Archive for the 'Visual Arts' Category

Shakespeare Clickbait

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

How far should we go to get people to read Shakespeare? I say we do whatever it takes.

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Do these three women really have the secret for seeing into the FUTURE?

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A dying father called for his son, and what he said will blow you AWAY!
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Most people don’t know the one food you should NEVER eat…

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This single act of forgiveness will restore your faith in HUMANITY!

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Click the images above to read more!

My teenage daughter and her friends think that posts like this can’t go viral. Please help me teach them an important lesson by sharing this on Facebook and Twitter.

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.

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.

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Insanity Defense

Friday, October 18th, 2013

Towards the end of Hamlet, Hamlet meets Laertes for a sword-fight. It’s supposed to be just an exhibition, but Laertes secretly intends to kill Hamlet for real. Hamlet has killed Laertes’s father, an act which has also led to the death of Laertes’s sister. Wanting to clear the air before the friendly sporting match begins, Hamlet offers the following words of contrition:

Give me your pardon, sir; I’ve done you wrong;
But pardon ’t, as you are a gentleman.
This presence knows,
And you must needs have heard, how I am punish’d
With sore distraction. What I have done,
That might your nature, honour and exception
Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness.
Was ’t Hamlet wrong’d Laertes? Never Hamlet:
If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away,
And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not; Hamlet denies it.
Who does it then? His madness. If ’t be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong’d;
His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.
Sir, in this audience,
Let my disclaiming from a purpos’d evil
Free me so far in your most generous thoughts,
That I have shot mine arrow o’er the house,
And hurt my brother.

Worst. Apology. Ever.

And the egregiousness of the non-apology is compounded by the fact that we, the audience, know that Hamlet was only faking his madness in the first place.

Still, the idea that a person might be absolved of responsibility for a crime due to insanity seems like an awfully enlightened concept to be showing up in an early 17th century play. Was Shakespeare playing around with some concepts that were ahead of his time, or was the insanity defense already part of contemporary jurisprudence? This looks like a job for the Shakespeare Follow-Up!

The idea of intent as a legal concept goes as far back as law itself, as it is described in some detail in The Code of Hammurabi. The Latin term for “not of sound mind” is non compos mentis, and the ancient Romans did indeed recognize it as a valid defense. The idea was also not foreign to Shakespeare’s England. According to Barbara Kirwan:

The concept that certain mental disorders might relieve a person of responsibility for criminal conduct was first recognized as a defense in 1275 by English common law. Starting in the reign of Edward II (1307-1327), a criminal could be found insane if his defenders could demonstrate that his mental abilities were no greater than those of a “wild beast.”

So Shakespeare certainly did not invent the concept. However, most of the evolution of the insanity defense has happened since the time of Shakespeare’s death.

In 1843, Daniel M’Naughton was acquitted of a murder charge by an English jury on the ground of insanity. During the process, the House of Lords had asked a panel of judges a series of questions, later known as the M’Naughton Rules, that would become a benchmark for making these kinds of judgements in the future.

Here in the United States, the standards for determining the validity of an insanity plea vary by state, and a few states don’t recognize it at all. Charles Guiteau pleaded insanity in his trial for assassinating President Garfield, but was found guilty and hanged. John Hinkley, however, was acquitted for shooting President Reagan by reason of insanity. This led to a public outcry, and the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984, which made it more difficult to mount such a defense.

Whether you agree with the insanity defense or not, it isn’t hard to understand the public’s reaction. Just imagine Hinckley using Hamlet’s words in his own defense:

Was ’t Hinkley wrong’d Reagan? Never Hinkley:
If Hinkley from himself be ta’en away,
And when he’s not himself does wrong Reagan,
Then Hinkley does it not; Hinkley denies it.
Who does it then? His madness. If ’t be so,
Hinkley is of the faction that is wrong’d;
His madness is poor Hinkley’s enemy.

Infuriating, right? And in our current era of school shootings and random bombings, we find ourselves facing a wide array of criminals who establish themselves as undeniably insane simply by doing the thing they are on trial for. But how can that possibly be a reasonable standard for acquittal?

