Monday, December 21, 2009

Extract from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Hamlet is mention in the opening paragraphs of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol:
"The mention of Marley's funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet's Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot -- say Saint Paul's Churchyard for instance -- literally to astonish his son's weak mind."
It's in the midst of the opening section in which the author is making it clear that Scrooge's old partner Jacob Marley is dead and died before the story began, should the reader, or more specifically the Victorian reader less schooled in fantasy elements, suspect that Marley's Ghost could be anything other than an apparition.

Invoking Hamlet Snr cleverly reminds the reader of another, very famous and at the time still very accessible example of a ghost to prepare them for what the text is about to throw at them. It's rather like Back To The Future being cited in Doctor Who's The Shakespeare Code to explain how time travel works.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Brian Cox's Hamlet masterclass with Theo. A two year old.

'The Mystery of Hamlet: A Solution' by Myron Stagman.

In Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, a race of hyper-intelligent, pan dimensional beings create Deep Thought, a city-sized super computer, to find the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything. After seven and a half million years, the massive computant presents the irrelevant answer “forty-two” on the basis that for all their hyper-intelligence, the pan dimensional beings didn’t really define what the question was going to be. Which is rather my approach to the question Myron Stagman considers in The Mystery of Hamlet: A Solution – why does Hamlet take up to four hours stage time and up to six months narrative duration to kill Claudius? Stagman suggests it’s the “single most famous and controversial issue in Literature”. I'm not so sure.

My prejudice against this line of literary criticism is that if you set aside the play’s literary merit and whatever secret codes Shakespeare (or "playful beguiler" as the cover has it) may have layered into the text and simply treat it as a piece of drama dealing with human emotion, there is no question. Hamlet, an aristocratic prince and scholar (and depending upon which text you're reading a teenager), has been tasked by the ghost of his father to murder his uncle, and though his immediate reaction might be to speak of revenge, a very human reaction, of course he dithers when faced with the reality of process. Instead he fains madness and does everything he can to get Claudius to expose himself and it’s only after, in a fit of oppressed anger, he kills Polonius, that he finds that he has that murderous ability within him.

In which case I’m probably not the best audience for Stagman’s book which spends its time seeking connections between symbols and words and treats the play as a puzzle book that Shakespeare has offered up to be solved like Kit Williams’s Masquerade. There’s no argument that Shakespeare uses metaphor and analogy, but just I’m not sure that the dramatist has deliberately obscured the meaning of his story as Stagman seems to be suggesting, that, for example, ”the time is out of joint” was his way of indicating Hamlet’s reluctance to ram a sword into Claudius’s heart. It would be wrong to spoil the solution. To paraphrase Stagman's analogy when considering the approach of other critics to his problem, it would be like giving away who the killer is in the review of an Agatha Christie mystery. Except to say that if it’s not exactly “forty-two”, I can't completely agree with him.

The book is also oddly structured, opening with forty pages of quotes from other plays to demonstrate the various aspects of “the greatness of Shakespeare” then continues with three shortened versions of the play in varying degrees of detail. Someone picking up this book should already have this material to hand and though Stagman’s enthusiasm infectious as he points out his favourite speeches and lines there’s an element of the Derren Brown magical tv event about the way he’s effectively teasing us with other treats before revealing the final illusion. The summary of his argument appears first in over eight pages then fifty, some of the text repeated with quotes and evidence. Just one quarter of the book really deals with Stagman’s analysis and then feels rushed as though he’s as desperate for us to come to the solution as quickly as he does.

Part of the author's solution is determined by his assumption that “the story takes place in Denmark during the Viking period, 8th to 11th century AD” in approximately 1000 because in the text England is paying tribute to Denmark and he spends most of the book describing him as a “Viking prince”. Shakespeare doesn’t specifically give a period in the work, and though the source legend is from that period, and I’m more persuaded by Steve Roth’s argument that Shakespeare meant for his audience to see the play as happening in contemporary Europe. The text is laced with such assumptions even when the textual evidence seems shaky or open to dramatic choice, such as the exact relationship between Claudius and Gertrude. It’s difficult to concur with a argument when you disagree with the interpretation of the individual data.

The Mystery of Hamlet: A Solution by Myron Stagman is published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing. £34.99 . ISBN: 978-1443814409.

A sample of the book is available here.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

'Playing Shakespeare' by John Barton.

Co-founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, John Barton was, with Trevor Nunn and Peter Hall, one of the legendary theatre directors whose work and acting collaborations in the mid twentieth century would effect the course of Shakespeare on stage in successive decades. His biography includes a range of landmark production through the sixties and seventies (including the 1969 Twelfth Night with Judi Dench as Viola, and the 1970 A Midsummer Night's Dream with Patrick Stewart as Oberon), and with his abilities in helping actors through workshops, his presence and influence are felt even further.

