Love Is My Sin, A Guest Post by Carl Atkins

Dr. Carl Atkins is the author of Shakespeare’s Sonnets: With Three Hundred Years of Commentary as well as a prolific commenter here at ShakespeareGeek, both while holding down a day job as a medical doctor. He sent me this review over the Easter weekend, with permission to publish. So I went to see Peter Brook’s production, “Love Is My Sin” at the Duke Theater in Manhattan earlier this week and, all in all, it was an enjoyable hour of performance. He selected 31 sonnets to be read by Natasha Parry and Michael Pennington. Both actors read The Sonnets well, but Michael Pennington blew Natasha Parry out of the water. He was fantastic! Whereas Parry often made feeble attempts to show emotion by varying pauses, her almost constant monotone defeated her purpose (she also went up on her lines once). Pennington showed how an actor can use vocal modulation to great effect and injected an enormous range of feeling into the sonnets he read. His readings were fluid and sensitive. Wow.
Brook scored fewer points with me. He took the sonnets he chose out of order and arranged them in groupings under the titles “Devouring Time,” “Separation,” “Jealousy,” and “Time Defeated.” He effectively manipulated The Sonnets to make them tell a story of his own invention. This was most apparent in the “Jealousy” series where he had the actors bantering back and forth as if each sonnet were answering the other, even though there were “young man” and “dark lady” sonnets interspersed with one another and, read in context, the speaker of The Sonnets, does not change. As presented, the “Jealousy” series was done well and was fun to watch (Parry came alive in this set). The other series were more tepid, and not as interesting as the “back story” that runs through The Sonnets as you read them in the order they are printed. I have no problem using The Sonnets for their dramatic content in original ways, but one ought to be honest about what one is doing. In the playbill, Brook writes: “This astonishing collection allows us to penetrate into Shakespeare’s own, most secret life. It is his private diary, in which we find his intimate questions, his jealousy, his passion, his guilt, his despair. Above all he searches to discover for himself the deep meaning of being attracted by a man or by a woman, even by the act of writing itself.” Apparently, Brook never got past Wordsworth in his reading on The Sonnets. His now hackneyed cry “With this key, Shakespeare unlocked his heart!” is almost 200 years old, was always controversial, and is certainly not mainstream now. But by taking liberties with his presentation of The Sonnets, Brook is certainly not presenting his audiences with anything that could be considered authentic.
As far as the choice of sonnets is concerned, Brook’s picks are pretty good. I was bothered, however, by his breaking up of double and triple sonnets (I suspect he did not recognize them). He presents the first half of 15/16, 73/74, 50/51, 44/45,  and 27/28; the second half of 89/90; and of the triple 91-93, only 92-93 in reverse order. Only 5/6 and 133/134 are spared! This shows a fairly poor reading of the poetry.
I was pleased by the inclusion of two of the most powerful sonnets, not usually thought of as “love poems”: 129 (Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame) and 146 (Poor soul, the center of sinful earth). Also, Pennington (with a little help from Parry–a nice touch) did an excellent reading of 145, a sonnet that is often derided as unworthy of Shakespeare.
In summary, I had an hour of fun listening to sonnets well read. Pennington was a joy to listen to. The production was interesting enough, if not taken too seriously. No ground broken here, just entertainment.

Love Is My Sin Tickets and Showtimes

  • Opening Date: April 1, 2010
  • Closing Date: April 17, 2010
  • Ticket Price: $75
  • Ticket Information: Box Office: 646-223-3010,

7 thoughts on “Love Is My Sin, A Guest Post by Carl Atkins

  1. I saw this here in Sarasota in October when it first came to the US. Michael Pennington, who is much more well know for other things but crossed my radar for his performance of Posthumous in the BBC Cymbeline, was excellent and to my mind made the performance what it was.

    I agree with Dr. Atkins at every point of his review. And while I enjoyed the performance (particularly seeing a Shakespearean actor I adore), I came away mostly feeling that there was an untapped potential demonstrated in Brook's realization of this concept.

    Actually, I am at the moment, in my acting class, rehearsing sonnets as an introduction to performing Shakespeare. And the thing I think I have realized most is that the more clear the context is that you give the sonnet you are preforming, the more easily understandable the sonnet really is. Brooks' bare stage leaves his sonnet arrangement without a clear context within which to place the performance.

