Monday, October 24, 2011

Michael Sheen on Hamlet.

Sheen was interviewed in The Guardian today about his preparation for the new Young Vic production:
"Hamlet's a good play. I know that sounds mad, but it really is! I mean it's really extraordinary. What's extraordinary is you can have so many different productions and actors and directors and their different visions, but it seems to kind of respond to each; it seems to adapt, and that's what I've found. What's quite freaky about it – it is actually a little bit scary – is that it feels like a living organism, it's like a thing that actually adapts. It's this weird thing where if you came along and said, well, I think Hamlet is actually about crocodiles – well, then it does seem to be about crocodiles. As long as it's within the realm of possibility, it somehow seems to throw up these things and you go, well yes, I think this is what Shakespeare actually meant! But not everyone can be right, so it's weird. It seems to kind of meet you in a way that other plays don't. It's an incredibly unusual experience."
No mention of his previous attempt, but as we know each actor's Hamlet changes as they age.

Updated 25/10/2011  The Guardian have now also uploaded some rehearsal photos.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folios. Eric Rasmussen.

If you’re one of those people and looking to steal a very rare book, whatever you do, never, and this should be underlined and repeated, never, steal a Shakespeare First Folio. Not because stealing a Shakespeare First Folio is necessarily that hard; if the heists detailed in Eric Rasmussen’s The Shakespeare Thefts are an example, it’s actually a relatively straightforward process to steal a Shakespeare First Folio. Not quite sticking a Harry Potter under your jumper in WH Smiths, but security in some places has been strangely loose and based on much trust between a reference library and the person purporting to be an academic.

No, the problem with stealing a Shakespeare First Folio is that you’ll never be able to sell it on. Well, you might, on the black market, assuming you have the right contacts, but only for a fraction of what it’s actually worth. The problem is, at least for a prospective thief is that not only do Rasmussen and a team of researchers have a record of the location for all the couple of hundred or so Shakespeare First Folios in existence, they’ve also tirelessly created a descriptive record of them all so that if a Folio is stolen and then another Folio appears on the market, they can tell relatively quickly if they’re one and the same.

Soon this data will been published. It’s in The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Index and although – based on the section quoted in this supplementary book – it’s going to be a fairly dry read it also provides added security to those owners who’ve agreed to have their Folio recorded. You may have seen the documentary on television last year, the story of how Raymond Rickett Scott carried a Folio into the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington claiming to have bought it in Cuba, and although it was missing its covers and first pages, they were very quickly able to identify it as the copy stolen from Durham University ten years before.

The Shakespeare Thefts is a cautionary tale and there are numerous other examples of less educated thieves who’ve fallen into the same trap of assuming that stealing a Shakespeare First Folio is just like any other rare book. But Rasmussen seeks to underscore the point by revealing that it's not simply the description of each book which identifies it, but it's provenance. They’ve been able to identify who originally purchased each of these Folios and the book's journey through time, some simply sitting on a shelf in the intervening years, some having escaped war zones, some even having apparently saved lives, taking a bullet themselves.

All of which is very exciting, but the book itself is something of a curate’s egg, not quite sure what it wants to be. On the one hand it is about the thefts of the folios and on the other it is about their history. Then there’s a third hand about the actual processes of recording the folios and some anecdotes about that and the inevitable forth about those Folios out of reach, locked away in private vaults with orders for them not to be seen the frustration of which Rasmussen returns to on a number of occasions. He returns to a few subjects on a number of occasions even repeating the same information. This is a messy book. 

Perhaps a more schematic approach would have helped. The Descriptive Index promises to have full provenance details and perhaps a better approach here would have been to simply pick the more interesting Folios and offered the story of those with an anecdote about its recording as this attempts to do in a few chapters. But that would also have a required a slightly more academic tone and the other slightly problem is Rasmussen (who amongst other things co-edited the RSC Complete Works with Jonathan Bate) is attempting to write for that market and the popular history section which in some cases makes it very readable but in others slightly insubstantial. I managed to finish the book in about two hours.

