“O, for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.”

Henry V, Act 1, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

As I said in yesterday’s post, I’ve very fortunately been able to see loads of plays recently, so I thought I’d write about them all in one update, so you don’t have to keep checking back 😉 I’m too kind to you, I know! So this post is about some musicals (‘Kiss Me Kate’ at the Old Vic Theatre and the much-praised film of ‘Les Miserables’), some Shakespeare (‘Twelfth Night’ at the Apollo Theatre) and a straight play (‘The Dark Earth and the Light Sky’ at the Almeida Theatre), all of which turned out to be very different to my expectations – don’t worry, mostly in a positive way  🙂

So, let’s start with Les Miz, the recent film directed by Tom Hooper, starring so many celebs it’s basically pointless me listing them all – Google it 😉 Now, I’m going to admit I Imagedidn’t go into this with a particularly open mind – Les Miserables is my favourite musical of. all. time. I’ve seen the stage show twice and have listened to the CD (cast recording of the original 1985 London prduction, naturally) so many times I know all the songs backwards, frontwards and inside-out. To say I was sceptical about the film, therefore, is an understatement. In my opinion, the soundtrack is the best in any musical, and I was ridiculously worried about a load of actors butchering it in their mission to give ‘real’ emotion.

However, saying all of that, I was pleasantly surprised by the film, particularly Eddie Redmayne’s rendition of ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ which was incredibly emotional and very well sung, and the finale, which was also very stirring. The cast were actually much better than I expected, especially Anne Hathaway. Hugh Jackman, as the protagonist Jean Valjean, was excellent, barring one of the hardest songs to sing and, unfortunately, one of the most emotional songs in the musical, ‘Bring Him Home‘. I felt he just didn’t perform the song vocally in the best possible way. Nevertheless, the rest of his singing was pretty good. Disappointingly, Russell Crowe as one of my absolute favourite characters, Javert, was just awful; yeah, his voice is fine, but he gave absolutely no range of emotion. It was simply all in the same solemn quiet dynamic for the entirety of Javert’s moral conflict and his complex relationship with Valjean, which is key to the plot. Perhaps I wouldn’t be so annoyed if I didn’t love Javert’s songs so much: ‘Stars‘, ‘Confrontation’and his part in ‘One Day More’ – they’re all amazing and Roger Allam sang them all so well in the original production that I felt seriously let down by Crowe’s lacklustre peformance and his failure to show any emotion at aImagell.

My ony other real criticism was of Helena Bonham Carter as Mme. Thenardier – the Thenardiers are supposed to be the comic turn of the otherwise entirely tragic tale, and yet Bonham Carter just didn’t seem totally dedicated to the singing part of the role. She was completely overshadowed by Sacha Baron Cohen, (who was surprisingly good as her husband, the corrupt innkeeper), and didn’t take advantage of all the opportunities for comedy there were in that role, slurring her words whilst singing which meant at times it was a struggle to hear exactly what she was muttering about.

Saying this, overall it was  good film, even though big numbers like ‘One Day More’ simply work better live on stage. Jackman, Redmayne, Hathaway, Samatha Barks, Amanda Seyfried and all the revolutionaries, including Aaron Tviet were pretty damn good both singing and acting, but I stand by my view that the stage production is just more exciting and stirring. Still, a film worth watching – just listen to the original soundtrack first 😉

Moving onto a much cheerier musical, the one I posted about yesterday: ‘Kiss Me Kate’ directed by ImageTrevor Nunn and starring Hannah Waddingham and Alex Bourne. Now, this is much more frivolous and fun than Les Miz; the singing and dancing is infectious, especially in massive tap and jazz numbers like ‘Too Darn Hot’and ‘Another Op’nin Another Show’. Both of the protagonists were very strong singers, and songs like ‘I Hate Men’ produced a lot of laughter among the audience. Sections were a little slow, and although the numbers were great fun, they weren’t particularly memorable afterwards. However, a truly fun night out, and worth seeing – especially since it’s a musical of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ – WOO SHAKESPEARE 😀

 

