A mere 16 reviews. Don’t you scowl at me. There are other things in my life, you know.
Romeo and Juliet (Bard on the Beach) — I mostly really enjoyed this. Hailey Gillis’s Juliet and Jennifer Lines’ nurse are the highlights. Gillis plays Juliet as young and excitable, but also cosmically self-aware. And Lines plays the nurse not as a character who bumbles and rambles because she is unaware of her station, but one who talks as much as she likes because having raised her lady’s child she knows she’s earned the right. I’ve seen Lines in three or four Bard productions now, and she’s always marvellous. The same could be said of many of the returning regulars in this production. Getting to know the company and their respective calling cards over the course of a few seasons has been fun. Also, there’s some fabulous music in this by the likes of Max Richter and (I think?) Arvo Pärt, which adds to the religious subtext of the play. All this said, the most interesting thoughts I had after seeing this were spurred on by one element that I wasn’t especially taken with, which was Mercutio. Maybe he just had an off night. Still, Mercutio needs to be massively charismatic, because his death is the most consequential moment in the play. It is his confrontational, urm, mercurial nature that leads to the death of Tybalt, and thus to the entire downward spiral of the second act. There is also a more interesting, more superstitious reading of Mercutio’s impact on the plot. This is a deeply religious play. The friar, the prince and Juliet all comment on the notion that the heavens are responsible for suffering. If you do bad things, or participate in ridiculous enmities, God will punish your innocent loved ones. So, when Mercutio dies, and says “a plague on both your houses,” it should give the impression of an actual curse — a moment where a dying man actually wills God to strike down both the Montagues and the Capulets — which of course is fulfilled with the death of the protagonists. Mercutio needs to be strong because as an audience, we need to believe that he has that level of determination over the narrative. (This will be expanded on mightily in Hamlet and Othello, about which more momentarily.) But it’s a fine production. It’s more conservative than Kim Collier’s last outing with Bard, her fabulous Hamlet in 2014. But it is entirely decent Shakespeare.
Othello (Bard on the Beach) — If you ever wanted to hear Gilbert Gottfried play the Shakespearean Iago rather than just the red bird from Aladdin, go see this. It’s amazing the extent to which this Iago seems like he’s in the wrong play. This character should be witty and charismatic in his evil scheming, and the audience needs to be seduced by him because he is effectively writing the play as he goes. Boring Iago = boring play. However, the seduction of the audience must stop well short of the broad comedic performance that’s given here throughout act one. Mugging for laughs is the wrong kind of ingratiation. Iago is the weakest point of this rather weak production. There is one really clever bit: at the start of the second act, Othello sits alone at his desk while the rest of the cast march around the outside of the tent singing William Billings’ “Now Shall My Inward Joys Arise” (a period-accurate hymn for the Civil War setting of this production) and Othello pointedly looks up when they sing the verse that goes “Why do we now indulge our fears/suspicions and complaints?/Is he a God and shall his grace/grow weary of his saints?” It’s nice. But then they keep singing in solfege for some reason. Skip this.
Harold Bloom: Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human — Whenever I read or see something by Shakespeare, I read the relevant chapter in this. Bloom is undeniably frustrating, and his lack of understanding of the need for feminism and postcolonial criticism in the humanities makes him deservedly persona non grata in the academy. But I don’t think that should prevent me from adoring him for his insight into Shakespeare. For instance, he begins his chapter on Romeo and Juliet by lamenting the incursion of feminism into modern productions of the play, which is an extremely troubling starting point. But, he goes on to outline a vision of the play in the context of Shakespeare’s visions of love that’s both compelling and amusing. Take this for instance: “If there were an Act VI to Shakespeare’s comedies, doubtless many of the concluding marriages would approximate the condition of Shakespeare’s own union to Anne Hathaway.” This is a book that anybody who loves Shakespeare should own. Grit your teeth through the bombastic bits. It’s worth it in the end.
John Hermann: The Content Wars — New favourite Content Wars quote: “One of the great triumphs of Silicon Valley is its success in framing its companies’ objectives as missions, and their successes as pure contributions to progress. This is a sentiment that would not stand quite so easily in most other contexts: the success of a single business does not map perfectly onto the greater success of the economy, which does not map perfectly onto any useful concept of human progress. Anyway, what were we talking about? This is all going to seem so insane in twenty years. Or two years.”
Reggie Ugwu: “Inside the Playlist Factory” — Sure: Google, Apple and (to a lesser extent) Spotify are big evil companies. But, am I so wrong to be slightly heartened by the fact that they are all aware of the superiority of human tastes to algorithms in making playlists? This is a fun exploration of how human curation is working in these companies’ music services right now. The one thing I wish Ugwu had probed into deeper is the fact that these humans who make these playlists are still beholden to the data they receive about their audiences’ behaviour. We see this at play in the piece as curators struggle to understand why certain songs aren’t working in playlists. Surely, the fact that they are attempting to react to audience behaviours rather than simply exerting expert authority represents an impulse to imitate algorithms?
