I’m about to reveal a very large secret here on the Tutor Doctor of WNY blog. This isn’t something that any English major would be proud of, much less an English major who is one measly requirement away from getting a Master’s degree in the subject. It isn’t really that I should be ashamed, but perhaps all the English professors and the deans who drafted graduation requirements will be.
And here’s the secret: I haven’t read any of Shakespeare’s plays since high school.
There, I said it. I avoided the Bard in my undergraduate career and failed to take the class on Shakespeare and some old Greek philosopher in my graduate career. It isn’t that I don’t like Shakespeare–it’s just that I prefer to do like the Elizabethans did and actually see the plays in action. Reading a play that is meant to be performed is always a let down, and with Shakespeare it just feels tragic.
This is where Shakespeare in Delaware Park has always worked out exceedingly well. You see, it’s free Shakespeare. One of the largest free outdoor Shakespearean festivals in the United States, in fact. People bring blankets and picnics and lawn chairs and range themselves on the gentle slope of Shakespeare Hill in Delaware Park and sit, under an increasingly darkening sky, to watch the magic of Shakespeare come alive for a few magical weeks over the summer. It is through this summer event that I have encountered most of Shakespeare’s plays for the first time, including The Tempest and As You Like It. Last night, I had the privilege to see another one of Shakespeare’s plays for the first time–Richard the Third.
Now, Shakespeare isn’t necessarily one to crowd the stage with peripheral figures, but it can be a little difficult to follow exactly who’s who. In last night’s performance, it took me a while to figure out why the man everyone was calling “Clarence” was being imprisoned because his name was “George”. A quick glance in the program informed me that the Duke of Clarence’s name was George, and thankfully something in my brain remembered that sometimes people were simply called by their titles rather than their names. It also took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out who the heck Richard the Third was, and how he was related to the King and the other guy in the Tower of London, who may or may not have been the Duke of Clarence. Next time, I think I’ll read the Spark Notes version of the play before heading to the hill, just so that I can orient myself with less embarrassment.
The performance was sharp, marked by stand-out performances by the actors in the roles of Richmond (his troop-rousing voice is particularly thrilling in the pitch-black of night, and even the moths flitting about in the stage lighting doesn’t prove a distraction) and the very-mad Queen Margaret. Much of Queen Margaret’s appeal comes from her costuming, as her old-style widow’s garb clashes wonderfully with the Mad Men inspired costumes the rest of the cast sports.
Oh, perhaps I forgot to mention that in the spirit of many Shakespeare performances, this play is not set during the War of the Roses, but has been transplanted to the 20th century. While I’m not typically a fan of such shameless manipulation of temporality, the execution scene that sees nearly the entire male cast gathered on stage in their suits, looking rather mafia-like, is quite visually appealing.
While there were a plethora of people gathered to watch the performance on a Wednesday night, some of whom had elected to bring their dogs, what I didn’t see were any children. Now, the play does run long (we didn’t manage to get on the road until 11), it is summer and bedtimes don’t need to be quite as strictly enforced. The play is suitable for children, (although there is a ghostly scene at the end represented by the actors wearing white masks and there are a few blood-spattered body parts wrapped discreetly in white cloth) and with a little preparation children can definitely enjoy Shakespeare.
After all, it clearly isn’t necessary to understand exactly who everyone is. Did I mention that I had gotten through half the first act before I realized that the hunchbacked military man who had been on stage for nearly the entire performance was Richard? All in all, a rollicking good time for the whole family. And if the kids get restless or bored, there’s a playground nearby for distraction. And that’s the beauty of introducing kids to Shakespeare at an outdoor free festival–it’s far more casual, and the audience is a great deal more tolerant of potentially fussy children, and kids aren’t restricted to their seats for the whole time.
How did you introduce your kids to theater (or, more specifically, Shakespeare)?