chapter  7
14 Pages

John Harrell: Jeremy Lopez


It’s the kind of interpretation that infuriates Shakespeare scholars. There is no historical warrant for a staging in which Richard II drops his warder accidentally, and as far as I know, no production has staged the play this way. Although the actor’s rationale makes a kind of thematic sense, one cannot help but feel that such a staging would trivialize the scene, and perhaps the entire play. Such a staging would draw a laugh at a tense, climactic moment. It would raise a distracting question in the minds of spectators unfamiliar with Shakespeare or with medieval history: is that the way it really happened? The energy created by the audience’s uncertainty about the intentionality of the mistake would, after the Lord Marshall’s clarifying line, be neutralized by the audience’s expectation that similar moments of slapstick or burlesque would occur throughout the production. Shakespeare’s tragic meditation upon the entrenched conventions of monarchic power would, in this way, become a modern theatre company’s satire on the entrenched conventions of Shakespeare’s text in performance. Shakespeare’s King Richard would disappear behind the person of the self-consciously witty actor. Of course, entirely valid objections such as these run into some difficulty when we

consider the fact that both theatrical interpretation and literary criticism of the past century or more have been largely in agreement that Shakespeare’s King Richard is a self-consciously witty actor. John Harrell, who has been performing with the American Shakespeare Center

(ASC) at their Blackfriars-replica playhouse in Staunton, Virginia since 2002, is both

a self-conscious and a witty actor, but it is unlikely that many who have seen him act would call him self-consciously witty. Your eye is immediately drawn to him because of how perfectly straight he always seems to be standing on the stage, even when he’s not, and his line-readings are so chiseled and deliberate that you hang on every word, waiting to see how the phrase or sentence is going to turn out. But the dominant quality in his striking stage-presence is modesty. He is unassuming, in that he does not seem to assume that you will, or ought to, look at him. He is interesting to look at, and to listen to, because the things he does and says seem to be interesting to him. Why is John Harrell, a very good actor at a small regional American repertory

theatre, important? It might, of course, be fair to ask why any Shakespearean actor is important, but the cultural visibility, high-end box-office drawing power, and, not insignificantly, the Britishness of most of the actors featured in this volume, from Simon Russell Beale to Harriet Walter, means we don’t have to. Tickets at the ASC are relatively inexpensive, and neither the actors nor the theatre can be said to have a high cultural visibility (indeed, many of the actors seek greater visibility, when not working at the ASC, in theatre, television, and film work in New York and Los Angeles); the core group of performers is just small and unstable enough that the quality of acting varies noticeably from production to production and season to season; and, because of the theatre’s geographical isolation, the audiences are relatively small, are drawn from the immediately surrounding area (approximately 80% of the theatre’s audience lives within 200 miles of the theatre, and 50% lives within 50 miles), and have a large student contingent (sales to student groups make up about 30% of ASC sales in any given month). Harrell’s position is undoubtedly identical to the position of any number of surprisingly good actors who anchor small regional theatre companies throughout North America. Ian McKellen, Antony Sher, and Judi Dench arguably have had and continue to have a demonstrable impact upon the way “Shakespeare,” as a constellation of theatrical artifacts and cultural ideas, signifies in contemporary British and North American popular and academic culture. John Harrell, on the other hand, like the vast majority of classical actors in the contemporary world, might simply be laboring in obscurity. What distinguishes the ASC from other small regional American theatre companies

is, of course, its remarkable theatre space-a best-guess historical replica of the Blackfriars theatre in London in which the King’s Men began performing plays in the early seventeenth century. Deliberately unassuming on the outside (Steve Hendrix of the Washington Post wrote in 2001 that the theatre’s exterior “has an upscale alpine look, like a fire station in Telluride”), the theatre is spectacularly beautiful on the inside-a bare plank stage surrounded on three sides by subtly ornate galleries constructed from Virginia white oak, and backed by a frons scenae painted with a black marble faux-finish. There is, in my experience, no other theatre like it-not even the Globe, the effect of whose similarly gorgeous interior always seems (to me) somewhat diminished by the incongruity of its garish, theme-park-style exterior in the midst of the hyper-modern South Bank landscape. When you walk into the Blackfriars, you feel transported-not really into “another time,” which is the obvious intention of a theatre like the Globe, but rather and more simply into another place; this place is distinct from the world outside of it, but the portal through which you leave one to

get into the other allows for a seamless transition. You don’t quite notice that it’s happening, but you suddenly notice that it has happened. There is a productive analogy to be made between the kind of theatrical experience this space provides and the kind of theatrical experience John Harrell’s acting provides: in each case your engagement with something apparently familiar or quite ordinary gives way imperceptibly to an engagement with sharply delineated alterity. And the two kinds of engagement remain perceptibly, dialectically intertwined. The complex relationship between Harrell and the Blackfriars theatre, in both its

contiguities and its tensions, is what makes Harrell an important actor. Besides its regular season of Shakespeare plays, and besides its “Actors’ Renaissance Season,” where less familiar early modern dramas (such as A King and No King, or The Blind Beggar of Alexandria or, in 2011, Look About You) are produced without directors and according to an approximation of the early modern rehearsal process, the American Shakespeare Center hosts a biennial academic conference dedicated to the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries in performance. Because of this conference, the NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities)-funded summer scholarly institutes (four since 1995) hosted at the theatre, and the constant traffic of academic spectators these events help to create year-round; because of the M. Litt and MFA graduate programs in Shakespeare performance studies at nearby Mary Baldwin College; and also because of its increasingly close collaboration with the educational arm of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London-because of all these things, it is not nearly as presumptuous as it might initially seem that a 300-seat theatre in a small town on the far western edge of Virginia calls itself the American Shakespeare Center. There is nowhere else in North America-or, arguably, even in the United Kingdom-where there are so many productions of the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries going on and, at the same time, so much intimate, productive contact between scholars who study early modern drama and a company of actors performing that drama. John Harrell is at the center of that center-and also, in terms of the roles he plays, his attitude toward the theatre’s “original practices” mandate, and even his relationship to professional acting per se, on the periphery of that center. Harrell is not a member of the Actors’ Equity Association and indeed has no

“formal” training as an actor. His rigorous study of play-texts and his remarkable theatrical instincts give him the confidence to assess both the scholarly underpinnings of an “original practices” playhouse and the mystified ideals of late-modern naturalistic acting with a mischievous expediency.