When the Prologue to Henry V confronts us with the limitations of the medium, inviting the audience to employ their “imaginary forces,” because it is our “thoughts that now must deck [their] kings” we are encountering yet another part of the never-ending conversation that is Shakespeare.
Muse of Fire was an ambitious anthology of Shakespearean excerpts, readings about the Bard and modern song settings of Shakespeare. Presented on two evenings this week, we were taken deeply into a special discursive space where we could both sample Shakespeare in several guises and think about him, in the company of Talisker Players & Groundling Theatre Company.
Muse of Fire was structured in such a way to permit reflection, alternating Shakespeare in performance –songs or readings—with brief commentaries about various aspects such as “language”, “humanity”, and “tradition.” I couldn’t help wondering about the process whereby our evening was composed, a part of musing that naturally enhances the unfolding performances. We were happily placed in a critically informed space as if dramaturgs, sharing a meditation on what it is to make theatre.
Or so I felt.
In Muse of Fire we had the wondrous experience of sampling five different compositional flavours of Shakespeare, each sung by Norine Burgess, with a brief reading by Graham Abbey in between to act as baguette to cleanse our palate for the next taste. Abbey began our evening with the aforementioned Prologue –the one that invokes the Muse of Fire—as a foretaste of the second mature tetralogy of history plays (even though the history in those plays actually comes before the matter shown in the first tetralogy) that is the source for the concluding work on the program, The Breath of Kings.
Where the first portion of the evening went back and forth between musical adaptations of Shakespeare and commentary, Breath of Kings was a crowd-pleasing anthology, a virtual greatest-hits compilation from these, the four best-known history plays, completed by judiciously chosen excerpts from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons adapted by Laura Jones in chamber form. We had been taken to a speculative place of which I believe the Bard would have approved, whereby we were freed of our habitual dependence upon our eyes, and opened up to hear the music of the text irrespective of the gender of the speaker. Each of the Groundlings had their magical moment. For Rosemary Dunsmore it was one of Richard II’s great speeches. For Nigel Bennett, it was the opportunity to perform the entire arc of Falstaff from roaring drunken lout to the heart-break of Henry’s rebuke the day of his coronation. For Gareth Potter, Henry has the wondrous moments of inspiration at Agincourt, and the courtship of Sophie Goulet as Catherine his queen to be.
A composer who adapts Shakespeare is taking on a role something like that of a dramatist (and excuse me if I unconsciously echo Joseph Kerman’s dictum from Opera as Drama, that “the composer is the dramatist”), and in so doing surely contemplating how much or little of Shakespeare should come through in the process. I am reminded of Linda Hutcheon’s use of the metaphor of the palimpsest in speaking of adaptation, calling attention to our pleasure in discerning the underlying layers that have been partially covered. Some composers –Stravinsky’s songs come to mind especially—are busily going about their business of making a musical structure, not necessarily concerned that their work should serve the poet whose words they employ. The songs of Howard Blake took a more tonal approach, perhaps reflecting Blake’s career in film. Each composer brought a fresh understanding to the texts. Alexander Rapoport’s composition was wonderfully rhythmic, a cheery beginning to the concert. Mark Richards undertook a sonnet in a more spare language, eloquently structured to allow the voice to soar freely. Having said that, I have to allow that Jean Coulthard’s setting of sonnet XCI was every bit as elegant, sharply divided in its approach between the first eight and the last six lines.
Burgess was particularly impressive with the serial Stravinsky composition, finding pitches across bold intervals with pinpoint accuracy, but warmly musical throughout. Burgess is a singer of many voices, who showed us different ways to sound beautiful, never singing harshly or out of tune, and always with a touching sense of ensemble with the musicians around her, never the star but an equal.
Speaking of self-effacement and generosity, I am very proud of Massey College at University of Toronto for their role in fostering this wonderfully intellectual experience. In the middle of the concert John Fraser came forward to offer a bit of background, reminding me of what an exceptionally well-conceived program we were watching. Talisker Players are to be congratulated, while Massey College is to be thanked for keeping the conversation going.
Image from Groundling Theatre’s Website (click to see more)