Much has changed in 418 years. After all, 1599 marks a year when perhaps the most potent writer of English-language theater wrote four of his masterful works. William Shakespeare penned Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and the first draft of the iconic Hamlet.
“When an audience and the theater community responds so strongly to a work like they did to 1599, it seems unfair to put it on the proverbial theater shelf,” said Jim Niesen, the Artistic Director of The Irondale Ensemble, a company which has dug deep into both classical and contemporary texts for 34 years.
Irondale’s gem of a space is located in Fort Greene, Brooklyn — a hot bed of artistic exploration for this research-based theater company as well as other neighbors including Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Mark Morris Dance Group.
You have just a few more days to head over to their home at 85 South Oxford Street (at Lafayette Avenue) to see their bold 1599 Project, which takes Shakespeare’s four aforementioned plays and weaves them into a four-hour “mega-text,” as Irondale calls it.
Niesen, who directed the play, told Brooklyn Pulp that he was inspired by James Shapiro’s 2005 book, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, in which the author explores the year and how it contributed to the playwright’s explosion of creativity.
Irondale first produced the play in early 2016 and has chosen to revisit the work this January and February. While the production offers an epic 4-hour production of this tetralogy — edited versions which flow into each other — the ensemble is made up of a mere 7 actors. But for Niesen, the small company is able to reveal the journey of each play’s protagonist, allowing for a focus on “one uber-character transformed from play to play.”
And how do these plays translate to our 2017 audience? The director believes this is a pivotal question when exploring Shakespeare or any other playwright’s work.
“Shapiro has the notion that Shakespeare was writing about his today,” Niesen says. “Thomas Ostermeier [a German theater director] says ‘if you can’t figure out a way to make the play about today, you shouldn’t do it’.”
The political and social environment is significantly different in the United States since last year’s production. “The filter by which we are viewing these has changed,” he says.
Niesen’s explanation of the play’s journey is both clear and nimble. “You begin with a young, idealistic Henry V – similar to Barack Obama in the way he wanted to bring this country together,” he says. “In Julius Caesar, Brutus espouses the same idealism, but he is a bit more world-weary, and makes mistakes. When Rosalind is banished by her uncle and father [in As You like It] and goes to the forest — it’s such an ideal place to be. She recharges herself. And then in Hamlet…there is a Trumpian dystopia and he is destroyed by it.”
It’s not particularly surprising Neisen speaks with such eloquence. “We spent 6 years pulling this apart,” he explains.
And yet, the company is managing to revisit work and reinvent itself at the same time. Niesen believes change is vital for the company to continue.
“When we traveled to see Ariane Mnouchkine’s work [co-founder of the theater company Le Théâtre du Soleil], we were lucky to have her talk to us about ensemble,” he says. “We asked her what’s the most important thing to tell us. She said, ‘an ensemble needs to reinvent themselves every 7 years or it will die’.”
For Niesen, the audiences have also been very satisfying. “We had the youngest audiences and most ethnically diverse audiences for any production we have done.”
And he continues to find Brooklyn to be stimulating. Niesen has been a resident of the borough since 1979, and lives on nearby Pacific Street.
While he believes The 1599 Project has been some of the most demanding work for Irondale, that experience has invigorated the company.
“We want to do productions that are more challenging, that scare us, and see where that takes us.”
The 1599 Project
Where: Irondale Ensemble, 85 South Oxford Street (at Lafayette Avenue)
When: Through February 4. Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday performances begin at 7pm, and Saturday performances at 5pm
Ticket Information: General Admission tickets are $40. A $50 ticket will include a picnic dinner from a local caterer. Purchase tickets here.