Sunday, April 29, 2012

Classic Marlowe and Shakespeare BBC Radio series, Vivat Rex, repeated on Radio 4 Extra starting tomorrow.

Astonishingly amazing news:
"Vivat Rex is an epic 26 part drama following the English Crown from Edward II's accession in 1307 to the birth of Elizabeth I. It is told through the adapted works of Shakespeare, Marlowe and other playwrights of the period. Narrated by Richard Burton, it has a celebrated cast including John Hurt, Michael Redgrave and Derek Jacobi. The programme starts Monday at 10am on Radio 4 Extra."
While the main thrust of the series is a run of Shakespeare's history plays ala An Age of Kings, it begins with the rarely recorded and certainly unavailable Edward II by Marlowe and what must be Edward III as co-written by Shakespeare.

More about it here in this two year old post at The Stage which also has an old publicity photo of Burton, a microphone and a crown.  .

Should also be available to listen to via the BBC's programme pages.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Polonius stumbles.

Mark Lawson describes a famous Hamlet moment in a piece for The Guardian about theatre errors that aren't:
"Similar punishment for subtle acting was suffered by the late Michael Bryant, when he played Polonius in Richard Eyre's Hamlet at the National in 1989. Bryant's playing of the moment when the character loses the thread of his thoughts – "What was about to say? By the mass, I was about to say something …" – included such an authentically panicked chasm in the line that there was an audible gasp from the stalls. During the interval, I heard some people discussing their horror; his only consolation would be the confirmation that truly great acting must look spontaneous."
There are more similarities between theatre and circus than meets the eye. Do we like to think when an acrobat stumbles, it's for the first time, that they're in genuine danger, even though we subliminally know they've probably done it every night of their lives.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Bebe Neuwirth and Christina Ricci in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Theatre Bebe Neuwirth and Christina Ricci are appearing as Titannia and Hermia in an off-Broadway production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Not everything has been going to plan:
"On the night The (New York) Observer attended, a fire alarm set off by an overactive haze machine served to further drown out Shakespeare’s poetry. Only when the sound of sirens outside stopped the show did the audience stop laughing. Lying on the stage, Taylor Mac, as Puck, asked, “Does anyone know any campfire songs?”

"Returning from a dinner meeting to watch the show’s second half, Mr. Kulick was surprised to see a gaggle of firemen tramping into his lobby. One turned to him and said, “Haze machine, right? We’ve seen this before.”
Tickets available here should you be in the area. In this video, costume Designer Andrea Lauer discusses the design process. "I know, circuses!"

All's Well That Ends Well dual authorship?

All's Well That Ends Well may have been co-authored by Thomas Middleton according to Oxford scholars:
"The research by Prof Maguire and Dr Emma Smith, from Oxford University's English faculty, suggests that the playwright Thomas Middleton, a contemporary of Shakespeare's, appears to be the likely candidate.

"Writers have their own distinctive literary "fingerprints" - a kind of stylistic DNA - and a highly-detailed analysis of the language in the play shows "markers" strongly linked to Middleton.

"The rhyming and rhythms of sections of the play, the phrasing, spelling and even individual words suggest the involvement of Thomas Middleton."
At least it's a co-author. The last thing we'd need is for something to fall from the canon at this late stage. I hope the Arden edition isn't close to completion.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Globe to Globe festival's Hamlet.

The Hamlet portion of the Globe to Globe festival at Shakespeare's Globe is from Lithuania. Andrius Mamontovas, one of the country's great rock stars was asked to play Hamlet in 1996 and although he lacked any prior knowledge of the play or its playwright he saw it as an excellent way of smuggling in messages and music which were banned under Soviet control, the play itself having been banned by Stalin before his death.

 He's been playing the part ever since.  In the video embedded with this article, the BBC art correspondent David Sillito meets Mamontovas on his home turf and in an entertaining walk and talk along a local street, Mamontovas describes what the play means to him, the conversation interspersed with moments from the closet scene with his Hamlet attempting to shoo the ghost of his father away with a spade.

But the play is resonant throughout that part of the world, it seems.  As Tom Bird, festival director explains, "the most famous footballer in Armenia is Henrikh Mkhitaryan and his middle name is Hamlet. And no, Hamlet isn't Armenian for Hamish; it's Hamlet, the Dane. It's incredible it's seeped in to everything."

