Archive for the 'Review' Category

Theatre: Twelfth Night at the Belasco

Sunday, December 8th, 2013

At a good production of Shakespeare, you may be impressed by the production values. The innovative choices made by the director may, at a good production of Shakespeare, impress you. At a good production of Shakespeare, you will likely be impressed by the actors.

At a great production of Shakespeare, you will be impressed by the Shakespeare.

Tim Carroll’s production of Twelfth Night, currently playing at the Belasco Theatre, is a great production, precisely because its component elements all come together to articulate, embody, and enhance the creative genius of the play itself. All of the comic bits and stage business of this production found all of those fun moments and built on them to create a cascade of joy for the production’s entire length.

Mark Rylance is the standout in the all-male cast. He manages to create an Olivia who is able to display a wide range of emotions without ever descending into camp. With one notable exception, none of the humor of his outrageously funny performance comes from the fact that he is male. His Olivia is vain; she’s not interested in Orsino’s advances, but can’t help but be flattered by them. And when she does fall in love, she can no longer maintain her practiced detachment. We laugh at the character, and not the actor playing her.

The one exception is that Rylance affects a very funny gait that makes it seem like he’s gliding beneath his flowing dress. This is probably funnier because we know it’s a man, but for the most part, Rylance creates a comic performance that’s true to his character and not at all about cross-dressing. In fact, I would say the same about the compelling performances of Viola (Samuel Barnett) and Maria (Paul Chahidi) as well; they created believable realistic characters that brought out the humor of the moments and not the drag.

I thought the cast was amazing across the board, but a few more of the actors are worthy of highlighting. Peter Hamilton Dyer was riviting as an edgy Feste. Angus Wright created a very funny Sir Andrew. And Stephen Fry was outstanding as Malvolio, as you knew he would be. In the early scenes, he was less prissy and arrogant than most Malvolii that I’ve seen, and so his innocent glee at reading the letter becomes heartbreaking. We actually feel sorry for Fry’s Malvolio, and making this character sympathetic is no easy task.

Everything was designed to look as it had looked in the Globe, with sets, costumes, and music carefully calibrated for authenticity. An all-male cast talked to audience members on stage. But for me, the best part was the raw theatrical moment of being part of a shared experience with the rest of audience. The performance I saw got more instances of spontaneous applause than a State of the Union address. And when the curtain call came, we didn’t want it to end.

The actors did the curtain call as a dance. The audience started clapping and cheering while the actors danced. Gradually, some of the clapping fell into the rhythm of the music, and soon we were all clapping to the beat. When the music stopped, the dance ended, and the audience exploded once again into a cheering applause. I left with a new respect for the play, and for the power of what great theatre can do.

You may note that I loved this production, but not the other production by the same creative team. How can this be? Well, I think a collaborative artistic creation is more than the sum of its parts. There needs to be a chemical reaction that takes place, and the play has to be a part of that equation. One performance worked with the play it was interpreting, and the other worked in opposition to it. The results of those decisions were two very different evenings at the theatre, at least for me.

Twelfth Night will be running until February 16, but Stephen Fry’s last performance will be on February 13, so that’s probably the end date you want to use. If you enjoy a great production of Shakespeare, you won’t want to miss this one.

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.

Theatre: Julie Taymor’s Midsummer

Sunday, November 24th, 2013

And I do have to call it Julie Taymor’s Midsummer. The famed Lion King director brings her unique vision to the Bard’s classic comedy, and it’s a match that needs no love potion from a fairy to make a connection.

The spirit world is vibrantly brought to life through a combination of lights, music, sound effects, and small children scampering about the stage. A sweepingly large white sheet frequently dominated the set to create a flowing airy effect or provide a grand canvas for projecting artistic visions of fairyland. The effects were often awe-inspiring and added to the magic of the play. But the spectacle was mostly contained to the spaces between the scenes, weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in. The scenes themselves were as they should be, an expression of the comic and poetic brilliance of the script by talented actors. And because the cast was in top form across the board, the supernatural effects were a welcome addition rather than a distraction from the text, which is always a danger.

