Thursday, December 30, 2010

James Shapiro on Hamlet on BBC World Service

James Shapiro, the author of 1599: A Year In The Life of William Shakespeare talks to the BBC's Witness programme about the play and the political environment at the time he thinks it was written.

It's only very short -- about ten minutes -- but manages to include clips from seven different Hamlets including the recent Rory Kinnear and Jude Law (which confirms that both have been recorded in some format).

Also downloadable as a podcast.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Macbeth (BBC Four).

Theatre Apparently at some point during last night’s broadcast of Macbeth on BBC Four, the title of the play was trending on twitter, which is quite an achievement considering it was running directly opposite the finale of The X Factor and demonstrating that there is an appetite for theatre and especially Shakespeare even on a so-called minority channel. But this was not a simple filming of the original Rupert Goold directed production originating from Chichester Festival Theatre (then the West End, then Broadway). This was a fully cinematic piece of drama that was as interested in the details of the characters behaviour as the depth of the poetry.

A typical example of this was in the moment just before MacDuff discovers his murdered king. Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth guides the general towards the door which will lead to his master and afterwards leans on a kitchen table as Lady Macduff (touchingly rendered by Suzanne Burden), who in this adaptation has been given Lenox’s lines, fills the idle moment with some small talk about the weather. Throughout Stewart watches the back of that door, genially but shortly answering the woman’s statements, but clearly very preoccupied because the sight MacDuff is about to discover etched on his brain and he knows as soon as the door opens, everything changes.

This is Macbeth as chamber piece; shot in and around Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, Goold’s drama trades the vistas of Polanski and Zeffrelli for a mix of cramped interiors and large halls which seem to oscillate depending upon the timidity or arrogance of the title character’s ambition. The choice of shots too, rather than simply resting on whomever’s lips are moving goes with the emotional centre of each scene. When Lady Macbeth reads of her husband's good fortune, our focus is on the letter. In the moment when MacDuff is related the bleak circumstances of the loss of his family, the camera fixes on his face as Malcolm turns this grief toward revenge.

Goold’s chosen setting is a non-descript east-European country in the mid-twentieth century. Sporting a generous moustache, once in power, Stewart’s Macbeth is represented by a giant Stalin-like portrait in the main hall with the tyrant’s arrogant grasps at holding onto power, the murdering of friends and families in the text fitting neatly into the general sense of oppression exemplified by the archival footage of massive armies marching along wide boulevards that fill the antiquated televisions throughout the living quarters. The impression is of a shift between a benevolent military dictatorship under Duncan into one built on paranoia.

The paranoia engendered in Macbeth by the three witches. In his post on the BBC blog about the making of this version of The Scottish Play, producer John Wyver of Illuminations offers the films Downfall and The Shining as inspirations for the drama and asks for other guesses. As well as The Third Man, for its projections of shadows across the tiled walls of the tunnels, I’d like to suggest the films of Guillermo del Toro for the depiction of the supernatural against a backdrop of jackboots and submarine jackets. Like The Devil’s Backbone in particular, the witches are rendered even creeper by the manipulation of frame rates to create totally unreal movements in the actresses and when Banquo walks he’s captured in the same state as the moment of his death.

These three minxes were genuinely unsettling. One of the worst episodes of The West Wing, from the fifth season, just after creator Aaron Sorkin had left, has all of the main characters literally bawling at each other, entirely out of character, for forty minutes. As unpleasant as that is, if these witches had passed through now and then and conspiratorially given us a wink, the seething mass of negativity in the fictional White House that day would have been rendered totally convincing. These nurses or servants or whatever they are act as puppet masters in this scenario, and it’s not entirely clear, and this is suggested by Shakespeare’s text, whether we’re watching their prophecies coming to pass or whether they’re simply bending the situation to their will, those emotions their playthings.

The brilliance of the lead performances, from Stewart and Kate Fleetwood as his eventual queen is that they don’t tip the balance in our understanding either way. Fleetwood offers a dark, manipulative figure, and sexual animal in the Nigella Lawson mould, but unlike many interpretations there’s a certain collusion from Stewart from the off, as though he was already considering a great future for himself even before the wyrd sisters presented themselves. He might look slightly gutless when Lady M bats away his suggestion that he won’t kill Duncan but is soon turned around when she seductively carries a massive chocolate cake past his eyes. He has that cake and as we see later when just one slice is left, he eats it too.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Shakespeare on Stage: Thirteen Leading Actors on Thirteen Key Roles by Julian Curry.

Julian Curry spends much of his introduction to Shakespeare on Stage: Thirteen Leading Actors on Thirteen Key Roles justifying the need to record the thoughts of actors in the first place. An actor himself (long career, cv long enough to fill the RSC’s theatre programme), he understands correctly that though critics have their place in putting a play within its historical context and examining its themes, its only by talking to those employed to stand in front of an audience and make that rabble of coughers and coat wearers believe a character has a soul, that the emotional truth of the words can be understood.

Shakespeare On Stage gathers interviews with thirteen prominent actors, in which they’re asked if they’ll, as Curry says, “be willing to reveal if not how they acted, at least what they did.” This is not a book to dip into looking for theatrical anecdotes though a few do creep out. It is instead a record of a range of productions and how a given character fitted into the ensemble, how the decisions taken by the actor in conjunction with the director impacts on both the audience’s understanding of the plot and sometimes how that production fits within the historical legacy of the play.

Oh the riches! Judi Dench reminiscing about her Juliet for Zeffirelli at the Old Vic in 1960(surely the performance The Guardian’s Michael Billington recently revealed to be his favourite of the past fifty years). Ian McKellen on his classic Macbeth opposite Dench for the RSC and Ralph Fiennes returning to the mind of Coriolanus, and the Almeida show which has inspired his new film version. Some are shorter than others; sometimes Curry’s time with his subject was limit, but sometimes he’s simply fulfilling his prophecy from the introduction that “it’s a mugs game to get actors to talk about their craft”.

Shakespeare’s problems, romances and comedies are given equal weight however, which makes a change from similar exercises that tend to concentrate on the tragedies under the assumption that they’re more psychologically complex. I’d not realised Rebecca Hall played Rosalind for her father, Peter, in Bath in 2003 and Derek Jacobi, in expounding on his Malvolvio, relishes the chance to talk about something other than his several hundred appearances as Hamlet. Most valuable perhaps is Penelope Wilton on Measure for Measure morally ambiguous nun Isabella. Her material might be very site specific, but her comments on why the character stops speaking towards the end (she’s dumfounded) only increase my appreciation of this most overlooked play.

Hamlet is represented by Jude Law. Unlike most of the interviews which are looking back retrospectively on a production, Curry was able to grab Law right in the middle of the show’s run at the Donmar Warehouse last Summer (2009) and so he’s capturing an actor in the thick of his thought processes about the character before he’s consolidated his feelings as to whether he achieved what he set out to. As many actors do, Law says that he wants to find something new every night, bring spontaneity to his text, mostly because he doesn’t want the bigness of the nightly endeavour to overwhelm him. In places, he clearly sees aspects of himself in the character, just as the best actors should.

Though Curry has chosen to arrange the interviews in alphabetical order, I wonder if chronological order by production date wouldn’t be just as useful so that the reader can have an idea of how the Shakespearean acting has developed over the past fifty years from Dench to Law. For the most part, theatre is ephemeral and fleeting and this book goes some way to recapturing what we’ve missed – even those productions that have been filmed for the studio aren’t absolute recreations of what the theatre audience enjoyed. Despite his modest claims, Curry has produced a document which should be of use to acting students searching for inspiration, as a research tool for theatre students and for the general audience seeking a different set of insights and perspectives on the canon.

'Shakespeare on Stage: Thirteen Leading Actors on Thirteen Key Roles' by Julian Curry is published by Nick Hern Books. £14.99. ISBN: 9781848420779.  Review copy supplied.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Eyewitnesses: When Jacobi Met Burton.

Derek Jacobi talks to The Observer on the occasion of his first Lear and offers this touching anecdote I've not heard before about meeting his childhood Hamlet, Richard Burton:
"it must have been 1977, I did a couple of days on a film with Burton and I reminded him of this schoolboy Hamlet and he said, very sweetly, that yes, he remembered. And he said, 'What are you doing now?' And I said, 'Well I'm about to play Hamlet at the Old Vic.' And he said, 'I'll come and see you.' And he did. And he came around afterwards and said, 'Do you want to go out for dinner?' And I said, yes, great, and as we were walking out of the dressing room, he said, 'Do you mind if we go and stand on the stage? I haven't stood on that stage for 25 years.' So we stood on the stage and I said, 'As a schoolboy, I sat up there and watched you playing Hamlet on this stage.'"

