Feb. 1 Book Review: Presenting Shakespeare

Title cover for "Presenting Shakespeare," a book of poster art from various performances of the Bard's plays

Title cover for “Presenting Shakespeare,” a book of poster art from various performances of the Bard’s plays

Presenting Shakespeare, preserved as poster art

But this handsome collection of 1,100 posters from The Bard’s plays is much more than a coffee table book

By Wayne Myers

Poster for Teatr Wielki w Poznaniu’s 2007 performance of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream"

Poster for Teatr Wielki w Poznaniu’s 2007 performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Breast-like twin celestial orbs brazenly fill a dark forest night sky in Ryszard Kaja’s poster for Teatr Wielki w Poznaniu’s 2007 performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

It’s an arresting image, this apparition illuminating the night with erotic promise.

It’s one of 1,100 Shakespeare production posters from 56 countries that graphic artist Mirko Ilić and New York’s School of Visual Arts co-chairman of Master of Fine Arts Design Steven Heller have arrayed in their tour de force book, Presenting Shakespeare (Princeton Architectural Press, $50, www.papress.com). Princeton Architectural Press, located in New York, is not affiliated with Princeton University.

Through 320 pages chockablock with art that enthralls more often than not, the authors authoritatively explore a neglected side of Shakespeare production. But they are imperfect curators, more secure with the visual than they are in the roles of theater historians.

When the Philadelphia-based Curio Theatre Company announced its 2013-14 season with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as its second production for fall 2013, it didn’t take long for the hate mail to mount. You can find photographer Kyle Cassidy’s poster for the production on p.107 of Presenting Shakespeare, a page that features six posters from productions of Romeo and Juliet showing the lovers locked in an embrace. But Curio’s poster reveals Romeo and Juliet in a girl-girl relationship, featuring underwear-clad Rachel Gluck as Romeo and Isa St. Clair as Juliet in bed with a gun by Romeo’s side. The production, directed by Krista Apple-Hodge, also featured other intriguing gender-focused casting takes, including Colleen Hughes’s performances as both the Nurse and a female Tybalt. (Lord Capulet’s lines were given to Lady Capulet, who became Juliet’s single parent.)

You don’t get any of this backstory in Presenting Shakespeare.

You’ll also find on p.50 of the book four Hamlet posters by Paul Davis. No one, with the exception of Joe Papp himself and the Broadway musical A Chorus Line, probably has done more for the Public Theater and the New York Shakespeare Festival than Davis. Theater critic John Lahr, in his Nov. 24, 2014 New Yorker Magazine article on the exhibition of Davis’s posters that fall at the Public Theater, noted that “at one point, in 1976, his posters for four different shows  — The Threepenny Opera, Streamers, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, and Hamlet — were plastered in the subways.”

Again, you don’t get any of this from the book. And the posters often do raise questions. Who, for example, is the woman as Hamlet in Davis’s poster for the 1982 Public Theater Hamlet? (She is Diane Venora, who caused New York Times theater critic Frank Rich in his Dec. 3, 1982 review to ask, “So why did Joseph Papp choose a young, virtually unknown actress named Diane Venora to star in his new revival of ‘Hamlet’?,” concluding that “there is some, if not enough, method to the seeming madness.”) Venora also played Ophelia to Kevin Kline’s Hamlet in the 1990 Public Theater Hamlet, which Kline also directed. An image of that poster is also on p.50, along with a poster for Kline’s 1986 Hamlet. (Venora, by the way, also played Gertrude in the 2000 film version of Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke, and also featuring Julia Stiles as Ophelia and Liev Schreiber as Laertes.)

The authors did get the severely intellectual director and theater designer nonpareil Julie Taymor to write the book’s preface. Taymor, who delivers an economical two-paragraph informative piece, predictably upstages the pair, who probably didn’t need to tout their coup so excessively on the front and back covers, on a page of the front end matter and then so prominently on the preface page itself.

Taymor has not written a puff. She offers poster artists invaluable advice, setting out the task of the designer of a Shakespeare production poster. She then illustrates how it’s done with design notes for her 1994 production of Titus Andronicus, arguably her best Shakespeare stage work and an early hit for both her and Theatre for a New Audience. The two would reconnect in 2014 to inaugurate TFANA’s Downtown Brooklyn Polonsky Shakespeare Center with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is not surprising, then, that the poster for that production leads off the book’s section containing posters for that play. It’s a poster that captures the play’s unsettling weirdness.