Speaking of Shakespeare…. after looking forward to it for aaaaggggess, I finally got to see the all-male ‘Twelfth Night’ starring Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry on Thursday – YAY 🙂 Although I think the production would have worked even better at the Globe, Image(they kept the audience lights on, but it didn’t quite have the same effect as being outside in the groundling pit), since it took a little while for the audience to warm up, it was still brilliant, particularly Rylance, who managed to be completely credible, yet hilarious as Olivia. His stuttering and flounderings, which he is well-known for, made the lines more realistic – actually, all the men-dressed-as-women, including Paul Chahidi as Maria and Johnny Flynn as Viola/Cesario, were crazily believable, and the way they glided across the stage was amazing. I got super excited by the fact that Sebastian was played by Samuel Barnett, who originated the role of Posner in ‘The History Boys’ – erghmygoddd, because Jamie Parker played Henry V at the Globe this summer too, and he was in the History Boys as well and  it’s just too toooo exciting!!! Just me? Yeah, thought so 😉

As Malvolio, I felt Fry was good, but not aything special. Whereas during the productiImageon that the Red Rose Chain did a couple of years ago, Malvolio’s sections were the bits most eagerly looked forward to by the audience, in this version he was not the starring role. Nevertheless, there was no weak link among the cast, and the comedic scenes between Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek were superbly done, although, actually Maria was surpsingly one of the funniest characters. Basically, a great production.

Last on the list is ‘The Dark Earth and the Light Sky’, a play written by Nick Dear about Edward Thomas, the famous British poet, and his relationships with his wife, their friend Eleanor Farjeon and with the American poet Robert Frost, with whom Thomas spent many hours talking about writing and poetry and walking in the English countrysideImage. The play is intense, and there are constant leaps in time back and forth, as well as direct adresses to the audience, which make the play quite different from many of the things I’ve seen. Hattie Morahan is excellent as Helen, Thomas’ wife, who is in turns both sympathetic and annoying, and Pip Collins is briliant as the aloof, introverted, selfish protagonist. An understated, yet powerful play.

So, there you go. Four productions, four great nights out 🙂 Thanks for reading, and if you’ve seen any of the things I’ve written about, or anything new, please comment with recommendations and opinions. Have fun in the snow!

“How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in’t!”

The Tempest, Act 5, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

So I’ve decided I need to blog about all those ‘Shakespeare Uncovered’ episodes I’ve watched, made notes about etc, because otherwise they’ll just keep stacking up, and won’t be relevant anymore!

First up, Derek Jacobi on ‘Richard II’ : I think I’ve referred to this previously in my ‘Hollow Crown’ blog, but here it is in much more detail 🙂 One thing I thought was especially interesting relates to the original Richard II, who was the first ever King to demand to be called ‘majesty’. His love for the various trappings of majesty is shown by the Wilton Dyptich (right), which he had commissioned, and which shows him being presented to the Virgin Mary, Jesus and a host of angels, surrounded by saints. Yeah…not big-headed at all?! 😉

Another thing Jacobi mentioned which was particularly interesting was how ‘Richard II’ is hugely relevant, not just for far off dictatorships, but it can also be linked to Margaret Thatcher’s situation in the 1980s – 90s; Hesseltein, a member of her own party (i.e. Bolingbroke) went against Thatcher (i.e. Richard) for the leadership of the Tory party. Thatcher called this: “Treachery with a smile on it’s face” and felt “Stabbed in the front”. It just goes to show how you can translate Shakespeare across many different time zones; at least one of the plays is always relevant.

Moving on to the actual character of Richard; self-indulgent, absurd in his too easy glorifying and lamenting, he is also, at the same time, a poignant character. A useful quote for my EPQ from Professor Stephen Greenblatt: “What we feel is obviously heightened by the brilliance of the play’s stunning poetry. Indisputably it’s the work of a literary genius”. It seems from this quote that Greenblatt would define a ‘literary genius’ as someone with incredible linguistic skills, perhaps, rather than by looking at the characters they create i.e. the linguistic skill, and not the characters are what makes Shakespeare unique and a genius.

I’m going to move onto Jeremy Irons on the ‘Henry’ plays now, that is, ‘Henry IV Parts 1 and 2’ and ‘Henry V’ , although there is a lot more to say on ‘Richard II; I just don’t have the space here, and I feel the main story, of how it was watched by the Earl of Essex’s soldiers before they tried to depose Queen Elizabeth I, is pretty well known by now and so you don’t need me to reiterate all the details. Obviously I was especially interested in this episode anyway, since I’m focusing on Henry V for my EPQ, but it was really informative. I’m ashamed to say the rest of ‘The Hollow Crown series, bar ‘Richard II’ are still on my tv planner, but hopefully I’ll be able to watch them in the next couple of weeks. Henry IV Part 1 was praised for having comdey, tragedy, family feuds, bravery, dishonesty… there’s almost nothing in Shakespeare’s other plays that doesn’t leave a trace in it. Plus, the point that you don’t have to know very much about English history to care about what is going on, was reiterated by many of the scholars during the show. This is because the plays emphasise the ‘family’ element, rather than the ‘royal’ side; Professor Jonathan Bate: “At the centre of the play is a story about a father and a son A son who seems not to live up to the expectations of his father.”