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Doctors does Hamlet.

Garlands to Sylvia Morris for compiling this comprehensive list for Shakespeare Unlocked across the BBC, which includes the revelation that daytime soap Doctors is having a Shakespeare themed week which includes on Monday a rather familiar sounding storyline:
"Fall of a Sparrow

Rob witnesses a tragedy unfold as young Dane refuses to accept his mother has moved on so soon after his father's death. Whilst Curtis lies critically ill in hospital, news breaks about Heston's arrest, sending shockwaves...
That's Dane Hamley.  I will of course report back.  The entire list of the week's episodes is here.  Some are more obvious than others...

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Shakespeare's Sonnets for the iPAD

A really exciting project underpinned by a fantastic academic publishing legacy. Here's the press release:
The Arden Shakespeare, Faber and Faber, Touch Press and Illuminations are delighted to announce that they are in the final stages of producing a spectacular edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets for the Apple iPad. The title features specially filmed performances of all 154 sonnets by a stellar cast that includes Fiona Shaw, Sir Patrick Stewart and David Tennant. It also features the complete Arden notes, providing unsurpassed commentary on the poems.

This digital edition follows Touch Press and Faber's iPad app The Waste Land that presents T. S. Eliot's great poem in an innovative and widely praised interactive format.
Since this is partly an Illuminations productions, that may explain one the extras on the superb recent release of Simon Callow & Jonathan Bate's Being Shakespeare  (directed by John Wyver) which included Callow reading 18, 29 and 31 directly to camera.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Much Ado About Nothing on BBC Radio 3's Afternoon on 3

Shakespeare Completely unmentioned on the BBC's press release for the Shakespeare season on BBC Radio is a series of concerts as part of the Afternoon on 3 strand which includes this Wednesday an abridged production of Much Ado About Nothing with Daniela Nardini as Beatrice and Liam Brennan as Benedick with Korngold's score played by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

The show begins at 2pm.

Here's the relevant page at the iplayer.

This press release was produced for the recording last year.

Shakespeare at the BBC: Shakespeare's Restless World

Ahead of today's first broadcast of their new landmark series, a kind of history of Shakespeare in twenty objects, the BBC has posted an "audio discovery" page filled with "a selection of other programmes and clips from the Radio 4 archive on the theme of Shakespeare's Restless World" (and also the connected exhibition at the British Museum).

Which is rather understating things.  As well as pointing to notable episodes of In Our Time and Great Lives, they've also resurrected and uploaded pertinent series from the past, offering a preview of what the Radio 4 website may be like when the aim of digitising the entire collection has been achieved.

It's obviously more fun if you go and investigate for yourself.  It's good to see documentaries from Radio 3 included, many of which aren't usually kept up on the website past the seven day limit, including the many fascinating Shakespeare related episodes of the concert interval filler Twenty Minutes.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Shakespeare on This American Life:
Drama Bug

As readers of my other blog will know, I'm currently listening to All of This American Life in Order and little did I realise that I'd soon find something worth writing about here so I've decided to run a parallel series of posts for this blog in which I'll highlight any episodes with major references to Shakespeare.  For all I know, this could be the only one.  We'll see.

Episode 23, Drama Bug, first broadcast on the 5th October 1996 features a classic story from regular contributor David Sedaris about his early experiences as an actor and the second section concentrates on his appearance as one of the touring actors in an amateur production of Hamlet. 

I've embedded both parts above for speed, but this whole vintage episode is worth your time, with presenter Ira Glass shadowing a school putting on a production of Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers and the theatre going experiences of a man who breathes through an iron lung and also contracted the drama bug after seeing Hamlet.

Ruth Wilson on Hamlet.

The headline's a bit of SEO, especially since she's asked the question rather than proffers the opinion unsolicited, but Ruth Wilson really would be an excellent Hamlet:
""You know what? I'd love to play Hamlet. Shakespeare didn't write that many great roles for women. It's like you come in for one scene then spend four hours waiting backstage for the next line." So it would be good to wrest the role from the boys? "You bet. I don't shy away from a challenge that would scare the shit out of me. You need the fear always to be there. Otherwise you're in the wrong job."
I'd argue against the opinion that Shakespeare didn't write many great roles for women. I suppose it's clearly to say he didn't write many great tragic central roles like Cleopatra.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Wolfram Alpha on Hamlet.

