed to me on a tour of the theatre workshops. We were shown part of the set in the process of construction - an ornate clock with a galleon as its central design - and we were told that the production would begin with the court scene, and that the clock would then rewind as the action went back to the opening scene.

  28. In the event, it was quite clear, on entering the theatre, that the stage was set for a trial, with that clock very much centre-stage. The play began with Portia speaking nine of her words from the trial scene (‘Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?'), whereupon the set was struck, the clock ran backwards and we were returned to what is usually the beginning of the play. I am really not sure what the audience was intended to make of this opening, unless it was simply to indicate that Shylock and Antonio were indistinguishable one from the other: if that was the intention, it was a very elaborate way of making this point, and this interchangeability was not carried through into the production as a whole.

  29. There was in fact a very clear distinction made between Jewish Venice and Christian Venice: the Jewish scenes had Jewish music and a washing-line stretched across the stage. The Christian scenes sometimes had signs illuminated at the back of the stage to tell the audience that the action was taking place in a cafe, or a bar, at the notary or, in the case of I.i, at the barber. I am not convinced that this signage was at all necessary, and in the opening scene, the sign did not resolve what was for me the greater confusion as to whether the barber was supposed to be Tubal (a role played by this same actor later in this production). Shylock was certainly different enough and alien enough to pronounce Jacob as Yakob in I.iii. 

  30. This was an eclectic interpretation, mixing cloaks and jeans, having a gondola onstage for the flight of Jessica, and allowing Nerissa to have a laptop in the court room (which itself had microphones). The programme for the production and the articles in the local press claimed that this eclecticism was part of an attempt to be inclusive, and to indicate that prejudice is shown not only to Jews but also to blacks, Arabs and homosexuals. The Prince of Morocco, played by black actor Peter Macon, was certainly treated with contempt, as was the Prince of Arragon (Armando Duran), but both roles were also played for all their comic potential, especially that of Arragon, complete with guitar-playing attendant and ubiquitous fan. Morocco left behind a slave in Belmont, given the name Fatima in this production, and perhaps this was intended to signal prejudice toward Arabs. I could find no real indication of prejudice towards homosexuals, unless that was implied in the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio, and in the fact that Antonio was left alone on the stage at the end of the play.

  31. The staging was such as to allow fluid movement between scenes: when extra chairs or tables were needed on the lower level, they were brought on by members of the ensemble. The upper level was used for Belmont quite frequently in the first half (the intermission came after III.i, with a fine Rialto bridge downstage) but Belmont occupied the lower level in the final Act of the play.

  32. Anthony Heald's Shylock was a triumph, and I particularly liked the way in which he made it seem as if the idea for the bond with Antonio came to Shylock completely out of the blue. It may be one sign of a really fine actor that the audience is able to see the thought process actually happening, and that was certainly the case here.

  33. In addition to having the failed suitors played in comic fashion, the lighter aspects of the play were well done. Mark Bedard was exceptional as a very physical Gobbo, throwing himself across the stage as he wrestled with his conscience in II.ii, and Gregory Linington's Gratiano was just the sort of acerbic wit you would not wish to cross in a hurry, especially if you were not part of his insider group. With his wild hair sprouting from his head, he seemed to be in charge of a most unpleasant band of young Christian men, notably in the court scene (IV.i), the staging of which mirrored the trial of Katherine in Henry VIII in the same theatre in the 2009 season (on both occasions actors were placed on top of the vomitarium, opening up the whole  performance arena). For me, this scene was something of a disappointment until the entrance of Portia. Vilma Silva had seemed eminently in control back in Belmont, but the size of the court-room stage served to emphasise her lack of height and her vulnerability - she triumphed through her intellect, because that was all the strength she had.

  34. At the end of the trial, two nuns stepped forward to pluck the yarmulke from Shylock's head - on the night when I saw the play, the audience laughed at this incident. They did not laugh when, a moment later, one member of the audience, seeing through the plot when the young lawyer 'Balthasar' demands a ring as a fee from Bassanio, yelled out 'That's his wife!'. That is live theatre.