It's worth adding, I think, that these comments are based on an Advanced Reader's Edition ("an uncorrected version") received through Amazon's Vine scheme which has warnings all over it that the quotes should be checked for accuracy.  Interestingly although this copy has 214 pages, the published copy advertised on Palgrave Macmillan's website (and pictured above)  boasts 240 pages but given the size of the text here, unless the font's even bigger, there has to be more content.  So it's possible this might be an early text too and due for much editing before it hits the shops or online retailer attempting to do away with shops.  Expect this review to be edited when I have more news.

As it stands, what is here is never less than enthralling and the slightly random approach does give it the tone of an extended after dinner speech or spending an entertaining evening in the office of an academic after hours as they regale you with war stories or fishing tales, the Folio destroyed in fires or nibbled by rats. There’s an excellent short chapter about the preparation of the text for the recent RSC Hamlet with David Tennant, the production we didn’t see, and the appendix is as clear a description of the process of the original publication of the folios as I’ve ever read. Approach it in the right spirit and this is a thoroughly entertaining read.

The Shakespeare Thefts In Search of the First Folios by Eric Rasmussen. Palgrave Macmillan. 2011. RRP: £16.99. ISBN: 9780230109414. Review copy supplied.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

'Tis Pity She's A Whore (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Sonia Massai.

The Arden Early Modern Drama edition of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore isn’t the easiest book to read on the bus.  As ever, the noise of the other passengers calling work to tell them they’re late or the sound of some teenager playing Beyonce through the speaker on their phone simply aren’t conducive to concentrating on an academic text. But there’s also the self-consciousness of watching the not so subtle glances of my fellow passengers, the double take in which they have to look again to make absolutely sure that they did see “whore” the first time peeping just above my index finger.

All of which is utterly crazy and probably says more about me than the book, not least since the same title with the same pejorative as plastered all over Liverpool during the Everyman production I missed last year due to it being sold out on the days I wanted to go. On the basis of this splendid edition (and the reviews of the production) I missed something of a treat, a potent investigation into human sexuality, morality and taboos (if my fellow bus passengers are anything to go by) that still resonates in modern society.  ITV’s Midsomer Murders utilised the story as the basis for the their first ever episode.

Editor Sonia Massai confronts these issues head on, beginning with the play’s central storyline, the disastrous incestuous relationship between brother and sister before dollying outwards to show the stunning effects that has on society, in this case the city of Parma. The play is often thought of as a rewrite of Romeo and Juliet, but as Massai notes, whereas Shakespeare’s text retains its comedic structure because the death of the lovers still has the power to unify the Montagues and Capulates, ‘Tis Pity falls into utter tragedy, as Annabella and Giovanni’s indiscretion leads to the wrecking of not only their own family but that of those for which they’re intended.

Massai demonstrates that the play is both very simple but also utterly complex, oscillating between the monosyllabic lust which grips the siblings and the intellectual justification offered by Giovanni (which essentially amounts to “Well, we’re already of one flesh so …”). As with other Arden Early Modern Drama editions, her textual notes show once again that it wasn’t just Shakespeare who was capable of creating a text rich with allusion, who was influenced by Ovid and other classical authors. Even less is known about Ford (born in Devon in 1586, matricated in Oxford in 1601) but he was clearly just as well read.

The content of the play has kept it in relative obscurity up until very recently. After a burst of contemporary productions, it was left largely unproduced for centuries (with the exception of a few private shows, one of which was attended by Samuel Pepys and an “ingenious lady” in the 1660s) until a strong unbroken run in the past sixty years where it’s generally been edited to focus on the incest plot, generally portraying the lovers as victims of circumstance. Which isn’t to say their haven’t been some spectacular performances. The book includes photos of the set used for Alan Ayckbourn’s 1988 NT production, a Renaissance urban landscape on many levels.

About my only criticism of this edition is that it's so brief.  The introduction is afforded just ninety pages, and Massai must be sitting on a wealth of research which she hasn't the room to fully explore  Some of the best material is in the footnotes, the reference to Pepys diary, comparisons with modern media (the aforementioned visit to Midsomer and a useful comparison to Stephen Poliakoff's film Close My Eyes) and seems to tease a longer more baroque, more comprehensive text.  But what is here is enthralling and I look forward to seeing what other non-Shakespearean dramas Arden will be publishing in the future.

