Thoughts on a Week of Shakespeare

I’ve returned home from my Shakespeare week, a five-day adventure in Stratford-upon-Avon, seeing four Shakespeare plays at the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was a very interesting week, with four great performances, and meetings with the renowned Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells, and two actors from the current RSC productions, Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann. (I’ll be posting a review of the fourth play I saw, All’s Well that Ends Well, along with interviews with Stanley Wells and Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann soon.)

It was an interesting week. Stratford-upon-Avon is a lovely little town, and I stayed at the Arden Hotel, which is right across the street from the RSC. The area around the RSC is delightful, with riverside gardens, and more swans and ducks than you can imagine. Here’s a picture from the RSC’s riverside café:

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The RSC has two theaters: the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which seats 1,040 people, and the Swan Theatre, which seats 460. The first play I saw, Titus Andronicus was in the Swan, and the other three were in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. While the latter theater is twice the size of the Swan, you don’t really notice, since they both have thrust stages, with the audience on three sides of the stage. No matter where you sit, you are very close to the action.

This was a tiring week, though. With four long plays – from 2:45 for Titus Andronicus to 3:35 for Hamlet (intermissions included) – these are long evenings of sustained attention. While I’m familiar with Shakespeare’s language, I still need to pay more attention than with, say, a movie or TV series, and four plays in four days proved to be taxing. But these were four excellent productions, and I’d especially like to see Hamlet again.

So, stay tuned for more about my Shakespeare week. I’ll post a review of All’s Well that Ends Well soon, and I’ll post interviews next week.

It’s worth noting, for those too far from Stratford, that three of the current RSC productions will be touring at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle upon Tyne, from 18 October to 9 November. I’m hoping to head up there to see Hamlet again; Newcastle is actually closer to where I live than Stratford.

See all my posts about Shakespeare.

Theater Review: Hamlet by the Royal Shakespeare Company

For day three of my Shakespeare week, I attended the big one, Hamlet. Running a total of 3:35 (with a 20-minute intermission), I can’t remember the last time a theatrical performance went by so quickly. While I tend to get antsy after a while in the theater, or when seeing long movies, this Hamlet was so gripping that it felt like it was just an hour long.

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Every Hamlet is defined by the actor who plays the title role, and this production is no exception. Jonathan Slinger’s performance was breathtaking. The energy he puts into the role, and his portrayal of Hamlet’s slow slide toward tragedy, are astounding.

But this comes with a price. At times, this Hamlet seemed like a one-man show, where the rest of the cast restrained themselves in reaction to Slinger’s commanding presence. Hamlet is not on stage the entire time, of course, but even when he’s not visible, his presence is felt. The only exception to this was the parts in Act IV, when Hamlet is away to England. The scenes with Claudius, Gertrude and Ophelia had these characters become much more dynamic.

Slinger’s Hamlet is fierce and truculent. In the first scenes of this modern-dress production, he looks like an accountant, with his suit and tie, and his middle-aged glasses. (You can see this in the video at the end of this article, from Act I, Scene 2.) After he sees his father’s ghost, he changes into a fencing suit, for most of the rest of the play. (Director David Farr’s set for the play is a gymnasium, with rapiers on the walls, and lines drawn on the floor for fencing.) Slinger’s acting is very physical, showing Hamlet’s (real or feigned?) madness not only in words, but also in gestures. He hops and skips across the stage, does a Groucho Marx walk behind one character, and generally acts like a clown.

It is easy to slip into ridicule when playing Hamlet in this way, but I never felt that Slinger crossed the line. He wears his madness on his sleeve, and goes into manic excess at times, but it always seemed in character. As a contrast, Ophelia’s madness (played by the wonderful Pippa Nixon) seemed understated, almost as though it was a feminine counterpoint to Hamlet’s more effusive folly.

The production used some interesting ideas to underscore the themes of the play. At the back of the stage, on an arch, is the slogan “Mens sana in corpore sano,” a healthy mind in a healthy body. And the burial scene, which takes place at the front of the scene, leaves Ophelia’s body visible – yet ignored by the rest of the players – until the very end. The presence of her body provides an interesting context to the duel at the end of the play.



Some elements of the staging bothered me. The lighting was often dim, using neon-type lights on the “ceiling” of the fencing room. The use of music during some of the speeches was intrusive, especially as I was sitting all the way at the front, too close to the speakers (the musicians were playing above the stage, but were not visible, and the music was amplified through speakers). And why did it rain on the stage for about ten seconds at the very end?

