William Shakespeare is the most prolific playwright in history. Lists of Most Produced Playwrights don’t bother to include The Bard’s works. It’s unfair to everyone else.
In Charleston we are not immune: Village Playhouse recently produced “Othello,” Flowertown Players currently is rehearsing “Titus Andronicus” for a mid-July run. And the Spoleto Festival has has hosted its share of these classics: Bristol Old Vic’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 2013 and Shakespeare’s Globe’s “Romeo and Juliet” in 2015. The Globe is back this year with three comedies in repertory, “Twelfth Night,” “Comedy of Errors” and the underproduced “Pericles.”
Shakespeare died 403 years ago, in 1616. It can be difficult to put that sort of distance into perspective. That’s an entire two human lifetimes before the writing of the Declaration of Independence, and 54 years before the founding of Charles Towne.
And yet, he endures. Styles have changed, the theater has evolved. And yet, he endures. The original Globe Theatre, erected in 1599, burned down, was rebuilt, closed and, in 1997, restored as Shakespeare’s Globe, the company that is gracing the stage of the Dock Street Theatre. The plays endure. What changes is how they are performed, and by who, and for whom, and why.
403 years ago, the Elizabethan stage was entirely male. It wasn’t until 1661, a full 45 years after Shakespeare’s death, that women were allowed to perform. It was considered unseemly by Renaissance standards for women to be actors. (though women were performing in places like China or India) All these years later, Beau Holland, Natasha Magigi, Mogali Masuku and Evelyn Miller comprise half of the Globe’s traveling troupe and thrive in men’s roles.
Holland delights as Dromio in “Comedy of Errors,” Miller leads as Duke Orsino in “Twelfth Night.” Cross-gendered casting is common to Shakespeare: men played women’s roles in the originals. But today, when gender definitions have become more fluid, it doesn’t feel like a gimmick. Eric Sirakian can play Viola with real sensitivity and feeling. Andrius Gaucus can make Olivia a full-fledged diva with a real sense of longing. And neither choice feels like we’re laughing at a man in drag.
Holland and Miller, or Magigi and Masuku for that matter, aren’t merely women in men’s roles; they are actors playing characters, striving for truth.
In Shakespeare’s time, musical theater did not exist. The American invention wouldn’t come into being until the late 1800s. But music was important in Shakespeare’s theater. His company of actors would have been well-versed in different styles and adept instrumentalists and singers.
The performers of Shakespeare’s Globe are just as capable, just as talented. Each show includes musical numbers played on a variety of instruments: trombones, drums, flutes, violin, voice.
It’s 403 years later, and we are still producing these plays. The stories are familiar and teach universal, immortal lessons. Shakespeare’s plays endure because they are, in one way or another, our plays.
Shakespeare’s Globe brings them to life. There’s something wonderful about having classics to fall back on, to reimagine and reinterpret so we might better appreciate where we are now, 403 years later, and how we got here.
403 years is a long time. Here’s to 403 more.
Michael Smallwood is an actor in Charleston.