Shakespeare wrote those 37 plays, of course, but he was also one of the great song lyricists of all time. Had he lived 300 years later, he would have been a charter member of ASCAP and made a fortune in Tin Pan Alley.
"Blow, blow, thou winter wind," "Full fathom five," "Who is Silvia?" -- from "As You Like It," "The Tempest" and "Love's Labour's Lost" respectively -- have been set to music by dozens of composers, from Franz Schubert to Felix Mendels-sohn to Ralph Vaughan Williams. Though much of the plays are in verse, these free-standing poems have that something extra that makes them singable.
I was reminded of this in the middle of "Henry VIII," in the gilded and powerful production by the Royal Shakespeare Company, at the Kennedy Center in Washington. In a scene of Katherine of Aragon and her ladies in waiting, one picks up a bandurria (a small Spanish mandolin) and croons "Orpheus with his lute made trees/and the mountaintops that freeze/bow their heads and then lay down." Composer Jason Carr set it as a feminist fandango: The ladies softly clap their hands and beat their heels in a dance of nostalgia for Katherine's native Spain.
However much of "Henry VIII" may have been written by Shakespeare's apprentice, John Fletcher, there's no question about the play's two finest scenes: The fall from power of Cardinal Wolsey and the death of Katherine have a poetic and tragic authority that the rest lacks. Nor should there be any doubt about this song, with its rich imagery and striking internal rhythm, which cries out for music. It has had many settings, but the most famous may be the one by Sir Arthur Sullivan, who wrote those operettas with W. S. Gilbert.
"Cymbeline," opening Wednesday and running through July 5, contains another of these immortal songs: "Fear no more the heat o' the sun."
On a related topic, the one false note in "Krapp's Last Tape," which had just two performances last week, was a musical one. Krapp, the disillusioned humanist looking back at his life via the tape recordings he made at various turning points, thinks back to his Catholic childhood and sings "Now the day is over" to himself -- a 19th-century hymn that anyone who's been to vacation Bible school would know. (It's No. 42 in any standard Protestant hymnal.)
Not, however, Edward Petherbridge, the fine actor playing Krapp. He, or his director, or his dramaturge, did not seem to have realized that the hymn is as concrete an experience as all of Krapp's other reminiscences: the wine, the sunlight, a rowboat on a river. So Petherbridge (who is also playing Cymbeline, by the way) maundered through a dismal little non-tune of his own devising and missed one of Samuel Beckett's more tender allusions. Too bad.
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Pub Date: 6/23/98