Archive for the 'King Lear' Category

Theatre: Richard III at the Belasco

Sunday, December 1st, 2013

In a NYC Shakespeare season filled with a Macbeth here and a Midsummer there, with two productions of Romeo and Juliet running and another two Kings Lear on the horizon, it would be hard for a single production to stand out as the fairest of them all. Nevertheless, I was looking forward to seeing Mark Rylance play Richard III in the currently running production at the Belasco Theatre with a higher degree of anticipation than any of the others. Richard III is my favorite play, and I love Rylance as an actor. I first saw him about 20 years ago playing Henry V in New York and then Benedick in London shortly after. He and I may not agree on who wrote these words, but I’m always glad to hear him speak them.

My anticipation had some extra time to build, as the actors do their pre-show preparations in full view of the audience. Some audience members were seated on the stage, which evoked the feeling of the Globe. The actors changed into costumes from Shakespeare’s time (not Richard’s) and the musical entertainment seemed Elizabethan as well. So when the show began, and Richard’s opening monologue was given in a presentational style, it seemed to fit with the concept they were going for.

Once Rylance began his winter-of-our-discontenting, I was hit by a sense of deja vu, before realizing that I had seen Rylance give this speech before. He delivers the same monologue playing Burbage in Anonymous. But this was a very different delivery than the one he gave in the film. Here, Rylance delivers Richard’s speech in broadly comical tones and with full interaction of the audience. When we laughed at his lines, he’d stop and laugh along with us, appreciative that we found the humor. He chummed it up with the audience members in the on-stage rows. And he was having so much fun, that we almost forgot that he was about to set up his brother to be murdered.

Can you play Richard III as a comedy? Sure. Many of Richard’s antics, as written, are way over the top, and his chutzpah in several scenes is absolutely breathtaking. I think you have to laugh at some of the more outrageous moments. And the choice allowed Rylance to truly revel in the most delicious moments of Richard’s glory, which provides some of the fun of the play. Richard becomes a Puck figure, that trickster devil who tempts mortals to their doom for his own increase. The play does work on that level, and elements of it can be found in any production.

The problem is that if you only play it as a broad presentational comedy, then it becomes a different play, potentially a good play, but one vastly inferior to the one that Shakespeare wrote. Rylance plays a very jocular casual-sounding Richard, and it doesn’t work. It’s not like the natural-sounding language of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado, but rather a presentation of the play as a shared joke with the audience. So, Richard isn’t Richard, but an actor playing a role. In the beginning, he knows the plots he’s laid are going to work – it’s in the script – so he barely needs to put any effort into getting there. And so, the inductions are not so dangerous. Later in the play, when he knows he’s going to lose, the presentation of the lines is more serious, but the outcome is just as sure and there still are no stakes. We end up watching a pageant, and not a play. It is merely a shadow puppet production of Richard.

And this matters, because the fact that Shakespeare’s Richard finds his own cutthroat machinations so funny is part of the evil of his character. And when I watch a good production of this play, I have the experience of a charismatic villain seducing me with his charm by making me feel like I’m on the inside of a momentous historical moment. Shakespeare makes me root for the bad guy. Who do I get to root for in this production? An actor playing a role, mugging for the audience, and not really seeming to care about how the plot progresses? I end up rooting for intermission.

So we get a stammering, mumbling Richard, with his back to the audience half the time, throwing his lines away and uttering his best asides under his breath. Actors meander about the stage with no sense of purpose, and Richard himself seems like he’s barely paying attention.

It was an all-male cast, which put the actors playing women in a very tight spot. If they played up the humor too much, it would play as a drag show, but if they played their parts too seriously, they’d be mismatched with the lead. Instead, they all ended up playing a kind of introspective sadness that plays as feminine without being too Monty Python.

