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Three Cheers For Free Shakespeare — But Not For The Class System In The Audience

The cast of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's "Romeo and Juliet" (Courtesy Evgenia Eliseeva/CSC)
The cast of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's "Romeo and Juliet" (Courtesy Evgenia Eliseeva/CSC)
This article is more than 3 years old.

This weekend, as the first warm week of August draws to a close, so too does the three-week run of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s “Romeo and Juliet.” The performances on the Boston Common are free, and all are welcome to pull up a blanket or a lawn chair. CSC began staging Shakespeare on the Common 20 years ago, also with “Romeo and Juliet,” and I was delighted to return last Thursday -- this time with my husband, although my 12-year-old could not be persuaded.

The performance I saw was lovely, and I could write at length about its merits: Every actor was robust and graceful and bore his, or her, weight. Within the story of “Romeo and Juliet,” the importance of upholding order and tradition, the difficulty of disentangling from long held and deeply rooted conflicts, and the necessity to expect measured actions are clearly felt and never peripheral. The performance was an ensemble of characters and the many strands of life’s realities. And I applaud this director and these actors and the beautiful arches of the designer’s set.

...what I recall from the same play 20 years ago, and what I missed in Thursday’s experience, was a kind of communion with the play.

But what I recall from the same play 20 years ago, and what I missed in Thursday’s experience, was a kind of communion with the play. With improved sound and the use of microphones, colorful lighting and an elaborate set, I could hear pretty well from my seat in the first row of the designated free area and note the skilled acting. This area, where you could rent a short lawn chair (for a deposit of $10) and choose a spot for it, was centrally located. And it was as close to the stage as I could get and still be right in the middle.

But to see the show, I had to peer across a wide, unofficial stage that came between me and the actual stage. Several rows of chairs, many of them empty on a cool, damp evening, were cordoned off for the Friends of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, and in the hour and a half before the show, I watched the play before the play: the introductions of “the Friends” to other Friends, the nods, the handshaking of those friends. Now my Shakespeare on the Common felt more like the handful of Symphony Hall performances that I have attended -- where I sat several rows back and far from the stage, because it was what I could afford.

Now my Shakespeare on the Common felt more like the handful of Symphony Hall performances that I have attended.

It wasn’t like this 20 years ago. When Shakespeare began to enrich our summer evenings on the Common in 1997, I was still relatively new to town. I went three nights in a row and could show up less than an hour before and plop down in the front row with a small blanket and, on one of these nights, two 10-year-old friends who, if not eager, were at least curious.

That “Romeo and Juliet” was performed right on the stone of the Parkman Bandstand. The evening breeze caused a curtain or robe to rise and fall softly; that night, the threshold between indoor and outdoor was porous and embraced Shakespeare’s theme as much as any actor’s gesture. The feeling was open and intimate. You could see the bodies breathing from where I sat, and the moon over the stone of Verona. I cannot clearly remember a particular actor or actress from 20 years ago, but I haven’t forgotten the nurse’s hat with its jaunty shoe on top, the softness of Juliet's voice or the reeling of men with swords.

Last Thursday, while I waited for the show to begin, I saw the well-off, the artistically important or the well-connected, and I felt their presence. As the sayings go, the poor will always be with us; the rich aren’t like you and me; but as one of the in-betweens, I have to ask: Why do we have "free" shows where only the spectators who pay can approach the stage?

Why do we have "free" shows where only the spectators who pay can approach the stage?

The show was glamorous, even beautiful, and I was grateful to watch it. And anyone could see it cost a lot of money, and that money has to come from somewhere — like the Friends. But once you have a class system for the audience, so that those who pay enjoy a more intimate experience than those who don’t, something is lost: Call it integrity, or the humbleness of those first performances, years back, that started off the whole adventure.

Joanne Nicklas lives in Cambridge and works as an ESL teacher.

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