Sunday, August 22, 2010

10 Best Hamlets?

Susanna Clapp at The Observer selects ten princes and brilliantly makes some less obvious choices. Irving, Tennant and Gielgud are there, but no Branagh, no Jacobi, no Berkoff. Instead:
"In Jonathan Miller's 2008 production at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol, Jamie Ballard was an almost revolutionarily sane Hamlet: flushed, disturbed but clear-sighted. This was Hamlet as a young man whose incisive mind was running away with itself. He was also a prince with a finely articulated past: from the beginning, he eyed up Laertes suspiciously; he debated with the adroitness and avidity of the philosophy student that he was; he seemed (unusually) truly to be in love with Ophelia. When he cried, he blubbed like a man whose flesh – and substance – really was beginning to melt."
Also has a clip of Jonathan Pryce's famous interpretation of the Ghost scene in which he was possessed by his father's spirit, the words tumbling out of his own mouth, which is unnerving.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Sarah Blasko's new album.

On my other blog, I've reviewed the new album from Sarah Blasko, "As Day Follows Night" which was written whilst she was composing the incidental music for and appearing in the 2008 Bell Shakespeare production. She says of writing about the album concurrently:
“It was good to have something alongside the album writing that had a deadline because it made me slightly more disciplined. It was sort of like exercise that kept my energy up for the task of writing the album,” she says. “When I did the performances for Hamlet over two months last year, in between the time I was on stage, I would sit at the backstage piano and write my album songs.”
As I say in the review I can't detect any direct influences in the lyrics of the album, no scraps of Shakespearean verse, but since the play is steeped in a vast spectrum of human emotion, some crossover is probably inevitable.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Wichita Community Theatre presents Hamlet.

Firstly in 1994:

Wichita Community Theatre presents Hamlet - 1994 from Ben Blankley on Vimeo.

Then in 2009:

Wichita Community Theatre presents Hamlet from Ben Blankley on Vimeo.

Single camera, but in their entirety. I'm posting them here so that I know where to find them as and when [via].

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Juliet by Anne Fortier.

It seems overly cynical to reduce Anne Fortier’s Juliet into a single line pitch, but since it's already been optioned for a film, chick lit meets historical fiction meets Dan Brown meets Shakespeare is presumably how her agent sold the book to Hollywood so it’ll do here. The set up is good enough to drag the reader through the first two hundred or so pages. On the death of her Auntie, American student Julie Jacobs discovers that her heritage began in Siena and stretches back as far as the real Juliet or Guilietta, who’s story was relocated and mangled until it eventually became Shakespeare’s classic about star-crossed lovers.

The novel is then split between first person reportage of Julie's adventures in Siena and a third person historical recreation of the events surround her ancestors life, meeting Romeo, falling in love and becoming separated by familial rivalry, the former impacted by the discoveries of the latter, pieced together by Julie as discovers her legacy. The vital bit of conflict is from forces that are intent on either obscuring the information or using her research project for their own nefarious purposes, as she finds herself caught between the very same families that caused misery to the original Romeo and Juliet.

There are plenty of plusses to Fortier’s book. Her characterisation is excellent. Julie is good company as she navigates Sienese society with very witty asides about her potential suitor Alessandro and the social graces she’s supposed to adopt and appreciates the irony of being connected to such a famous story. Her sister Janet, who we're told ironically played Juliet in a school production is an excellent foil, Fortier employing her mix of attractiveness and cheekiness to move to keep the story moving. The historical characters are also just the right side of cod-Shakespearean camp and the author has some fun demonstrating the differences with the play.

Siena is also recreated in prose remarkably effectively, the geography of the city lucidly drawn. This is still a tourist view of the place; as Joanna Hogg’s British film Unrelated was keen to demonstrate, Siena has been as effected by industrialisation as anywhere, dull motels and motorways just outside of the centre. There’s none of that in this book, though you can understand Fortier wanting to conjure the romantic side of Siena since it’s entirely possible that Julie would keep to relating that herself. Fortier has still clearly researched not just the history but the modern version and is keen to fit as much of that flavour into the book, albeit augmented for her own aims.

Which is rather the problem in the end. The book is five hundred pages long and I would guess over half of that is description or insight, Fortier intent on telling us about everything she has learned. I’m a slow reader at the best of times, and I'm sure there will be some readers who'll enjoy being submerged in the details of the world, but Juliet took longer for me to plough through than some literary criticism. Too often the plot halts in order to allow for this accentuation to the point that you just wish she would get on with it. We know, for example, almost every meal the Julie eats across her stay, none of which really illuminates her character, other than that she likes to try something different abroad. Don’t we all?

It doesn’t help that with the exception of the necessary relocation to Italy, Julie isn’t a particularly goal orientated, most of her “discoveries” documents passed to her, or tales told by new acquaintances, like one of those episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? which have evidently been shot on a tight schedule (cf, David Tennant). It’s left to characters like her sister to do the leg work and then report back and all too frequently when she does piece the facts together, her revelation has already been revealed in an adjacent flashback. As a modern girl, should Julie be as impotent to her own destiny as Giuletta?

In few other places have I seen the appalling position that a girl like Giulietta would have been in, a commodity to bringing union between families from birth. However interesting the contemporary scenes are, they’re rarely as entertaining or exciting as the shorter passages set in 1340 as Romeo attempts to save his Juliet from tyranny, aided by her faithful Friar Lorenzo. On more than one occasion it’s a disappointment when the contemporary passages return and we’re dragged away from this fascinating world, even if, as Fortier admits in her notes at the back, she augmented the reality of some of the characters because of the needs of the drama.

Perhaps Fortier would have been happier turning out a purer piece of histortical fiction telling the story of the original Romeo and Juliet but the publisher has suggested it required the contemporary scenes in an attempt to attract two audiences which are habitually quite distinct or make all of that accessible. Sadly it's impossible to just read the historical fiction and skim the rest; the two are inextricably linked as necessary exposition is included in the modern period and the period story lacks a satisfactory conclusion on its own terms.

Which is then mirrored in the main story. Just as the book looks like its about to become really interesting, and make the kind of genre twist that might also drag in Twilight fans too, Fortier pulls back and delivers a thuddingly conventional climax that largely undoes much of the goodwill which has developed in the meantime and delivers few proper surprises. The back of my my preview copy offers an alternate sales pitch "Shakespeare in Love meets Labyrinth". If only the latter had been referencing Frank Oz rather than Kate Mosse.

Juliet by Anne Fortier is published by Harper Collins. RRP: £7.99. ISBN: 978-0007321865.  Review copy supplied.

Who's best to judge Hamlet?

PJ Purdey makes a good point (in a Guardian article illustrated with a perfect picture of Tennant) about who the best judge of a play should be:
"Who's best qualified to assess the merits of a new production of Hamlet: a practising theatre critic, or a Danish prince? The former brings a certain amount of theatrical experience to the task: he or she has probably seen the play before, and so is at least well placed to judge the originality and competence of the staging under review. But the latter, even if a theatrical virgin, will have valuable insights of a different order to offer, especially if he's of an introspective disposition and has had a father expire in suspicious circumstances. In short, the Danish prince will know how it feels, and can therefore judge whether Shakespeare has got it right."
Purdey is reacting to some of the reviews his new play Subs has received both from critics and the sub-editors it illustrates.

It seems to me the ideal person to judge a new production of Hamlet would be a Danish Prince who is also a theatre critic.

In other words, Hamlet himself.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Press release: Romeo and Juliet at the Fire Station in Croxteth

This sounds rather amazing, so I think I'd best just republish the whole press release:
Setting Shakespeare Alight:
Romeo and Juliet at the Fire Station

A FREE contemporary community production of Shakespeare's play of feuding families and star crossed young lovers is taking place at Croxteth Fire Station 26th – 28th August.

Coordinated by The Reader Organisation, and directed by Neil Caple (Royal Shakespeare Company, Brookside), the Merseyside Community Theatre (MCT) project has been running in the Alt Valley since April and time’s nearly up to move from the rehearsal space at the Jacob’s Cracker factory to the grounds of Croxteth Fire Station where the four performances will be held later this month.

Neil Caple, Director, says:

“I’ve seen people turn from shy, quiet individuals into real actors who are now commanding the stage when they’re on. We’re ready to light up the fire station!”

This unique, community-led project has involved people of all ages and backgrounds, and includes a mix of complete novices and seasoned professionals in the cast and crew. MCT have remained true to their promise of including everybody with a desire to get involved in the show: from acting to stewarding, tea-making to set-building, and the audience for each of the four shows is filling up fast.

Performances take place Thursday 26th, Friday 27th, and Saturday 28th August at 7.30pm, with an additional performance at 2.30pm on Saturday 28th. All of the shows are free, just turn up. If you want to guarantee entry, please call Emma on 07739 420009 or email to have your space reserved.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Love's Labour's Lost (Shakespeare's Globe production presented by Opus Arte)

Not being able to visit London often, let alone Shakespeare’s Globe, even though I was lucky enough to see their production of As You Like It last year, I assumed that as usual I would be missing everything else. Now, thanks to a collaboration with Opus Arte, best known for their live recordings of music, opera and ballet, a number of the plays are being recorded on hi-definition for broadcasting in cinema and the lucrative secondary market of dvd and blu-ray. The first wave includes As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet and the revived production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, originally conceived in 2007 but added to last year’s Young Hearts season.

