Behind the play: Matthew Radford Davies talks LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST

Love’s Labour’s Lost joined the repertory of the Summer/Fall Season last week.  Today we catch up with director Matthew Radford Davies to hear his thoughts on the newest addition to the Blackfriars Playhouse lineup.

You’ve directed the Mary Baldwin University MFA company in the Blackfriars Playhouse, but this is your first time directing the resident troupe.  What’s different?  What’s the same?

Working with the resident troupe, I find myself practicing what I preach during the semester, which is an enabling experience.  The professionals are skilled musicians, not just of instruments, but also of the sound box that is the Blackfriars stage.  They play the frets that we spend time locating in class.  One of the central tenets of our MFA approach is collaboration, which is a buzzword in theatre pedagogy but which is even harder to effect than to spell.  I’m delighted to affirm that the collaborative spirit as the ASC, to which our students aspire, is alive and well.

You mention in your director’s note a 1930 quote from Harley Granville-Barker. “Here is a fashionable play now three hundred years out of fashion.”  Why was he wrong?  What makes this play fashionable in 2017?

I don’t think Harley G-B was wrong.  (Is he ever?)  But plays have their times, their kairotic moments, and just as quickly find themselves out of joint again.  Coriolanus, a long-neglected play, is everywhere at the moment, perhaps unsurprising given the current political climate.  As the world stumbled from Edwardian excess into a Great Depression, and the threat of war began to rear its head once more, it’s easy to see why theatregoers might struggle to care about the emotional anxieties of la jeunesse doree.  Post-war, I suspect the play started to re-engage with sexual politics, feminism, and the battle of the sexes.  Meanwhile, the slipperiness of the language and the generic uncertainty of the ending clearly appealed to the postmodern sensibility that favored skepticism and heterodoxy over conformity and hierarchy.  Beneath its elegant exterior and its plotted edicts and male-directed mandates, lurks a roguish energy of doubt and questioning that, I think, contemporary directors find intriguing and appealing.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is often heralded for its linguistic brilliance.  We’ve been calling it “Shakespeare’s most exuberant word-fest.”  Shakespeare is, of course, known for his mastery of the English language.  What is it like working on a play that’s particularly spectacular even by the high standards set by Shakespeare’s other works?

I remember once reading that language in LLL is a character in its own right.  If so, then this character is as intriguing and untrustworthy and compelling as all the others in the play.  Throughout the canon, Shakespeare displays the fabulous paradox of an author both enamored by and deeply skeptical of, the written language.  In Love’s Labour’s, as in so many of his plays, letters are the guarantors of disaster, but in this play the spoken word gets equally challenging treatment, since what the characters say is as untrustworthy as it is seductive.  So, as theatre makers, we need to do more than just say the lines clearly, we need to luxuriate in them, their syntax and sound, their rhetorical dexterity.  Not surprisingly, amid such linguistic opulence, the simple lines — often short and expressed in Anglo-Saxon terms – land most powerfully.  One of my favorite lines in the play, in the entire canon, in fact, is Berowne’s simple, sudden exclamation, “ — O, my little heart.”  But that purity of expression gains its power, its energy, emerging from its rhetorically dense context.

We think Shakespeare may have written a sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost called Love’s Labour’s Won, but there are no surviving copies.  Some scholars believe LLW might actually just be Much Ado about Nothing.  Do you think there is any merit to that idea?  Is it special to direct a production of LLL playing in repertory with Much Ado?

While the RSC recently staged this clever conceit, with the same actors “appropriately cast” across the two plays — Benedick/Berowne to Beatrice/Rosaline, for instance — with the narrative conjoined, or divided, by the Great War — I strongly doubt that Much Ado is LLW (which quite possibly existed and is now lost).  I am, however, delighted that the ASC is bringing LLL and Much Ado together in one season, especially as they’re both in period dress, since audiences can judge for themselves how well the plays work as companion pieces.  I am personally as struck by the differences as well as the connections, and the way the two productions ask us to view a similar theme and cast of characters from very different angles.

What scenes or characters should audiences specifically look for?

In this production, we have worked extremely hard to fashion individuals from a formulaic plot structure.  While the lovers are clearly patterned in groups, their concerns echoed and enriched by the “rusticals,” we also wanted to ensure they had their own arcs and expectations.  Not only do the lords and ladies each have journeys to travel and lessons to learn, they all pursue their developing loves in subtly different ways.  We’ve also worked to tie the comic subplot, featuring the love triangle between the hearty Jaquenetta, the lusty Costard and Armado, the Spanish knight down-on-his-luck, as tightly as possible to the main plot. Comedy, romance, and potential tragedy (in the form of a melancholic undertow), intermingle in this play of sophisticates, sophists, and simple rustics, and we want you, the audience, to never quite know what will float to the surface at any given moment.  We hope that the characters constantly surprise you, and challenge all of our easy expectations.