The great character who shines out from these plays is not, surprisingly, Henry IV (portrayed by Jeremy Irons above), but Sir John Falstaff, or Jack as he is known in the alehouse in Cheapside. The academics interviewed, and Irons himself, agreed that much of what is extraordinary about the play depends on the character of Flastaff; Jonathan Bate again: “We love anti-heroes, rogues, people on the margins, people who break the rules…” The fatc that Falstaff is defined as fat and larger than life was debated by many as to the meaning of this. Of course, it has negative connotations such as laziness, gluttony, yet it also represents living life to the full and enjoying oneself. There is no exemplary character throughout the two parts of ‘Henry IV’; everything is ambiguous, as is common in Shakespeare’s works.

‘Henry V’ is unsual in that it is one of Shakespeare’s only histories that has no obvious and powerful single antagonist to the titular character: Richard II has Bolingbroke, Henry IV has Falstaff, Henry VI has Jack Cade, etc… It can be seen as a lesson in how to be a good king; Henry(portrayed by Tom Hiddleston, right) learns as he goes along how to rule his subjects and make them respect and love him enough to give up their lives for him…though, saying this, does he ever completely succeed? Even his “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” speech is mocked by Pistol in the next scene. An interesting point noted is that when it comes to the highs and lows of emotions, Shakespeare offers us no more than the text. There are no lengthy stage directions. Directors, actors and scholars have to decide for themselves what kind of King Shakespeare meant Henry to be. The ‘threat’ speech at Harfleur is entirely Shakespeare’s invention; there is nothing on it at all in ‘Holinshead’ (the major source for all Shakespeare’s English histories)…I find this the most intriguing, since this is one of the main factors used by some to accuse Henry of being a war criminal. Another pretty incredible fatc is that the entire ‘St. Crispin’s Day’ speech, which is amazing, whether you like Henry or not, is inspired by just a few lines in Holinshead. It appeals to basic, old-fashioned courage, and this is partly why it is so successful, even thought nowadays many are cynical about the power of rhetoric. But then, Shakespeare being Shakespeare, nothing is simple!

Next up, Trevor Nunn on ‘The Tempest’. Now, if I’m honest, I didn’t enjoy this episode as much as the others;although it was beautifully filmed and there were some great clips in there, I felt it didn’t provide as much original information as the others in the ‘Shakespeare Uncovered’ series. Nunn did emphasise that it is a very “experimental” play, and is seen by many as one of the most autobiographical; both Shakespeare and Prospero were 50 at this time. Every one of the presenters in the ‘Shakespeare Uncovered’ series is always determined to show how the plays are still relevant, and in this case, Nunn breaks it down to:

“At its core ‘The Tempest’ is a story about one man and the choice he must make…This play will ask huge questions. How do we become the people we are? What does it mean to be human? And what happens for the first time when we fall in love? Although the play tackles all of these issues, the central theme is the relationship between a father and his daughter, alone together for twelve years.”

This relationship is debated at great length throughout the episode. According to Andrew Dickson it is “one of the great interests and puzzles of the play”. If I’m honest, I found some of the sexual implications that some of the academics/scholars hinted at between them a little odd. Obviously, as an English student, I can’t say that they’re wrong, but I don’t agree. However, not knowing ‘The Tempest’ in a as much detail as these people, I guess I can’t completely disregard it.

One thing that is particularly unique to only a few of Shakespeare’s plays, like ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ , is that the story is original; there was no pre-existing story for Shakespeare to base the play on, like with ‘Romeo and Juliet’, although he may have been influenced by a real event; the shipwreck of ‘The Sea Venture’ in 1609. Although many connect ‘The Tempest’ with the magical, beautiful island it’s set on, the island is not much described in the play; the audience can make it as beautiful and magical as they wish. I suppose (relating to my EPQ), this goes against the argument for language – it is actually suggesting that the lack of language has a significant effect on the audience. The main message of this episode was summed up by Nunn at the end: “More than any of his other plays, it leads us to the essence of the man who wrote them.”