It’s quite easy to fixate on the climax of Love’s Labour’s Lost which doesn’t quite fit the pattern of most of Shakespeare’s comedies. At the moment when the bard seems ready to complete the coupling up of royals and friends, instead the Princess of France gains word of the death of her father and that she must take the throne, their potential significant others entering exile until the winds of change have blown over. The critical assumption is that this cliffhanger was meant to be resolved in the now missing Love’s Labour’s Won, a grand experiment in comedy across two parts.

Dominic Dromgoole’s Globe production, by emphasising the shift in tone from the messy hijinks of courtly romance to the sudden melancholy of the Princess taking office, suggests another option – that Shakespeare was cheekily dramatising the moment when Elizabeth replaced her father on the throne and the shift from the frivolity of youth to ruling the known world. The arc of Michelle Terry’s authoritative performance, perhaps the strongest of the souls on stage, even resolves itself in the moment when grief and recognition combine.

Until then, what a Carry-On! There are essentially two possible approaches to Love Labour’s Lost's complex maze of word play and allusions; emphasise the text in the hopes the audience will be attentive enough to go with it or cut as many of the obscure passages as possible and replace them with slapstick (or songs if you’re Kenneth Branagh). Dromgoole seeks a middle ground. No innuendo goes unemphasised and the director also relies heavily on the bawdy abilities of his cast for a winning combination.

It’s fair to say that even if not all of the senses of Shakespeare’s words are communicated, the humour certainly is, in Fergal McElherron’s Chaplinesque antics as Costard and in the manic desperation between the students not to reveal their amorous ambitions having agreed to put learning before love. Because of the venue, these are not subtle performances, which helps poor Don Armado, one of the least funniest of Shakespeare’s clowns who here is gifted a Borat-like accent by Paul Ready and a heavy dose of pathos which means that for once the play within a play doesn’t drag.

Now and again the text is allowed to zing not least in the barbed exchanges between the charismatic Trystan Gravelle returning as Berowne and Thomasin Rand, whose aristocratic face masks a tender wit. She’s no doubt a worthy replacement for the just out of RADA Gemma Arterton whose appearance in the original version was a spring-board for her film career. But as with the other Globe productions I’ve seen, there’s a genuine sense of comradeship, of the cast pulling together, making the most of the unexpected, when planes are flying over or some other unusual noise bleeding in from modern London, going about the business of living outside this historical bubble.

The on-screen audience laps all of this up, and indeed part of the enjoyment of watching the production is seeing the reaction of the groundlings. Recording in the Globe presents a special challenge; most filmed theatre shies away poking into the auditorium but in this venue, the audience are vital part of the show. Film director Ian Russell treats this as an event, and gives a genuine appreciation of what it’s like within the space, the atmosphere, though with enough close-ups for it not to look static on a television screen, illuminating the delicate details of designer Jonathan Fensom’s period costumes.

Love's Labour's Lost is available from Opus Arte on dvd and blu-ray. Review copy supplied.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Playing Shakespeare.

New to Region 2 dvd, Playing Shakespeare is the Channel 4 series from the 1980s in which, across nine episodes, renowned theatre director John Barton workshops with a group of actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company various aspects of communicating the canon to an audience. It’s an astonishing piece of television which is essential viewing for actors, anyone with a passing interest in Shakespeare and even, I would say, the stage in general and has a quality of thought and presentation which seems quite alien in these times when television assumes the viewer’s ignorance then works backwards.

At the very least it’s important because it captures a moment in cultural history when a range of what are now household names were still perhaps best known for their theatre work. Younger versions of amongst others Sinead Cusack, Sheila Hancock, Ben Kingsley, Jane Lapotaire, Ian McKellan, Mike Gwilym, David Suchet, Roger Rees, Lisa Harrow, Michael Williams, Patrick Stewart and Judi Dench all appear, an unprecedented line-up united because they’d previous been directed or advised by Barton, all apparently still learning their craft and having great fun simply working the text outside the pressures of a real production.

Barton’s contention, which he describes as the two traditions approach, is that actors should take to heart Hamlet’s advice to the players, totemically repeated throughout the series, “Speak the speech I pray you as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue” and find a middle presentational ground between Stanislavskian naturalism and the Elizabethan tradition. An actor should consider each phrase and clause carefully so that it seems naturally to be the only thing a character would say in that situation. He’s fighting against the tendency in some actors to simply provide the general sense of Shakespearean dialogue, sapping its spontaneity.

Barton also seems well aware that his televisual approach, a kind of loose rehearsal in front of cameras does have an inherently artificial quality. Certainly there are moments when some actors are trying create a moment of spontaneity which almost always looks like what it is -- a feed question or line so that Barton can move on to the next bit as an actor approaching from the side "John, can I just ask you ...?" But he confronts it by playing the famous Footlights clip of Fry & Laurie rehearsing several meanings of the word "time" then having much the same discussion with his own actors in a more thoughtful tone, to demonstrate that however well parodied his approach might be, it's still extremely useful.

In my review of the book shaped transcripts of these episodes, my main concern was that Barton’s thesis could only be properly illuminated once we we’re able to hear and compare the changes brought by the actors when Barton’s direction and suggestion is assimilated. Sure enough, in the episode when Dench and Pasco work a section of Twelfth Night, we can now see their performance subtlety develop across readings, Dench’s Viola becoming much stronger, Pasco's Orsino more reflective. Sometimes these manipulations have obviously been worked out in advance for illustrative purposes but all of them demonstrate that a performance is a collusion between actor, director and Shakespeare himself.

That’s especially true in the episode dedicated to investigating the differing interpretations of Shylock from David Suchet and Patrick Stewart. Barton directed them both in acclaimed productions and it allows him to also demonstrate that no matter how many suggestions the director gives, the final decisions should be left to the actor. Stewart employs an aristocratic approach against Suchet’s near stereotype but both have strong justifications for their choice, the former the need to assimilation the latter to emphasise their heritage as a way of shielding him from cultural influences, both available in the text. Shakespeare has gives the actor choices.

Not least in the matter of pauses. Barton notes and the actors express that Shakespeare communicates great meaning in the instants when the actor and so character isn’t speaking when their either considering what to say next or indeed waiting for the reaction of their rival or potential lover to their curse or oaths. In speeches too. As Michael Pennington exquisitely reveals, all of Hamlet’s big soliloquies become entirely legible when the commas are emphasised and Shakespeare even offers a hint in “To be..” when he says the results of death “Must give us pause.” Pennington’s contributions are the strongest Hamlet contingent, though Barbara Leigh-Hunt gives a wonderfully restrained Gertrude for “There is a willow…” to illustrate how the greatest melancholia can be communicated through restraint.

Even for those of us who are less interested in the technical aspects of acting, the series is worth seeing for the powerful moments in which the various actors tackle these famous speeches. Patrick Stewart’s Titus consoling himself when all seems lost. Sheila Hancock’s heartbreaking Mistress Quickly on hearing of Falstaff’s death. Lisa Harrow’s horror as Innogen in discovering a headless body. Ian McKellan’s late appearance as Shallow, his pipes whistling in their sound prefiguring Gandalf the Grey. On more than one occasion my reaction was much the same as the bewildered Hamlet on seeing the Player King weep for Hecuba, summoning great emotional depth seemingly from nowhere. Astounding.

With all of the talk of looking to the detail of the text, it’s impossible to also gain some fascination from the chance to see these actors in such unvarnished circumstances, without any of the barriers that are thrown up in their appearances on chat shows. Williams stepping through the shadows at the back of the set looking for a lighter (many of the actors are chainsmokers) or Dench fidgeting with a plastic cup which she quickly realises is making too much noise and hides under her chair. Roger Rees and Mike Gwilym are inveterate flirts, Lisa Harrow entirely receptive. The gentle rivalry between Stewart, Suchet, Kingsley and McKellen.

Look closer still and Playing Shakespeare even contains moments of genuine poignancy. Donald Sindon fighting his natural tendency to over egg within a television studio, keenly aware that his style is at odds with the more naturalist work of the others. Peggy Ashcroft’s nostalgic reaction to hearing a recording of herself playing Viola thirty years earlier, the memories of another time flooding back to her. Dench and Williams’s marital affection, during the segment in which the actors work a longer section of Twelfth Night, the latter with just a few lines but patiently following his cues. And who should be in the studio audience, her acting career stretching in front of her?

Helena Bonham-Carter didn’t apparently receive any formal training as an actress. By the end of that decade she would be playing Ophelia on film and Olivia in Twelfth Night five years after that. If John Barton’s Playing Shakespeare was part of her informal training, she was off to a flying start.