Is there anything else you’d like our audiences to know?

Romantic comedies work best when the audience is playing catch-up, just one step behind the love trysts and the comic shenanigans, and panting in excitement to keep up.  Put on your running shoes, and tune your ears: you’re in for a frantic feast of wit, wisdom, and waggery.

Much Ado about MUCH ADO

 

The 2017 Summer/Fall Season at the Blackfriars Playhouse kicks off this weekend with performances of Peter and the Starcatcher and Much Ado about Nothing.  Today, we’re catching up with Much Ado‘s director, Jenny Bennett, to get some thoughts on the show’s opening.

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Left: Allison Glenzer and David Anthony Lewis in Much Ado about Nothing.  Photo by Michael Bailey.  Right:  Jenny Bennett.  Photo by Lindsey Walters.

This is your third time directing at the Blackfriars Playhouse.  What do you most look forward to about directing here that is different from other venues?  What is similar? 

I love getting to play in Shakespeare’s staging conditions, especially the #SharedLight.  (Wait- is that a real hashtag?  If not, it should be: #SharedLight #ftw.)  There’s no distance between the actors and the audience here: they see us, we see them, we see each other seeing them and each other.  In the shared candlelight of the Blackfriars, we are all right here, right now, making this story together on the great words of these great plays.  It’s some ultimate theatremaking, in my opinion.

I’m a big fan of making theatre that makes the most of the medium, that uses artistic elements that can only happen/that happen best on a stage full of powerful actors inventing a story with the audience right exactly now.  As an audience member, I love it when a production trusts me to imagine along with it—“Oh – that actor I recognize who was just the delighted ingénue in the last scene now has on pants, stuffed her hair in a hat, and is a whole new person called Boy?  And I’m to believe that just because she and the other actors say so?  On the power of their word?  Yes, please.  Awesome!  We will imagine right into that, thanks; we will absolutely join in making this play.

We are so game out here in the audience – we’re hungry to participate in something big and smart and beautiful.  In this Playhouse, we get to unite for a few hours, bound together by a great play spoken by great actors who we imagine along with in #SharedLight (look, I did it again).  It doesn’t matter who we were when we walked into the Playhouse;  by the time we’ve walked out of it after the show, we’ve helped make a play out of nothing.  Well, nothing but words spoken and listened.  Shakespeare might relate ‘words’ to ‘wind’, though, and wind is air, and air is airy…nothing.  Far from diminishing the value of the word, what I take from him is that all human possibilities come from the word.  We exist in language, in a theater or not.  We exist, because we say so.

What about Much Ado about Nothing is different from the two other plays that you’ve directed here (The Winter’s Tale and King Lear)? What are you most looking forward to about this play?

You know, it’s interesting that all three of these plays I’ve gotten to direct here have featured moments of the idea of ‘nothing’ (just a few examples – Leontes’ big WT speech beginning 1.2.284 ‘Is whispering nothing?’; KL sequence beginning with Cordelia’s reply to her father’s request for public love 1.1.87 ‘Nothing.  Nothing?  Nothing, my Lord.  Nothing will come of nothing, speak again.”; Much Ado….about Nothing.)

‘Nothing’ is an idea Shakespeare was very interested in, if you measure interest by the frequency the word and its puns show up in the canon.  I could be projecting, for sure: I’m definitely interested in this idea.  No – thing.  Absence of something.  Infinity.  Possibility.  A moment of creation from which tales can be spun toward harmony or chaos, depending on the spinner (and the listener).

When you add in the accent of English spoken by Shakespeare’s actors at the time, of course, you get all these homophone puns on ‘noting’, too – what we ‘note’, what we pay attention to, or not.  It’s explicit in this play on multiple occasions – Balthasar’s song intro in 2.3, ‘noting’ the daughter of Leonato in 1.1, the Friar’s ‘noting of the lady’ in 4.1.

Much Ado about Noting.  Much Ado about Nothing.  Which is it, do you think?  I think it’s both.  How great is that?  Thanks, Will.

Directing in the Blackfriars is a collaborative process.  What is it like to work with actors who have been on our stage for so many years? 