Answer engine, Wolfram Alpha, have given their database an injection of Shakespeare and the ability to provide quite detailed information about the plays, from word frequency to ACT lengths and the percentage of lines given to each character.

The canon selected is pretty orthodox -- Edward III isn't included and Arden of Faversham is ignored -- but The Two Noble Kinsmen does have a full entry and that's still left out of some complete works.

What do we learn about Hamlet?

The most frequently used word is "the" with the most frequently capitalised "I" which is fitting given the play's depths of self-analysis.

"My Lord" is the two word phrase used most often which also underscores the royalty of the piece.

Surprisingly "England" is mentioned almost as often as "Denmark".

Worth noting:

The database puts the first date of publication as 1604 which is the date which appears on the cover of Q2, but doesn't take into account Q1 and ignores the date of the first production in 1599/1600, but that's just nitpicking.

Under the search for Hamlet there are other options, one of which is "referring to a fictional character".  Clicking on that takes the user to King Hamlet rather than his son but there doesn't seem to be a way to get to a profile of the prince.

Searching for Prince Hamlet, takes us to a definition page for the word "prince" and the connected person is the singer Prince.

But otherwise this could prove to be a useful academic tool, especially the option which allows for comparison between plays.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

The Essential Shakespeare: Live (2005).

When Gregory Doran was announced as the new director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the general reaction was, “Of course he is.” For all his work elsewhere, apart from Michael Boyd, he’s the person most associated with the company in recent years and it’s of little surprise that when in 2005 the British Library decided to celebrate its massive archive of Shakespeare recordings collected across five decades, it was decided that he’d be the perfect man to select the clips. Across two discs, Doran carefully curates iconic productions which haven’t been released in any form, featuring Dench, Richardson, McKellan, Ashcroft, Rickman, Stewart and Sher.

There aren't any particularly left of field choices, no chunk of Cymbeline. That’s because a large proportion of productions in the Swan weren’t recorded and none at all at The Other Place, the usual venues for the less popular plays. As Doran notes, he had wanted to included Paul Scofield as Timon, but it’s lost forever. Theatre’s a transient medium and so we should probably just be pleased with what we have. But our frustration is that these are just fragments, In an ideal world we could all be Gregory Doran and be able to hear the whole of these productions ourselves, however poor the sound quality.

Act III, Scene I

”To Be Or Not To Be”

Hamlet: David Warner
Director: Peter Hall

Hamlet’s represented by Peter Hall’s legendary mid-60s production with David Warner in the title role, a revolutionary attempt to speak very specifically to youngsters and contemporary politics. In the programme notes, Hall suggested his Hamlet was “about the disillusionment which produces apathy of the will so deep that commitment to politics, to religion or to life is impossible”.  He also wanted to isolate Hamlet as much as possible with Horatio losing seventy-five key lines,  reducing to an acquaintance the friendship that’s otherwise a necessary tether to reality for the Prince.

Every copy of the text which bothers with a production history agree that it is one of the great innovative milestones. Of primary importance in relation to this clip is Hall’s decision to have Hamlet conduct his soliloquy’s from the edge of the stage into the audience, a piece of artifice which was still rare enough to be misconstrued by contemporary critics as Warner’s own “inexperience” rather than a valid approach to communicating the text and has become the norm in some venues especially the reconstructed Globe. It’s reputed that “One night, when Warner asked ‘Am I a coward?” someone shouted, “Yes!” (Arden 3, p24).

It worked. As the RSC edition reports a youthful audience camped outside the theatre for tickets.  But what must it have been like to be in that audience and have Warner ask the big question on everyone’s mind using words written around four hundred years earlier?  The day before this was recorded (at the Aldwych Theatre in London on the 9th March 1966), the U.S. had announces it would be substantially increasing the number of its troops in Vietnam, a decision which was being protested throughout the world and although the cold war had reached détente, obliteration was still an ever present possibility.

