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the darling buds of april: the 2021 shakespeare season

Two years ago this month I was poring over the American Players Theatre (APT) schedule for the 2019 season. APT is the professional Shakespeare company located near Madison, WI, in Spring Green. The site has a lovely open-air stage and seating area called the Hill Theatre and a smaller, intimate, indoor theater called the Touchstone. That year we ended up seeing Macbeth at the outdoor theater and The Man of Destiny, the George Bernard Shaw play about Napoleon, at the Touchstone. Over the years we have seen a number of APT productions, and I can’t wait for the day when it will be OK to do the full evening package again: a picnic on the grounds, a bottle of wine, and a twilight show with a full crowd watching as another Shakespeare tale unfolds in its breathless invention under the starry canopy.

Last year, because of the pandemic, APT and other Shakespeare companies around the world closed. APT offered some programming online—the actors reading various plays from their individual home zoom settings. I was very happy to see them find a way to continue to connect with their audiences, and I tuned into some of these. This year they are planning to re-open with a reduced schedule at both theaters; the summer season will run from May 4th to October 3rd, and they will stage six plays in all, including Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, with plans to add in additional shows over the fall and winter months. There is also the option to purchase tickets for digital versions of the plays. After a year of no shows and darkened theaters, I like this hybrid approach that accommodates both those who wish to return to see the plays onsite and those who are not ready to be back in public spaces, even with masks on and distanced seating.

One of the best local productions of Shakespeare’s work that I have seen was put on several years ago by a troupe called The Summit Players Theatre. This group is a traveling Shakespeare company based in Milwaukee; they stage free, outdoor productions in state parks, partnering with the Wisconsin State Park system and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). They tailor their productions to families, offering an instructional workshop along with each 75-minute performance. We saw their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Lake Kegonsa State Park, southeast of Madison. We sat on picnic tables to watch the six-member cast perform, and it was very entertaining to watch the farcical stage directions and costume changes, and the performance itself, up close. Here’s their summer 2021 calendar. It looks like they have a full schedule, with covid safety protocols in place.

When we lived in California, we got tickets every year to the productions at Cal Shakes, another professional Shakespeare company, located in Orinda, CA. For the 2021 season they have decided to stage just one play, The Winter’s Tale, and otherwise will lease their site to other community arts organizations that are also emerging from long covid closures as a way to celebrate the resilience of the arts in this dark time.

I know that there are many professional Shakespeare companies in the United States, and I was curious what I could find out about them. I googled and found this website with current listings for each state. Under the “Regional and Independents” heading it lists the companies in alphabetic order, so it takes some hunting to find those that might be local to you. Still, this is a fabulous resource.

I don’t remember when I read a Shakespeare story for the first time, but my first understanding of him as a real person was due to a family trip to England when I was seven years old. At the time my Dad was posted to a three-year military stint in Europe, and we were living in France. When our closest American friends in France were transferred to England, we went to visit them. And on that trip, we spent a day in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace. Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in April 1564, and he died there, as well, in April 1616.

I don’t remember exactly what I learned about Shakespeare that day. But I do remember being enchanted by the many timbered Tudor houses in this charming town along the River Avon, including Anne Hathaway’s cottage, which we toured. And I remember my sister and I each got a small, pocket-sized collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets in one of the gift shops. I was enamored of mine because the cover was the same sky blue as my little suitcase, my trusty companion on our many European adventures.

Many years later, on another family trip to England, my husband and daughter and I spent part of an afternoon in London exploring Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, a reproduction of the original Globe theatre; the new theatre opened in 1997 and sits near the site of the original. We had looked into tickets for a show, but everything was sold out for the days we would be there. When there is no performance on, however, the public is free to spend time in the theatre. The day we were there, several actors were on the stage rehearsing Henry IV. This summer Shakespeare’s Globe will be re-opening as well. I like their re-opening sentiment:

“To even be announcing a season means that we are inching ever closer to getting back to doing the thing that we love, the thing that the Globe was built for, and the thing that so many of us, artists and audience alike, have lost during this time: sharing time, space and story with as many people as is safe. This is a historic moment, and not to be underestimated: we have a long way to go as we emerge and heal from this, but theatre can help us get there: that’s what it’s for. To express the often inexpressible, bear the often unbearable, laugh, cry, be—safely—together. The readiness is all and Shakespeare’s Globe is ready.”