Leading the dramatis personae is Puck (Kathryn Hunter), the impish impresario of other-worldy entertainments. Wearing a Caberet-style bowler hat, Hunter presides over the rest of the cast with charm and humor, as an auditor and as an actor too. Oberon (David Harewood) and Titania (Tina Benko) also deliver outstanding performances. They are quite simply gods, and they dominate every scene they’re in, including when they have scenes together. This is made possible by a starkly contrasting color scheme in their costumes and makeup, so each can dominate an entire realm while co-existing with the other. The White Queen and the Black King square off on a chessboard with human pieces.

Some of these human pieces include the young lovers (Zach Appelman, Lilly Englert, Jake Horowitz, and Mandi Madsen) whose actors breathe fresh life into the quarreling quartet. Midsummer can’t really work unless the four-way forest fight works, and the bewitched lovers are aided in this by a company of young fairies ready to supply them with encouragement and pillows. It reminds us that we’re watching a comedy, and even the fighting is all in good fun.

Interspersed within the magical and romantic scenes are visits to the rude mechanicals preparing their play. The ensemble comprises a mix of broad working-class stereotypes that somehow manage to balance themselves out. Max Casella steals the show, as Bottom always does, but his comrades-in-arms (Brendan Averett, Joe Grifasi, Zachary Infante, Jacob Ming-Trent, and William Youmans) each get a chance to shine, whether they play the Moon or no.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be playing at Theatre for a New Audience through January 12. This one is well worth checking out. And if you have kids, bring them. This might be the production that gets them hooked. Picture Broadway sensibilities mapped onto an Off-Broadway venue, with a script by Shakespeare and a touch of magic in the mix. Prepare to laugh and gasp and beam and cheer. And then, to awaken as from a dream, as your joy and amazement lasts for a few extra wonderful moments as you step into the neon glow of the surrounding Brooklyn neighborhood.

Theatre: Macbeth at Lincoln Center

Sunday, November 17th, 2013

My mother used to ask me how I could go to see the same plays over and over again.

And I think it’s a fair question. Much of the fun in experiencing a work of drama is in the tension and suspense. Not knowing what’s going to happen next helps to draw you in, and the unexpected twists and turns keep you engaged.

But with poetic works like Shakespeare’s, I prefer to think of them as I would a song. You’d be very happy to listen to the same piece of music on multiple occasions, especially when interpreted by new performers who add their own artistic craft to the experience.

So when I went to see Ethan Hawke play Macbeth at Lincoln Center, I wasn’t sitting in suspense to find out how events would unravel, but rather to see how a new creative team would interpret the poetic depth and emotional arc of the familiar story.

As it happened, they did so rather well. They performed the script mostly as written, and the few minor changes that were made were for the benefit of the audience. The lights, costumes, and sets added considerably to the foreboding mood of the production, without ever drawing focus. And so, while it was the same old Macbeth, it was also something new and wonderful.

Ethan Hawke gave a powerful performance in the title role. I know from Shakespeare Uncovered that this is a role he’s always wanted to play. Film actors always get ribbed by critics when they do the Bard on stage, but I can tell Hawke from a handsaw. I saw him years ago, also at Lincoln Center, playing Hotspur in a production that featured Kevin Kline as Falstaff. I’ve been impressed with him ever since, and thought he carried Macbeth’s sword well. Other standouts in the cast were Daniel Sujata as Macduff and Anne-Marie Duff as Lady Macbeth.

Director Jack O’Brien highlighted the supernatural elements of the play, and gave Hecate more of a central role. These scenes were the best of the production. I appreciated how he injected just the right amount of spectacle to sustain the slower moving scenes, but got out of the way for the meatier stuff. The witches remained omnipresent throughout the play, often playing minor roles or just showing up to watch their handiwork play out. This added an extra layer of cohesion to what is already a particularly cohesive play.

Macbeth will be running through January 12, so there’s still plenty of time to reserve your ticket. You may already know the song, but the singer is well worth the listen.

Book: That Shakespeare Kid by Michael LoMonico

Sunday, November 10th, 2013

“Why can’t you remember your Shakespeare and forget the third-raters,” James Tyrone asks his son Edmund in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. “You’ll find what you’re trying to say in him — as you’ll find everything else worth saying.” Author Michael LoMonico puts this claim to the test in his new novel, That Shakespeare Kid, about a boy named Peter who gets hit on the head with a Riverside Shakespeare and awakes to find he can only speak Shakespeare’s words.

