Monday, February 21, 2011

Sir Derek Jacobi on npr

Jacobi talks about directing Ken Branagh and what makes for a good Hamlet:
"Hamlet, to me, is the big personality part in the canon. He can be played any which way - tall, short, fat, thin, male, female - there have been very successful actresses who've played at Hamlet. It all depends on the personality, the sound, the charisma, the look of whoever's being Hamlet. The great thing about Hamlet is that you don't play his character, you play the situations in which he finds himself. You put yourself into those situations with those words, with those lines in the situations and that becomes your Hamlet."
Audio and transcript available.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Merchant of Venice (The Arden Shakespeare). Edited by John Drakakis.

Few quotes better encapsulate the post-war attitude to The Merchant of Venice than this marvel from Dennis Kennedy: “Since 1945 we have been in possession of a new text of the play, one which bears relationships to the earlier text but is also significantly different from it.” Placed at the centre of the introduction to John Drakakis’s third Arden edition of the play, it marks the historical moment when the play stopped being a “comedy” and became something rather more uncomfortable and in the shift away from obvious stereotyping into a work which has become very difficult to perform.

Most of the plays have probably undergone this kind of transformation, not least Hamlet which now exists in a kind of post-Freudian state. Certainly I’ve never seen a production that has been able to turn Shylock into the complex figure our sensibilities demand and also make Portia sympathetic enough after her treatment of him so that the more traditional romantic comedy elements don’t stick in the throat. Presumably that’s why it’s one of the few plays I simply can’t watch or listen to for pleasure but instead to see if the company have cracked this almost impossible code.

Drakakis, a professor of English Studies at the University of Sterling, tries his best to convince us, by offering a detailed overview of the influences underpinning Shakespeare’s characterisation, from the real life position of Jews within Venetian society to their theatrical tradition, notably in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and the sources for that tricky romance story, with its caskets and rings. Along with the editing of the play itself and the accompanying notes, this is the work of a couple of decades which is ably demonstrated by the breadth of quotations on display and intertextuality.

If I’m confused as to how Drakakis seeks to position Shylock and the Christians, it’s perhaps because his introduction isn’t quite as accessible as similar efforts in other Ardens and expects a certain level of background knowledge of the reader. Certainly this feels like more of a straight academic text than Keir Elam’s efforts on Twelfth Night or Charles Forker’s Richard II though I should admit that I’m far more familiar with both of those plays than The Merchant of Venice which could account for the disconnect. Even so, I learnt more here about The Jew of Malta than when it was forced on me during A-Level English Literature.

The theatrical history offers steadier ground. Drakakis emphasises how revivals through the 18th and 19th centuries edited and rewrote the text to make Shylock a much more central figure often losing Portia altogether and either increasing his pantomime villainy or in a few cases shaving his darker excesses. It isn’t really until recently that the language of the play was returned to anything Shakespeare intended, but with directors employing the play to reflect the Jewish experience in a range of historical periods. In that context, the new Globe’s unreconstructed ’98 production in which the audience was actively encouraged to hiss Shylock as he came on stage in the pantomime tradition is especially daring.

The Merchant of Venice (The Arden Shakespeare). Edited by John Drakakis is published by Methuen Drama. £9.99. ISBN: 9781903436813.  Review copy supplied.

Friday, February 11, 2011

"You vicious mole of nature!"

Neatorama's new Shakespearean Insult Gum includes Hamlet:

"If thy breath stinks with eating toasted cheese and thy wit as thick as Tewkesbury mustard, then thou needest this: Shakespearean Insult Gum.

Get not one, nay, two fruit flavored gum balls inside each box, along with an eloquent Shakespearean Insult printed on the inside. Sure to offend the intellectuals and confuse the dimwitted."
There are plenty of options to chose from.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Shakespeare: A Pictoral Biography by F.E. Halliday

Despite having read a few biographies of Shakespeare over the past few years, for some reason I never quite tire of them because like productions of his plays, they all seem to contain at least one memorable element which separates it from the rest, be it some new discovery or stylistic decision or approach to the material. Turn to the dedication page of F. E. Halliday’s Shakespeare: a pictorial biography and we find “To: BARBARA HEPWORTH in Friendship And Admiration”. As well as a Shakespeare scholar, he was a close friend of the St Ives circle after spending a year there during the second world war, a residency he later made permanent.

So the book is perhaps as interesting now for the biography of the author as the contents. But originally published in 1956 (this is a later book club reprint) it’s still nonetheless a fascinating read, not least because it’s less interested in the writing of the actual plays (which can be a speculation frenzy in the wrong hands) and spends much of its pagination offering a detailed context of the world in which the plays were written and performed. Viewing the canon in isolation, it’s easy to forget that Shakespeare’s career began at just the moment Mary Queen of Scots lost her head and the Spanish Armada.

Halliday also lucidly explains how the form of theatre Shakespeare employed developed from the first definable comedy (Ralph Roister Doister) and first definable tragedy (Gorboduc), both originally written to be performed by the boys of Eton. He argues that the reason Shakespeare gained such notoriety was because at his peak, no one else was writing with his quality and that it wasn’t until he reached semi-retirement that other playwrights found their voice. He also explains with clarity why the Globe is the shape it is: a mix of the traditional circular auditorium used previously for religious plays and the yards at the back of inns with their balcony viewing.

What kept me reading though was the obvious enthusiasm Halliday has for his subject (which isn’t always the case with some scholars). “No other writer has ever created a comparable company of men and women, humble and exalted, grave and gay, comic and tragic, noble and ignoble” he says before filling out the rest of that paragraph with a list of names (which fails to include anyone from Measure for Measure but I’ll forgive him that). On a few occasions his textual analysis amounts to printing a chunk of verse and pointing a lot in the way that some DJs offer their favourite tune with little to no explanation because, as is so often with Shakespeare, none is necessary.

Sunday, February 06, 2011