Playing Shakespeare is available from Acorn Media UK. Review copy supplied.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Kevin Kline on his Hamlet, other characters

In being interviewed about his new film The Extra Man, in which he offers us his aging playwright, Kline talks to Movieline about his attitude to theatre acting, straying inevitably ...
Can an actor have his or her work stolen?
Sure, but I think it’s a compliment. It’s emulation. I saw Hamlet once, and I thought, “This guy saw our production, because he’s stolen… not acting things, but certain costume things, certain period things. I guess I wouldn’t say “stole.” Maybe “borrowed.” I did a production of Hamlet that was quasi-modern dress. Why? The budget. Because if we did it in Elizabethan garb it would have been cheesy Elizabethan costumes. Better to get good versions of a more contemporary [style]. And also because Shakespeare, when he did it, he did it on a bare stage — which is how I directed it — and he used contemporary clothes. Little pieces of this and that might suggest a period. Olivier did Hamlet the film in black and white. Why? Because he was having a row with Technicolor. In retrospect, though, we say “Black and white! That’s the only way to do Shakespeare. Black and white is not real.” Shakespeare’s not real! People don’t talk like that! It’s not natural! But as I say, when you’re doing those parts, it’s what works for you.

Thursday, August 05, 2010


You will have noticed, if you read the blog through the page rather than RSS feed, that I've changed the layout slightly to accommodate a new experiment.

One of my other projects is Liverpool Blogs, an attempt to collection together a list of all the blogs in my home city with a connected twitter feed.

Shakespeare Blogs is an attempt to do the same for Shakespeare weblogs and news websites. If you aren't listed, please do email at the address to the right.

The experiment also has its own twitter feed which should automatically update whenever something new is posted to one of these website which can be followed @shakespearelogs.

Why @shakespearelogs? Because twitter wouldn't allow the extra 'b'. Not enough characters.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Jude Law interviewed about his Hamlet in new book.

New from Nick Hern Books is "Shakespeare on Stage: Thirteen Leading Actors in Thirteen Key Roles" by Julian Curry, a collection of interviews.

As well as the "establishment" actors you'd expect (Dench, McKellan, Jacobi, Pigott-Smith, Stewart and Mirren) there are a couple of wildcards.

According to the Amazon blurb, "Kevin Spacey (brings) an American perspective to playing Richard II" and the Hamlet is Jude Law.

Law did offer some publicity for his Donmar Warehouse appearance, this Telegraph interview being typical, but as is the way with these things, they were full of generalities, not much about the specific choices made, conscious not to give too much away.  

Having missed the production, I'm very keen to hear about those things, so Curry's book, which the blurb says "is a mini masterclass in playing that role, aimed at other actors, students of Shakespeare, and audiences of the plays" sounds like it will very useful.

What did Law think of his work in hindsight?

"Shakespeare on Stage" is published on 19th August 2010.

Hapi-D in India.

To Kolkata in India, where Fourth Bell Theatres are staging a spoof, Hapi-D:
"Hapi-D is a meta-theatre. It’s sort of like a comedy of errors, based on a group who attempts to enact Hamlet, which is one of the most well recognised tragedies by Shakespeare” Fourth Bell actress and member Debleena Tripathi told IBNS.

The group said the play is about seven odd people of an ambiguous theatre group who are caught unawares by an unwelcome audience as the star-cast is either too shy to act or busy playing carom.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

'My Hamlet'

Linda Marlowe, who appeared as Gertrude in the infamous Berkoff Hamlet was on Radio 4's Midweek yesterday morning because ...
"Her latest show is 'My Hamlet' which she is performing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It consists of Linda, Shakespeare's greatest text and six brilliant puppeteers from Fingers Theatre, Georgia. She plays Sarah, a cleaner who finds herself playing the actor's definitive role, as a company of puppets come to life around her."
Should be available to listen here for the next six(ish) days. There is also a podcast.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Getting to the Bottom of the Bard

New press release ...
"There’s magic in the air. After a hugely successful UK and international tour of Macbeth, Shakespeare 4 Kidz hit the road again this autumn with a revival of their acclaimed A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Fairies and fun, royalty and romance, magic and misunderstandings: A Midsummer Night’s Dream has them all and more. So, little wonder this enchanting play is one of the most popular ever written. The Bard’s comedy gets a magical transformation from S4K, whose musical version has long been a must-see for school parties and family groups.

This child-friendly version of the play launches its national tour at the Palace Theatre in Mansfield on Tuesday September 14. It will play two shows a day until Friday September 17 before taking off round the country until the end of November. A second leg of the tour begins after Christmas.

A galaxy of S4K celebrity fans have already sent good luck messages for the show.

Dame Judi Dench: (Titania at the Rose in Kingston this year): “I am happy to support any approach that helps children to understand Shakespeare’s plays and to realise that they are about emotions that we all share – love, jealousy, anger etc – all of which can be found in The Dream!”

Dame Helen Mirren: “Good wishes to Shakespeare 4 Kidz. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the Avatar of Shakespeare, with something to be enjoyed by all age groups, a great message and lots of fun and fantasy. Enjoy!”

Victoria Wood: “Good luck, stay cool – there’s nothing worse than a nervous Bottom!”

Graham Norton: “Have a wonderful show. Good Puck to you all!”

Jason Donovan: “It is great for kids to appreciate at an early age great writing and none has a better grasp of the English language than Shakespeare himself. Enjoy the journey kids!”

Barbara Windsor: “To all the Shakespeare 4 Kidz, I would like to wish you lots of luck with your A Midsummer Night's Dream tour. What a wonderful way to introduce Shakespeare to a younger audience. To all of you who are performing, and to all who are watching, ENJOY! Lots of love Barbara Windsor x”

Corrie’s Archie Shuttleworth Roy Hudd, whose Bottom was a big hit in the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, even wrote S4K a special good luck poem.

And Loose Woman/Calendar Girl Lynda Bellingham remembers the fun she had when she appeared in the play.

“Amazingly my first professional role was Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream at The Pendley Shakespeare Festival in Tring, Herts. It was an open air theatre and I had to run like the wind down a leafy glade arriving centre stage to say "Over hill over dale I do wander everywhere” etc. My first ever crit in the local paper said that if I never made it as an actress I could always try my hand in the 100 metres as I was so fast!”

The Dream is one of six S4K titles, following on from the 2009/10 national and international hit tour of Macbeth.

With a script and songbook by Julian Chenery and Matt Gimblett, and assistance from Mr Shakespeare, every S4K show uses the whole Shakespearean plot but uses only the most famous original lines and slots them into modern language so that everyone – even the youngest primary school children – can understand.

Adults in the audience who have previously been baffled by the Bard will find that they can at last understand what it is all about!

There are also songs, dances and lots of spellbinding effects as the fairies create a world of wonder in the woods.

Teachers, parents, pupils and critics are unanimous in their praise for S4K shows. Here are some of the things they said about Macbeth.

“My class and I caught a production of Macbeth…it was fantastic…a wonderful introduction to Shakespeare,” wrote a teacher from Northampton.

“I never thought Shakespeare cold be so interesting,” agreed a parent from Leicester.

“My favourite thing that’s happened this term,” said a 10 year old from York.

“My 10 year old daughter, who had already seen the afternoon performance with her school, couldn’t wait to go back for a second showing in the evening. That’s high praise indeed from someone who normally prefers Hannah Montana,” said a critic from Barnstaple.

Tyler in a Year 7 class in Truro gave it five out of five; Matthew in Year 6 in Leeds said it would stay in his memory for ever and Bethany, a Year 6 from Buxton, said: “The worst part was the interval!”

S4K promise a Dream show for all the family. So, why not fly away for some fun with the fairies!

A complete list of tour dates is available on Most venues offer two shows a day (morning and matinee).

S4K also offers classroom workshops led by professional actors/teachers plus, new for this year, Day Dream. This is a one-day cross-curricular experience in which up to 80 pupils can be involved. Following fun workshop sessions the participants stage their own mini version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for family at friends at the end of the day.
I've been invited to the Manchester show and will report back. I've previously reviewed Macbeth here.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

30 Campbell Scott

Hamlet played by Campbell Scott.
Directed by Campbell Scott and Eric Simonson.

The Hallmark Hamlet. Though I see from looking at the website, the actual channel in the UK has now become the “home” of reruns and first runs of the likes of legal drama Damages and legal drama Law & Order, my actual experience of Hallmark productions are the fantasy and fairy tale adaptations and “true” life stories that still sometimes populate the post 3pm slot on (channel) Five.

That meant my usual pre-conceived notions going into Scott’s production (despite my love for his directorial debut Big Night) were skewed towards expecting to see what Hamlet would be like as a US tv movie and to large extent that’s what this is, with a mis-en-scene designed to fit very specifically within Hallmark’s house style as it was in 2000 and quite irritating minor-key piano noodling which litters the soundtrack.