Now, I should mention that I know Mike, and I’ve worked with him before on projects such as the Folger’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute, their Elementary Education Conference, and PBS’s Shakespeare Uncovered educational advisory panel. I’m thanked in the book, and read it from a copy signed by the author. So, this will hardly be an unbiased review. But it’s about a kid who can’t stop speaking Shakespeare, so would you expect any less than an enthusiastic response from me regardless? And actually, knowing Mike enhances one’s appreciation of the book, as his time-tested philosophies of teaching and learning Shakespeare are fundamental to the story.

The book is addressed to “the great variety of readers” and, indeed, there are very specific demographics that I think will appreciate it for different reasons. On the surface, it’s a young adult novel, and I think it works on those terms. LoMonico sets the scene in the world of the child, and the story is told through the eyes of Peter’s friend Emma. So while the teacher in the book may be excited about covering Shakespeare, the kids start off creeping unwillingly to school. The characters of Peter and Emma are well developed and likable; they are kids you know and kids you’d like to know. And if the young reader is entirely unfamiliar with Shakespeare, you couldn’t ask for a better introduction.

But as excited as I am to recommend this to my nephew, I think my graduate students would appreciate it even more. In the book, LoMonico depicts numerous Shakespeare class lessons. He illustrates what works and what doesn’t work, and since we hear it all in Emma’s voice, we understand why. Mike is recognized as a national expert on teaching Shakespeare, with experience working with thousands of teachers and students. This novel is practically a textbook on how to teach Shakespeare on the middle-school level (and next semester, perhaps literally a textbook). If you’re interested in learning how to make Shakespeare fun for kids, let Mike walk you through it. The key, of course, is in providing numerous opportunities for students to speak the text out loud. Peter has no choice, but the rest of the students learn to enjoy it as well.

So kids will love this novel, as will teachers who wish to learn the fundamentals of teaching Shakespeare. What about experienced Shakespeare teachers who already have a passion for the stuff? I have to admit that part of the fun for me was in trying to identify the passages that Peter found himself reciting. LoMonico anticipates this; the answers are in the back. Every play by Shakespeare is represented, as well as Sonnet 18. The quotes range from the famous to the obscure, so the unstated game remains fun for all fans of Shakespeare, whether casual or die-hard. And teachers of Shakespeare will appreciate the familiar classroom moments, such as when students encounter the word “ho” or when the script requires your middle-school actors to kiss.

At the heart of That Shakespeare Kid is a love of Shakespeare’s language and how that love is expressed through speaking the text. Peter’s thoughts and writing are unaffected by his affliction; it only affects his speech. But for LoMonico, that’s where Shakespeare lives, in the spoken word, so that’s where teachers and students need to look for him. Peter’s curse becomes a joyful blessing in those sections where he has fun playing with these amazing words he suddenly has unlimited access to, such as when he uses lines from across the canon to describe his experiences at a Mets game, or when he accepts a challenge from his classmates to find quotes that use a given word.

LoMonico has some fun of his own; all of the chapter titles and most of the character names are Shakespeare references. In fact, the entire story can be seen as an allegory for learning Shakespeare’s language. When the students first learn of Peter’s condition, they find it scary and alienating. As they get used to it, they realize that it becomes easier to understand, and they eventually learn to celebrate it.

This is a book about teaching Shakespeare, and about learning it. About liking it, and about loving it. It is for teachers and for students and for Shakespeare fans of all ages. It’s a book for each of us who, at one point in our lives, got hit over the head by a Riverside Shakespeare and found ourselves unable to resist speaking these incredible words. We may have gotten some strange looks from our friends and loved ones at first, but they eventually came to accept it as a part of who we are. Peter’s journey may be fantastical, but it’s not entirely unfamiliar.

That Shakespeare Kid is available at Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle versions.

UPDATE: Mike has set it up on Amazon.com that if you buy the print edition, you can get the Kindle edition for free.

Video: Henry V (The Hollow Crown)

Sunday, October 20th, 2013

This is the last of four reviews of The Hollow Crown, a series of BBC productions of Shakespeare’s second tetralogy of history plays: Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and the subject of this final review, Henry V.