And finally…Ethan Hawke on ‘Macbeth’. I loved this episode, perhaps because it was the first I watched, but also because there was loads of unusual information in there, especially a section on ‘Sleep No More’, a new New York production of ‘Macbeth’ involving just dance and mime (see right). Hawke’s opinion of this was: “We usually think of words connected with Shakespeare. However, certain things expressed non-verbally are stifled with too much language. Physicality is inate, something we can all relate to.” Saying this, it was also pointed out that at the 10th anniversay of 9/11, Shakespeare’s words were used to connect with everyone – another good point for my EPQ; Shakespeare’s language gives people a way of expressing their feelings succintly and truly.

Wow! That was longer than I thought it would be! I hope you found at least one thing you thought was interesting, and don’t worry, I’ll be doing more reviews of non-Shakespeare things soon, as well as all the Shakespeare related things I mentioned last time 🙂 Thanks for reading!

“Whereof what’s past is prologue…”

The Tempest, Act 2, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

Hi again, everyone 🙂 Another non-Shakespeare focused blog, but for those of you who are Bard-nerds like me, I’ll be blogging about the National Theatre production of ‘Timon of Athens’ pretty soon, plus some great books by Ben Crystal, James Shapiro, Frank Kermode and Jonathan Bate.

But for now, it’s onto an author I’m currently studying at school as part of my English A-Level coursework: Evelyn Waugh. At the moment, I’m studying ‘Brideshead Revisited’ but, in an effort to see if the ‘gluttony’ of that book which he condemned in its preface is so very different from his usual style, I also just finished ‘Scoop’, a satire on journalists and newspapers.

I’ll start with ‘Brideshead Revisited’, probably Waugh’s most famous book. It was made into a hugely successful, and hugely faithful tv adaptation by the BBC in 1981, starring Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons, and, more recently, a less faithful film version in 2008, starring Ben Wishaw and Matthew Goode. I’ve only seen the movie, so I’m afraid I can’t compare them, but, much as I love Ben Wishaw (see my ‘Richard II – The Hollow Crown’ post), they changed much too much for my liking. But I’ll talk more about that later, after I’ve written about the actual book.

Personally, I think the plot is too long for me to put it all here, and lots of bits are too important to miss out, so here’s a summary link for those of you who haven’t read it: http://www.shmoop.com/brideshead-revisited/summary.html. Or, of course, you could just read the book! I promise you it’s worth it.

The central characters of the novel are Charles Ryder, Lord Sebastian Flyte and Lady Julia Flyte. Charles and Sebastian have a particularly enigmatic relationship that has provoked a lot of critical interpretation. Put brutally, the question is: are they gay or not? They do have extraordinarily close relationship, yet, as Clara, (Sebastian’s father’s mistress – yep, it’s complicated), points out: “I know of these romantic friendships of the Germans and the British”. Romantic doesn’t necessarily mean sexual, and so this comment can be taken both ways; Charles is indisputably in love with Sebastian and his unique charm, his hedonistic lifestyle, but it is never clear whether their relationship develops into anything more physical, especially since they seem to dislike Antony Blanche (one of my favourite characters – he’s very witty, and much more observant than the rest of them) who is clearly homosexual. So basically, a complex relationship!

My favourite element about the book was not the characters; it was the ‘rhetorical and ornamental language’ that Waugh apologises for. Just…wow. How can you not like:

“In [Oxford’s] spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman’s day; her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days…when the chesnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas,  exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth.”

It’s just gorgeous; sublime. That’s why the first book in the novel: ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’, is my favourite, because it’s where the full beauty of the language really comes into force. However, saying this, it isn’t my favourite book I’ve ever read; for me, Charles is just a little too pessimistic for my liking, and I wish Sebastian, Anthony Blanche and another of my favourites, Sebastian’s youngest sister, Cordelia were in the novel a lot more. Nevertheless, I would say this is one of those books you absolutely have to read, at least once in your life; if only purely for the descriptions.

Moving on to the film, I’m not going to lie, I thought it was a bit rubbish. They cut both Anthony Blanche and Cordelia to tiny parts, made the homosexual attraction between Sebastian and Charles a lot more explicit (which, admittedly, isn’t that bad in itself, but…), they made Julia and Charles’ relationship start in Venice, at least 5 years before it’s supposed to, meaning that it seemed as though Charles’ betrayal was the reason for Sebastian becoming an alcoholic, which made the stifling repression of his family and his disturbed, overly childish mind seem less important. However, I am one of those people who hate any changes being made at all in film adaptations, so I should probably watch the tv serial version instead!