It was disappointing that so much effort went into the costumes, music, set, and marketing for the show, and so little attention was paid to the direction. But Tim Carroll’s flat production felt more like an amateur reading group or high school production than Shakespeare on Broadway. Put simply, the play was not well articulated, and that’s the worst thing I can say about a production.

On the positive side, the lines played for comedy were actually funny. Kurt Egyiawan was a standout doubling as the Duchess of York and Richmond. I liked the final fight concept, and the dance at the end. And I always enjoy hearing Shakespeare’s words spoken out loud. But none of these are enough for me to recommend this show to you.

The same company is concurrently performing Twelfth Night, and I actually have much higher hopes for that production. Rylance will be playing Olivia. Stephen Fry, grievously underused in this production as an audience member sitting five rows ahead of me, will be playing Malvolio. Some of the elements that didn’t work for me in this production may be better suited to that play. In fact, I kind of got the sense that it was Twelfth Night where all of the attention was focused, and Richard III was merely slapped together as an afterthought.

May I live in hope? Watch this space.

Shakespeare Anagram: King Lear

Saturday, October 19th, 2013

In honor of the shutdown ending…

From King Lear:

Nothing will come of nothing

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

Hill conmen fighting now, too.

Video: Henry IV, Part 2 (The Hollow Crown)

Sunday, October 13th, 2013

Welcome the third of four reviews of The Hollow Crown, the new BBC video adaptations of Shakespeare’s history plays. The first two reviews covered Richard II and Henry IV, Part 1. This review will focus on Henry IV, Part 2, which I watched on DVD, but is also available for live streaming on the PBS website.

Let me start by saying that this was an amazing production. I felt that same exhiliarating rush of Shakespeare I felt watching Richard II. Henry IV, Part 2 is a wonderful play, and it was realized wonderfully here. But before I go on, I should issue a word of caution. If you’re unfamiliar with this play, you should probably see it before reading my review, as I will give away a few plot elements that are much better experienced in the theatrical moment. So, beware: spoilers ahead!

And it’s understandable if you’re not familiar with the play. You don’t often see stand-alone productions of it, possibly because of the stigma associated with “Part 2″ which, The Godfather excepted, rarely bodes well. But, Hollow Crown title cards and DVD packaging notwithstanding, these are two different plays, not two parts of the same play. Henry IV, Part 2 is a darker and more serious play than its predecessor, and about as underrated as Shakespeare’s works get.

In his very best plays, Shakespeare shows his skill as a dramatist in the composition of his scenes. Each scene has a rising and falling action, conflict and resolution, and internal cohesion. Each could stand alone as an entertaining mini-play, even as he advances his plot and character development for the work as a whole. Hamlet and King Lear are particularly striking examples of this. Watch a good performance of any one scene and you might allow yourself temporarily to believe it’s the most important scene of the play. The result of this is that, if you don’t know the play very well, you are captivated by the dramatic tension and unexpected development of each scene and are able to stay in the moment for a long period of time. And if you do already know the play, you hang in anticipation for your favorite moments.

Henry IV, Part 2 is a cohesive dramatic work that tells a single story. But it is also a collection of incredibly entertaining scenes and powerful individual moments. And if you know what they are, you might find yourself as a kid on a roller coaster you’ve been on a hundred times. You know exactly where the dips and spins are coming, but that knowledge does nothing to diminish your anticipation and enjoyment. If that’s you, you won’t be disappointed by the version presented in The Hollow Crown. (If it’s not you, then even better, but stop reading now!) The direction is much sharper than it was in Part 1, and all of those lovely moments are clearly articulated and in many cases given new life.

Take, for example, the scene in which Hal and Poins spy on Falstaff talking to Doll Tearsheet. Shakespeare set this scene in a crowded tavern, with characters entering and exiting throughout. The Hollow Crown sets the scene in a more private room, where Falstaff and Doll can get more intimate. Instead of entering disguised, Hal and Poins are hidden, adding a sinister feel to the scene that wasn’t there before. And when Hal finally calls out Falstaff for his behavior, his tone is stern and cold. This foreshadows the later rejection scene beautifully. Simon Russell Beale (Falstaff) fills the iconic role with boisterous joy once again, but now tinged with just the right amount of sentimentality. Julie Walters (Mistress Quickly) and Maxine Peake (Doll Tearsheet) add considerably to the comic energy of the scene.