I love these rockstar nerds.  (And I mean ‘rockstar’ both literally and figuratively: the ASC troupe of actors is my favorite band.  ‘Nerds’ I mean literally, my highest praise.)  Acting in these staging conditions attracts the brave.  It fosters that courage to be present and spontaneous over a five-month run with a few hundred people looking you right in the eye.  The confidence in being, the trust in an audience that comes from long experience on this stage is a precious gift.  The staging conditions are very much about the actor and the text – just the way I like it!

Directing is always a collaborative process wherever it happens — the Theatre itself is a collaborative medium full of actors, designers, directors, stage managers, producers, and a variety of staff, and a play doesn’t happen without all of these contributions.  The whole ASC team and the artistic community they make together is a delight to get to be a part of as a guest.  I’m so excited to see the ASC bringing playwrights into the mix with the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries project, too!  They’re gonna have a blast, writing for the possibilities of this troupe, where the words have power and the actors are game.

Do you have a favorite scene or line from this play?  Have any become your favorite through the directing process? 

My favorite line and scene is all of them.  That’s what usually happens to me through the directing process, alas!  But here’s a list of dozen delights that leapt to mind at your question.  I’ll let readers listen for who says them in the show, or let readers guess the speaker, if they’re a lovely supernerd who likes a Shakespeare line quiz:

“Adam’s sons are my brethren, and truly, I hold it a sin to match in my kindred.”

“One doth not know how much an ill word may empoison liking.”

“Happy are they that hear their detractions and can put them to mending.”

“Let me be that I am, and seek not to alter me.”

“For it so falls out / That what we have we prize not to the worth / Whiles we enjoy it“

“Silence is the perfectest herald of joy; I were but little happy if I could say how much.”

“If her breath were as terrible as her terminations there were no living near her: she would infect to the North Star.”

“He is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it.”

“Out on thee, seeming! I will write against it.”

“O villain! Thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this.”

“I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is not that strange?”

What scene or characters should audiences specifically look for? 

Audiences want to look out for the wittiest couple that ever sparred in Benedick and Beatrice.  Throughout the whole play, in fact, every character has some kind of Euphuistic wordplay.  The topic setup, volley, volley, volley, SPIKE of puns, twists, and other feats of wit in this play have tickled audiences into high hilarity for four centuries!

Another thing that I love about this play is the notion that since we’re all invented out of nothing, we can reinvent ourselves out of nothing, too.  Several people in this play are confronted with a rebuke of who they are, or how they’ve been behaving – they overhear people talking about them or are directly told they’ve made a terrible error.  The real mettle of a person is revealed by what they choose to do with that information.  Grace is available to those who take action to repair what’s broken, to be available to Love, to be ‘good men, and true.’  Along these lines, I’m quite fond of our 5.3 Tomb scene.  Chris Johnston, Music Director, wrote the most beautiful song.  I won’t spoil it here, but I hope you love it as much as I do.

You’re ending this play with a big song and dance number.  What inspired that choice? 

Benedick did.  He says ‘Play music!’ and so I said, okay.  We’re fair giddy at that point (that’s his conclusion, anyway), so we went ahead and danced, then, too.  It’s a couple of lines earlier than the Folio’s [Dance] instruction, but we start dancing again there, as well.  Though for the other two songs in the play we chose to keep the text and write the tunes (Tim Sailer composed the delightful ‘Sigh no more, ladies’ that he sings as Balthasar;  Chris Johnston composed the gorgeous Tomb Song), the ASC often takes on musical moments in the plays as they would have been taken on in Shakespeare’s original staging –contemporary, known to the audience—something I’ve always loved as an audience member here.  That guide felt like what was wanted in this exuberant moment, so I looked for a contemporary song.  The one we picked I came upon while on the treadmill (which I stumbled off of, happily thinking this might be it).  I wrote Chris Johnston and said ‘this?’ and he said ‘YES, PLEASE!’  Gotta come to the show to see what it is, though.

Anything else our audiences should know? 

“We are the only love gods.”

“And if a merry meeting may be wished, God prohibit it!”

Much Ado about Nothing is on stage at the Blackfriars Playhouse through November.  More at –> amshakes.center/MuchAdo

Shakespeare’s Mom Was Definitely Better At This Than We Are (But We’re Trying Anyway) #WorldBakingDay

Hi!  We’re Beth and Jeremy two home bakers from the American Shakespeare Center.

DSC_4532At the ASC, we recover the joy and accessibility of Elizabethan theatre, but today we’re on a mission to find out if the Elizabethan kitchen is worth recovering too!