‘Scoop’ is a lot less well known than ‘Brideshead Revisited’, and it has a very different tone. Although there are some very descriptive passages, they aren’t anything like the idyllic pastoral imagery of Brideshead. However, my favourite thing about ‘Scoop’ was its extremely sarcastic and ironic tone about the world of journalism:

“Why, once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in his carriage, woke up at the wrong station, didn’t know any different, got out, went straight to a hotel, and cabled off a thousand-word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine-guns…

‘Well, they were pretty surprised at his office, getting a story like that from the wrong country, but they trusted Jakes and splashed it in six national newspapers. That day every special in Europe gor orders to rush to the new revolution…Everything seemed quiet enough, but it was as much as their jobs were worth to say so, with Jakes filing a thousand words of blodd and thunder a day. So they chimed in too. Government stocks dropped, financial panic, state of emergency declared, army mobilised, famine, mutiny and in less than a week there was an honest to God revolution under way, just as Jakes had said. There’s the power of the press for you…”

I know that was long, but I hope that puts my point across. Then again, some of my family work in journalism, so perhaps I find this more funny than other people? Brideshead probably has more universal themes than ‘Scoop’, but I found the latter much more witty. The basic plot of ‘Scoop’ is also a lot more easier to understand than Brideshead, but because everyone in the journalism world is so confused, you yourself become more and more confused as different characters flit across the pages, some with very similar names, some with very similar personalities… You definitely have to keep your wits about you to properly understand everything that’s going on. However, this means that you have a lot of sympathy with the protagonist, William Boot, than you do for Charles Ryder.

Basically, two excellent books, but in very different styles. If you like sarcasm, irony, maybe tv programmes like ‘The Thick of It’ or ‘The Office’ , you’ll probably like ‘Scoop’. But if you’re a massive fan of costume dramas, like ‘Downton Abbey’, ‘Parade’s End’, etc. then ‘Brideshead Revisited’ is the one for you 🙂

Thanks again for reading, and I’ll write more soon!

“O, how this spring of love resembleth the uncertain glory of an April day”

The Two Gentlemen of Verona’, Act 1, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

Thank you so much for all the likes, comments and follows I got after my last post! I know I probably didn’t get that many compared with the really popular blogs, but they really made me feel special 🙂

Ok, I would say love-fest over, but this post is going to be about the new movie of ‘Anna Karenina’ starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and that’s all about love and passion! Before I say anything, I have to admit to having never read the book (by Leo Tolstoy in case you don’t know)and so I can’t put any comparisons in this, although I did get some opinions from various people who have seen/read both. Of course, there have been movies before of ‘Anna Karenina’, one of the most famous starring Vivien Leigh.

However, the most unusual thing about the most recent version, directed by Joe Wright, is that it’s set in a theatre and this feature was probably my favourite about the film; the actors almost dance their way through the sets and the stark contrast between the different classes within Tsarist Russia is made very clear. The upper class dance and chat politely on the stage, surrounded by elaborately crafted sets and jewels and wearing fabulously huge ballgowns, whilst the poor watch from above, where the bare boards and loose ropes emphasise how little they have. The fact that all of the society action takes place on the stage also highlights the fact that everyone is playing a part and trying to act how they would want to be seen. The importance of the lower class’ role in society and the disinterest of the upper classes in them is shown by the same people ‘acting’ the parts of both the waiters and the secretaries, moving from one scene to the other, bringing on the props and scenery, wearing basically the same clothes as in the previous scene.

The way that the private scenes between the lovers and those set in the country, among the peasants, were set outside the theatre in the woods or fields, really emphasised the claustrophobia of society and the feeling of liberation and escape felt by Anna when she is with Count Vronsky. What’s amazing is that this use of the theatre wasn’t even planned; the directors and producers simply didn’t have enough money to make the Imperial Russian epic they wanted and to film the scenes in Russia.

Moving on to the characters and actors, I thought Keira Knightley was very good. She does, of course, have exactly the right face for that kind of role, but she wasn’t just pouty or moody like many of the media portray her as. She gave the full range of emotions, although I have to admit, I thought Anna was disgustingly selfish at the end when she killed herself – all I could think of were her children and how she just left them, as well as Count Vronsky. I understand that she was overwhelmed by the claustrophobia and restrictions of the upper class, but if I were her, I would have gone away to the country, away from everyone else, and made new friends there. But then again, maybe I’m looking at it with too much hindsight. Plus, I wouldn’t have got into that situation anyway – I wouldn’t have had the guts to give everything up for love! I guess I have my feet too firmly on the ground?