I’m a big fan of the king’s insomnia speech, and Jeremy Irons (King Henry IV) delivers. Most of the speech was presented in very wide shots, with the king as a tiny figure overwhelmed by very large spaces decked with the ornate trappings of royalty. I think it was a strong choice, though I would have liked to have seen the actor’s face a bit more. But the speech wasn’t done in voice-over, so I can’t really complain too much. And we get to see Irons very much up close and personal in his final scene with Tom Hiddleston (Hal). This is what I would call the deathbed scene, but the king leaves his bed here. They move to the throne room, which allows director Richard Eyre the opportunity to play with vertical levels and royal symbolism galore.

It’s at this point that Shakespeare fans are ready for the rejection scene. Quite possibly, it is the most memorable scene in the play, and it is often described as the saddest scene in Shakespeare. But too often overlooked is the other side of the equation: the new king embracing the policeman who chased him down in his youth. Geoffrey Palmer (Lord Chief Justice) gives a masterful performance throughout the play, but nowhere better than in this scene. He bravely looks the new king in the eye and mounts a righteous defense of his actions and duty, even as his body betrays him by gently quaking in fear. To me, this is no less powerful a moment in the play than Falstaff’s rejection.

That being said, Falstaff’s rejection was quite powerful as well. When Shakespeare’s done right, there’s nothing else like it, and this is Shakespeare done right.

One more play to go, my friends. Once more into the breach…

Shakespeare Anagram: King Lear

Saturday, September 28th, 2013

From King Lear:

O! reason not the need; our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

The suggestion of a gold iPhone enraptures snobs, but stores near here are out.

Shakespeare Song Parody: We Love the Plays of Shakespeare

Friday, June 28th, 2013

This is the last in a series of 40 pop-music parodies for Shakespeare fans.

So far, we’ve had one parody for each of Shakespeare’s 38 plays and one for the sonnets. We finish the Shakespeare Top 40 with a tribute to all of the plays, one last time.

Enjoy!

We Love the Plays of Shakespeare
sung to the tune of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel

(With appreciation to everyone who has followed along on the journey…)

Harry, Suffolk, Somerset,
Richard Plantagenet;
Warwick, Edward, Margaret, Rutland,
Younger Lord Clifford;
Lord John Talbot, Tony Woodeville,
Duke of Bedford, Joan La Pucelle;
Duke of Clarence, Tower Princes,
Richard the Third…

Antipholus, Dromio,
Balthazar, Angelo;
Titus gets Tamora by
Baking her kids in a pie;
Tranio, Petruchio,
Katharina, Widow;
Proteus and Valentine have
Bid Verona goodbye…

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
First, we learned to read them.
Now, we go to see them.

Don Armado, French Princess,
Costard and Holofernes;
Romeo’s Apothecary,
Juliet’s Nurse;
Gaunt John, he passed on,
Henry’s back and Dick’s gone;
Quince, Flute, Snout, Snug,
Bottom’s got a curse…

King John, Pope, France,
Bastard’s got a second chance;
Shylock and Antonio,
Portia and Bassanio;
Bardolph, Boar’s Head,
Prince Hal, Hotspur dead;
Tavern Hostess, Lord Chief Justice,
Henry on his deathbed…

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
First, we learned to read them.
Now, we go to see them.