The accompanying advertorial on the dvd also points to an attempt to make sure that it doesn’t run counter to the rest of Hallmark’s programming as each of the actors is wheeled out, given an voiceover explanation of their acting credentials and allowed a thirty second sound bite which generally consists of them explaining how exciting the play is and how accessible they’re trying to make it, including the original language which would seem like a prerequisite.

This documentary's hogwash dipped voiceover implores the viewer to enjoy “the immortal prose of William Shakespeare” (he did write some pretty good verse too) and refuses to give much in the way of background to the play with the exception of such wild speculation as “Hamlet, this literary masterpiece, scripted by William Shakespeare on the eve of his own father’s death” (which is interesting considering that the dating of the play still hasn’t been fixed).

Setting the story on the edge of New York at the beginning of the last century, the film itself is vibrant and often thrilling because Scott and co-director Eric Simonson make some strong choices with the text that seem designed to counter accusations that this will simply be an slightly inoffensive, orthodox version. As Roscoe Lee Browne chuckles in the fluffumentary, he told Scott that he wouldn’t ever play and old buffer like Polonius, only to be reassured by Scott that he still wouldn’t be.

First big decision: Scott’s Hamlet is mad. Not just mad, suicidal or at the very least self harming. Scott shifts “To Be…” as early as I’ve ever seen it – before the fishmonger (we’re unsure how much Polonius has observed) – but just after he’s seen slashing unsuccessfully into a vain (the scabs visible throughout the rest of the film). Sprawled on the floor, this Hamlet isn’t just rhetorically musing on the question for show, but genuinely considering his own mortality.

And because from the moment he learns of Claudius’s deeds until he’s shipped off to England, the prince loses not just his mirth but all of his senses, sometimes seen talking to himself even if a soliloquy isn’t forthcoming. When Hamlet asks Laertes’s pardon for the murder of his father before the duel, rather than simply blaming the fault on his feigned madness, he’s asking if he can be held responsible for Polonius’s death because he was really not in his right state of mind.

Second big decision:  Scott justifies this by turning up the supernatural quotient of the play to near Macbeth proportions. This Hamlet doesn’t just hear the matter of his father’s death, he feels it as the ghost brings about a hallucination, the prince experiencing the poisoning, blood flowing from his ears, a kind of tinnitus infusing the soundtrack. As he stalks the halls, the whisper of Hamlet Snr (“Remember, remember”) and that whine follow him about, demonstrating how he's now all but consumed by the experience.

And the ghost keeps reappearing; not just in Gertrude’s chamber, but holding Hamlet’s sword back as he’s about to off a praying Claudius and at the point of death. But of course there’s an ambiguity to these appearances; are these really new emergences of the figure or manifestations of Hamlet’s crumpled state of mind. We assume it must be the latter and then Claudius sees his brother in the face of a player during The Mousetrap and then we’re not so sure. It’s like an episode of Lost with royalty rather than polar bears.

As well as Scott’s layered performance, Blair Brown makes some sense of Gertrude’s woolly motivation towards the end by playing up her belief in her son seeming not entirely unhappy that Polonius is out of the picture (shock at the deed, not shock at the outcome) even if she’s weakened slightly by Scott’s decision (and I’ve not seen this before) to cut “There is a willow…” which whilst having the effect of strengthening the opening of the gravedigger scene does mean that Brown doesn’t have the chance to give her character’s one great moment of compassion.

Within her own breath of madness, Lisa Gay Hamilton’s Ophelia appears wearing her father’s jacket and gives an eerie, uncanny imitation of Roscoe Lee Browne’s Polonius that’s also rather breathtaking. But this is generally a good cast with only Roger Guenveur Smith’s passionless Laertes failing to convince, at no point seeming to be the rapscallion that his father would need to keep an eye on as he creates mayhem in Paris. If his whispery understated performance was a directorial choice, it would only make sense if Reynaldo had been cut. He wasn’t.

In total, then, not the first production of the play I'd show to someone, but an interesting interpretation.  Some elements, such as Ophelia seeing Hamlet joke about her father's corpse only really resonate if you're aware that in the original text the stage directions make it impossible.  But this does also feature an excellent version of The Mousetrap in which the players are dressed in what seems like the very Elizabethan period costume that a Hallmark audience coming to the play cold might have been expecting...

[Scott has given a rather good interview about this film but he doesn't give very much away.  Most of his choices, including casting African American actors in Polonius's family seem to be in the order of "It seemed like a good idea..." but without much of an underlying motivation.  He even says, "It's hard because people think there's an alternative agenda. And the fact is, there is none."  Nonetheless, a lot of thought has clear gone into how this version fits together, even if it has seeped in from previous stage productions Scott has been involved in.]

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Hamlet's Apocalypse ...

... is an allegorical interpretation of the play which the Dark Lady Players will be producing at the Manhattan Theater Source in New York on the 7 November (details). According to the email which was sent to me, the production:
"Argues that the religious allegories in the plays identified by Linda Hoff and others, are not only anti-Christian but Jewish,and support the Bassano Theory of Authorship."
Critical analysis and justification here and offered below in note form by Alexandra Cohen-Spiegler who will be playing the Dane:

This shot of the nunnery scene gives some indication of how this will be interpreted on stage:

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Duchess of Malfi (Stage on Screen production from the Greenwich Theatre)

Describing a play as being “ahead of its time” can have wild implications, especially if said theatrical drama was written four hundred years ago. But watching the Greenwich Theatre’s superb production of The Duchess of Malfi, it’s possible to see that John Webster apparently throws out the usual rules of cause and effect and characterisation and as B. Ifor Evans suggests in A Short History of English Drama:
"(it is) as if life itself were governed by chance, not reason, as if human beings acted from passion rather than from consistent conduct governed by consecutive thought."
The result is a radical concoction in which antagonist becomes protagonist and the audience's sympathies shift half way through against our better judgement.

Although Webster begins Malfi with former criminal Bosola's attempt to gain a pardon and show his changed demeanour and he hangs around to offer commentary, from the moment the Duchess enters he places her front and centre and the play becomes a kind of courtly romance, in which Malfi marries her clerk for love rather than money, but as is the way with such concoctions in secret because its against the expressed wishes of her two brothers, a cardinal and a duke who are consumed with spiritual but mostly financial reasons why a second union (any union) should not take place.

When Bosola is inserted into her household to spy on their sister and uncovers the truth the action, though Webster's writing retains a skein of dark humour, turns tragedy as the misguided motivations of the brothers lead Bosola to seek revenge for what they’ve tempted him to do and the person they force him to become in order to carry out their business. Rather like Hitchcock's Psycho, as well experiencing a massive genre shift, the audience finds its allegiance shift in the direction of the man they should find most repellent, but unlike Norman Bates, Webster allows Bosola to ultimately find redemption.

As Bosola, Tim Treloar is commanding. Opening the play as a kind of unreconstructed Gene Hunt figure easily brought into the conspiracy by some easy change, as he shifts from arrogant to avenger, the sweat and tears between seem to become permanently etched on his face. He’s matched by Aislin McGuckin’s attuned aristocratic Malfi whose pre-Raphaelite gait belies a complex soul; rightly, she commands the stage, her maid and various men folk like satellites drifting about her, and it's one of the rare occasions when the loyalty seems deserved rather than conferred because of her position.

But there are few weak performances. As he did with his Mosca in Volpone, Mark Hadfield exquisitely emphasises the duplicitousness of the Cardinal to especially shocking effect when his lover is crossed in a gesture which should be a blessing but becomes the binary opposite. The cold magnetism of Tim Steed’s Ferdinand makes legible why Bosola would throw in his lot even though they’re clearly very wary of one another. Edmund Kinglsey initially seems slightly uncertain in Antonio’s skin but as the character’s masculinity increases so does the strength of his performance to the point that when he discovers his wife’s fate the effect is heartbreaking.

With simple setting and “contemporary” costuming of no fixed time frame, Elizabeth Freestone’s staging is in service to making the text as lucid as possible. Malfi’s dramatic domestic story is delivered with weighty hammer blows but unafraid to underscore the tonal shifts even taking risks by inserting some apparently humorous staging of her own, which seemed to confuse the audience who were watching during this recording; in one particularly hilarious moment comes during the dark tipping point of the story and is greeted with much nervous laughter. But that just seems to fit a play that itself is striving to innovate beyond the expectations of its time.

The Duchess of Malfi is available on dvd from Stage & Screen.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Hamlet (RSC Macmillan) Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen.

Who's There?

Despite my praise for the RSC’s complete works project which led me to embarrassing editor Jonathan Bate at a lecture/booksigning when I told him about being “something of a fan”, I was initially a bit reticent about purchasing an individual edition of Hamlet on the assumption that it would simply reprint the material already available in the larger volume. But since I’m a completest and I very much liked the cover with its spade variation on the usual Yorrick’s skull or Ghost, Amazon were soon making a debit to my credit card.

Publication Data

Published 2008 which makes it, I think, the freshest edition of the text available, what with rivals reprinting older material with new covers. The third revised edition of the Arden third series was in 2005.


