11 Dec 2011: Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre Kansas City, MO
Recently, Kim Jong-il—the Dear Leader—passed into blessed oblivion. Subsequently, two important matters struck me: that both totalitarianism and theocracy are still, alas, alive and well. (And George Orwell found no distinction between the two).This presumed modern world simply accepts these malignancies on the stage. China, Iran, Syria, North Korea, Russia, and arguably the U.S., continue the proud tradition of sectarian-autocratic rule. In the “Christian nation”: The Patriot Act, covert prisons, “enhanced interrogation”, censorship, nukes, drones, empire. What a total answer to it all?
But Queen Elizabeth I and Mr. Kim, in fact, had a great deal in common: play-acting, theatre, ritual, entertainment, mythology, fashion, dynasty, luxury, volatility, and of course the need to control the people so as to maintain political power. Christopher Hitchens observed the North Korean desire to distract its starving citizens via vulgar ritual: “But I was preoccupied, as are most of the country’s few visitors, by the more imposing and exotic forms of totalitarianism on offer: by the giant mausoleums and parades that seemed to fuse classical Stalinism with a contorted form of the deferential, patriarchal Confucian ethos”. Elizabeth had The Globe to woo the commoners; dissidents were put in The Tower. Mr. Kim used frequent ceremonies, and a Stalinistgulag. Peter Ackroyd wrote of Elizabeth’s tactics: “Catholic priests and missionaries were tortured and killed”. Recusants were considered traitors, and treated as such.
The quite preposterous worship and idolization of Queen Elizabeth I now occurs for several reasons: her gender; puissance; and, moreover, that she reigned during a critical period in English history. She, in fact, has an age named after her. And, also, compared to her father, Henry VIII, she was indeed mild and moderate. She was no merciful ruler, though; she was a dictator just as Mr. Kim had been. Both ruled during serious food shortages; both used ritual to invigilate the people. (There is one thesis that Elizabeth herself asked Shakespeare to pen The Merry Wives of Windsor). Mr. Kim was a film scholar, and wrote a text, On the Cinema and Directing. Elizabeth thought herself God’s emissary; Mr. Kim was considered a demigod by his people, and a god postmortem.
The one-woman play, I, Elizabeth, overtly pandered to this view of Elizabeth as some kind of deity a bit, but the principal, material subtext largely examined Elizabeth as a human being, something rare and singular indeed for a dictator. Elizabeth being a powerful female monarch notwithstanding, this fine, merry portrayal—by the most talented actress Rebecca Vaughan—studied her more troubled, realistic, autocratic, sectarian, personal, and paranoid aspects. It was not a romanticized portrait at all, or, rather should I claim that it was not a deified, godly rendition.
For instance, I sat a few steps from Vaughan; she was surely well-rehearsed and used pointed gestures to adequately play Elizabeth. As she clearly voiced Elizabeth’s own words, Vaughan made no errors and rather proved most convincing. Emphasis was heavily placed on her need for privacy and safety; her several anti-Catholic rants; her position that the Protestant God rather than the weather had saved her realm from the Spanish; her ostensible romantic interests despite her assumed virginity; her clever understanding that if she married, her monarchal position would be threatened. But throughout she also underscored the pressure of being a monarch, a common motif from Shakespeare’s line “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”—from Henry IV, Part II. Most excellent was this intimate and intriguing drama.
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