'Tis Pity She's A Whore (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Sonia Massai. Methuen Drama. 2011. RRP: £9.99. ISBN: 978-1904271505. Review copy supplied.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


In his latest video blog about film projects by great director that didn't happen, Mark Kermode drops an amazing bombshell ...

The World's Strangest blog has more:
4. Hamlet, starring Cary Grant
In the late 1940s, Hitchcock hit on an odd idea: he wanted to produce a modernized version of Hamlet set in England with Cary Grant in the title role. According to Hitchcock, the project “would be presented as a psychological melodrama.” The idea hit the rocks after Hitchcock’s studio, Transatlantic, announced the project and a professor who had written a modernized version of Shakespeare’s tale threatened a lawsuit.
Sounds rather like the Kurosawa or the Kaurismaki.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Duchess of Malfi (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Leah S. Marcus.

John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi is a (so far) atypical selection for the Arden Early Modern Drama series because it’s one of the few plays by a contemporary of Shakespeare which is still performed with great regularity, enjoying over forty commercial productions between the mid 1940s and late 80s (with countless others since). Which is doubly unusual given that most of Webster’s plays are lost, with only a couple of others including the equally popular The White Devil and a smattering of collaborations still available.

Which isn’t bad considering he was largely a part-time playright, with recent research uncovering evidence of a second life working in his father’s coach-building business. It’s also interesting that his authorship of the plays isn’t questioned even though he arguably received a less distinguished education than Shakespeare in a school run by his father’s firm. But as editor for this volume Leah S. Marcus demonstrates, he was not a man intellectually punching above himself, it was simply that his priorities were differently weighted in comparison to his colleagues.

Marcus offers a few conclusions as to why the play was so popular then, and continues to be so now. She talks at length about the nostalgic element, of Malfi as a reminder of Elizabeth I during the Jacobian period, her more unsavoury personality traits all but forgotten. There’s also the darkness of the plot, the clandestine marriage eventually destroyed by the lycanthropic Ferdinand and the details of the murders, not least the poisoned bible. More recently it is it’s capacity, like the best plays, to feed into contemporary allusion, even evoking the Holocaust in the 1940s.

But mostly it’s simply that it’s a damn good play. It’s based on historical sources, developed heavily from the life of a Duchess of Amalfi, an Italian Renaissance figure who also married and had children in secret, only to be captured and disappear as they attempted to flee to Siena once they’d been found out. Though Webster embellished the story somewhat (see above), there’s something very seductive about witnessing such an unbelievable story within a theatrical setting. This is a Hollywood narrative at its finest, but in the early 1600s.

The main documentary texts referred to are included as appendices, though like Shakespeare, Webster had a magpie approach to his writing and the text is filled with allusion and laced with elements of Delio and Donne (post conversion) Unlike many Arden editors, Marcus has decided to leave much of this discussion to the textual notes which makes for a much more focused and readable approach both there and in the introduction (which have sometimes, in other volumes, become bogged down with such things).

As ever, one of the more interesting passages concerns the text. For very tangible reasons, Malfi has two first quartos, an A and B. Printer Nicholas Oakes had quite happily prepared the text and was merrily knocking out editions when Webster happened to pop in to his shop to see how things were going. The firstly the playwright noticed a “Hymne” not by him had been added and there were a range of textual errors. Once the work began again, the “Hymne” had become a “ditty” with a disclaimer pointing to it not being by Webster and a range of other corrections applied.

That printing and the further three are also inextricably linked to the production history, since each contains information about the locations of the various shows and actors involved. These also mirror theatre history as boy casting gives way to actresses with Q3 showing Mary Betterton as (perhaps) the first time a female played Malfi (opposite her husband as Bosola, Ferdinand’s spy). As was the fashion, Q4 was heavily truncated close to the Restoration, and three other adaptations followed, with only the full text returning to rotation in the last century.

Sadly, not as much room is dedicated to the more contemporary productions though there are some useful the photographs of Judi Dench and Helen Mirren at the RSC in 1971 and Royal Exchange Manchester 1980 respectively, the costume of the latter heavily influenced by Elizabeth I. Nevertheless, this is another well turned out edition from Arden and for once we’re able to easily experience the play for ourselves. This useful 1972 BBC production has been uploaded to YouTube and I can also recommend this previously review Stage on Screen version.