As expected, and perhaps understandably, there is a sense of déjà vu. Much of the introduction replicates text from the complete works, as does the key facts, the text itself obviously and the Shakespeare biography at the back is an abbreviated rewrite of the general introduction. Yet, even if you already have those complete works (and if not, why not exactly, Asda now have copies of the paperback for just over twelve pounds) I would certainly recommend this individual volume, if you’re looking for a thoughtfully edited, brand new "player" rendition of the play.

Bate’s introduction is relatively short but plain speaking, interested in illuminating the doubling of Hamlet with other characters, Laertes, Fortinbras and Claudius who it’s suggested had comparable schooling. There’s a dichotomy at the heart of Hamlet’s character, Bate suggests, in that he’s capable of some horrible violence, but is unable to react when called upon to do so with pre-meditation because of his intellect, which is I suppose the opposite of Claudius who is capable but doesn’t want to be too bloody and wants to be surreptitious so relies on poison to do his work.

Unusually, the introduction then turns to the stage craft of the fight and that unlike the simple fencing epee of modern productions – notably the RSC with Tennant and Branagh’s film, productions would originally have featured a rapier and dagger which means that the fudge that usually occurs with Hamlet accidentally grabbing Laertes’s weapon should be more purposeful demonstrating a shift in personality. In order to be a worthy successor to his father, he would have to show the same ability to make big decisions like Hamlet Snr’s land grab and this would demonstrate that possibility.

The introduction then expands from the complete works original for a textual discussion related to hammering the play into shape for a coherent production and then a dip into the critical history which cunningly ignores all of the usual names for something rather more oddball. So instead of Bradley, there’s a smattering of Dr Johnson, Goethe, Schlegel, Showalter, Kierkegaard, Freud, Joyce and well, there’s a surprise at the end. What this selection from outside of the critical mainstream demonstrate is that like football, everyone who’s interested as an opinion on Hamlet’s mental state but no one is really sure.

About The Text

Does a good job of explaining the vision for this version of the text. This is, like the Oxford (which I'll be talking about in coming days or weeks) the First Folio in its purest form, with the Q2 additions at the back, “Now all occasions do offend me" and all (note nothing from Q1 which increases the Arden supplement’s value) the assumption being that the post-mortality edition of the play was the most up to date copy and as Shakespeare finally intended. Oddly, Q2 has still been used as guide for “corrections” however and some of the readings from the earlier printing have been transposed, not least sexton for sixteene in the gravedigger scene, which is still problematic despite theatrical tradition.

Hamlet in Performance: The RSC and Beyond

After a new scene-by-scene analysis some might say synopsis, we find a thorough stage history with some focus on the RSC. The main theme is continuity and the line which can be drawn from Burbage to Garrick to Macready, Irving, Barrymore, Gielgud, Olivier and take your pick from many of the faces I’ve looked at on this blog, though I like to think it shifts to Jacobi then Branagh then Tennant, which is unfair since it’s rather orthodox and leaves out the wilder excesses of Burton, Warner and Williamson.

What marks out the RSC’s contribution is its willingness to experiment and that’s demonstrated in the edition’s true innovation, a round table discussion between three practitioners who have produced the play for stage. Ron Daniels’s contribution is based on his so-called pyjama Hamlet with Mark Rylance in 1984; John Caird directed Simon Russell Beale for the National in 2000; Michael Boyd the artistic director of the RSC tackled the play in 2004 with Toby Stephens in 2004.

These few pages cover a lot of ground and you might have noticed me already quoting from it in my show reviews and are a demonstration that there’s no better people to talk about the play than those tasked with turning it into a piece of drama although there is some disagreement between the three as to how, for example, brutally the closet scene should be played, how abusive Hamlet should be to his mother, the extent to which he is suspicious of his motives.

How is it, my lord?

A thumping good edition all round then, striking the right note between helping the beginner and offering something new for the fan/scholar. Having taken over from the Penguin as the RSC’s text of choice, it is still very much a player’s edition. The notes at the bottom of each page are brief but pointed and the text is well spaced out and readable. I’d refer you to the complete works first if you’re looking for something with the same scholarly aims but with greater depth.

Hamlet (RSC Macmillan) Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen. £6.99 paperback. ISBN: 9780230217874.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Volpone (Stage on Screen production from the Greenwich Theatre)

In the dying moments of his Volpone, Ben Jonson risks ridicule by requesting that the audience only applaud if they have enjoyed what they have just witnessed. Luckily for the cast and crew in the Greenwich Theatre for this recording of the play for Stage on Screen (who were good enough to send me a copy for review) they’re met by an appreciative audience. I’m a bit more cautious which shouldn’t reflect on the Greenwich, rather that Jonson’s satire on greed left me disenfranchised and disappointed and even more appreciative of the complexity of his King's Men colleague Shakespeare’s writing.

Jonson’s story of a repulsive aristocratic conman destabilising the lives of his equally despicable peers portrays the dark heart of humanity; from Volpone to his Iago-like dissembling servant Mosco to the Venetian gentlemen who crave his inheritance, this is a society that covets wealth above human feelings. One “VIP” is even willing to prostitute his wife Celia to Volpone in order to secure his fortune. When the central nobleman is initially brought to court, the judges are easily persuaded of his innocence by those of reputation rather than the truth, which admittedly has a certain contemporary resonance.

But I wasn’t involved. None of the characters are particularly sympathetic, which I know is a probably a reductive view of the play since they’re not supposed to be, but in general my taste is for drama in which the protagonists have dimensions and don’t quite so nakedly exist as signifiers for whatever themes the playwright is hoping to expose. Even a delicious bastard like Richard III has complex (if misguided) reasons for his reign of terror, whereas Volpone is simply a hedonistic empty vessel I was unable to connect to because Jonson refuses to allow us below the surface.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t laugh with this production, especially at the Steptoe-like chemistry between Richard Bremmer and Mark Hadfield (who played the Gravedigger in the recent RSC Hamlet), the latter bringing to the fore Mosca’s patient wait to get one over on his master. There’s also some hilarious antics of the clowns led by Conrad Westmaas, who add some bravado during the play’s darker moments. Aislin McGuckin is also worth mentioning for giving bite to the otherwise submissive Celia, making her treatment by Volpone all the more shocking.

Director Elizabeth Freestone’s blocking of the courtroom scenes is remarkable; the cast address us, with the law high at the back of the stage to offer the judgement we cannot. There are also occasion when she transports in "filmic" elements, the actors creating moments in which the action rewinds or enters slow motion. These are accentuated by OB director Chris Cowey who places cameras on the lip of the stage putting the viewer right on the front row of the audience when the various characters step into the spotlight. Cowey was formerly the producer of Top of the Pops and is very good at putting the camera in position to catch the best of the action.

I’m willing to admit that my overall reaction to the play itself might simply be because my experience of the drama in this period is skewed towards its most famous son, which is a result of a general tendency to focus on Shakespeare at the expense of his contemporaries. If the likes of Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher are increasingly being ignored in theatres, they’re even less present in the home market, which means that unless you have access to theatreland, it’s impossible to get a proper sense of their work, especially as it appears on stage. If nothing else, this Stage on Screen release is vital in demonstrating that Jacobean drama was as any other era and allowing us to decide whether we appreciate it. Or not.

Volpone is available on dvd from Stage & Screen.

Friday, July 02, 2010

the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford

The Guardian hosts a mini-documentary about the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford. Such a shame, though, that they can't have that and The Courtyard running at the same time. The town, ironically, has a paucity of theatres and would really benefit from more than one physical location for hosting touring companies.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Hamlet (Spinebreakers). Edited by Dr. G B Harrison.

Who's There?

Spine Breakers from the Puffin Books imprint is an online book community for teenagers between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, with editorial control and content produced by people from within that age group. Penguin are now using the initiative to publicise some classic books, Pride and Prejudice, Dracula, Jane Eyre and Hamlet giving each the trappings of a modern novel with a day-glo cover and a zeitgeisty quote on this back, in this case, David Tennant saying that it’s “Probably the most famous play there’s ever been.”


The motivation for choosing Hamlet (for which a review copy was supplied) is right there on the cover. Penguin are refreshingly taking the logical assumption from the first Folio as explained by Steve Roth in 'Hamlet: The Undiscovered Country' that based on evidence in the gravedigger scene, the Danish prince is a teenager, just sixteen years (and not thirty as theatrical tradition has it), which means that the play has a better chance of resonating with the target audience. So there he is, a fresh faced Justin Bieber lookalike, clutching Yorrik’s skull. The synopsis on the back emphasises this by describing Hamlet up-front as a “young prince”.

The Text

Open the cover, though, and after the title page we find a reprint of GB Harrison’s original Penguin edition from 1937 which I previously reviewed at this link under its other guise in the Penguin Popular Classic edition. Short of a whole new editorial, this is a fairly good choice because of its simple but detailed approach to Shakespeare’s biography and Elizabethan staging. In this context, the handy glossary at the back of the book also reads like the Urban Dictionary and included words which would be no less unusual in teen speak now: “drossy: scummy”, “fordo: destroy” and “milch: moist”.