    Thank you Geek for sharing.

  2. Michael Pennington, Currently starring with Natasha Parry in the Acclaimed
    the sonnets of William Shakespeare conceived and directed by Peter Brook,
    To Give One Free Performance of his One-Man Show
    A Vivid Exploration of the Life of William Shakespeare Written by & Starring Mr. Pennington
    Sunday, April 11, at 5:00pm

    NEW YORK – Michael Pennington, currently starring with Natasha Parry in the acclaimed C.I.C.T. / Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord production of Love Is My Sin, the sonnets of William Shakespeare conceived and directed by Peter Brook, is offering a free, single performance of his one-man show, Sweet William, a vivid exploration of the life of William Shakespeare written by and starring Mr. Pennington, Sunday, April 11, at 5:00pm at The Duke on 42nd StreetSM, a New 42nd Street® project, 229 West 42nd Street.

    In Sweet William, Mr. Pennington intersperses Shakespeare's speeches from the plays and sonnets with facts and speculations about Shakespeare's life and anecdotes from his own, including a view of the plays from the actor’s perspective.

    Mr. Pennington has performed Sweet William all over the Europe and the United States since 2006. For more background on Sweet William, visit Mr. Pennington's own web site at

    Love Is My Sin, in which two lovers trace a magnificent, life-embracing arc of jealousy, guilt, adoration and anguish in Shakespeare's sonnets, runs through April 17 at The Duke on 42nd StreetSM, a New 42nd Street® project, 229 West 42nd Street.

    Sweet William is free but seating is very limited and is first come, first served. It follows a performance of Love Is My Sin, for which tickets are $75.

  3. Good point, Monica, about context. I also thought costuming the pair all in black was a bit dreary. I like the idea of using The Sonnets as an introduction to acting. Helen Vendler often refers to them as "speech acts." They are sometimes like extracts of scenes from a play we don't have the full script of.

  4. I agree with Dr. Carl. Sonnets are great acting tools. Apart from snippets of two-four lines from the plays, to point up scansion and textual acting clues found in an exploration of a long list headed by alliteration, assonance, punctuation, etc., sonnets were the first utterances of Shakespeare we were allowed to tackle at the Academy at Riverside. John Barton describes them as "little soliloquies" and "little self-contained scenes." "They are compact and complete in themselves and they can be treated as situations for which the only evidence is the sonnet itself."

    This allows the actor to apply the "context" of what *they read* in the sonnet, without the pressure of trying to apply what might be happening in a whole play and attempting to characterize it in a much longer speech. Like soliloquies, sonnets also have a "beginning, middle, and end"–without SO much heavy lifting to begin with.

  5. This is great stuff! I always imagine someone acting out The Sonnets as I read them (actually, usually Shakespeare, but it doesn't matter). I love the idea of freeing up the actor. It would also allow one to show how the same words can take on entirely different meaning and be acted completely differently when the context is changed. Most people view sonnets differently in isolation compared with reading them in the context of the whole series. And then differently, too, when compared in the context of other sonnet series.
    It reminds me of the movie where we see an actress practicing her lines for an audition with her boyfriend. Then she goes to the audition and the auditioner feeds her the lines in a completely different context and the entire scene is altered and the meaning of the words are changed. What was that movie?

  6. Maybe I knew more than I thought I did when I wrote of Sonnet 12:

    I think I like this one because, while reading it, I can visualize an entire scene – some annoying prince who refuses to get married and have kids, and an adviser whispering in his ear, playing to all the prince’s own weaknesses and conceits. He doesn’t say “Everybody gets old”, he paints a picture of how ugly things get when they get old. They he transitions into “You know, you’re beautiful now, but….” only briefly, just planting the idea, before quickly (I can even imagine him snapping his fingers like, “Aha!”) moving on to “Hey, I just had an idea!” (like he just thought of it, yeah right) “You want to know how you can have the last laugh? What if you had a kid? Then when your time does eventually come, you’ll know that the world can still benefit from your beauty.” And then the prince, who has been staring out the window the whole time, smiles and nods like “Yes, yes, that is a good plan, I will have the last laugh.”

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