One character I thought was played brilliantly was Alexei Karenin, by Jude Law. Again, I don’t know if this is how it is in the book, but I loved the fact that he wasn’t a horrible, dictatorial husband; in fact, he was the perfect husband, just not for someone as passionate as Anna. Apparently in some of the past versions, he has been made much more nasty, yet in this film, his character was very understandable, and that made Anna’s actiosn reflect worse upon her. One scene I thought was incredibly touching was his last in the film; he and the two children were sitting in a field, surrounded by flowers and nothing else. You finally felt he had escaped society’s restrictions and rules, yet as the camera drew back, you realised the field was an extension of the stage of the theatre. Now, you can disagree (comment if you want to!), but I read this as society’s grip on him was loosening because of his children, but he had not escaped yet. He was still being watched and judged but from ever increasing distances. And ok, I may be reading too much into that, but I’m an English student; what do you expect?

Another, more minor, character that made the film good for was Matthew Macfadyen as Oblonsky, Anna’s brother. Although on paper he seemed horrible; he cheats on his wife constantly, although she’s had something like 7 children by him, actually I really rather liked him. He provides some much needed humour at points and his excessively choreographed office scenes are amazing. I also thought Kitty and Levin were very well acted by Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson respectively, and their scene with the alphabet blocks was moving, if a bit too long for my taste. I thought Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Count Vronsky was better than I expected, considering how different the character is from the last film I saw him in ‘Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging’! However, for me personally, I couldn’t see the overwhelming allure that attracts Anna to him in the first place – I felt he was a little stiff. Saying this, perhaps one could say there aren’t many places to go with Vronsky’s character?

So overall, the movie is well-worth seeing, even if you haven’t read the book and even if it’s just for the scenery and choreographed feel of the theatrical interpretation of Russian society. I wouldn’t give it five stars, simply because it was quite long, and parts of it felt stretched out unnecessarily. However, I think I’ll have to read the book to see how closely it tallys.

Thanks again for the comments, likes and follows after my last post! Coming up soon… well, I’m going to see ‘King Lear’ starring Jonathan Pryce at the Almeida theatre tomorrow evening, so I’ll be comparing that to the Theatre-in-the-Forest version I saw earlier this year, which I’ve mentioned in previous blogs. See you then!

“Journeys end in lovers meeting”

Twelfth Night, Act 2, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

Admittedly, I have just got back from the most amazing English Lit. trip to Stratford-on-Avon , but since I started this blog post before I left, I might as well finish it off first! This post will be about another of the Shakespeare Uncovered series on BBC4; this time the episode entitled ‘Joely Richardson on Shakespeare’s Women’, although this title is slightly misleading, since the programme is mainly on the comic heroines and especially focuses on Rosalind from ‘As You Like It’ and Viola from ‘Twelfth Night’. However, of course, there was plenty of information to plunder!

From the off, Richardson made it clear that she felt that the comic heroines drive the plots of all Shakespeare’s comedies; think of Katherina in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, Beatrice in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, Portia in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and the two aformentioned. Howeverm it is not simply enough to state this, but to look at why this is unsual and what these characters are like. Shakespeare had an extraordinary sympathy for his female characters: “One of the things that’s fabulous about Shakespeare is how he understands…the psychology of women” Professor Marjorie Garber. We must also examine the content of Shakespeare’s comedies to understand why women played such a central part in them (and consider that it was thirteen years after Shakespeare’s death before the first women appeared on stage in England – and this was in a French company and they were, according to Thomas Brande “hissed, hooted, and pippin-pelted from the stage!”). Professor Jonathan Bate talked of the main themes of comedy during the episode: “In terms of thinking what it is to be human, what it is to live in society and above all what it’s like to live in personal relationships…the comedy is the place where Shakespeare really works that out in a profound way.” Indeed, most of Shakespeare’s comedies are built around the theme of love in all its manifestations. Love, in fact, is the soul of most Shakespearean comedy, and for many, this shows why women are so vital to them; love for a man is just part of his life, but for a woman it is her whole life.

The programme also elaborated on a contested part of Shakespeare’s life: his time with his family; as Germaine Greer said “What’s special about Shakespeare is the poetry. To expect him to be a nice bloke might be pushing it.” However, despite his apparent disinterest in life in Stratford with his wife, Anne Hathaway and three children, Susannah and twins Judith and Hamnet, he clearly thought about his family  to a reasonable extent, since he shows a bigger interest in twins than any other writer of the time. What is also interesting is that his only son, Hamnet, died around five years before ‘Twelfth Night’ was written, and the theme of the loss of a brother is demonstrated in both Viola and Olivia, both of whom are mourning at the beginning of the play. The climax of the play is Viola being reunited with her twin brother Sebastian and in creating this end Shakespeare may have been concocting his own fantasy of family harmony restored.