Henry V is a great play in its own right. But watching it just after you’ve seen the same actors in the Henry IV plays adds a whole new dimension to the experience. From the Dauphin’s insult to the execution of Bardolph to the wooing of Katherine, we can view the actions of the young king through the lens of his wayward youth and seemingly miraculous reformation.

Early on, I was very impressed with the actor who played Exeter. He’s exactly the kind of actor I like; he makes crisp clear decisions, and you always know what he’s thinking. But when I looked up his name, I found it was Anton Lesser, one of my favorite audio performers. I guess I just didn’t recognize him with a face.

The cast as a whole was outstanding, with some very fine moments delivered by the smallest of roles. But there is one star in this play, and Tom Hiddleston gives an outstanding performance as Henry V. He very clearly conquers Harfleur with a single speech. His exchanges with Montjoy are earnest and passionate. And when he gets to the big moment, the St. Cripin’s Day speech, he really brings it home. When Olivier and Branagh did it, they started by talking to Westmoreland and the inner circle and gradually transitioned into a speech to the troops. Hiddleston’s Henry keeps the speech in the circle. Even though it is a monologue, Henry’s audience members contribute as much to the speech as he does, the inspiration beaming in their faces as Henry speaks of honor and glory.

Director Thea Sharrock keeps the action moving and the story clear. This may be the first time I’ve ever really understood the Fluellen/Pistol relationship. In the lead up to the battle, the look and feel of the grimy English soldiers contrasted with the clean French nobles made it clear who was going to be the home team. The Agincourt battle itself was extremely well done, brilliantly capturing the managed chaos of medieval warfare.

The Chorus was done as a voice-over, and it worked here. John Hurt’s enticing performance does a fine job of drawing us into the story, while the images on screen support the narration rather than distracting from it. I don’t want to give too much away here, but it will suffice to say that I absolutely loved the framing device used in the very beginning and the very end. I thought it was incredibly moving and really quite brilliant.

This production was a very fitting conclusion to a sterling collection. Owning the DVD set, I feel as though I am myself a king, and at my command are Ben Wishaw, Jeremy Irons, Simon Russell Beale, and Tom Hiddleston who will, on my merest whim, perform this masterpiece tetralogy for my entertainment.

If you want to get in on the action, you can watch the whole play on the PBS website.

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…

Video: Henry IV, Part 1 (The Hollow Crown)

Sunday, October 6th, 2013

This is the second of what I intend to be four reviews of The Hollow Crown, the new BBC video adaptations of Shakespeare’s history plays, currently being broadcast on PBS and available for streaming on their website. They are also available on DVD, which is how I’m viewing the series. The series comprises Richard II; Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; and Henry V. A complete plot summary might be cumbersome, but if you want to follow along with song parodies, they were set to the tunes of “Single Ladies,” “Tik Tok,” “Blurred Lines,” and “One More Night.”. Last week, I reviewed Richard II. This review will focus on Henry IV, Part 1.

Let me start by saying that it was really well done and I enjoyed it a great deal. There were a few elements about the adaptation that I didn’t like, and I will explain below what they were and why they are important to me. But overall, I give the production a big thumbs up, and recommend it highly.

The opening sequence lets us know that this is going to be a very different play from Richard II. While that play consisted largely of scenes set among nobility in the sterile court, this play opens with the streets bustling with the common people in all of their grimy splendor. Filthy peasants chop up dead animals for commerce and consumption beneath a window where a woman shakes dirt out of a rug. A dog licks at a dead pig, as merchants and consumers crowd into the marketplace, warmly greeting each other to exchange merchandise and soot. A clean dapper figure, Tom Hiddleston, giddily walks among them. It makes sense that he’s playing Hal, as I know he’ll be playing Henry V in the last play. But then he wanders into a tavern and wakes up a man who obviously must be Falstaff, and it turns out to be Simon Russell Beale. Oh yeah.

The first two scenes are intertwined, which I thought worked well in introducing the characters. This is something easier to do crisply on the screen than it is on stage, and I think it was done well. I also really liked the way the battle scenes were handled. The tavern scenes were well acted, but I think the production missed the disorderly energetic feeling of a tavern atmosphere. The patrons mostly seemed to stand around watching the principles perform, which was a little too tidy for my tastes.

