The holiday season traditionally brings wholesome British imports: shortbread, Dickens, Christmas carols. Now New Yorkers can enjoy two more stolid English comforts: storybook Shakespeare and staid documentary drama.
Not much happens in Shakespeare’s quirky Love’s Labour’s Lost, currently being staged by London’s Globe Theatre at Pace University. Aristocratic lads renounce romance for reading, indenturing themselves to celibate scholarship (a bargain familiar to any graduate student). Their resolve quickly crumbles once they encounter some fetching damsels. A Latin-drunk schoolmaster delivers deliciously incomprehensible glosses; lusty rustics frolic about, countering headiness with earthiness.
The real love affair here is with words: characters quibble, pun, and allude themselves out of, then into, passionate attachment. Lines turn syntactical somersaults; similes wander so far from their point of comparison they can’t find their way home. The play’s scanty plot is driven by words, too: misdirected letters, overheard declarations. But words are also Love’s biggest challenge: Lacking philological chops to parse Shakespeare’s baroque jokes, latter-day spectators often drown in the archaisms.
Wary of obscurity, the Globe’s energetic actors do their nimble-tongued best to unsnarl knotty verse. Where they can’t, they substitute slapstick, supplementing esoterica with dick jokes and winsome mugging.
Jonathan Fensom’s set wittily acknowledges Shakespeare’s wordiness, placing characters in an illuminated manuscript. Panels adorned with faded text approximate an Elizabethan playhouse—evoking the Globe’s London home.
Director Dominic Dromgoole aims to recreate the ambience of South Bank playgoing. Houselights stay illuminated; a thrust stage mimics the Globe’s; actors make rollicking entrances from the aisles. This putative authenticity sometimes approaches Ren-Fair kitsch—doublets and bodices abound; pipes and drums waft quaintly. If you like your Shakespeare antique, this production’s for you.
Since 2001, British docudrama has become a cottage industry—frequently transferring to New York, giving Americans penitential geopolitical lessons. At its best—Guantanamo, Talking to Terrorists—the genre gives demonized figures human voices, making room to contemplate root causes. When less rigorous, worthy topics camouflage confused playwriting.
Nichola McAuliffe’s A British Subject tells the harrowing story of Mirza Tahir Hussain, an Englishman whose questionable 1988 arrest for murder resulted in 18 years on Pakistan’s death row. Don Mackay, a writer for London’s Daily Mirror and McAuliffe’s real-life spouse, was the only British journalist to visit Hussain while he waited to die. Mackay and McAuliffe campaigned doggedly for clemency, eventually winning Prince Charles’s decisive support.
In swift sequences on a bare stage, Subject flashes between England and Pakistan.
Speaking gingerly, as though any mistimed syllable could lead to collapse, Kulvinder Ghir sketches Hussain’s ordeal without presuming on his suffering. By contrast, Tom Cotchor, as Mackay, indulges in histrionic self-righteousness—melodramatically beating his brows.
Hussain’s 11th-hour escape is powerful material; the prison scenes are starkly affecting. But McAuliffe dallies in domesticity, distorting scale and emphasis. When, playing herself, she combats British obliviousness, Subject glorifies her pluck as much as it indicts a myopic society. Mackay’s recollected impressions of Pakistan are clichéd (must we always refer to teeming masses?); Hussain’s prison-forged piety prompts Mackay to sophomoric existentialism. The couple’s efforts were indisputably laudable, but Subject smacks of self-generated hagiography.
Like much holiday fare, these British imports are a little heavy and insufficiently nourishing.