About Kenneth Van Sickle’s poster for Titus Andronicus featured on p.10, Taymor writes: “Romulus and Remus, the mythic twin babes who later founded Rome, were suckled by a she-wolf. And Titus proclaims, ‘Rome is but a wilderness of tigers….’ This hand-scratched, black-and-white photo of a German shepherd suckling an infant suggests the nature of the play. The strapped-on tits were inspired by the work of Joel-Peter Witkin, projecting a sense of playfulness, black humor, and cruelty that is endemic to Shakespeare’s vision.”

This is the kind of commentary and perspective the book could use more of.

In their excellent introduction, the authors pose questions about the relationship of poster art to the popularity of Shakespeare’s plays. There are also some interesting facts included, such as the unauthorized edition of 10 Shakespeare’s plays published in 1619 before sales were stopped.

Often lacking sufficient critical remarks, the majority of images captured in the book might be dismissed as so much inspired eye candy, but important conclusions nonetheless can still be drawn from the images alone. It becomes quickly obvious, for example, that posters for European productions tend to be more audacious than those executed for American productions — and not gratuitously so. They often reveal a deeper understanding of the plays. Take Andrzej Pagowski’s poster for Teatr Szkolny’s 2007 production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. It depicts three crows (two obviously representing Mistress Ford and Mistress Page) crapping on a fourth crow (Falstaff) that is covered with white birdshit. That’s the play.

The posters also reveal how far American theater companies have fallen behind their European counterparts concerning expression of the sexual themes in Shakespeare’s plays. Strassentheater’s 2007 Romeo and Juliet poster by Lex Drewinski focuses on the soles of the ill-starred lovers’ feet. Romeo is clearly on top of Juliet, who has her legs spread. Mortuary tags are affixed to their toes.

Poster for the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s 2014 production of "The Tempest"

Poster for the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s 2014 production of “The Tempest”

Not that there isn’t some engaging work on the American design end. Scott McKowen delivers a pair of beauties with his stunning “full fathom five” poster for the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s 2014 production of The Tempest, detailing a ship’s plunge to the ocean floor. Add to this his sweeping poster for the 2013 STNJ production of Pericles, which evokes a yearning for ancient worlds.

Poster for Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's 2013 production of "Pericles"

Poster for Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s 2013 production of “Pericles”

The posters can be deceiving. A handful in the Twelfth Night section depicts the cross-dressing Viola with a mustache — the worst Twelfth Night cliché. This suggests to theatergoers the play is a gag-filled farce comedy rather than one of the most erotic plays ever written.

About the Othello section, surprisingly weak artistically, the authors note the quizzically small number of appearances by Desdemona in many of the posters. They are right: Desdemona is the object of obsession for the play’s male characters, leading to her violent death.

When the authors write about the challenge organizing such a massive volume of international material presents, they are to be believed.

Less understandable is their failure to correct some inaccuracies in the play summaries. For example, the Princess of France in Love’s Labor’s Lost is not the Princess of Aquitaine, and weddings that are “delayed for a year” may never actually happen. 

The posters are organized by plays, and that’s the last time the book’s structure makes much sense. Why, for instance, is King Lear, Shakespeare’s monumental 1606 tragedy, sandwiched between two 1599 comedies: As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing?

Poster from New York Shakespeare Festival's 1990 production of "Richard III"

Poster from New York Shakespeare Festival’s 1990 production of “Richard III”

The Wars of the Roses history plays cycle that begins with Richard II, continues with Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, Henry V, Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3, and concludes with Richard III, is nearly intact with the one exception that the Richard III posters immediately follow those for Richard II. (The authors say that Richard II was the last Plantagenet king, but technically that honor went to Richard III, who was killed at Bosworth Field in 1485.)

Even more vexing is some very strange quoting. The authors begin the section on As You Like It posters with The Seven Ages of Man speech, quoting the first 14 1/2 lines, but not the remaining 13 1/2 — covering only four of the seven ages. Did they run out of space?

All this can be annoying, but remember, this book is about the visual. You look at the posters, and they are… beautiful.

Yet only so much justice of space can be given to some art that clearly deserves more. Paul Davis’s poster for the New York Shakespeare Festival’s 1990 production of Richard III in Central Park gets a full page, as does James McMullan’s Twelfth Night poster — which may very well be the most beautiful Twelfth Night artwork ever created (for the Lincoln Center Theater’s 1998 production).

In spite of some slip-ups in the editing, Princeton Architectural Press’s Presenting Shakespeare is extremely generous for its artwork, and a valuable addition to The Bard lovers’ libraries.

Details Box:
Title: Presenting Shakespeare
Subtitle: 1,100 Posters from Around the World, Steven Heller, Mirko Ilić
Publisher: Princeton Architectural Press
Language: English
Format: Hardcover, 320 pages
ISBN 9781616892920
Publication date
: Oct. 13, 2015
: $50

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