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.