This weekend, the campus experienced phase-denouement of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s visit to Ann Arbor. I had a chance to see both “Coriolanus” and “Midnight’s Children,” “Midnight’s Children” on opening night – not just opening night, but the American premiere. Maybe the “play left the kindest English critics cold,” (according to Caryn James’ March 9 New York Times article “After the Fatwa, Playwriting and Partygoing”), but the chill in the Power Center on opening night was certainly provoked by awe, not disappointment.
The visit of the RSC has marked the second time this year that the pulse of this community has risen considerably from the presence of great theater. In October, the Abbey Theater of Ireland brought Euripides’ “The Medea,” also to the Power Center. Last semester I took a class in which we devoted nearly 10 weeks to a careful reading of “The Medea,” a class that, for me, hinged on seeing the performance. There aren’t many things that are 2,500 years old and still in style; director Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw (the brilliant actress in the title role) proved that “The Medea” is one of them.
But before last October, I had never really experienced the effects that a play can have beyond the time of the performance and the setting of the stage. I was a freshman when, in 2001, the RSC came to Michigan for the first third of its residency; apparently I was still too out of it to be in on the excitement. This year, luckily, I paid attention – if only because the collective anticipation of a big chunk of this community was too tangible to ignore.
This semester, along with a few hundred other people, I’m taking English 483, “The Plays of the Royal Shakespeare Company Residency.” I knew some people who had taken the analogous course two years ago. What I didn’t know, however, was that this Ralph Williams-cum-RSC guest speakers half-class half-circus was only the beginning; in the English department alone, 10 courses have some sort of intellectual buy-in to the visit of the RSC. Four cover Salman Rushdie, seven cover Shakespeare, 483 does both.
Amidst the academic overdrive surrounding this residency, the general sentiment seems to be that “Midnight’s Children “has come out tops of the three-play program. It’s given the South Asian Student Taskforce and the Center for South Asian Studies a well-deserved place in the intellectual and cultural spotlight.
Between the University of Michigan and Columbia University, $2 million was raised to commission the $3 million production. To complement the residency, the University offered a number of educational events, from lectures to book clubs to special exhibits.
It was the professors holding these book groups and the academics lecturing to the community at large who, along with the play performances, made the intellectual consumer-end of this residency so wonderful.
In the upper echelon of event administration, however, the story was different and not so community-friendly. Through the University Musical Society, Rushdie gave an interview to The Detroit Free Press. No Ann Arbor or campus publication was granted exclusive access to Rushdie. It’s problematic when the best place to read about a University event is in The New York Times and not the newspapers dedicated specifically to serving the Ann Arbor/University community.
And while the University offered many events, it apparently also offered plenty of alcohol to the guests of the special receptions. A few nights ago, “Midnight’s Children” “groupies” were seen throwing up in the halls of the Campus Inn after they’d had a lot too much to drink at University-sponsored receptions. The evening appearances of Rushdie were limited to two donor dinners; a friend of mine was the only student invited to the dinner receptions at the Alumni Center. During the opening night “public” reception at Zanzibar, the second level was restricted to the cast and Rushdie – the public wasn’t allowed. And it seems that the easiest way to talk to him was to be an attractive young girl wearing more makeup than clothing.
I’ve talked to a few people who, understandably, have come out of the RSC-University politicking experience disappointed. But taken as a whole, the aftertaste of the RSC residency should give this campus a collective second wind. The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the affirmative action case in a few weeks; at any given time on this campus it’s possible to hear arguments about the Middle East. The production of the three plays has allowed this university to take a break and let the professionals be the ones to raise their voices – on stage and getting paid for it.
Hanink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.