The irony of COVID-19 was not lost on Simon Godwin. “We were running Timon of Athens when the shutdown came,” says the newly installed Artistic Director of The Shakespeare Theater Company. “Timon is the story about somebody that goes from being on top of the world, being incredibly generous and much loved, to suddenly, in a matter of days, losing their money and ending up alone, self-isolating in a wood, despairing at the state of the world…. We realized that this play was an incredible prophecy. We, ourselves, had gone from a place of golden happiness to suddenly walking home alone, our theater shut down, our future uncertain, and very much resembling a character from the play.”
Like so many other theaters in town, The Shakespeare adapted to the situation, first moving its final show of the season, Much Ado About Nothing, to Spring of 2021. Then, Godwin and his creative crew devised virtual solutions to keep audiences engaged during the region’s “stay-at-home” confinement. One was to showcase Britain’s National Theatre recorded streams, including the Godwin-helmed Antony & Cleopatra, with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo, free of charge, now through May 14, on the Shakespeare Theatre’s website.
“We are all in the same play now,” says Godwin. “It’s unheard of when so many millions of people across the planet are all in the same conditions — it’s a drama that we’re all sharing. We all also share a need for stories. The muscle in us that requires narrative is searching for how to get that. I think it’s incumbent on theatres to go, ‘How do we freshly engage and provide narrative?'”
So Godwin and company devised “The Shakespeare Hour,” a weekly videocast that finds the director and dramaturg Drew Lichtenberg in conversation with various theatrical luminaries, discussing Shakespearean works. On Wednesday, May 13, Godwin welcomes the Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks, along with actor Patrick Page and Tony-winning director Rebecca Taichman, to discuss The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest.
“I want it to be a chatty, informed, engaging exploration of why Shakespeare is great,” says Godwin of the series. “People should feel like they’re with us in the room. It should feel intimate, it should feel spontaneous. It’s a time to have access to people that you might not normally have access to.”
Godwin is finding ways to have hope through these times. “To quote Emerson, ‘Every wall is a door,'” he says. “Every challenge is also an opportunity. It’s been a great time, for me, of sadness, absolutely. But also one of reflection and really thinking carefully about what the theater is going to be standing for in the next few years. Theater is essentially the gathering of human beings, and that gathering part of our nature has been so present since the beginning of time. To survive so many trials, not least in Shakespeare’s time of the plague, makes me feel that the overwhelming wish to be together will return and it will return stronger than ever. It might take a while, and it might take some breakthroughs in science before we are all comfortable to sit together as we once did, but when we do, I think it will feel newly important, significant, and powerful to be back in contact with each other as human beings.”
He notes that in Shakespeare’s time, the plague drove the Bard into his own isolation, where he wrote Macbeth and King Lear.
“He went back to Stratford-upon-Avon and thought to himself, ‘What does the world need when we come back? I think it might need one of the [most] harrowing tragedies ever written.’ And he gets his pen out and off he goes. So, in a way, we have to thank pestilence for giving us great artwork.”
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