We’ve got ​​a 1658 recipe (found here), turned our baking brains on, and watched enough Great British Bake Off to figure this out.  The recipe is pretty vague, so we’ll probably try out some variants and see what works best.

Take a pound of ſugar finely beaten, four yolks of Eggs, two whites, one half pound of Butter waſht in Roſe-water, fix ſpoonfuls of ſweet Cream warmed, one pound of Currans well pickt, as much flower as will make it up, mingle them well together, make them into Cakes, bake them in an Oven; almoſt as hot as for manchet, half an hour will bake them.

The journey begins . . .

Jeremy looks it up and finely beaten sugar is probably just sugar.  Powdered sugar was called “white powder” which sounds like cocaine and we didn’t have time to buy that.

DSC_4533We’re making rosewater (don’t tell the neighbor but we clipped her rose bush) because we couldn’t find it at a supermarket anywhere near us.  Turns out rosewater is exactly what you’d think it is and super easy to make at home (and useful to keep around!).

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We actually found currants at the supermarket (no indication as to whether or not they’re “well pickt” though)!  We got chocolate chips too because YOLO.   Jeremy says the currants just taste like raisins.  Beth disagrees.  To her, they’re a “weird, tiny raisin.”  Fundamental difference.

Neither of us feels entirely confident about the order of ingredients.  Beth feels like this is probably an “all in one/mix it all together” type thing but Jeremy feels like the butter and sugar should be creamed first.   We go with Beth’s instincts.

Some Notes on the Process, Measurements, and Temperature

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What does being “wafht” in rosewater mean?  Should we rinse the butter in rosewater?  We opt to  add just a couple of tablespoons and mash it together.

We used Google to figure out how much a pound of sugar is, but you could also use a kitchen scale or just guess!

We used a tablespoon for a “fpoonfull.”DSC_4556

There’s no set cooking temperature and we have no clue what a “manchet” is or how hot it should be baked.  We preheat at the tried and true 350°F.

Anyone trying this recipe at home should definitely experiment with all of the above.  We want to hear how it turns out.

Time to Mingle

DSC_4559Then we used Ye Olde KitchenAid mixer to “mingle” sugar, butter, flour, cream, and eggs because our peasants were busy in the fields.  We looked up some other recipes which instructed the reader to beat for a full hour.  We’re not about that.  KitchenAid to the rescue!

“As much flower as will make it up” – what the heck does that mean?  We’re going to attempt multiple flour combinations to see what gives us the best (i.e. least terrible) result.  But, let’s get real, with butter, sugar, and eggs, it will probably taste good.

We start off with just two cups of flour.  The consistency resembles more of a thick batter, so we’re baking it in a muffin tray to see what we get. (Say hello to our assistant, Sunny.)

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Then, we add more flour, probably a cup and a half but at this point we’ve ditched the measuring cups.  Jeremy calls it a very “tacky dough” and the dough yelled “YOU’RE TACKY LOOK AT THAT SHIRT.”  We decide these are best as a typical drop cookie.

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Another cup and a half (ish?) of flour, and the dough resembles shortbread – crumbly, but still holds it’s shape.  All tackiness is gone!  We press these into small cakes and we’re ready to go!

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Into the Oven

We don’t really trust the recipe’s suggested guideline of thirty minutes, so we’re going to check them every 10.

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10 minutes in and they’re looking pretty good.  Still got a way to go!

20 minutes in and batch two are ready to come out.

22 minutes and and batch three are good to go.

30 minutes and batch one is looking good.

Let’s taste!

Batch 1

These are by far the most “cake”y by modern standard.  They’re light, fluffy, and buttery.  The lack of any kind of extract or zest makes them taste kind of plain, but the rosewater comes through nicely on the finish.  (Also, we totally know muffin papers aren’t historically accurate.)

Batch 2

Beth says this batch tastes like cream of wheat.  Jeremy has never eaten cream of wheat so he can’t agree or disagree.  She grabs a chocolate chip variety and – “Oh my god those are so much better.  God I could put those away.  I’m so hungry.”  The rosewater isn’t coming through on this batch at all, probably because the extra flour has neutralized it.  All in all these are pretty underwhelming.

Batch 3

This batch is dry as bones.  They’re decent enough to eat fresh out of the oven (meh but edible).  But after cooling for a little over an hour they’re hard as rocks.  Don’t even try these in your home.  Stick with 1 or 2.

Moral of the Story

Baking is fun!  Eliza-baking is like a riddle, with a pinch of myftery, and a dab of rosewater.  We learned that the modern advances in baking are truly magical, but that these Elizabethan bakers could make a truly tasty cake.