So obviously, this is something we’re still struggling with. But going as far back as antiquity, the law has always recognized that there were legitimate times when a person should be absolved of a crime on the grounds of insanity. Shakespeare articulates the reasoning behind it with great clarity, but subsequent cases and conversations have muddied that clarity considerably.

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.

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Cosmology

Friday, October 4th, 2013

The inaugural Shakespeare Follow-Up is dedicated to Rebecca.

As she can tell you, when Puck is first introduced in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he meets a fairy who tells him:

I do wander every where,
Swifter than the moone’s sphere;

But what is the moon’s “sphere” and why should we believe it is particularly swift? To fully appreciate this line, and many like it across the canon, it’s important to know a little bit about how Shakespeare and his contemporaries viewed the cosmos.

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle described a system of concentric spheres, based on the works of pre-Socratic philosphers. Each observable planetary body, including the Moon, was embedded in one of these spheres. The spheres were made of transparent matter, in contact with one another, and able to rotate independently. (Positing a thin layer of WD-40 between spheres would have been beyond the technological capabilities of the ancient Greeks.) The Moon’s sphere was the closest to the Earth, and therefore, could move the fastest. This was followed by Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the sphere of the stars. Outside the spheres was the Prime Mover, which is the original source of all motion. God, if you like.

Claudius Ptolemy was an astronomer living in Alexandria in the 2nd century AD, while Egypt was part of the Roman Empire. Ptolemy noticed that some of the data, particularly retrograde motions of the planets, could not be explained by the existing model. He added the idea of epicycles, spheres rotating within spheres, which allowed for irregular movement of the planets, and the concept remained the dominant cosmological model for centuries.

Around the 12th century, Aristotelian concepts (including Ptolemaic cosmology) became intertwined with Christian theology. By the time Copernicus developed his heliocentric model in the early 16th century, it was not only a challenge to Aristotle and Ptolemy, but also to Church teachings that God put man in the center of the universe.

This is the world that Shakespeare and Galileo were born into in 1564. The theories of Copernicus were known, but not commonly accepted as true. It should be noted, however, that even Copernicus accepted the idea of celestial spheres; he just put the Sun in the center instead of the Earth. Shakespeare makes reference to the spheres all throughout his plays, often metonymously for the cosmos as it affects our fates, or simply as a shared cultural reference.

So the Bastard in King John can ask “Now, now, you stars, that move in your right spheres,/ Where be your powers?” as Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream observes “Yet you, the murderer, look as bright, as clear,/ As yonder Venus in her glimmering sphere.”

Fixed and unchangeable, the spheres also serve as a convenient metaphor for the rightfulness of hierarchies here on Earth. Shakespeare draws this comparison often, most notably in this speech from Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida:

The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre
Observe degree, priority, and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office, and custom, in all line of order:
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthron’d and spher’d
Amidst the other; whose med’cinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans check, to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues, and what portents, what mutiny,
What raging of the sea, shaking of earth.
Commotion in the winds, frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure!

When we see the Sun referred to as “the glorious planet Sol,” it has the power to remind us just how much distance is between the scientific understanding of Shakespeare’s time and our own. And reading this in 21st century America, we also feel the gap in worldview as we see hierarchic culture defended so fiercely. Both celestial spheres and geocentrism will likewise fade in the century following Shakespeare’s death, but the ideas remain forever embedded in Shakespeare like the planets in their spheres. Thus, we understand that when, in 1 Henry IV, Hal tells Hotspur that “Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere,” it’s Elizabethan for “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.”

Astronomers during Shakespeare’s lifetime, most notably Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, already began using observational data to cast doubts about both geocentrism and the celestial spheres. The observation of comets was making the sphere model difficult to maintain. Galileo also took up the idea of heliocentrism and, after a long battle with the Church, was pressured into recanting. But the theories of Isaac Newton and the Scientific Revolution later in the 17th century gave heliocentrism a much stronger grounding in modern science which led to a wider acceptance as the culture became more open to the reexamination of our scientific understandings.

It wasn’t until the 20th century, however, that science learned that none of these models was the center of the universe, but rather one solar system among billons across a vast sprawling cosmos.

One can only wonder what Shakespeare might have done with such a revelation.

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…