Sunday in the Park with WIll

At one point My Year with Shakespeare was definitely going to have a chapter called something like “Sunday in the Park with Will” in which I would talk about staging the plays and would ask whether summer Shakespeare, which I surmise is many people’s only exposure to the plays, is (necessarily) dumbed down—and if so, what nefarious role the Internet plays in this stupefaction. (Just joking about that last bit.) This will still be a key installment in the TV series version of the Shakespeare Project, Around the World in 38 Plays, in which I travel the world to see all the plays in one year—TV producers take note! I’m no longer sure the topic is substantial enough to underpin a whole chapter of the book, but it’s certainly enough for one or more blog posts.

I got to thinking about the issues posed by outdoor summer Shakespeare because of Shakespeare in the Park. If you are a New Yorker, you are well aware that this is a series introduced as long ago as 1954 by Joe Papp, the founder of the Public Theater, now held in the open-air Delacorte Theater in Central Park. (I don’t know this for sure, but I would be surprised if it weren’t the original of all the alfresco summer Shakespeare festivals that have sprung up since.) If you are a New Yorker or a summer tourist you also know how legendarily hard it is to get tickets. When I was living in New York they were free, but distributed at the theater only just before the performance, resulting in day-long queues. (I endured this ritual only once, a story I’ll tell another time if at all.) Although it’s a New York rite of passage, the Public’s management no doubt figures that if you put people through the wait you’d better give them what they want. Or what you think they want. And so, some time in the 2000s, Shakespeare in the Park started to feature film and TV actors with little or no stage or Shakespearean experience in significant roles. This is not like casting David Tennant (who first appeared with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1996) as Hamlet. We’re talking Kristen Johnston and Anne Hathaway. Johnston has done stage work but she got the gig because she played an alien; as for Hathaway, she may be a fine film actress but her only evident qualification for doing Shakespeare is sharing his wife’s name.

But what’s so wrong with that? At least they aren’t Keanu Reeves who, as we know, has also had his cracks at Shakespeare. As long as a stunt-cast performer is acceptable, how is the situation really different from casting David Tennant as Hamlet? I doubt that that production would have sold out, or been filmed, if the star hadn’t also been playing the Doctor. I think there is a difference but it’s harder to explain than it seems. (What did I just say about Kristen Johnston?) I’ll make a stab at it in the next post in this series.

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