It may seem a surprising fact but the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC has the world’s largest Shakespeare collection.  One would have thought that honour would go to England.  In any event, it is housed in a careful and quite discreet way in a lovely marble building on East Capitol Street.

The Folger Shakespeare Library is also host to the Folger Consort and the Folger Theatre, both of which perform in the exquisite little Elizabethan Theatre.

The first time I ever visited the Folger Library was to hear a presentation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Purcell’s music for The Fairy Queen in the Elizabethan Theatre.  What caught my eye was that one of the performers was going to be Derek Jacobi.  I could hardly believe it!  Being a huge fan of the I, Claudius series and films like Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, Dead Again and Hamlet, it seemed extraordinary that I could see him in the flesh.  It often happens that when I am about to see an outstanding artist I am afraid that there will be some last-minute problem.  But in the event, he simply walked out onto the stage, bowed and sat down with fellow actors Lynn Redgrave and his partner, Richard Clifford, who also directed the production.  DB, sitting next to me, muttered under his breath, “My goodness!”, which summed it all up.  It was extraordinary to see them right there, a matter of a few feet away.  And the reading was sublime – funny and poignant by turns, and utterly unforgettable.  So, when Folger announced that they would be mounting a similar production of The Tempest, we were eager to go.  Clearly, the booking had been good enough to warrant two performances, one of them at the Strathmore Music Centre outside DC, which seats almost two thousand.

It’s been a tragic year for the Redgrave family.  It was in March 2009 that Natasha Richardson died after that skiing accident. Her uncle, Corin Redgrave, died in April this year and her aunt, Lynn Redgrave, in May.  After seeing Lynn Redgrave perform with Derek Jacobi and Richard Clifford in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we had seen her one-woman show at The Folger called Rachel and Juliet.  This was an intensely personal piece about her mother, the actress, Rachel Kempson, who had played, amongst other parts, Juliet.  It was also a fearlessly honest look at the extraordinary Redgrave acting dynasty as a whole, and Lynn Redgrave’s own battle with breast cancer. 

The Folger production of The Tempest was dedicated to Lynn Redgrave with these words in the program:

Thou didst smile
Infused with a fortitude from heaven
-The Tempest, Act I, Scene 2

These performances of TEMPEST
are dedicated to
our dear friend and brilliant collaborator,
who had planned to join with
Sir Derek Jacobi and Richard Clifford
and Folger Consort in
another extraordinary evening
inspired by Shakespeare

She was missed. But it was another wonderfully inspired production, again directed by Richard Clifford, who also played Caliban and Ferdinand.  Derek Jacobi played Prospero, and Lynn Redgrave was replaced by long time collaborator with Folger, Holly Twyford (whom we’ve seen there in splendid productions of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia and a re-working of Orestes), as Miranda and Ariel.

The Folger Consort was joined by two singers: the countertenor, David Daniels, and the baritone, Robert McDonald, who all performed music of the period including, especially, Matthew Locke, as well as some Handel arias.  I can never hear a countertenor without being initially unnerved by hearing a mezzo-soprano sound coming out of the mouth of an adult male.  But, as the evening wore on, I became quite bowled over by the artistry of David Daniels.  It was curious because when he wasn’t singing and was sitting to the side of the stage, he was very fidgety; stretching his face and fiddling with his nose to clear his nasal passages, drinking copious amounts of water and even chatting to Robert McDonald from time to tome.  But when he was singing he was remarkable, and by the time it came to the two Handel arias, from Radamisto and Partenope, I was reminded of an athlete in the way he attacked the music.  And when the audience erupted into applause after each aria, he sort of twinkled at us as if he was including us in a joke.  It was like Rafael Nadal on the concert platform.

And then came the tour de force of Derek Jacobi .  Up until this point we’d had the loving relationship of Prospero with both Ariel and Miranda, his arch delight in the love between Miranda and Ferdinand, and his outrage at the treachery of Caliban.  As the evening came to a close we had those most familiar speeches of Prospero lapping over us:

  “Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And—like the baseless fabric of this vision —
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.” – Act IV

“But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.” – Act V

And the exquisite epilogue, which they say is Shakespeare’s own farewell as playwright:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

I can’t imagine that I would ever hear these with more power and poignancy, with every word and nuance mined for its meaning.  The flexibility of that deep understanding of the text, and ability to convey it with every shade of face and voice, was such a gift to experience.  It just goes to show that sets, costumes and a fully mounted production are really not essential.  Here was a man in his early 70s, simply dressed in a black dinner jacket, and able to transport us into the magical world of Shakespeare.  It was pure bliss.

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