In addition to Hiddleston and Beale, I thought the cast was very good, and enjoyed a number of outstanding performances in small roles. I thought that David Hayman (Worcester) and Michelle Dockery (Kate) were particularly worth mentioning. I also have to put Jeremy Irons (King Henry IV) in this category. I loved the scenes he was in, but the title role is a small part in this play, and I look forward to seeing more of him in the next one. I can’t wait for the final scene between Irons and Hiddleston. I just know that’s going to be amazing. To hold you over, there’s a scene in this play where Hal imitates his father, and I just wanted to give a shout out of appreciation for Tom Hiddleston’s impression of Jeremy Irons.

The Percy family all had the same accent, and this may mean something to an English audience that I’m missing, though I think I can take an educated guess. I think they were doing what the English call a “Northern” accent, which would make sense for Northumberland. And a little research shows that Joe Armstrong (Hotspur) is the real-life son of Alun Armstrong (Northumberland), who grew up in County Durham, which actually borders Northumberland. So it would appear that someone went to a lot of effort to make this piece of it authentic, and I can appreciate that.

One thing I didn’t like was the use of voice-over for two of the soliloquies in the play. Both Hal and Falstaff have speeches that are here presented in voice-over as they make their way through crowds. Voice-over was a technique that Olivier used in his 1948 movie of Hamlet. Olivier was shot in close up, though, making facial expressions to show that he was thinking the words we were hearing. It does seem a bit silly, but I understand what he was going for. In trying to adapt the play from one medium to another, he wanted to use the lexicography of the new medium, and that included the ability to hear the character’s thoughts without him having to speak them. It was a necessary experiment, but I don’t think it worked. There’s an intimacy when an actor speaks directly to the audience, as the air escapes his lungs and his emotions radiate from his eyes, that has a potency to make a connection. Shakespeare understood this potency and used it often. That connection can actually transfer to a screen production, but in my opinion, it doesn’t survive the additional layer of distancing that voice-over brings.

That’s why it didn’t work for Olivier, but I think it’s even worse here. At least Olivier attempted to be present for the soliloquies; you could see he was actually thinking the speech we were hearing. In these scenes, Hal and Falstaff are just going about their business. There’s no sense that the actor even knows where in the speech we are. And it’s true that we often have thoughts running through our minds as we proceed through our day, but that lessens the importance of the speech. What’s more, in the screen lexicography of our day, the voice-over does not necessarily signify a character’s inner thoughts. Quite often, a voice-over indicates the character’s voice from the future narrating past events. That is entirely the wrong choice here.

The “I know you all” speech sets up Hal’s character arc. The later King Henry V will be one of the greatest heroes for Shakespeare’s England, and Shakespeare wants to be very clear in establishing that the young prince’s history of debauchery was a calculated plan from the very beginning. Thus, we need to hear him give this speech at this very moment, after he has agreed to participate in the shenanigans but before he actually does it, so that he can establish that he knows what he’s doing. If it’s a disembodied voice from the future, then it sounds like rationalizing after the fact, an impression Shakespeare was trying very hard not to give. And even if we do accept the voice as Hal’s thoughts, they are presented in such a way as to minimize their importance, rather than being one of the defining moments of his character. The payoff doesn’t come for another two plays, so it’s important to really emphasize it now.

Less damaging is Falstaff’s “honor” speech done as a voice-over, but this speech really needs an actor. We forgive Falstaff his trespasses because he’s so charming and describes his philosophy with a twinkle in his eye. No twinkle, no empathy, and the “honor” speech diminishes Falstaff’s character. The payoff for this speech comes only a short time later on the battlefield when Falstaff discovers the body of Sir Walter Blunt and says “There’s honor for you.” But without the speech, there is no shared reference with the audience, and the line is thrown away.