Here’s the Globe’s summer schedule. They will stage A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and Twelfth Night. And they will tour with several plays, as well. They will also live stream the Globe productions on certain dates; Romeo and Juliet, for example, is scheduled to run on July 7th and August 7th. The time difference between London and Madison is six hours right now, so a show scheduled to start at 7:00 P.M. British Summer Time (BST) would start here in Madison that afternoon at 1:00 Central Daylight Time (CDT). Tickets are £10. You can also purchase past performances via download or on DVD. Their website has a ton of fun things to explore: blogs, podcasts, virtual tours, and more.

I went looking for my little blue sonnet book the other day, and I couldn’t find it; I think it’s still packed away in a box in the basement. I had been eyeing the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions of Shakespeare’s works, and I finally ordered their edition of his sonnets and poems. These books are attractive, sturdy paperbacks, and I’m sure I will be collecting more of them. The Folger Shakespeare Library, located in Washington, D.C., is the largest repository of Shakespeare’s works in the world. I have been only once, but it’s on my bucket list to visit again. Lately I’ve been exploring their website and listening to their podcast Shakespeare Unlimited—each episode is roughly 20 to 30 minutes long and features a fascinating and instructive interview with one or more Shakespeare scholars from around the world. The Folger also stages plays at different venues in the D.C. area; their 2020/21 season schedule lists two Shakespeare plays—A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, at the National Building Museum and the Round House Theatre, respectively.

Several months ago, searching for my next TV binge, I came across one of Shakespeare’s sonnets in an unexpected place. I watch a lot of Britbox, and I decided to watch the first episode of The Darling Buds of May, a show that dates to the early 1990s. It’s based on the novels written by H.E. Bates, and the title is taken from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18. It stars David Jason, who has appeared in many British TV shows, and Pam Ferris, who I know from the mystery series Rosemary and Thyme. They play Pop and Ma Larkin. A young Catherine Zeta-Jones plays the daughter Mariette, and Philip Franks plays Mr. Charlton, the tax man.

The storyline is this: the large Larkin family lives a rather unconventional lifestyle on their farm in early 1950’s Kent; they “scratch” a living, as Pop explains at one point. One day a young tax man from the Inland Revenue shows up to question Mr. Larkin as to why he hasn’t paid any taxes in the last year, or in fact ever. Pop expertly stalls the inquisition throughout the afternoon—they invite the tax man to join them for a meal, this then extends to a second meal, and then a game of cribbage, and finally one of Mr. Larkin’s strong cocktails. Completely beguiled by the daughter Mariette, Mr. Charlton acquiesces to each of these tactics and ends up staying the night, sleeping on their billiards table. And this is where Shakespeare enters center stage, if only for a brief moment—in his inebriated state on the billiards table, Mr. Charlton recites a few lines from Sonnet 18, and in the actor’s lovely rendering, Shakespeare’s deft string of sibilants and fricatives gently unfurls:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day

Thou art more lovely and more temperate

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date

There’s also the contemporary TV mystery series Shakespeare and Hathaway, about two private detectives whose names just happen to mirror those of William Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway. It's filmed on location in Stratford-upon-Avon, and even though the storylines are a bit flimsy, the gorgeous backdrop is all the incentive I need to watch it.

I’m back on the APT website looking for more information on their digital plays. Apparently these versions will be available to view for some portion of the live run of the show on stage. Tickets start at $32. Right now they are listing just two shows with a digital option, so maybe as the start dates of the different programs approach they will list more of their schedule here. I’d like to give Cymbeline a try, and probably one of their other shows as well. And I know I’m going to be back on the Shakespeare’s Globe website to pick one of their digital options, too. All the world’s a stage, and it’s re-opening in person and online, and this makes me extremely happy!

Image is Shakespeare's Globe theatre in London, August 2010


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