Arden Shakespeare Performance Editions: a quick review

Arden Shakespeare Performance Editions
Arden Performance Editions: a brand-new series with a different approach.

I had the incredible good fortune to win a set of all three volumes in this just-released series from Arden Shakespeare! As you can see, they are A Midsummer Night’s Dream (edited by Abigail Rokison-Woodall), Hamlet (also edited by Abigail Rokison-Woodall), and Romeo and Juliet (edited by Paul Menzer).

Arden Performance Editions are published by Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare. The series general editors are Michael Dobson and Abigail Rokison-Woodall from the Shakespeare Institute, and veteran actor Simon Russell Beale. This team has a unique blend of skills, with Dobson anchoring the academic end, Beale the performance end, and Rokison-Woodall bridging both worlds as an actor turned academic specializing in Shakespearean verse speaking. Together, they’ve created a series that reboots the way Shakespeare’s plays are printed. In addition to these three titles, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, and Twelfth Night are in preparation.

The books are designed around performance. So, play text and stage directions are on the left, notes are on the right, and there’s lots of white space for annotations – even the line spacing is generous. Act/Scene/Line index numbers in the upper left corners make it easy to flip to the desired part of the play. The concise notes include definitions, pronunciation, syllabic accents and elisions, and selected textual variations.

Arden Shakespeare Performance Edition sample interior spread showing ample white space for notes
Allegedly Abraham Lincoln’s favourite soliloquy from Hamlet. Note the Act/Scene/Line index number in the upper left corner and the scanning guide for line 31.

I quickly came to love having notes at the same eye level as the text to which they relate. It’s significantly quicker and easier to glance to the right to get a meaning, than to constantly look up and down between text and a dense pile of notes on the bottom of the page. With these books, even note-dependent reading can continue virtually uninterrupted, making them ideal for following a recorded performance or reading aloud. This is a great example of design enhancing functionality.

The introductory material includes performance-specific notes on the variant texts and certain key issues, such as, in Hamlet, the placement of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, and, in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s age.

Although the books in this series were created for actors and directors, their sheer vivacity and user-friendliness makes them ideal for students and teachers too. They add just enough information to bring the language to life without getting bogged down in details. And, the academic material in the introductory sections seems written to stimulate further thought rather than to provide in-volume pedantic minutae; bullet points hit the highlights and serve up examples.

Arden Shakespeare Performance Editions are large paperbacks
The Ardens are big, well-made paperbacks.

The books themselves are oversized paperbacks, and the ample white space that makes their pages so inviting also adds bulk. Here’s a comparison Hamlet to Hamlet. The Bantam fits into jeans pockets; the Arden takes up much of a laptop case accessory pocket. Aside from most of the text, the two editions have little in common, and I will refer to both extensively. I have to say, though, that of the two, the Arden Performance Edition is by far easier to read, annotate, and use. I think it will be my go-to copy for day-to-day use.

Arden Shakespeare Performance Editions
Arden Performance Edition Shakespeare titles as of December 2017.

A huge thank you to Arden Shakespeare – first, for sending me this wonderful prize package, and second, for producing this fantastic new series!

My personal Shakespeare weekend

It wasn’t intentional; in fact, both were last-minute things. But, I ended up seeing seeing two of Shakespeare’s plays in one weekend. That’s not quite a festival, but it’s more than I usually get to see.

On Thursday, I learned that A Midsummer Night’s Dream would be closing Sunday at San Diego City College, so I got tickets for Friday night’s performance and we made a big family night out of it. Although I’ve seen a few productions on DVD and streaming, this was my first time seeing it live.

The production set the action in a wharfside New York alley circa 1953. Theseus was the CEO of the slightly seedy Athens Insurance Company, and Oberon and Titania beatnik leaders. “The Boy” was an encyclopedia of beatnik knowledge.  Few other changes were needed: Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius remained establishment youths; Puck retained his mysterious, magical qualities; the rude mechanicals remained solidly working class.

The cast of mostly young theater students was energetic, and their enthusiasm was infectious. Any scholarly Shakespearean depth that was diffused in delivery was more than made up for in sheer joie de vivre. It’s a fun play, and fun is the way to play it.

The set design was exceptional for its detail and depth, and the director encouraged everyone to take pictures of the stage and post them online as part of the theater department’s promotional efforts. I especially liked the wire-frame donkey’s head fitted to Bottom, which conveyed the right impression while allowing the audience to see Bottom’s facial expressions. Theseus/Oberon was doubled but Hippolyta and Titania were played by different young women, which lent a frisson of infidelity to the alpha male/s. Jazz music and dance numbers rounded out a thoroughly entertaining performance. Well roar’d, well run, well shone, and well played San Diego City College cast and crew!

Then I found out that Sunday was the final day of on-demand streaming of Cheek by Jowl’s production of The Winter’s Tale, a recorded livestream from the Barbican Centre in London. So, Sunday afternoon I settled down to watch. I’d seen it live at The Old Globe a few years ago.

Cheek by Jowl delivered a minimalist, yet exquisitely engineered stage on which performances simmered to explosion. In a stroke of genius, Leontes’ son and heir Mamillius was played as a precocious child perhaps on the autism spectrum, which seemed connected to Leontes’ inexplicably intractable delusion and later unyielding self-abuse. Leontes’ own position on that same spectrum was the neatest explanation I’ve seen for his behavior. Another sweet twist: the appearance of Polixenes and Camillo in disguise at the sheep-shearing festivities in Bohemia was echoed by the doubling of Hermione/Dorcas and Paulina/Mopsa.

While the live audience stretched their legs for the interval, the recorded livestream had an interview with the founders and directors of Cheek by Jowl, Nick Ormerod and Declan Donnellan. One key takeaway came from Nick Ormerod, talking about the minimalism of the set (in stark contrast to the City College production): “The essence of the theatre is in the imagination of the audience.”

And here’s rather longer excerpt from Donnellan, about Shakespeare’s writing:

I don’t think that he was some genius who spent hours and hours and hours, sweating, sweating, sweating; it doesn’t feel like that way to me. It feels like he was somebody who wrote fast … it was intuitive. And every now and then, when there are some laborious stretches in Cymbeline, when you feel he has maybe sweated a bit over something. But it’s not very often. But at his greatest, you know, it comes burning off the page.”

This production of The Winter’s Tale came burning off the screen, a powerful show that I feel privileged to have seen.

And that was my personal Shakespeare weekend, half shared with family and the other half savored on my own. Perfect!