The electricity of the performance is evident in the clip. Cars can be heard passing by outside which demonstrates just how small the venue must have been, Warner having to really project, fighting for his words to be heard, which apt considering the how some of the youth watching will have thought about their place in society.  That audience is also very present, with faint female mutterings beneath the opening of the speech, coughs, someone opening a sweet, chair squeaks and a door clattering, all of which serve to give the recording even greater atmosphere, the magic of a live event, a humanity, which doesn’t exist in the blank, null setting of a recording studio.

“Who would bare the … whips and scorns of time?” The key moment in this reading is this pause in which we're not certain whether Warner is grasping for his next line or Hamlet trying to find the right word to communicate his point. As the speech continues its very clear it’s the latter, that Warner is almost asking his audience for an answer, as though they’ll finish the sentences for him.  Knowing what we know about Hall’s intentions, it’s also possible to hear this Hamlet holding himself up to the audience as a mirror saying, look at this, look what happens when you become as apathetic as I am, gripped by fear of the unknown.

For all that, it’s still a relatively aristocratic performance which is surprising to me since I’d heard comparisons with his turn in the thematically similar Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment in which he’s very specifically Northern.  It’s also reputedly naturalistic, but Warner still keeps an eye on the rhythm of the pentameter for all his observance of the punctuated pauses.  Perhaps that’s one of the frustrations of hearing just a fragment of a whole performance.  A single speech, however famous, is just a small part of a whole character arc and thought process. Hopefully at some point we will be able to hear the whole show and be able to judge it properly.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Shakespeare season on BBC Television and Radio.

The BBC has officially launched their summer Shakespeare season and in this interview the commissioning editor Mark Bell outlines the plans:
"I'm hoping it will show people just how rewarding Shakespeare can be. Yes the language is tough but it's well worth sticking with it. I wanted the season to explore the historical context in which Shakespeare was writing and also celebrate his language and try and understand what made him just so incredibly good at capturing all it means to be human."
There is a full radio schedule here and much about the television end, Shakespeare Unlocked here.  William Boyd's also given an interview about the collaboration with the RSC which includes clips of some of the new shows:

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Classic FM: Favourite Shakespeare (1998).

In the late 90s, Classic FM Magazine asked its readers what they considered to be their favourite pieces of Shakespeare and the results were collected in a book and this double cassette. There are few surprises. Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?”) comes first with Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds”) second, with both of Henry V’s iconic speeches in there somewhere (“Once more unto the breach”) and Jacques from As You Like It (“All The World’s Stage” providing a loose structure for the programme). “To Be, Or Not To Be” is ninth beating only the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.

The anthology attracted an excellent cast with Antony Sher, Imogen Stubbs, Victoria Hamilton, Alan Cox, Richard Griffiths and Derek Jacobi all appearing, the latter three eclectically offering us their three witches from Macbeth (and very good they are too). Each of the clips is introduced by John Brunning though it’s with the bare minimum of background information, sticking with a brief outline of the character and a reminder of who the actors are and where a given clip appeared in the poll.

The enterprise is bulked out with sections overlooked in the poll and there are some wonderful choices which aren’t usually included in such endevours like Wolsey from Henry VIII or Verse 12 of The Passionate Pilgrim. But not all the plays are covered. There’s no Measure for Measure, no Cymbeline (a pity since it would have been nice to hear Stubbs inhabiting her near namesake). About the only flaw is the lack of track listing for the music which appears between the verse, which is odd considering the source of the publication.

Act III, Scene I:

”To Be, Or Not To Be”

Hamlet: Alan Cox

Cox presents a reading of what sounds like the folio text, usually identified by the enterprises of great “pith” and moment instead “pitch” and an additional “these” before “fardles” but which has “away” replaced with “awry” towards the end. His piece of Hamlet has a real sense of wrestling with the questions therein, perhaps in an attempt to imbue the speech with the whole play’s worth of characterisation. There’s no sense that he’s playing for the benefit of whoever might be watching (unless it’s a double bluff).

But it is very much a reading, more about the text than performance, indicated by Cox adding an extra breath at the end of every line with or without punctuatation, which while creating emphasis messes up the stress patterns in places, with “and by a sleep to say we end […] That flesh is heir to” proving a real challenge thanks to the quick semi colon and another pause at the end of “consummation”. As John Barton says, Shakespeare is very clear as to were the pauses and breaths should go and this is an excellent example of what happens when other choices are made.