Benedick, Beatrice,
Dogberry and Verges;
Cambridge, Scroop and Grey,
Fight on St. Crispin’s Day;
Cassius, Cicero,
Julius Caesar, Cato;
Duke Senior, Jacques,
Poems posted on the trees…

O, O, O…

Olivia, Antonio,
Toby Belch, Malvolio;
Ophelia, Claudius,
Hamlet kills Polonius;
Falstaff once adored
Mistress Page and Mistress Ford;
Agamemnon, Pandarus,
Cressida and Troilus…

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
First, we learned to read them.
Now, we go to see them.

Helena for Bertram fell,
All’s Well that Ends Well;
Angelo, Claudio,
“Friar” Duke Vincentio;
Desdemona, Othello,
Duke, Iago, Cassio;
Kent’s stand, Lear’s Fool,
Edmund’s death, Edgar’s rule;
Three Witches, two Macbeths,
Scottish spirits come unsex;
Antony, Cleo P.,
Who else would you want to see?

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
First, we learned to read them.
Now, we go to see them.

Marcius, Cominius,
Volumnia, Aufidius;
Cupid, Lucius,
Timon, Flavius;
Gower, Thaliard, Pericles,
Antiochus, Simonides;
Posthumous is shipped to Rome,
Iachimo’s gone to his home…

Autolycus, Leontes,
Perdita, Polixenes;
Stephano, Trinculo,
Ship, wreck, Prospero;
Henry starts a second life,
Anne Boleyn’s his second wife;
Kinsmen our guy partnered for;
May have helped with Thomas More…

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
And where we have gone,
The play will start anon,
Anon, anon, anon, anon, anon, anon, anon…

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
First, we learned to read them.
Now, we go to see them.

We love the plays of Shakespeare!

Hat tip to Shakespeare Online for the chronology.

You can click to read all 40 song parodies here.

How Real is Richard?

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

It’s been exciting to see Shakespeare so much in the news lately. The confirmation of the discovery King Richard the Third’s skeleton last week has thrust our beloved Bard back into the international spotlight. But just how relevant is Shakespeare to this discovery? How closely related is Shakespeare’s classic villain to the original owner of the bones found under the Leicester parking lot?

Shakespeare wrote that which we call History plays, but these are plays and not histories. Shakespeare often wrote about “real” people and events, but he always put his unique take on it. He could change any details that he wanted. Did you know that the real Hotspur was 23 years older than Prince Hal, even though the two men were portrayed as contemporaries in Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV? That Rutland, killed as a small child in Shakespeare’s 3 Henry VI, was actually older than his brothers George and Richard? That there were two different men named Edmund Mortimer, conflated into a single character by Shakespeare? And obviously, no matter how historical his characters, we all understand that he certainly was willing to put words in their mouths.

None of this matters, of course. Saying that Shakespeare got it wrong misses the point entirely. Shakespeare’s intent was to create entertaining theatrical plays. And Richard III is one of the most enduring and popular works of art ever to spring from the human imagination. So, yeah, I’d say Shakespeare actually got it right, wouldn’t you? An archeological discovery can tell us about history, and this is a particularly exciting discovery at that, but it sheds no new light on Shakespeare’s work. We already knew that Shakespeare based his work on Tudor historians, and that he shared their bias towards the Tudor view of history.

So when we ask whether characters from Shakespeare are “real” or not, it may not be such a binary question. I would prefer instead to think of it as a spectrum. More specifically, I have created a seven-point scale to compare how real the characters from Shakespeare actually are.

Enjoy!

* * *

Level Seven
Historical Characters Doing Historical Things
Examples: Henry VIII, Henry V

Even at the highest level of Shakespeare’s reality-based characters, there is still a lot of spin-doctoring going on. Shakespeare doesn’t just write about his country’s greatest heroes without a little glorification. But the stories Shakespeare tells about characters at Level Seven are fairly consistent with their historical accounts. Shakespeare himself must have been at least somewhat impressed with his own account of the life of Henry VIII when he originally gave his play the title All is True.