How is it, my lord?

My few reservations about the text are carried over as well, if not moreso since in this context its more likely to find use in an educational context were the information being given to a student and what they believe could effect their exam marks. Plus, however lush the cover, this is still the repackaging of material which is available for five pounds less elsewhere. Nevertheless, the philosophy behind the Spine Breakers editions is to be applauded and I’m sure Harrison would be pleased to see his work still being used to help introduce Shakespeare to a new audience all of these years later.

Hamlet (Spinebreakers). Edited by Dr. G B Harrison. Published by Puffin Books. £6.99 paperback. ISBN: 9780141331836 (for which a review copy was supplied)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Hamlet: The Game

Independent game producer mif2000 have produced an old school shareware point and click version of the play. A time limited version is available at this link, as well as a trailer. Author Deins Galanin has been interviewed by Joystiq:
One thing I'm proud of is the unique puzzles you won't see in any other game-they are very hard and extremely simple at the same time. However, my greatest pride is the way we managed to adapt the Hamlet story to the game's setting. At first glance, you may think that all the game and the play have in common is the title, but if you take a closer look, you'll realize that the game has all of the key events of the famous tragedy, as well as its main characters-although they're transformed nearly to absurdity.
I've not had time to play it yet, but the graphics bring to mind Ren and Stimpy and those other 90s Nickelodeon cartoons.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hamlet (Penguin Shakespeare). Introduction by Alan Singfield. Text edited by Professor T. J. B. Spencer.

Who's There?

There’s something rather legendary about The New Penguin Shakespeare editions of his plays (for which a review copy was supplied). In nearly all of the television documentaries I've seen across the years, when actors are projecting at each other in rehearsal rooms they’ve almost all had an RSC now NT endorsed Penguin paperback sitting tightly in their hands or folding over by the spine. They’re very tactile, with their soft covers and thin paper, which make it possible to roll them up like scrolls and toss lightly to one side when the words are finally flowing from memory.


Clare Melinsky is a British illustrator specialising in lino-cuts in colour and black and white following the style of traditional woodcuts. She's provided elements for all of the new series of Penguin Shakespeares and reproductions are available through her website, hand printed at the cost of £90-£120. As an aside Melinsky's recently been asked to produce covers for a new edition of the Harry Potter novels.

Publication Data

Penguin originally published a slender edition in the pre-post World War II (which still survives in reprint I reviewed last week). The New editions arrived in the 70s and 80s, with a simple rendering of the text, uncluttered by the footnotes of more academic additions – which is probably what made them so attractive to actors. The commentary was at the back, ready for consultation when a disagreement develops about the meaning of the words, or as a starting point for the director’s interpretation.

The Text

Those elements are continued in this 2005 edition and indeed the play is exactly the same text, account and commentary edited by Professor T. J. B. Spencer that is also in print as part of the four tragedies omnibus I wrote about the other day. With other publishers rushing out new versions of the text, it’s interesting that Penguin are happy to stand behind a version from three decades ago for their main edition, though perhaps after four hundred years it’s the reading of the play which is important less than textual matters.

General Introduction

And an excellent introduction this provides. A new General Introduction brings the scholarship of Shakespeare’s biography in line with research into the mid-part of the past decade, happy to emphasise his work as a collaborator early and later in life and in the ensuing chronology though Edward III and Sir Thomas More are mentioned (at least as far as to point out that they don’t feature in the Penguin edition), Arden of Faversham isn’t and Cardenio is stated as being lost without allusion to Double Falsehood.

What sets Stanley Welles’s general introduction apart from others I’ve read is its willingness to go beyond Shakespeare’s death. The Restoration period of adaptation and veneration is covered and then his critical development from Coleridge through Hazlet and Granville-Barker. Such matters are covered only briefly, but Welles refreshingly makes plain that Shakespeare did not write books but plays and for the proper sense of the characters to be understood they have to be seen in performance.


Anne Bilson’s original play introduction is replaced now with far longer, more intellectual rigorous piece by Sinfield. But like Bilson, this new writer understands that readers may already have a wealth of criticism to hand, not least in the play’s commentary, and so decides to instead present their own individual impression of the text. Emerging from these dense pages is a writer who has a more holistic approach to criticism and who’s very willing to ignore or actively battle against orthodoxy.

Sinfield begins with arguments for and against Hamlet’s religious persuasion, and the extent to which that effects his ability to kill the king. Bilson went into similar areas, but Sinfield then cleverly turns it on its head by suggesting that actually Shakespeare doesn’t give enough evidence either way and may simply be relying on “us” or to put it more prosaically than he does, each individual audience member to decide with the young prince’s actions compare favourably or otherwise with our own world view, spiritual or otherwise.

He then turns that on its head by suggesting that actually, the “character” based approach to the play – as begun by A.C. Bradley – in which themes are developed through a character investigation, doesn’t work in Hamlet because the playwright seems to actively battle against making specific judgement in that way. Of course directors and actors must in order to make sense of a performance, but Sinfield argues that Shakespeare almost offers too many choices (which no doubt reflects the richness of the critical industry).

In other words, to attempt to apply a psychologically coherent expectation of character to Hamlet as we do with modern drama is a fools errand; whole books have been written about Gertrude’s attitude when in truth like many other characters (Angelo in Measure for Measure for one), after the closet scene it’s almost as though Shakespeare loses interest in her, like Ophelia she exists merely to demonstrate some aspect of Hamlet’s forward narrative motion rather than exist within her own being.

Play in Performance

A quick step through a mix of production history and dramatic choices, what to cut, how literal to make Elsinore, how to stage the Ghost and how casting choices effect characterisation. As a firm believer in Fortinbras and the political dimension, it’s shocking to me that all of that was cut well into the last century. Hamlet as a “simple” family drama can become a bit airless unless done well – Claudius the politician seems harder to kill just some murderer, underscoring the difficulty of Hamlet's mission.

Further Reading

A breezy look at the other editions available and some of the wilder excesses of criticism from across the decades which underscores the introduction’s reminder that by the play’s end because some it’s greatest mysteries, not least the origin and proper motivation of the Ghost are not explained, dozens of academics have felt the need to fill the gap in understanding. The tone is suitably mocking when required and the added context makes this rather more useful than the version from 1980.

How is it, my lord?

The newer Penguin edition will be perfect for someone intimidated by the nerdier excesses of the Arden or Oxford. My only suggestion, for future reprints, would be for the return of the original Bilson introduction alongside the Sinfield. Neither covers the same ground and though it would inevitably make the edition fatter, it feels important that these Penguins in particular should retain a sense of chronological critical continuity, especially considering their ongoing place within theatrical history.

Hamlet (Penguin Shakespeare). Introduction by Alan Singfield. Text edited by Professor T. J. B. Spencer is published by Penguin Books. £7.99 paperback. ISBN: 9780141013077.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Antony is emasculated by his love for Cleopatra.

Chrissy McKeon is attempting to read all of Shakespeare's plays or at the very least cover what hasn't been through already. On Tony and Cleo:
"Throughout the play, there are times when Antony is emasculated by his love for Cleopatra, and times where Cleopatra is, well, masculated, for lack of a better word. As a result of his love for Cleopatra, Antony becomes impotent in war and the ruling of his state. As a result, Cleopatra arguably becomes more potent as a ruler. In some ways, Antony and Cleopatra are epitomes of their respective genders. Antony is a renowned ruler, logical, and he broods male sexuality (I’m thinking…. Russell Crowe?) Cleopatra is seductive and powerful, but also emotional. But at the same time, they both embody very feminine and masculine traits.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Four Tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth (Penguin Classics). Introduction by Anne Barton. Text edited by Professor T. J. B. Spencer.

Who's There?

A thousand page slab of a volume, the Penguin Classics Four Tragedies (for which a review copy was supplied), gathers between two covers Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth and the (according to a note towards the front “accompanying editorial apparatus” which is “faithful reproductions of the original New Penguin Shakespeare editions”, although the “text has been reset, with the textual notes placed at the bottom of the page for ease of reference, the text itself is unchanged”.


The section of stained glass window on the front is from the centre of the Betley window which is currently on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum and portrays a hobby horse from a popular morris dance that may have been contemporary with Shakespeare, although the closest connection is in notes about the window jotted into an edition of Henry IV, Part One by George Tollet who lived in Betley Hall where the window found its second home (the first having been demolished).

Nevertheless, its depiction of daggers positioned straight at the man’s head is emblematic of these four plays and of Shakespearean tragedy in general where few characters die noble deaths, generally murdered, often suicidal usually with daggers. In fact, Hamlet is one of the few plays in which daggers aren’t (as far as we can gather depending upon the stage directions) the weapon of choice other than when Hamlet almost takes Claudius’s life.

