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.