And while I’m railing about details, where was the Douglas? I understand cuts have to be made, but this is a really fun character that also happens to add a lot to plot and character development for the play as a whole. You can live without the Douglas, I suppose, instead of adding to the sense of menace that the rebels present. And you can live without the Douglas, I suppose, instead of creating a brilliant stage moment when the unlikely opponent Falstaff has to face off against him. And you can live without the Douglas, I suppose, when Hal has the opportunity to display mercy by letting him go at the end. But what happens when you lose the Douglas in the scene where Hal comes to his father’s defense in battle? This is a kid who everyone thinks is a degenerate hooligan, and then he risks his own life to save his father’s, even when his father’s death would win him the crown. This is a pretty important moment for understanding Hal, wouldn’t you say?

So yes, I did have some quibbles with some of the individual choices, but as I said, I did enjoy the production overall, and it’s my pleasure to recommend it to you. I’m also looking forward to the next play with great anticipation. I’ll let you know when I’ve seen it.

You can watch the entire video for free on the PBS website.

Video: Richard II (The Hollow Crown)

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

This.

Enthusiastic and meme-hip as it is, my one-word review of The Hollow Crown, Sam Mendes’s four-part television adaptation of Shakespeare’s second tetralogy, probably deserves further elaboration. I’ll be watching the productions on DVD, so I may be somewhat out of sync with your local PBS airing currently underway. But you can also catch the series on streaming video through the PBS website, so it’s all good. This review will focus mostly on Richard II, the first of the four plays, because I haven’t watched the other three yet.

Now, if you’re a faithful reader of this blog or, well, met me once, you know this is the kind of thing I live for, and you’ll be prepared for the breathless effluence of a hardcore fan. But truth be told, I can be a tough audience. Because I know the play so well, it’s hard to get me to suspend my disbelief. And this is a tough play. The language is lofty and poetic, even by Shakespeare’s standards, so it’s harder to get the words to sound natural.

And yet, I found myself riveted by the dramatic tension of the scenes, despite knowing not only what was about to happen, but also the exact words that were about to be spoken. I don’t know how that’s possible, but truly I was engrossed the whole time. The actors were top-notch across the board, and the direction was very clear in telling the story. The scenes were beautifully shot and in high definition. True, I was watching it on DVD, but I checked out the streaming feed for this review, and was very impressed at how high you could set the picture quality. Welcome to the future of Shakespeare.

The opening scene started with voice-over of Richard’s “let’s talk of graves” speech, the speech that “the hollow crown” comes from. I must confess feeling a moment’s hesitation, as I worried the director was going to get cute with the play. But then Richard calls for his uncle, John of Gaunt, and it’s Patrick Stewart. Lines are spoken, and I’m feeling the brain burst. This is going to be a wild 148 minutes.

We don’t get much Patrick Stewart, but we do get the “royal throne of kings” speech with full Tom Hooper Les Miz close-up. It’s fantastic, of course, but it’s the subsequent scene between Gaunt and Richard that I had to put back and watch again. And then (spoiler) Stewart’s gone, but we’re given no less than David Suchet (York) to take up the baton. And those are just the supporting players.

Worth mentioning is Rory Kinnear as Bolingbroke. His demeanor is somewhat understated, as is appropriate to the character, but he has some really nice subtleties to his performance. But the real standout in the cast was Ben Wishaw as Richard. I didn’t know much about him outside of Shakespeare Uncovered and James Bond, so I was completely unprepared for just how good he was going to be. Wishaw creates a soft, pampered Richard through his body posture, vocal intonations, and a not-insigificant contribution from a monkey. But then, as his place is challenged, his character arc transitions from entitlement-fueled rage to deep melancholy despair without losing any of the qualities Wishaw had established for Richard. He made me feel the “let’s talk of graves” speech, which I’ve taught phrase-by-phrase, as though I was hearing it for the first time. His performance in the (spoiler) abdication scene alone elevates him to a level of greatness where I can say that his participation in any future project will be no less of a draw for me than a Patrick Stewart or a David Suchet, and that’s no small compliment.

I do have some very minor quibbles that have much more to do with my own Shakespeare pedantry than anything lacking in this production. Some lines I like got cut, but I’ll get over it. Northumberland and especially Henry Percy are underdeveloped. This wouldn’t be a big deal if it were a stand-alone production of Richard II, but the characters reappear in later plays, and the fact that the Percys supported Richard’s ascension in this play adds an ironic layer that’s only possible when you do the plays together. But I understand Jeremy Irons will be playing Henry IV, so maybe the other actors will be replaced as well. Also, I missed the Duchess of Gloucester. Would it really been so hard to have called up Helen Mirren or Vanessa Redgrave or somebody and ask if she had a day to come in and do a scene with Patrick Stewart?