In 1984, Channel 4 commissioned Playing Shakespeare, a television series based on such workshops and during twelve sessions, Barton and range of actors including Peggy Ashcroft, Sinead Cusack, Judi Dench, Sheila Hancock, Ben Kingsley, Jane Lapotaire, Ian McKellan, Roger Rees, Donald Sinden, Patrick Stewart, David Suchet, Michael Williams and range of other (most still yet to feel the breeze of international fame) worked speeches and scenes and sonnets within a rehearsal situation before a studio audience. Unseen for years, the series has been available on dvd.

The book of the series, Playing Shakespeare, recently reprinted, is a transcript of the sessions, augmented by Barton to clarify material that might not be quite so apparent in the transfer from video to page, and augmented with extra material which had to be cut from the television series for time (and commercials). First published in 1984, Barton still stands behind the material and so rather than updating the text, has been tucked in the back featuring new interviews with Stewart, McKellan, Dench and Lapotaire considering what has changed in Shakespearean theatre between now and then.

Barton's wisdom begins with Hamlet’s “speak the speech” dialogue from Act III in which he reminds the players to project the words naturally and with some truth and not to simply “mouth it as many of our players do” otherwise he might as well get the town crier to do the work. The director’s thesis is that though the characters and themes of the plays are important, it’s vital that the text should be communicated with the utmost accuracy otherwise the audience will not be able to make sense of the story and even the language can seem overwhelming, Shakespeare gives clues throughout as so how it should be spoken.

To this end, throughout these sessions, Barton purposefully ignores what the plays are about and gives minimal direction in terms of the characters. Instead he pulls apart the syntax of the words, the stress patterns, noting when antithesis is being employed and monosyllables demonstrating that though there is poetry in Shakespeare, the playwright is just as interested in pointing the actor towards the emotion he is conveying, which unavoidable, through a handy bit of circular logic, leads the actor to understand to internalise the character they are playing.

In the session on speeches, Barton explains quite correctly that the great soliloquys are about the actor communicating their mood to the audience, something too often forgotten when Hamlet strolls onto the stage then looks at the ceiling. As Barton notes on the dvd (and I hadn’t realised this and neither by the looks of things had Jane Lapataire who's sitting next to him), “To Be Or Not To Be” is not only a series of questions, but also the only soliloquy in the whole of Shakespeare without a personal pronoun immediately externalising the choice that Hamlet has to make.

A set text amongst actors, Playing Shakespeare best serves the layman in its general discussions of acting and Shakespeare’s use of language. The sessions considering what Barton calls the “two traditions” of Elizabethan and modern acting, the use of sonnets as rehearsal pieces, the discussion of different approaches to playing Shylock with Stewart and Suchet and an extended interview with McKellan about the challenges of producing contemporary Shakespeare (well contemporary in 1984) can't help but illuminate our viewing experience.

These probably work best because they’re far more discussional rather than going about the business of working the text. But the book can sometimes be a frustrating experience because though Barton’s intelligence is undimmed, as he acknowledges himself, a few of the sessions hinge on the audience hearing the modifications an actor is making to a speech, and obviously that is lost on the page. Yet it's worth persevering because every now and then you're bound to find a new way of thinking about a character. The section on irony and Richard II has led me to rethink my reaction to the play.

Though the chat with Ian McKellen on the dvd largely reiterates what was said in the text and Judi Dench offers some funny anecdotes about the recording of Playing Shakespeare, Hamlet casts a shadow over the retrospective interviews. Barton has Lapataire workshop “To Be Or Not To Be”, which in isolation she turns from the insecure musings of a teenager into the morbid fears of an older woman and the interview and Patrick Stewart, recorded in the midst of his run as Claudius in the RSC Hamlet, demonstrates, through each their opening lines, the differences between Hamlet’s uncle, the ghost and Macbeth helping to confirm the logic of Barton’s thinking that all you need to know about a character is in the sound of their words.

Playing Shakespeare by John Barton is published by Methuen Drama. £18.99. ISBN: 978-0713687736.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

taH pagh taHbe'

And of course I've checked my copy of The Klingon Hamlet (Pocket Books, 2000) and he is indeed playing the text as translated by the "Klingon Language Institute" or Nick Nicholas and Andrew Strader and not just making it up as he goes along. It's not a bad performance. I'm just not sure an actual Klingon would play it that way, with the crying. Worf cried, but he was adopted by human parents. Have I said too much?