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Saturday, September 6, 2014

Shakespeare Light & Dark

by Bonnie Marranca

Deja Bucin and Krista Birkner. Photo: Lucie Jansch

“Shakespeare is full of time. He is not ‘timeless,’ but ‘full of time.’ It seems ridiculous when people try to update Shakespeare. It is simply not possible.” Robert Wilson’s view of the author is reflected in the free-spiritedness of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which he and composer Rufus Wainwright created in 2009 for the renowned Berliner Ensemble, founded by Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigle in 1949, in then East Berlin. This music-theater work features more than two dozen of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, each unfolding in its own aural and visual setting. If all the world is a stage, Wilson’s stage includes much of our world—telephone, bicycle, car, video screen, gas pump, and floating bed. Birdsong is in the air. A child’s voice.

Wilson describes his artistic process: “I first made a structure. It’s two acts with seven scenes ... Once we were in agreement with the formal structure, Rufus had complete freedom to fill in the form. The form was merely a frame. It was the frame of a building. It was a megastructure. An architectural building he and others filled in.” Wainwright has written wildly imaginative, edgy music that draws on traditions of cabaret, rock, pop, folk, classical, and early English styles, while absorbing the Brechtian manner of blurring speech and song. Shakespeare’s Sonnets is a musical work that elaborates a theatrical vision worlds apart in visual style and timbre from presentations of Shakespeare in the English-speaking theater.

Traute Hoess, Anke Engelsmann, Krista Birkner. Photo: Lesley Leslie-Spinks

In Shakespeare’s Sonnets the Elizabethan convention of men playing women’s parts is given a charming queering, as now women play men’s parts. Since many of the sonnets treat the theme of love—discovered, lost, unrequited, delusional—the role reversals deepen the universality of human emotion. How did this influence the songs? Wainwright says, “It was easy. I basically felt as though I was following in a very well-established and long-running tradition that Willy himself obviously reveled in several times, of course, mainly as a writer. Perhaps in other ways? I wouldn’t put it past him.” Sonnet 20, a dreamy ballad sung by a man dressed as a woman, enacts the ambiguities expected in the fluidity of gender roles. “A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted/Hast thou the master-mistress of my passion.” The lovers’ meeting ends in a suicide while Shakespeare looks on from a window.

Shakespeare is a woman in the production, in a role originated by Inge Keller, one of the great actresses of German theater. “She has a brilliant way of reading the sonnets that is formal, non-interpretive, rooted in deep emotion,” Wilson observes. BAM audiences who saw his 2011 Berliner Ensemble production of The Threepenny Opera will recall other company actors: Jürgen Holtz, now playing Queen Elizabeth (I and II), admired by Wilson for his “fantastic comic, ironic sense of timing,” and Angela Winkler, here in the role of the Fool. Though Wilson speaks fondly of the actors trained in the theatrical tradition of the former East Germany, he praises the younger ones as well. “They have a different training. They are all quite amazing in that they could approach this work, and my direction, thinking about it abstractly.” He adds, “As Heiner Müller often told me, my work is very close to Brecht. It is formal. There is a kind of alienation.”

Such intergenerational range and ensemble virtuosity only a repertory theater can accomplish. In Shakespeare’s Sonnets the actors are called upon to recite texts, sing, move like dancers, and perform pantomime, theirs hands and fingers choreographed in a private language. Their physical prowess is a marvel, not to be outdone by a formidable articulation. Dressed in exquisite costumes by Jacques Reynaud, the faces of the actors are sharply outlined creating a mask-like effect in Wilson’s ravishing lighting. An abstract language of shifting tones and colors, light focuses the scenic structure for the nuanced staging—at turns playful, loving, sad, bitter, world-weary—now dark, now bright, in silhouette. Sheets of blank paper flutter through the scenes, as if to underscore that artmaking is a process. Figures wander through a grid of trees and hear mysterious sounds, a distant storm.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets is not a sentimental production but a tender one, depicting a world to be viewed as “darkly bright,” to quote Shakespeare. Passion, mortality, fear, imagination, and dreams are all honored. In a tour de force of articulation to Wainwright’s heavily accented klezmer rhythms that play faster and faster, the company closes with Sonnet 66, a catalogue of falsities describing the human condition: “And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,/And strength by limping sway disabled.” Brecht might have written the words.

Bonnie Marranca is founding publisher and editor of the Obie Award-winning PAJ Publications and PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art. She is the author of Performance Histories, Ecologies of Theatre, and Theatrewritings, and has edited numerous anthologies of plays and essays.



  2. Dear BAM,
    PLEASE post on your website and/or e-mail to subscribers a full list of the sonnet numbers for this production. Audience members should be able to read them (in English, Deutsch, or both) in advance of the show. .

    1. Hi there, we just posted them all here:

  3. Have I misunderstood, or is all spoken in German?