Just some thoughts and responses, very much off-the-cuff, written right after I saw the show and only lightly edited:

1) I do not and will never understand the Anglo-American approach to “concept.” Taking a 17th-century play and transporting it to 1930s Spain does precisely nothing for anyone, except perhaps for the handful of people in the audience who might have an intimate understanding of that moment in another country’s history — and they’d be likely annoyed by the superficial connections. I’m as tired of ruffs and hose as most people, but why does a play have to be set in a specific period at all? And why can’t we give up on the fantasy that dreaming up some elaborately constructed alternative setting meaningfully changes the experience of watching a production –- unless that alternative setting is obviously, powerfully, and insistently relevant, in a way that a lot of people could understand? Costumes and a set do not a world make: I don’t really think setting The Changeling in Franco’s Spain would have done much in any case, but if you’re going to do that, surely at least you then need to figure out what this means for the characters and for the actors — how to actually evoke that period on stage. Instead, it’s a light window dressing, and all it does is make what’s on display harder to see.

One of these days I will finally write the piece about “concept” I’ve been meaning to write for ages. It may be the most misunderstood and misused term in Anglo-American theatre writing.

2) There are a lot of strong actors in this show, with tons of stage presence and creative energy. Sometimes they get to put that to use; more often, they seem to be told to keep the brakes on. That makes for a rather controlled, well-behaved production. But the play is all about things getting totally out of control.

3) I’m really (REALLY) happy that Stratford is giving real roles to young(er) actors now. Next step: let them off the leash.

4) This is a “clear” production in the sense that I could hang back and listen to the text quite a bit. Generally, I don’t like that (I can read the damn thing at home: do something with it). But hanging back, listening, I noticed something I’d never quite picked up on when reading and teaching the The Changeling (though I’m certain someone must have written about it): the discourse of honesty (mostly when people talk about De Flores) and the way Alsemero treats Beatrice-Joanna make for a pretty interesting two-punch commentary on Othello, except with a Desdemona who is actually guilty. Lots to explore there (this show doesn’t, but it at least makes some of that audible).

5) I’d love to know why Jackie Maxwell wanted to do this play. I don’t really get much of an answer from her program note, and I’m not sure she was the right director for it. What she has to say about Beatrice-Joanna’s position in the world of the play is smart, and I don’t disagree with it: she calls her “hugely entitled yet completely unempowered.” But she doesn’t seem all that interested in finding a theatrical form for the consequences of that situation, as things spiral out of control emotionally, sexually, and in terms of her and De Flores’s plotting. Chaos, internal and external, is firmly held at bay in this production.

6) One thing that really struck me as I was watching the show: the court is as “mad” as the “mad house,” if not more so. The level of hysteria, the wild mood swings, the way people jump to conclusions about all sorts of things, the way people make absolutely crazy decisions on the spur of a moment – it’s not just Beatrice-Joanna, it’s everyone, quite literally. Middleton and Rowley paint a profoundly and increasingly irrational world. It seems to me that a production that doesn’t mine that disappearing contrast between sane and insane, a production in which the court doesn’t eventually become the real asylum, is missing a huge part of the play’s theatrical potential and energy. Here, even the mad house isn’t especially helter skelter, and the court hardly at all (though some of the performers are working hard against the production, to their credit).

Yes, I know that Rowley’s use of “mental illness” sits very uncomfortably with our own. What to do about that? Don’t pretend that this is a realist play featuring characters with mental illnesses. Double down on the theatricality. Rather than have scenes in a “mad house” that’s almost completely empty – presumably to avoid causing offence. Most of the time, it seems as though Antonio is the only inmate (the other pretend mad man, Francisco, is cut). But given how uncomfortable the production clearly is with these scenes, and given that it doesn’t actually do anything with the relationship between plot and subplot, it might as well have cut the entire mad house altogether. As it is, those scenes, although they’re fun enough, don’t do anything.

7) I don’t really want to single any performers out. The problems with this production have little to do with acting. But I was surprised by Ben Carlson, whom I normally love to watch on stage. Two years ago, I was really impressed with his Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew: I was fascinated and disturbed by his portrayal of that character as a cheerful psychopath. His De Flores is neither that nor is he at all the repulsive creature Beatrice-Joanna describes, though either take would clearly have been within Carlson’s range. Instead, like the production itself, this De Flores is all moderation, until he finally gets to be extreme in his suicide. I wish that moment of excess had arrived much, much earlier.

8) So, in sum: a pointless “concept” (not really a concept at all); some excellent performances; some excellent performers acting with a lot of restraint; and far too much order and gentility. This is a crazy play: it needs more craziness than this.

2 Responses to The Changeling (Middleton & Rowley; dir. Jackie Maxwell) Stratford, July 2017

  1. […] to Twitter conversation with Hailey Bachrach and this post by Holger Syme for helping me clarify thinking about […]

  2. Manuel Jacquez says:

    In his recent book, “Directing Shakespeare in America”, Charles Ney suggests that American directors typically define “concept” as ‘”a ruling idea, thematic statement, a specific interpretation, a particular setting for the world or point of view.” Quoted in a section on “approach”, the Public Theater’s artistic director Oskar Eustis expresses similar frustration to your own over productions that simplify “concept” to the selection of a unique time period and setting without actually producing a new interpretation of the work.

    Ney suggests that there is growing popularity for approaches which prioritize “context” over “concept.” Instead of leading with a single organizing and restricting theme, American directors, according to Ney, are now developing their shows incrementally with ongoing consideration of how various social, historical, and material contexts can inform their production.

    Ney’s survey of American directors is far from comprehensive, which makes me unsure about whether this move from “concept” to “context” is gaining steam as much as he suggests. I am curious about your further thoughts on “concept” and look forward to when you get around to writing your piece!

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