The Duchess of Malfi (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Leah S. Marcus. Methuen Drama. 2009. RRP: £10.99. ISBN: 978-1904271512. Review copy supplied.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Philaster (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Suzanne Gossett.

Here is the story of Philaster. Look away now if you don’t want to know the result. The titular young Sicilian prince has usurped from the throne by “the king of Calabria” but continues to abide in court where he resists the urge to retake the crown. Arethusa is in love with him, and a page acts as a go-between, but Philaster through misunderstanding and distrust decides she’s being unfaithful with the page and stabs the both of them. But this being a tragicomedy, they both live and it’s revealed that the page was a girl all along and marriage and geographical recovery ensue.

I can’t believe it’s not Shakespeare, which it isn’t. It’s John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont, writing at the same time as the Bard and it’s suspected giving the crowd what they want in the Jacobian period when the master’s work flow had slowed to a couple of plays a year. The blurb on the back of this Arden Early Modern Drama suggests this is a “Hamlet rewrite” but as its editor Suzanne Gossett identified, “the play is built from plot elements familiar from Hamlet, Othello, Twelfth Night, Two Gentlemen of Verona and Pericles” as well as a number of plays by the same authors.

A modern comparison would be Miami Rhapsody or Far From Heaven which attempt to mimic the film-making styles of Woody Allen and Douglas Sirk respectively. But the approach is also positively post-modern even at the level of speeches, some of which are so suggestive of Cymbeline that there’s been some chatter over the years of which play influenced which, a chicken and egg scenario which can never be entirely resolved. Nevertheless it’s another work which ignorance has left sorely neglected, despite the participation of a Shakespeare collaborator.

Gossett employs a four pronged attack in attempting to rescue the play from obscurity. First there’s the usual contextual business and this case parallels with the politics of King James’s court. James’s rule over England and Scotland is paralleled in the Calbrian King and though the writers are generally thought of as royalists, it’s impossible not to see them suggesting that their new king was something of the usurper. Another strand of Philaster shows the king attempting to find strategic marriages for his children and that also reflects James seeking a union and so alliance in Spain.

Next there’s a short investigation into the form and style of the play. Fletcher claimed that tragicomedy “wants deaths, which is inough to make it no tragedie, yet brings some neere it, which is inough to make it no comedie”, which is a fair description of some of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays, especially Measure for Measure, which should also demonstrate the difficult of keeping within that tone. In Philaster, that’s communicated through pathos and melancholy, that life’s too short (even shorter then) and that happiness is relative.

This (too) soon this gives way to the usual production history, the transformation of Philaster into a ladies play during the restoration period due to the unusual number of female roles (making the page’s role a twist in plain sight), its three adaptations undertook at a time when these authors were better thought of than Shakespeare and most interestingly its single broadcast performance in the US as part of a public radio series created by directors and writers blacklisted by UnAmerican Activities Committee of the House of Representatives.

The final sections deal with the play's wayward textual history. Ironically, like Hamlet, the play has a substantially corrupted Q1 and more substantial Q2 (which forms the basis of this edition) and a Folio (although that was printed fifty years after the play was written) and debate rages about how the first printed quite got into that state (censors? rewrites?) and yet why it contains better stage directions than Q2 (readers copy?). Side by side passages of both are included in the appendices so we can to make up our own minds. Or at least have a go.

Philaster (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Suzanne Gossett. Methuen Drama. 2010. RRP: £11.99. ISBN: 978-1904271734. Review copy supplied.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Writing The Lion King.

Animated Views has an interview with the directors of The Lion King, Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, on the occasion of the film's 3D rerelease and has this titbit on the subject of its Hamlet similarities:
"RI: Many people have noticed similarities to Hamlet in the story of The Lion King. Was that something you were conscious of when making the movie?

RM: Because The Lion King was considered an original story there was always the need to anchor it with something familiar. When we first pitched the revised outline of the movie to Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Peter Schneider and Tom Schumacher, someone in the room announced that Hamlet was similar in its themes and relationships. Everyone responded favorably to the idea that we were doing something Shakespearean and so we continued to look for ways to model our film on that all time classic. Shakespeare is the greatest dramatist in history. His works have stood the test of time like no other. But it takes time to learn to appreciate Shakespeare and I was fortunate enough to grow up in Palo Alto California, in a time and place where arts education was supported."
So the film wasn't originally pitched as a Hamlet remix but those elements were brought in later [previously].