Margaret Glaspy: Emotions and Math — Another one of those albums I heard a promising snippet of on All Songs which turned out to be not quite my thing. Glaspy’s a good songwriter and an interesting guitarist, and when she’s got a couple more albums out, I may look back on this as better than I’d initially thought. But a lot of it feels a bit too sleepy to me, and there’s very little variety in its power trio textures.
Jeroen van Veen: Michael Nyman, complete piano music — Mind you, if variety in texture is something I care about, why do I love minimalist solo piano music? The side of Michael Nyman that I have traditionally been drawn to is the side that’s on display in his Peter Greenaway scores: the cartoonish neo-Baroque music performed by his charismatically bizarre-sounding band. And there is a bit of that on here, reduced to solo arrangements by the composer himself. (I will confess that this rendition of “Chasing Sheep Is Best Left To Shepherds” is pretty weak sauce compared with the Nyman band’s original or the Motion Trio’s arrangement for accordions.) But the largest chunk of the album is Nyman’s music from The Piano, a movie I haven’t seen, and from which the only thing I previously knew was “The Heart Asks Pleasure First,” which I’ve always found saccharine in a way that Nyman’s more lyrical music for Greenaway (like “Fish Beach” from Drowning by Numbers) isn’t. But hearing it in the context of the rest of the movie’s music is revelatory. (I imagine that hearing it in the context of the film itself would probably help too, but I remain uninterested.) The music from The Piano finds Nyman in 19th-century salon music mode — the farthest he can get from the Purcell ground basses of his previous film music. But just as he subsumed the Baroque aesthetic into his modernist style, he does the same with this completely different historical period music. Jeroen van Veen plays beautifully, and indeed one of the greatest pleasures of this set is simply hearing Nyman’s piano music performed by somebody other than Nyman himself. Nyman lacks subtlety at the keyboard to such an extent that it appears an aesthetic choice. (And in fact, I’m sure it is — much like his band’s dodgy intonation.) I love Nyman’s piano playing, but van Veen is far more skilled, and it’s certainly nice to have this as an alternative to the composer himself. A very nice set — essential for fans of minimalism.
The Highest Order: Still Holding — Right in the 1965 sweet spot. The Highest Order are the latest reincarnation of mid-60s, country/folk-inflected American psychedelia. Except that they’re Canadian and can write songs. I love this album. It is spacey and jangly and every other adjective that can generally be applied to things I love. Plus, it does that happy/sad thing where the music is mostly profoundly euphoric, while the lyrics remain ironically bleak. Fantastic. Pick of the week.
All Songs Considered: “Daniel Lanois, Deap Vally, Nonkeen, Pinegrove, More” — Starting off with a double-hit of ambient music featuring Nils Frahm and Daniel Lanois is a surefire way to get me interested, and probably a surefire way to turn a lot of people off. Both of those albums sound like they will be fabulous. I shall investigate post-haste.
The Gist: “The Life and Death of Aaron Swartz” — In Pesca’s spiel about how justice is inevitably coming to the police who commit violence against black people, I’m not entirely sure he knows how his optimism sounds. On the other hand, the segment where he talks to Justin Peters about Aaron Swartz is great. I barely knew the story, and this is a nice introduction.
Theory of Everything: “Because there’s nothing else to do” — A not-especially-distinctive take on Brexit, but it’s nice to hear somebody associated with a relatively major media outlet (PRX) calling Nigel Farage a fascist, casually and as a matter of course.
The Gist: “A Kamikaze Mission to Jupiter” — This is the value of a daily(ish) podcast: it can talk news, or when there’s nothing new to say about the news, it can talk to an astrophysicist about probes being sent to the moons of Jupiter. Very compelling listening. The Gist is my favourite new discovery of recent weeks.
Code Switch: “You’re A Grand Old Flag” — If there’s a problem, it’s earnestness. But it’s also delightfully complicated. Nothing much more to say except this remains good.
Reply All: “Disappeared” — I’ve missed this show during the break. This isn’t even an especially gobsmacking episode, but it does have Alex Goldman thinking through the implications of open source culture, which is the sort of thing I love about this show. It also has P.J. Vogt apologizing for a cultural oversight in the most heartfelt way possible. That’s another thing I love about this show. Pick of the week.
The Gist: “Art That Makes You Angry” — I’m finding that Pesca’s interviews, in which he is prone to the sort of spontaneous reference-making and obviously unscripted detours that are the exclusive province of the world’s very smart interviewers, more compelling than his monologues. If there’s something I can’t quite get behind in this podcast, it’s Pesca’s big-personalityness. He really does exert dominance over the audience every second he’s by the mic. But he’s smart enough that it doesn’t really bother me.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The BFG and The Great British Baking Show” — I will not be seeing The BFG. It’s so seldom that so much of the panel seems so annoyed by the thing they’re talking about that I’m sure it must be very poor. But it is always fun to hear them get annoyed. It’s also fun to hear Linda Holmes call Glen Weldon out for his shitty views on art. The thing I love about this show is that it is frictionless enough that when Holmes does that, it doesn’t feel like confrontation. These are people who like and respect each other, so they can disagree amicably. That’s what puts PCHH above other similar shows for me. Also, I likely will check out The Great British Baking Show. I need something calming and slow in my life right now.