The new production of Shakespeare's Hamlet at Ashland boasts, among other noteworthy qualities, a hip hop dramaturg. This insight offers me as good an occasion as I'm likely get to reflect on the evolution of the Ashland Shakespeare festival from comedy to farce, from farce to son et lumière, for son et lumière to hip hop, and from....well, whatever: it is almost inconceivable that hip hop will be the last stop on this cultural merry-go-round (indeed, it may be that the appearance of hip hop at Ashland is only a little less dead than Shakespeare, but I leave that for another time).
The narrow point is, of course, that Ashland 2010 is not something Angus Bowmer would have recognized or even imagined when he played Shylock and Sir Toby Belch in the first two Ashland Shakespeare performances back in 1935. This sounds like a lead-in to a rant on "young folks nowadays" or "how come they don't teach Greek and Latin any more..." or the Shakespearean equivalent. Not quite, but let's explore the point.
For starters: I have complained before about the farceification of the Ashland Shakespeare agenda. My point is not that we need solemnity--plenty of Shakespeare is falling-down funny and indeed, too many performances are not as funny as they ought to be. Rather, I've argued that Ashland Shakespeare tends to fall into farce (or more generally, physical comedy, slapstick) because they're a little shaky on the more distinctive (and perhaps more elusive) Shakespearean stuff. There's also a second, related but more sinister, reason: they do farce because they are good at it. To a man with a hammer, everything is a nail. To a man with a rubber nose and a Klaxon, everything is a pratfall.
Sometimes, as I suggest, this is perfectly fine. The Hamlet hip hop, for example: others will think it a travesty, but I don't agree. The thing is, they used it primarily for the "play within a play" scene. And that's a scene where, so far as I can tell, Shakespeare is parodying himself (or his own crowd) and a few modern liberties are quite within the spirit of the occasion. It got a bit nerve-wracking, I admit, when the hip-hop seemed ready to escape the confiines of the play-within-a-play and to take over the whole show. But it didn't, for which we can breath a sigh of relief.
Contrast Darko Tesnjak's presentation of Twelfth Night. When I read the program blurb, I suspected he really didn't have a clue what he was up to. I think the production bore out my intuition although not necessarily in ways that I anticipated. For my money, Twelfth Night is not an easy play to get your mind around. Its love story, operating within a network of stage conventions, is so subtle and restrained you can almost miss it. Its pure comedy begins raucous but verges into rancid, close to mean. You need extraordinary talent to hold the parts together (I do think Trevor Nunn got it mostly right). Tesnjak didn't seem to have any clear idea what it was about, but he knew he had a troupe of talented clowns and a first-rate props department and a cadre of high-quality technicians. So he let it drift into a downmarket version of cirque du soleil.
I can't say it didn't "work." Lots of it "worked" just fine; certainly the audience loved it. No, wait; maybe better to say that part of the audience loved it. For the Ashland audience these days is an oddly schizophrenic affair. Something north of 30 percent look like retired college professors, with spouses and at least semi-solvent state funded pensions. Another 30 percent (plus) are 15-18 year olds, enjoying a high school walkaround and dreaming of how they will bag medical school to go make their mark behind the footlights.
Which made me realize that Ashland does have a problem to which I haven't given any thought before, although I'm sure they have. That is: they've got to find something--whatever, anything--to do to attract young blood before all the wrinklies and crumblies exit the stage.
I bet, and more important I bet Ashland bets, that the kiddies love it when they bring in da noise, bring in da funk. And maybe they do. And maybe I do too, maybe more than I admit. As I say, these guys are good at what they do.
Put in an even more general context, I'm sure that part of what we're seeing here is natural evolution: institutions are like empires (or, I guess, empires are like institutions): they grow, they mature; they develop more and more constituencies who have to be fed or otherwise kept at bay. Fine, that's as it has to be. My point is only that I hope the Shakespeare doesn't get lost in the process. If so, Ashland will lose not only its original reason for being, but an intrinsically good reason for being, even today. Sure, there are plenty of Shakespeare festivals around the country, and I suppose you could say it's no real loss if one falls by the wayside. But I suspect there aren't many where (for all my complaints) you have such a bedrock of institutional memory. It would be a shame to see it dissipate. Besides, who is ever going to drive hundreds of miles into the boonies just for a festival of hip hop?