* * *

Level Six
Historical Characters Doing Speculative Historical Things
Examples: Julius Caesar, Cleopatra

I wanted to make a distinction between historical figures that Shakespeare wrote about from relatively recent time periods, and those from antiquity. There are numerous historical accounts of the lives of the ancient Greek and Roman leaders, so Shakespeare was actually writing from sources, but there is only so much faith that we can put in them. The primary difference between Level Six and Level Seven is the amount of time that has passed since the historical figures lived.

* * *

Level Five
Historical Characters Doing Highly-Speculative Politically-Convenient Historical Things
Examples: Richard III, Joan La Pucelle

Here we can put the characters that Shakespeare had a political reason to vilify. We see a version of history, but it’s a version that’s unapologetically slanted in the direction that Shakespeare’s audiences or benefactors would have appreciated most. Shakespeare is still writing mostly from sources, but the sources may themselves be politically biased, or Shakespeare just felt free to add his own spin to events as he wanted to portray them. The character of Richard III can go here.

* * *

Level Four
Historical Characters Doing Non-Historical Things
Examples: John Gower, Macbeth

There really was a historical Macbeth, but it’s doubtful he did many of the things attributed to him by either Shakespeare or history. Sure, Shakespeare was writing from a historical source, and had political reasons to vilify Macbeth, but the story is so far divorced from reality that we really need a new category to describe it. Level Four is for a character who really lived, but isn’t necessarily portrayed doing the things the original historical figure would actually have done.

* * *

Level Three
Legendary Characters Doing Legendary Things
Examples: Agamemnon, King Lear

Did any of these people really exist? And if they did, are the stories about them true? Probably not. But the stories were passed down from generation to generation, either in oral traditions or written texts, as though they were true. We can’t prove that there wasn’t some actual human being in the dark backward and abysm of time that inspired the legend. Level Three quantifies the precise amount of benefit-of-the-doubt I’m willing to give to that possibility.

* * *

Level Two
Characters Doing Fictional Things Who Couldn’t Possibly be Based on Real People (*snicker*)
Examples: Falstaff, Polonius

These are fictional characters, but audiences at the time would have understood the public figures they were based on. Maybe. If Polonius was based on William Cecil, Lord Burghley, then he could be placed one step above a completely fictional character. This is Level Two. Shakespeare expressly denied that Falstaff was meant to be John Oldcastle to satisfy one of Oldcastle’s noble descendants. But what was Shakespeare’s original name for the character Falstaff? It was John Oldcastle.

* * *

Level One
Fictional Characters Doing Fictional Things
Examples: Puck, Shylock

These are purely fictional characters, invented by Shakespeare or his literary sources. They are not real people. They are not based on real people. We will not be finding their bones under any parking lots. We are not worried about pleasing their descendants. If Shakespeare had simply confined himself to his own considerable imagination, we would still have an impressive panoply of Shakespearean characters to entertain us. But the conversations and controversies surrounding his plays would not be nearly as interesting.

Shakespeare Anagram: King Lear

Saturday, January 12th, 2013

From King Lear:

No, they cannot touch me for coining; I am the king himself.

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

Theory of minting that uncommon coin: if he likes change…

I Talk About Politics

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

I wanted to address a question that isn’t Frequently Asked, but one that is often raised in more subtle ways: Why would a blog dedicated to the teaching of Shakespeare talk so much about politics? Why risk alienating Shakespeare fans that may not agree with my viewpoints? Wouldn’t it be better to build a community of Shakespeare teachers without venturing into the socially impolite topic of partisan politics?

First of all, allow me to clarify that this blog isn’t entirely dedicated to teaching Shakespeare, as you may have noticed. “Shakespeare Teacher” is simply meant to be my blogger handle. The blog has always been about whatever I happen to find interesting at the moment, which often includes education and Shakespeare, but it also will include politics from time to time. But the question does lead to a more interesting question about how contemporary politics and Shakespeare are related in the roles they play in our lives.