Monday, October 03, 2011

The Taming of the Shrew (Arden Shakespeare. Third Series). Edited by Barbara Hodgdon.

The Arden Shakespeare third series edition of The Taming of the Shrew offers two plays for the price of one. As well as the text printed in the First Folio edited to Arden’s usual standards, Appendix 3 features an unedited facsimile of The Taming of a Shrew, the anonymous play, often mentioned in critical studies but rarely published. It’s the ur-Hamlet or Hamlet Q1 of Shrew, a work which simultaneously aids and infuriates our understanding of the Folio text, and a prop which has recently helped the play’s feminist credentials as it eases into the modern world.

Perhaps recognising the weight of feminist criticism which already exists in relation to the play, Hodgson instead spends much the pagination investigating both plays as part of a tradition of Shrew narratives. Jan Harold Brunvand recently carried out a study of these tales (similar to Vladimir Propp’s classification of fairy tales) listing a wide range of “motif complexes” and “free floating narrative elements” of which The Shrew matches at least eleven, suggesting Shakespeare was calcifying a story which already had a strong oral tradition.

Like the Hamlet texts, critics have become very exercised over the years as to whether one is a rewrite of the other, the extent of Shakespeare’s involvement in A Shrew and the implications that in terms of attribution in contemporary written records. The mention in Henslow’s diary could relate to either play, which has implications when dating The Shrew whose writing has variously been put somewhere across over two decades, only recently having settled somewhere in the late 1880s thanks to textual similarities with the earlier histories.

As is often the case in this Arden third series, editor Barbara Hodgdon is reluctant to make sweeping decisions simply there isn’t enough evidence either way. The easy option is that it’s an earlier play, which a young Shakespeare still learning the ropes as a kind of script doctor gutted, improved and readied for his new company. There’s certainly enough textual similarities to suggest that. Another suggestion is that it’s an early play by Shakespeare which he later extensively rewrote. The rather more murkier idea is that it’s a memorial reconstruction.

But like the various iterations of Hamlet, the theatrical history of The Shrew is intertwined with A Shrew, because of the implications it has on the famous final scene in which the shrew, Katherina, apparently does an unheralded about face and falls in line withthe tamer, Petruccio. For some feminists that makes the play as misogynistic as The Merchant of Venice is anti-semetic and for decades has created fundamental issues for some directors and actors on how to portray that speech as part of the character’s logical trajectory.

Which is where A Shrew comes in. The Shrew’s folio edition already includes an “induction” in which a drunk, Christopher Sly is tricked into believing himself nobility and The Shrew becomes a theatrical fantasy being performed for him after his indiscretions with a hostess. A Shrew extends Sly’s contribution across the play, the drunk and attendant lords commenting on the action, the final scene giving way to a coda that concludes this parallel narrative, the Pyramus and Thisbe conceit from A Midsummer Night’s Dream spread across a whole play.

These framing scenes are now often included in modern productions, in effect of nullifying Katherina’s about face as the fantasies of Sly or at least the slightly nefarious writer of this play within a play. This has the effect of, as Guardian critic Michael Billington suggests, transforming “(a brutally sexist polemic) totally offensive to our age and society” into “just a play”. You could also argue that it ruins the verisimilitude of the characters but since Shakespeare’s characters perennially address the audience, that’s less of a concern than it might be.

But in illuminating these issues, Hodgdon underlines that Shakespeare’s plays, far from being static entities, become transformed through interpretation and that even The Shrew which has received acres of negative criticism across the years, can become a feminist symbol and even critical of the male psyche depending on the staging. What Shakespeare himself was implying we’ll never know, but considering his facility with writing strong female roles (including Katherina for the most part), thanks to the induction, it seems to be men who are the butt of this joke.

The Taming of the Shrew (Arden Shakespeare. Third Series). Edited by Barbara Hodgdon. Methuen Drama. 2010. RRP: £9.99. ISBN: 978-1903436936. Review copy supplied.