  35. The final Act of this play is very difficult to stage successfully, especially if Shylock has done his job. In this production, we had a strong sense that all had not gone well in Belmont in the absence of Portia:  drunkenness and irresponsibility seemed to have become the norm while Lorenzo had been in charge. There was also a real sense of antipathy between Jessica and Portia, which I do not recall having seen in other productions of this play.

  36. In Throne of Blood, the OSF went back to Macbeth again: the play itself had been part as the 2009 season, as was Equivocation, a play in part concerned with the writing of Macbeth; here, Ping Chong adapted Kurosawa's 1957 film adaptation of Macbeth for the stage.

  37. This world premier production, staged one hundred years after Kurosawa's birth, retained a filmic quality in many respect, because there were moments when projections were used above the stage, either to translate the Japanese of the prologue and epilogue, or to complement the action visually by, for example, showing blossoms changing colour and falling. The stage itself was kept relatively bare, and the minimum of essential furniture and props was brought on by the cast as necessary, or, in the case of the platform for the spinning wheel of the Forest Spirit, it was dragged on. There was no intermission and no use of the curtain between scene-changes. The only time when the stage was dark was just before the final entrance of Washizu after he had been shot by arrows (it clearly took several moments for this costume-change to be effected). The costumes and many aspects of the set mirrored the film, such as the use of screens, and the seeping of blood on to a screen at the time of the death of the Lord.

  38. Kevin Kenerly and Danforth Comins were masterful in the two central males roles of Washiku and Miki, but the performance of Ako as Lady Asaji was the most impressive of the production. She was clearly well-versed in the stylised movements and gestures of Japanese theatre, and played her role to perfection. Cristofer Jean, as the Forest Spirit, was not required to move at all, but he exhibited the full range of his vocal skills, and might have been just as chilling even without the benefit of sound effects.

  39. Ping Chong deserves a great deal of credit for his adaptation as well as for his direction. He injected an extra element into Kurosawa's narrative by developing and extending the roles given to the chorus of soldiers. Their commentary on the action added lighter moments to the narrative, and this comic relief also featured in the first court scene in which the Lord chided Washiku and Miki for losing their way in the forest and, as a 'punishment' stripped them of their commissions, only to reward them even more amply a moment later (an incident not part of Kurosawa's screenplay).

  40. The diction was stylised and formal, like that of the subtitles to Kurosawa's film. I noted phrasings such as 'your thoughts and mine share common ground', 'auspicious tidings' and 'imbibe' for 'drink'. Sometimes the diction was extended to include phrases from other Shakespeare plays: I noted 'Something wicked this way comes', 'pound of flesh' and 'all's well that ends well'. Perhaps the most telling, however, was a phrase which was a Shakespearean echo rather than a direct quotation: when Lady Asaji was urging her husband to assassinate his friend, her words 'Kill Miki' brought to mind Beatrice's impassioned plea to Benedick 'Kill Claudio'.

  41. I was surprised that Throne of Blood did not attract larger audiences, and did not become, as I hoped it would, the equivalent of Equivocation from the 2009 season (which ran in Seattle with the original cast and was then staged in a different production in New York). This production of Throne of Blood will be seen at  the Brooklyn Academy of Music in November 2010, and deserves an even wider public. Perhaps the reason why that public did not flock to see the original at OSF was that too much was expected of them? To know enough of Macbeth to enjoy Equivocation is one thing, to be expected to have seem Kurosawa's film may be a step too far.

  42. In conclusion, the 2010 season at OSF saw the staging of four of Shakespeare plays, all of which were directed and performed with intelligence, and all but one of which attracted large audiences. However, not one of these productions started with what would conventionally have been the opening scene. In the case of Henry IV Part One, the altered opening provided an appropriate link to the first play in this tetralogy (a link which would have worked even more effectively had Richard II been staged in the 2009 season); in Hamlet, the change was not at all jarring, because it happened as the members of the audience were taking their seats; in The Merchant of Venice and in Twelfth Night, it was hard to see any reason to have these different openings, except to fit a pattern.

Work Cited


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2011-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).