Publication Data

All four presentations are as detailed and incisively edited as you’d expect if a touch dated; the Hamlet commentary is from 1980, but Othello’s was written in 1968, Lear in 1972 and Macbeth in 1967. This collection was originally published in 1994.  The following review will concentrate on the Hamlet section, for obvious reasons. For a look at other aspects, please refer to the alternative versions of this weblog that I like to think exist in parallel universes.


The introduction offers a good general survey of Hamlet’s themes with an emphasis on the revenge aspects, opening with a short history of its antecedents followed by a discussion of sources for retribution. Whilst I don’t agree with everything writer Anne Barton (current Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge) contends, especially in relation to exactly how intimate Ophelia’s relationship is with Hamlet (which I think Shakespeare leaves open to greater interpretation than Barton suggests), she does point to something that I hadn’t noticed before.

To wit: Hamlet is a fan of the theatre and has an expert knowledge of its works, especially the revenge tragedies, and now he finds himself the main character within one, his realisation presumably at the heart of the “Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I?”. This is an extremely post-modern reading of the play which is worth pursuing, especially in light of the mountain of other criticism which has been published in relation to exactly why Hamlet dithers in his mission.

Hamlet is effectively Randy from the Scream films; he knows the ultimate fate of “heroes” within these kinds of fictions, and aware of the rules governing the plot in which he finds himself but unable to do much about the ensuing carnage. You could even compare the video night scene in which Randy enunciates said rules to Hamlet’s outbursts during The Mousetrap, pointing out the features of the revenge tragedy. Once he kills Polonius, his fate is sealed: “The readiness is all…” etc.

Further Reading

A good survey of criticism, covering a period from the 1930s through to the late 70s, stalking everyone from Jenkins to T.S. Eliot to Wilson Knight and A.C. Bradley. Stored in paragraphs, my preference would have been for a more bibliographic approach and lists though I can understand why that might not have been quite as useful in terms of space in the book’s original edition which would have already been lengthy because of the need to reproduce the play.

An Account of the Text

Neatly outlines the chronology of the early editions which runs similar to the one which has later appeared in the Arden combined edition of Q1 and F, but stops short of considering each of them to be a complete play in their own right, preferring to see them all as raw materials for an editor to put together what they think is the best approximation of what Shakespeare meant (which as I’m discovering can be very mutable depending upon the sensitivity of the relevant academic).

The Text

The resulting main text then, is a conflation, based heavily on Q2 but pulling in omitted passages and readings from F and Q1, though not the latter's exposition scene between Horatio and the Queen, preferring the pirates. Shifting the textual notes beneath the verse brings it in line with the Arden and Oxford, but concern themselves with enlightening the textual richness with a thread of sardonic humour than bringing in literary influences and other critical readings.

How is it, my lord?

Which is the main reason for recommending this edition; like every production of the play, every published edition has its own quirks and the New Penguins is to try and look at the play from a less orthodox perspective. It knows it is part of an eco-system of criticism and that it won’t be the only copy of the play that people, even students will read. So rather than being exhaustive, this Penguin offers the reader a chance to look at it from a slightly different perspective and succeeds.

Four Tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth (Penguin Classics).  Introduction by Anne Barton, edited by Professor T. J. B. Spencer is published by Penguin Classics. £10.99 paperback. ISBN: 9780140434583.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

29 Anton Lesser

Hamlet played by Anton Lesser.
Directed by Neville Jason.

Since brevity is supposed to be the soul of wit, I will be brief. As well has having the budget classical music market sealed up, Naxos also have a list of drama audiobooks that covers most of the canon and that includes two different Hamlets – the early Gielgud (coming soon) and this 1997 recording with Anton Lesser in the title role. Lesser first professionally played the role on stage under Jonathan Miller in 1982 at the age of thirty (having previously attempted it at school at sixteen) for the Donmare Warehouse. The full story of that production is in Mary Zenet Maher’s Modern Hamlets and their soliloquies which does a good job of mythologizing their efforts.

With that in mind I was rather looking forward to this recording and indeed it starts out well enough with some unidentified classical music on the soundtrack which works as a dramatic score. But it doesn’t take too long to realise that director Neville Jason isn’t interested in providing a too radical interpretation of the text and within a few scenes a strange lethargy breaks in as the drama falls out of joint and I was left enjoying this and that small bit of business but unable to really become fully engrossed. By the time of The Mousetrap, I was actively disappointed.

But I’m willing to admit it doesn’t sound like it’s all the cast’s fault. Rather the cast all seem to be appearing in different versions of the play, as though in turning up for the recording, they’re doing the version of the character they may previously have offered on stage. Lesser certainly has that deliberately unlikeable adolescence and I certainly agree with the reviewer (quoted in Maker’s books) who said that it was the first time that they’d wondered by Claudius doesn’t simply off the boy too since we know he has the wherewithal. The answer is of course that then we’d only have half a play.

But generally, if indeed this was directed in the traditional sense, Jason – perhaps guided by Naxos – was most interested in producing a conventional reading of the full text, with a musty Polonius, panto Claudius and indeterminate Gertrude. Only Emma Fielding seems to break with tradition with an Ophelia who’s a very modern woman of the kind that appear in BBC nine o’clock dramas, quick witted and slightly naughty. When she agrees to her father’s request to stay away from Hamlet, she gives the impression that she’s only telling him what he wants hear, fully intending to raid the prince’s bedchamber again that night. Sadly, obviously, events conspire against her.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Hamlet (Penguin Popular Classics). Edited by Dr. G B Harrison.

Who's There?

The Penguin Popular Classics edition of Hamlet (for which a review copy was supplied) is something of a publishing classic as well as a cheap way of picking up the play. From the mid-30s onwards, Penguin pioneered the production of inexpensive copies of contemporary fiction, the familiar three band, two colour coded cover filling news stands which had previously only carried newspapers and magazines. Penguin Classics sprang out of that spirit, offering quality presentations of great literature from around the world at a relatively inexpensive price making them accessible to an audience outside of academia, in some cases, for the first time.

Open the florescent green cover of the Penguin Popular Classics and after the title page we find a reprint of Dr. GB Harrison’s original Penguin edition from 1937. Harrison was the general editor of the Penguin Shakespeare between 1937 and 1959 and one those old scholars who oscillated between action in both in both world wars (working for army intelligence) and years spent in academia, writing seminal books, in his case about the Elizabethan age. On my own shelf I have Harrison's Introducing Shakespeare, produced for the Pelican imprint at around the time of this Hamlet edition.

General Introduction

This edition opens with a succinct but surprisingly detailed biography of Shakespeare and his position in the theatrical life of the London from Henry VI to the ultimate publication of the plays, the tone of which suggests that as with most artists, even he was outpaced by youngsters like Ben Johnson with new ideas. That’s followed by a few pages on Elizabethan theatre emphasising the bareness of the staging, illustrated with the rather nice wood-engraving of the Globe Theatre by R.J. Beedham, the image of which will now be familiar to anyone whose visited the reconstruction.


Those same sections appeared in all of the original Penguin Shakespeares edited by Harrison before he provided an individual essay describing the origins of each individual play. In Hamlet’s case that means a lengthy synopsis of what was believed at the time to be the source text Shakespeare would have used, Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques (skipping over Belleforest's own source Saxo Grammaticus) and some consideration of the textual confusion between the three printings of the plays and the decisions Harrison therefore had to make in preparing the text.

The Text

Harrison notes that while the tradition is to conflate the texts (as happened later with Penguin’s New Shakespeare editions) or to employ the second Quarto with Folio corrections, this edition prefers the Folio with Q2 as the basis “correction obvious mis-readings by the Folio”. Having said that, Harrison has still followed the Theoboldian tradition of adding to the main text such Folio omissions, Q2 additions as Hamlet’s Act IV soliloquy “How all occasions do inform against me..” but with square brackets around them, which still suggests conflation through the back door to a purist like me.

Notes and Glossary

At the back of the book are notes and glossary sections with in some places lengthy expositions about the text, explaining contemporary references, offering commentary on the action and extrapolating the historical underpinnings which with contemporary eyes demonstrate the change in educational expectations. At one point Harrison says that “centre” means “the centre of the Earth which was regarded as the absolute centre of the universe” without mentioning Ptolemy or explaining why, something which would have to be done now.

How is it, my lord?

At £2 this is a bargain. However, I still have some reservations, not least that Hamlet scholarship has moved on in the seventy years since this volume was originally published. Some of Harrison’s conclusions, especially about biographical dating and the origins of Q1 have become antiquated. Perhaps a future edition might include a couple of pages putting the main text into some context or at the very least reprint the author’s note which appears on the back of Introducing Shakespeare, thereby underscoring the great contribution Harrison originally made to our national understanding of this play and its writer.

Hamlet (Penguin Popular Classics) edited by Dr J B Harrison is published by Penguin Classics. £2 paperback. ISBN: 9780140620580.