The Milkman of Human Kindness

Phew!  It’s been a long week.  Busy, and, honestly, a bit stressful.  Last Thursday, I missed a scheduled post post for the first time since starting the blog in early December (which, from what I can gather, isn’t a bad record).  Then, Friday was a terrible day.  I was a bit strokey getting out of the house, and ended up missing my physical therapy session.  Three hours traveling from home to the Ambulatory Care Center, confirming my appointment was screwed, and making the return trip home, all with just my own thoughts for company, was a pretty ugly scene.  Thank goodness Beth, with her uncanny ability to know what I need – better probably, than I do myself – was able, eventually, to drag me out of my funk.  The trick, in this case, was just to move on from the mental perseveration, reset, and move on to something else.  So, although I don’t doubt that there’s a post in my massive Friday breakdown, for once, I’m going to try not to dwell on the unpleasant.  Because,  as Socrates almost said, “The examined life is not worth living.”

The great philosopher perseverates on Espana ’82.

Or, rather, I’ve taken a second to pause, and realize that dwelling endlessly on the troubles in life, whether real or imagined, is not healthy, and sometimes one needs to move on, at least for a moment.  So, instead of devoting a post to the breakdown, here’s the piece that I wrote to take my mind off it.  It’s not about strokes, or anything else that’s crappy.  Instead, it’s an expansion of my thoughts on the production of Macbeth in original pronunciation that we saw the other week.  If the OP project sounds interesting to any of the New Yorkers reading this, and you fancy going to the production of Taming of the Shrew referenced in the piece, let me know.  In the meantime, some thoughts on….

Macbeth OP
The Shakespeare OP Players

Macbeth has a particular resonance for me, a Scotsman living in New York.  I studied “The Scottish Play” under my favorite English teacher in third form (or, ninth grade) in Edinburgh, and have been gripped by it ever since.  The school’s drama society put it on successfully in our senior year.  Contrastingly, I was a little underwhelmed by The Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1979 McKellen and Dench-led performance adapted by Trevor Nunn for television.  More recently, we made a point of seeing Alan Cumming’s convincingly physical and bleak one-man version at the Lincoln Center at the Time Warner Building.  Because, of course, Shakespeare needs a gimmick, and there’s only so many fascistic 1930s-style army uniforms to go around.

“What?! That’s the best bit!”
“I agree!”

The latest production attempting to mark itself out from the crowd was put on by The Shakespeare OP Players through February 24 at the American Theater of Actors in midtown.  For our purposes, OP isn’t Ocean Pacific, but Original Pronunciation.  And Original Pronunciation doesn’t refer to the speaking style of Scottish nobles during the reign of the historical Macbeth in the eleventh century, but how the play would have been staged in the early seventeenth century.  In other words, OP refers to the form of English spoken by the English upper classes in and around London in Shakespeare’s time.

As always, the Scottish Play – Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy – rattles along at a good clip, almost as though Shakespeare had no great interest in the details of the totality of the historical figure’s seventeen-year reign.  Indeed, Shakespeare had more contemporary concerns.  The interesting notes presented with the production’s program include a discussion of The Meaning of Witchcraft in Macbeth (and the role of witchcraft in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605), and the play’s focus on issues of succession mirrors the Tudor’s playwright’s presumed concerns regarding the reign of King James VI (of Scotland) and I (of England), who succeeded Elizabeth I and reigned at the time Macbeth was written.  James was much concerned with legitimacy and succession, and was known to be obsessed with his own ancestry.

If the qualities of the play itself are well established, how does it hold up to the modern ear in original pronunciation?  The idea behind the production, and the OP movement in general, is that the audience is given the opportunity to enjoy the originally intended cadences of the verse, as well as the bard’s wordplay and punning.  The play was as understandable as usual, but, what little we picked up in cadence and punning was somewhat lost in the loss of suspension of disbelief:  each of the actors makes a thrust for OP in their own different, idiosyncratic ways (some do, notwithstanding the production notes, seem to think they are in 11th century Scotland), there is little in the way of versification, and the regular gear changes required when the dialogue is handed from character to character are unfortunate.  Also, the woman who burst into laughter each time a silent “k” was pronounced — and Macbeth is the definition of knife-play, after all — would immediately transport me from blasted heath to contemporary New York.  And while one can hardly blame the company for this, it is a risk of taking the artistic decision to opt for “OP”.

Rab C. Nesbitt
“Is this a dagger I see before me? Ah must be pished, then.”
Macbeth, Very Original Pronunciation

Putting OP aside for a second, the actors otherwise play their parts with conviction.  Björn Pederson is a pensive and preoccupied Macbeth.  This is a good choice for the man whose life has been thrown out of whack by the witches, but he is less convincing, both physically and verbally, as the warrior thane who earned the acclaim that led to his coronation.  He would, on the other hand, make an interesting fist of that other succession-obsessed monarch, Richard III, and I have read that he met with some success as The Bastard in King John.  Lize Johnston makes the most of the meaty role of Lady Macbeth, and Joel Fullerton nails the affecting scene in which Macduff bitterly mourns the loss of his family.

All-in-all, Macbeth OP was an interesting, if flawed, presentation of a familiar piece, and brings enough freshness to the work to encourage a visit to the Shakespeare OP Players’ presentation of Taming of the Shrew this spring, when they take up residence in their new home at All Souls Unitarian Church on Lexington at 79th Street.

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