But these are my problems and not yours. If you like to order your Shakespeare well done, you won’t be disappointed. If you’re not a fan of Shakespeare, this might be your way in. And if you are a fan of Shakespeare, but not the histories (Duane), you owe yourself this unique opportunity to see what all the fuss is about.

I’ll post more reviews as I watch the rest of the series.

ETA: Duane’s already on it.

Film: Joss Whedon’s Much Ado

Sunday, June 23rd, 2013

It would be difficult to watch a movie adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing without, on some level, comparing it to Kenneth Branagh’s sweeping masterpiece of twenty years ago. But Joss Whedon’s interpetation of the play is too different, both in intent and execution, from the 1993 film to make such a comparison meaningful. Both films do a fine job of telling the story and entertaining the crowd. Indeed, the fact that they do so in such strikingly different ways stands as a testament to how versatile Shakespeare is, and why we continue to find new ways to perform him after so many years.

Shot in twelve days at Whedon’s home during a filming break from The Avengers, the 2013 Much Ado about Nothing demonstrates how much of Shakespeare works on its own, though it’s not without some very nice touches and insights into the play. The ensemble cast speaks the original text in a very casual, natural-sounding manner, as though everyone went around speaking poetry all the time. “My soul burns with passion and, oh, could you pass the salt, please?” That’s not easy to pull off, but the cast does so masterfully across the board. That’s not too bad for a group of friends pulled together on a lark.

The pace of the film is slower than we’ve come to expect from movie adaptations of Shakespearean comedy. The soldiers have returned from war, and have earned some relaxation. We can therefore enjoy the lazy feel of a summer vacation, where there is no work to be done, and nothing better to pass the time than to lounge by the pool or hang out in the kitchen with friends. In these moments, the respite from the busy day-to-day world, we have time to indulge in mulling over the minute details of each social interaction. If it’s all much ado about nothing, then perhaps it’s because nothing is all that’s here. We might as well fill out the time by playing pranks, throwing parties, and writing poetry. If we get really desperate for entertainment, we might even fall in love.

Even the comic scenes are somewhat laid back, which makes the transition less abrupt when we shift to serious moments. That’s always a problem with this play: Benedick and Beatrice discover their love in a sitcom, but have to declare it in a soap opera. It can be really hard for an audience to catch up emotionally. But this film keeps such an even keel that it doesn’t seem to hit so hard when it happens. The prior relationship between Beatrice and Benedick is established in the opening scene of the film, so these are real people to us, with a real history, and not just a couple of comic characters out of their element.

The funniest moments of the play find their laughs in their own understatement. Nathan Fillion deadpanning Dogberry’s malapropisms, Joe Friday-style, while drinking stale coffee from a paper cup steals the show.

Ultimately, Whedon seems to be testing what happens when you throw out all of the elaborate sets and period costumes, the vibrant colors and emotional score, the histrionics and the dramatic pauses, and just put Shakespeare’s brilliant words in the hands of talented actors. And as it turns out, the text holds up. The period seems to be the present, as iPhones with streaming video abound. Men wear suits and ties instead of military uniforms. And did I mention that the whole film is presented in black and white?

With a bare mimimum of chewing the scenery, slapstick gags, or even background scoring, this film wants to put nothing between you and the play. So, if you already love Shakespeare, you’ll probably really like this film. If you don’t, you should check out the Branagh movie; it has all of that other stuff. This is not the movie to use to introduce yourself to Shakespeare, even if you’re already a Whedon fan.

And it occurs to me that the relaxed atmosphere is no accident. It’s Joss Whedon who is the soldier back from war looking for some relaxation. I’m not very familiar with the man’s other work, but if this is how he unwinds, he’s earned my admiration. He didn’t pander to a general audience; he created a movie of Shakespeare the way he likes it. That’s why it’s so good.

Given how little expense and time apparently went into creating this, and how wonderful the outcome, I wonder if we can expect the same team to come back together to do another play. I understand a second Avengers movie is in the works…