Happy birthday, Willy Shakespeare

So what's the best Shakespeare production you've seen?

April 23, 2010
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Like just about everything else about William Shakespeare, his birthday is in dispute. But since today is widely regarded as the big day, I say "close enough." And in celebration, I'm asking you to tell about the best Shakespeare production you've ever seen.

A short list of mine include:

--The stunning Goodman Theatre take on "King Lear" just a few seasons ago. Stacy Keach played the title role, but it was truly an ensemble work that was able to find both the grand scale and the intimate humanity inherent in the masterpiece This may sound pretentious, but at times during it, I felt like I was looking into the soul of humanity. And some of the images still haunt me. The production moved on to Washington D.C.'s Shakespeare theater and...

--...speaking of the Shakespeare Theatre, in 1995 I visited Washington and went into its production of "Love's Labours Lost" never having read or seen the play before. And this charming, very human production made clear that prior knowledge of a Shakespeare play shouldn't be necessary for an audience. All the dramaturg notes in the world can't compete with a clear, passionate presentation where the actors live the words. A fire alarm and evacuation during the first act didn't even break the magical spell of the show. It featured Sean Pratt, Floyd King, Melissa Bowen and others who you never heard of. I mention their names now, along with director Laird Williamson, in hopes that they might google themselves, find this post, and know how much pleasure they brought.

--I've yet to see an "Othello" that feels complete, however I've seen two amazing Iagos--Campbell Scott at the Philadelphia Drama Guild and Christopher Plummer in the Broadway production opposite James Earl Jones (who seemed to be holding back that day).

--Now an established anchor on the Philadelphia Theatre scene, the Arden Theatre Company proved with its 1989 production of "As You Like It" that Shakespeare doesn't require a massive budget to work. This youthful production, featuring Robert Christoph, made a name for the newborn company when it played in a small, borrowed theater. Now the company has its own theater complex, a stack of awards, and national recognition. Inspiring.

Do all these sound too American? I'll admit here that I have yet to get to England. Some day.

Your thoughts? Tell about a Shakespeare experience that worked for you (whether as an audience member or as part of the company).


  • Best Plays
    The best production I ever saw was the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of "Mid Summer Nights Dream" at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Amazing visuals, great comic moments & wonderful performances top to bottom.
  • Favorite Shax Production
    My favorite was "Julius Caesar" at the re-built Globe Theatre in London. The venue alone would've cinched it, but the performances were wonderful, with unexpected audience participation for us groundlings (never let it be said that it doesn't pay to be cheap).
  • 1,000 watt Ralph
    The Almeida Theatre Company's production of CORIOLANUS at an old warehouse in Northeast London will stay with me for life. Ralph Fiennes, Barbara Jefford, lots of stage blood, and one of the best "special effects" I've ever seen, accomplished simply by a garage door and very bright lights. The best effect, though, was simply Fiennes' piercing eyes, which can burn through an entire warehouse full of people at up to 80-90 feet. If you go to see him live, I recommend sunglasses and protective clothing.
  • The Scottish Play
    The most memorable Shakespeare production I have ever seen was also at the rebuilt Globe in London: MACBETH. I watched it in the rain with my elbows on the stage and now have a snappy souvenir poncho from that evening. It was a very contemporary production with all the men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns. Battle scenes involved gold tinsel to symbolize blood and rocks to symbolize life. (They stole each other's rocks during battle scenes in order to "kill" each other.)

    During a particularly poignant soliloquy, the actor playing Macbeth symbolically tossed his rock in the air and caught it over and over, until it bounced off his hand and bonked the groundling next to me in the head. Whoops! The Globe was completely silent until the actor took a good deep breath, made some offhand quip about his embarrassment, made sure the "victim" was okay, and continued with his lines. During the curtain call, Macbeth presented the guy with the offending rock, wrapped in tinsel. I'll never forget that performance.
  • Richard II
    Richard II at RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon with Jeremy Irons in title role and Michael Kitchens as Bolingbroke.
  • Shakespeare
    I did a summer class Shakespeare tour in England to Stratford and London. Saw 5 plays total. The 2 most memorable were starkly different. Pericles a little done show had a very modern concept and even had acrobatics flying above the classic Globe theatre. It was an unforgettable visual treat. On the other hand A Winters Tale was performed classically, yet superbly and was a great show. Standing as a groundling is the only way to watch at the Globe.
  • nothing
    Have you ever noticed Lou Harrys posts are "Much Ado about Nothing"?

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