Henry Clay Folger (amongst his claims to fame, he was the nephew of the founder of Folgers Coffee) was born in New York City, in 1857, and he made his career there as president and chairman of Standard Oil of New York. On the side, he and his wife, Emily, became avid collectors of Shakespeareana – to such an extent that his alma mater, Amherst College, gave them both honorary doctorates. Together, they amassed the world’s biggest collection of Shakespeare materials. In 1928, Folger resigned from his business life to devote himself to establishing the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill in Washington. Sadly, he died from a heart condition before it was completed, but Emily continued to oversee the project, and the library opened on the day we traditionally celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23, in 1932.
The Folger Shakespeare Library includes a small theatre that was designed in Elizabethan style, with wood panelling and tiered balconies. It is a marvelous space to hear Shakespeare, and since 1992, The Folger Theatre, led by Artistic Producer Janet Alexander Griffin, has presented a three-play season each year that centers around Shakespeare, the classics, and plays related to Shakespeare.
My introduction to the Folger Theatre was in 2006 when Richard Clifford (who has a long association with the Folger – he directed their current production of Mary Stuart), his partner, Sir Derek Jacobi (I, Claudius, Cadfael, Henry V), and their dear friend, Lynn Redgrave (from that family), joined the Folger Consort for Purcell’s Fairy Queen, with staged readings from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was beyond magical, and I have never been disappointed by a production there since.
The Fairy Queen was such a draw that, for the next musical collaboration, the Folger Consort moved the presentation to the Music Center at Strathmore for The Tempest in 2010. In the interim, Lynn Redgrave had lost her fight with cancer, and Jacobi and Clifford were joined by long time Folger actor, Holly Twyford (Elizabeth I in the current Mary Stuart). Now, this Friday evening, Derek Jacobi, Richard Clifford and the Folger Consort will be joined by Samantha Bond (who plays Lady Rosamund in Downton Abbey), London’s Gabrieli Consort, and others for a presentation of The Merchant of Venice: Music and Poetry of Shakespeare’s Play before giving two performances the first weekend of March in London’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe.
The merchant of the title is Antonio, but it is surely the Jewish moneylender, Shylock (“Hath not a Jew eyes?”) and Portia (“The quality of mercy is not strained”) who carry the play. It is a troublesome work, with its antisemitic slant, and it will be fascinating to see how this superbly gifted group will come to grips with its complexities.
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
FEBRUARY 27, 2015 – 8:00PM
The Music Center at Strathmore
Tags:Folger Theatre, Shakespeare