Much of the programme Richardson explored the history of ‘Twelfth Night’ and what I found interesting was how the sub-plot of Malvolio and

“Remember who commended thy yellow stockings . . . And wished to see thee cross-gartered” (‘Twelfth Night, Act 3, Scene 4)

the yellow stockings was always considered the funniest part of ‘Twelfth Night’. “Shakespeare’s imagination was so fertile that he could never resist weaving many different elements into each play, so there are some examples where a sub-plot, ostensibly brought on just for comic relief almost takes over the play itself” Professor Jonathan Bate. Indeed, one of the first silent films ever was ‘Twelfth Night’ (1910) with Charles Kent as Malvolio and in Charles I’s edition of Shakespeare’s collected works has ‘Twelfth Night’ crossed out, and in it’s place ‘Malvolio’. This shows how much Malvolio and his sub-plot, involving the famous yellow stockings, stole the show in most of the early performances.

Moving on to ‘As You Like It’ and Rosalind; one of the biggest roles in all the Shakespearean canon even though it would have been played by an apprentice. And yet Rosalind isn’t merely ‘a woman’. She is strong, independent, witty and intelligent, yet she is not ‘every woman’. In fact, most of the academics on the programme agreed that Rosalind is her own woman, and through her behaviour she subverts the idea, which was strong in the Renassaince, that men and women were different creatures. Joely Richardson conducted an interview with her mother, Vanessa Regrave, and they came to the conclusion that: “Within every Shakespearean heroine role are the seeds for any performance of an actress that we’ve ever seen in any role.”

So by the end of the episode I felt that ‘Twelfth Night’ had been explored in great depth, although I would have liked a little more on ‘As You Like It’ (saying this, I had just finished ‘1599’ James Shapiro which goes into great depth on ‘As You Like It’, so I probably didn’t take as many of the notes down as they were already in that book). Still, it has made me think again about which characters to examine in close detail, and how perhaps, instead of looking at ‘Henry V’ and ‘Richard III’, I could do some analysis on Rosalind and Cleopatra, since I’m already doing ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ at school, and both are strong, independent woman who know how to get there own way, but one is in a comedy and one a tragedy…? Feel free to comment and tell me what you think about this!

I’ll leave you with Richardson’s closing speech of the episode, and I’ll hopefully be back to write more soon:

“At the heart of these plays is something we can all relate to. One person trying to love another; it’s got to be the oldest story of all. But it’s never been more beautifully told than by Shakespeare.”

“The gates of mercy shall be all shut up”

Henry V, Act 3, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

So, next on my holiday Shakespeare-fest was going to a talk at the Globe by Jamie Parker, who, if you read this often, you’ll remember was King Henry V in the production I saw there earlier this year. He also played Prince Hal in the Globe’s 2010 production of Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, and that role, the biggest role in the canon in fact (counting all three plays), is what the talk was on.

One point I found very interesting was that although Henry V has such a huge part, extremely few of his speeches are soliliquys. Parker referred to them more as ‘arias’; speeches designed for public effect, which require the actor to turn them into dialogue to keep the audience entertained and enthralled. Indeed, Henry is an overtly public figure, and a big debate surrounding him (and of course most politicians nowadays) is the question of whether he truly believes everything he says? He is the ideal picture of a chivalric king, and was designed to boost English national pride in their heritage. However, despite the lack of soliliquys, interestingly, Parker compared Henry to Hamlet, in that they both desire transcendancy; something more than simply living. In fact, one could say that in Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, Prince Hal is simply living; living well but not achieving anything. By Henry V he has seen Falstaff, his old drinking buddy and replacement father in a new light, and has realised that he wants something beyond the physical pleasures of life; he wants to be remembered, as Hamlet does: “And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, to tell my story.” Of course, Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh have played both to great critical acclaim, so perhaps I should compare and contrast each of their versions.

