Archive for the 'Television' Category

Conundrum: An Eventful 52

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

The following recap of 2013 has been redacted by overzealous Internet censors! Can you fill in the blanks to restore our memories of the year?

Here’s the catch: all of the missing words are in alphabetical order. Enjoy!

Was it only 52 weeks __(01)__ that we celebrated the arrival of 2013? A lot has happened since then. __(02)__ __(03)__ was __(04)__ from the same network as Mr. __(05)__ later would be. The __(06)__ story of the past 365 days might be that terrible __(07)__ in __(08)__. The __(09)__ of a mayoral __(10)__ ended when he was revealed to be using the name __(11)__ __(12)__. This may have been the most __(13)__ incident of 2013, unless you wish to give that __(14)__ honor to the family of __(15)__ __(16)__, whose __(17)__ member __(18)__ many by __(19)__ his more __(20)__ views, which many felt went too __(21)__. At the movies, the latest __(22)__ & __(23)__ film had a __(24)__ showing at the box office, though it did not __(25)__ as much __(26)__ as the latest __(27)__ __(28)__ film. In music, the artist born __(29)__ __(30)__ released a second LP with that name. Internationally, __(31)__ __(32)__ was removed from power, while domestically, we fought __(33)__ over __(34)__, the __(35)__ signature __(36)__. The __(37)__ __(38)__ it fiercely, and the __(39)__ itself certainly had some __(40)__ spots. In fact, the worst __(41)__ of 2013 may have been the __(42)__ it triggered, though just as __(43)__ was when Mr. __(44)__ __(45)__ out about the government’s __(46)__ on Americans as part of a secret __(47)__ program. In sports, we once again saw that nobody could __(48)__ from the __(49)__ like __(50)__ __(51)__. All in all, it was an eventful __(52)__.

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.

Shakespeare Anagram: Hamlet

Saturday, June 22nd, 2013

From Hamlet:

Alas! poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

Rest in Peace, James Gandolfini.

An obnoxious kooky mobster? No. I watch him act it.

He wasn’t Tony… rather, I feel, a man of honor in all of his ability.

So, did he know when it came for him?

Shakespeare Anagram: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Saturday, April 6th, 2013

From A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

A play there is, my lord, some ten words long,
Which is as brief as I have known a play;
But by ten words, my lord, it is too long,
Which makes it tedious.

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

My mood? Vocal Roger Ebert had a symbiotic relationship with dry Gene Siskel, then shone solo.

If it was thumbs up or down, it was always kindly.

Shakespeare Uncovered Website

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

I promised to let you know when the Shakespeare Uncovered website was up. It is, and it’s a fantastic resource all Shakespeare teachers should know about.

First of all, you can actually watch full episodes of the series online. So even if you missed out the first time, it’s all there waiting for you now.

The Education section, the part where I contributed, boasts a collection of fantastic lesson plans on Shakespeare that use clips from the television show in class. The lessons are relatively short, so they can either be used on their own or worked into longer Shakespeare units you may already be planning. And if you want to see the bios for all of the members of the Advisory Board, you can find them here (mine is the fifth one down).

The series may be over, but the website is the gift that keeps on giving. So head on over to watch the show, play the games, and teach the lessons!

Shakespeare Uncovered

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

I hope you’re as excited as I am for Shakespeare Uncovered, “a new six part PBS series combining history, biography, iconic performances, new analysis and the personal passion to tell the story behind the stories of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.”

I served as a member of an Advisory Board convened by the producing station—New York City’s WNET—to help develop a comprehensive suite of free online educational resources based on the series, which I’m told will soon be available to high school educators on the series website. I’ll post another link once they’re up.

The series premieres this Friday, January 25th. In the first episode, Ethan Hawke takes us on a dark and dangerous journey through the psychology, history, and artistry of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Watch Hawke make breakthroughs in his understanding of the character he’s always wanted to play, even as he accidentally damages a priceless First Folio on camera. Travel to Dunsinane to see what we can discover about this historic setting. Explore the relationship between the Macbeths and peer into the minds and hearts of killers. Learn about how the passions, words, and themes of Shakespeare are relevant to our lives even today.

Sounds pretty sweet, right? And that’s just the first episode. Whether you’re interested in the poetry, history, or biography of Shakespeare, you won’t want to miss this series. Check your local PBS listings for dates and times of the rest of the episodes.

Watch Macbeth with Ethan Hawke on PBS. See more from Shakespeare Uncovered.

Eating Ambrosia on Mount Olympus

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

As the year is winding down, I’m looking back over the last twelve months of Shakespeare Teacher to prepare for the annual Top Ten Posts list, which will be up tomorrow. I admit that this has not been my most prolific year, but I’ve been extremely busy. Busyness is often cited as a complaint, but I have no complaints. Rather, my busyness has been the result of having too many opportunities that were too good to pass up. Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?

One of the things that has been occupying my time has been a new graduate-level course I’m teaching for NYU on evaluation for school administrators. I didn’t know I’d be teaching it until the course actually started, so I’ve been burning the candle at both ends trying to stay prepared each week. The effort has been worthwhile, as the students have been giving glowing feedback to the department, and I’ve been hired to teach it again in the spring. I’ll also be teaching my regular course for English teachers on using drama as a teaching tool, so I should still be pretty busy… the good busy, but busy nevertheless.

Still, I’d like to be using the blog to write about the things that I’m doing and to process what I’m learning while I’m doing them. I haven’t been doing that, and my New Year’s Resolution is to return to doing that. So busyness isn’t an excuse to avoid writing; it should be a call to write. Readers have continued to enjoy the regular features, and I’ve enjoyed writing them, but they were never what this blog was supposed to be about. I recently had one experience in particular that I’ve regretted not taking the time to share with the readers of this website, so I’d like to do so now. Better late than never.

Thirteen (WNET) has produced a series called Shakespeare Uncovered which will premiere on PBS stations on January 25. I had nothing to do with the creation of the series, but Thirteen asked me to sit on an advisory board to consult on the educational outreach component that accompanies their programming. So far, this has consisted of previewing the series and having a day-long meeting with Thirteen educators and other members of the advisory board.

I was excited enough to work with Thirteen and on teaching Shakespeare no less, but when I found out who the other members of the board were going to be, I was floored. These are my teaching Shakespeare heroes, some of whom I’ve met through my dealings with the Folger, others of whom I know by reputation. My claim to fame, on the other hand, is that I snatched a good Internet domain name when the snatching was good. But I think my enthusiasm for the subject matter made up the difference. Having the chance to spend an entire day discussing the teaching of Shakespeare with a team of experts was like being invited to eat ambrosia on the top of Mount Olympus. And I’ve been yearning to tell you about it ever since.

By the way, the Shakespeare Uncovered series is amazing, and you should watch it when it airs. If you’re into Shakespeare, you’ll appreciate all of the different angles the series covers. And if you’re not a Shakespeare fan, you may come to understand why some of us are.

I had hoped that this post wouldn’t come off as too self-critical or apologetic. But now that I read over it, it comes off as one big humblebrag. I can live with that. The Top Ten list will be posted tomorrow.