In The Theatre of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal tells us that “all theater is necessarily political, because all the activities of man are political and theater is one of them.” What’s the point of studying Shakespeare if we’re not going to learn from him? And what’s the point of learning from him if we’re not going to apply what we’ve learned to build a better world? People who study that other great work of literature never hesitate to cite passages from it to imply an endorsement of their political views. We should not be timid to bring Shakespeare into the discussion when his insights would add a vital perspective.

I sometimes try to do this with the anagram, and this example from King Lear is perhaps illustrative. Lear is looking at the helpless victims of a storm and recognizing that he is partly responsible for their plight. “O! I have ta’en/ Too little care of this.” And if we can be moved by his words, it’s only fair to ask: moved to what? If we can be moved to tears, we can be moved to action. Because what moves us in that line is our recognition of the things in the world that we ourselves have ta’en too little care of. Like, for example, the helpless victims of a storm, and our responsibility to them.

We venerate Shakespeare for his wisdom about the human condition. Some go so far as to say that he teaches us what it means to be human. But how does this understanding manifest itself in our society if not in the decisions we make as public policy? How do we define ourselves? How do we treat each other? How can we meet our most fundamental human needs? How do we deal with the unexpected? What are our priorities? What is our responsibility to one another? How we answer these questions for ourselves determines how we make the big decisions about the kind of society we want to be and the kind of world we want to live in. These decisions are swayed by policy, policy is swayed by elections, and elections are swayed by public opinion. Can Shakespeare be a voice in that discussion?

I talk about Shakespeare. I talk about politics. I welcome you to the conversation.

Shakespeare Anagram: King Lear

Saturday, December 29th, 2012

From King Lear:

Give me your hand: you are now within a foot
Of the extreme verge: for all beneath the moon
Would I not leap upright.

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

I hope they find enough wiggle room to woo home a tax rate deal before they unroll that punitive maneuver. *Frown*

Shakespeare Song Parody: You Should Never Ever Trust a Bastard, Edgar

Friday, November 23rd, 2012

This is the twelfth in a series of pop-music parodies for Shakespeare fans.

Enjoy!

You Should Never Ever Trust a Bastard, Edgar
sung to the tune of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”

(With apologies to Taylor Swift, and bastards…)

I remember when we met up this last time.
You were my brother from another mother, cause like,
We hadn’t seen each other for nine years,
Because the bastard had to be sent away. (What?)

Then I come around again and say “Eddie,
Father’s angry and you need to run away. Trust me.”
Remember how I drew on you that day?
I said “You must leave,” I fought you, you took off, I screwed you.

Oooh, you’ve never really known my mind,
But oooh, this time I’m telling you, I’m telling you…

You should never ever ever trust a bastard, Edgar.
You should never ever ever trust a bastard, Edgar.
Our father’s lands were your lands, now those lands belong to me.
‘Cause you should never ever ever ever trust a bastard, Edgar.

Like, ever!

I always thought it seemed quite out of place
For one brother to be proper and one base,
But you always seemed to think it very fine
That your birthright was so much more rightful than mine.

Oooh, you’ve never really known my mind,
But oooh, this time I’m telling you, I’m telling you…

You should never ever ever trust a bastard, Edgar.
You should never ever ever trust a bastard, Edgar.
Our father’s lands were your lands, now those lands belong to me.
‘Cause you should never ever ever ever trust a bastard, Edgar.

You never knew it was I who wrote that letter, letter
Like I heard the king say “Never, never, never, never, never.”

Ugh, so he shows up and he’s like “draw thy sword.”
And I’m like… “this sword of mine will let your treasons rest forever.”
You know? You should never trust a bastard, Edgar.

Like, ever!

No!
You should never ever ever trust a bastard, Edgar.
You should never ever ever trust a bastard, Edgar.
Our father’s lands were your lands, now those lands belong to me.
‘Cause you should never ever ever ever trust a bastard, Edgar.