The quote I’ve started this blog post with is from one of Henry’s famous speeches (although there are many) from at the gates of Harfleur. For quite a lot of Henry-fans, this speech presents a problem, in that during it, Henry is so brutal and threatening to the people and city of Harfleur that it is hard to gel with the great, chivalric hero. In the Olivier film of the play in 1944, this speech was cut almost entirely since the film was partly funded by the British government in order to boost public and soldierly morale, and so basically all of Henry’s harsher traits were intentionally omitted by Olivier when writing the screenplay (the part in which Henry sentences three traitors, including his friend Bardolph, to death was also left out). Parker pointed out that there are many things about Henry that don’t gel with modern perspectives; his ‘constrained brutality’ is hard to agree with, but also part of his appeal; Shakespeare creates a paradoxical marriage of gentleness and human brutality, and this means that some find his character irretrievably compromised by the Harfleur speech (in which he threatens to rape “your pure maidens” and have “your naked infants spitted upon pikes” – not exactly pleasant! The detail into which he goes make it hard to see as just an empty threat made to impress). Parker presented the view that particular people aren’t born to like Henry V; they are born for other plays. Just as one person can hate a particular song and another can love it, so it can be with Shakespeare’s plays. However, what is great and genius about Shakespeare (at least in my opinion) is the wealth and breadth of the subjects and characters he covered, all whilst writing with the same beautifully constructed language. This means that although you may find Henry V distasteful, considering that ten thousand of the French die yet the play ends, not dwelling on this fact, but with Henry’s wooing of Katherine of France, as a comedy would end, there will be a different play out there for you.

Right, lecture on why you should love Shakespeare over, and back onto Jamie Parker’s talk. Parker had clearly done his research on the play and pointed out the similarities between the mummers who would have performed through Stratford-upon-Avon and some of the pantomime elements of Henry V, for example, he suggested, the Chorus. Looking at the language in greater depth, there are quick changes from prose to pentameter, and Parker suggested that, whereas prose was self-consciously witty, when using verse Henry is speaking from the heart; his true self is revealed. Now, I’m not sure I’d agree with this – I’ll have to look into it some more – but it’s an interesting point to make, if perhaps slightly simplified.

Only one more day until term starts – yikes! But that means only three more days before I finally get to see Stratford-upon-Avon for myself! I’ll try to write more soon, but bye for now.

“To be or not to be, that is the question”

Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

Finally got round to watching another one of the ‘Shakespeare Uncovered’ series: the David Tennant episode on Hamlet. Well worth a watch, if you can find it online somewhere or if you taped it. Tennant is a likeable presenter who clearly is very passionate about the play in question, and the people he interviews (Jude Law, Professor Jonathan Bate – whose book, ‘The Genius of Shakespeare’, I’ve just bought and who co-wrote the intoduction to my edition of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ -, David Warner, Justin Champion, Simon Russell Beale, Ben Whishaw, Greg Doran, and others) all have interesting additions to make. I especially liked Whishaw’s comment at the end of the programme that he found for about six months after the play ended, everything related back to Hamlet: “…sort of seemed like it explained everything or that the answer to everything was there.”

I especially enjoyed the section on the three different versions of the original text; the First Quarto (or the ‘Bad Quarto’ as it is known, but more on that later), the Second Quarto and the First Folio. The discrepancies between the Bad Quarto and the First Folio were huge; the opening line was differently phrased and the famous “To be or not to be..” soliliquy had large chunks of the text we know todaymissed out. Many think of the First Quarto as the ‘Bad Quarto’ because of variencies like those aforementioned, but, as the programme pointed out, this is a bit of a misnomer. Some even believe that the play would be better, and definitely more easily digestible, where we to use the First Quarto’s version, since it is about half the length of the currently used version, which, at four and a half hours, uncut, can seem over-whelming to one unacustomed to the Bard’s work and even to the hardy Shakespearean fan at times. I have to admit, I’ve never actually seen a performance of Hamlet, on screen or on stage, although I do know the plot and some of the background to it. Still, as Tennant pointed out, there are a wealth of performances to choose from; Mel Gibson, Richard Burton, Kenneth Branagh, Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir Ian McKellen, David Garrick, Tennant himself… Anyone feel like recommending a particular version?

A key quote which I can use in my EPQ (although I am thinking of refining the question a bit) came from Tennant: “Why this play? On the face of it, the storyline isn’t something that necessarily chimes with the everyday experience of most people; monarchy, madness, murder and suicide. Yet however melodramatic the premise, somehow the play keeps feeling relevant…is that just down to the plot?”

That’s all for now, but speak soon. Next time I’ll be writing about Ethan Hawke on Macbeth, the British Museum exhibition on Shakespeare’s World and Richard III at the Globe. Thanks for reading!