Textually, I found it interesting that the play ended with Horatio’s lines:

Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince:
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!
Why does the drum come hither?

This cuts out the whole bit where Fortinbras instructs his soldiers to bear away Hamlet’s body “like a soldier.” I’ve never quite understood the point of that ending, but this choice seems ever more perplexing. Why not just end the play with Hamlet saying:

The rest is silence.

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I haven’t said much about the other actors in the play, but I would like to mention Pippa Nixon, whose Ophelia was striking. I was all the more impressed having seen her the night before as Rosalind, in As You Like It. Her ability to shift between those two characters is impressive, and the way she changed from what looked to be a gawky university student (when she first comes on stage, she bears an armful of books and note books), to the mad Ophelia in a wedding dress, was stunning.

Greg Hicks was excellent as Claudius, and it was only during the cabinet scene that I realized that he was also the ghost. This was an interesting choice of casting, creating a great deal of ambiguity about what Hamlet saw (or thought he saw). But since it wasn’t obvious at the beginning, it didn’t click for me until after the play was over, when I confirmed, in the program, that it was the same actor playing both roles.

Alex Waldmann’s Horatio was very good, but he seems to have lost many of his lines. The letter from Hamlet about escaping from pirates was trimmed, and Horatio’s part seemed overall to be much shorter than usual.

But, in the end, this was Jonathan Slinger’s show. He played a convincing Hamlet, one that went very far, but never too far, and one that had me on the edge of my seat for much of the play.

Watch Jonathan Slinger in Act I, Scene 2 of Hamlet:

Theater Review: As You Like It, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

Last night I attended the second play in my Shakespeare week: As You Like It. After the bloody revenge of Titus Andronicus, the light-hearted comedy and love story of As You Like it was a welcome change.

Rosalind and Orlando are both unhappy in court. Orlando regrets that, being the third son of his father, he has none of the advantages of the first son, and Rosalind is not liked because she as the daughter of the Duke who had been banished. She is only allowed to stay because she is such close friends with Celia, the usurper’s daughter.

Rosalind meets Orlando at a wrestling match, and it is love at first sight. Pippa Nixon as Rosalind is goggle-eyed and Alex Waldmann is tongue-tied, as their budding romance begins a bit like a screwball comedy.

Each of the two – Orlando accompanied by his faithful servant Adam, and Rosalind by her cousin Celia – head out for new lands. Coincidentally, they both end up in Arden forest, a magical place.

Much love-making ensues, as Rosalind, dressed as a man, convinces Orlando to woo her, as if she were the Rosalind that he loves, and to whom he leaves verses on many trees in the forest. But there are other parallel love stories, with three couples. One involves Touchstone, the fool that Rosalind and Celia brought with them. Nicolas Tennant in this role is a delight, bringing comic relief to every scene he is in. Another pairing occurs between a couple of shepherds, and a fourth between Oliver, Orlando’s elder brother, and Celia. It’s a bit hard to follow, but in this production, directed by Maria Aberg, everything makes sense; as much as it can, in this play full of coincidences.

The setting of the court features people in dark suits and dresses – and thumping electronica as a soundtrack – and the forest has a ragtag band of outcasts, dressed as modern hippies, replete with acoustic guitars, to sing the songs in the play. The RSC commissioned original music by singer-songwriter Laura Marling (iTunes), which works well with the tone of the play.

But it’s the acting that stands out. Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann are a brilliant couple, and have true chemistry, even though Rosalind is disguised as a man. The “trick” of getting Orlando to woo her in her manly guise is but a vehicle for this Elizabethan romcom, and it works well here.


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But the play drags a bit at the beginning. The court scenes, the wrestling match, and all the preparations for the two lovers leaving court, are a bit drab and slow. When they reach the forest, however, everything changes, and the pace quickens, the acting sparkles, and the actors clearly enjoy themselves. As the play draws to a close, with four weddings, and much singing and dancing, it becomes one of those magical moments in the theater where everything is just right.


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I had seen As You Like It in May, and my opinion of my first viewing hasn’t changed. I had a seat in the front row for last night’s performance, at the side of the stage. Being that close to the actors allowed me to better see the brilliant comic timing of Pippa Nixon, and I also better appreciated how excellent Joanna Horton was as Celia. She was especially appreciated during a song she sings of Orlando’s verses to Rosalind; she got a rousing round of applause from the audience.

And the male actors are also excellent. Alex Waldmann has just the right amount of cluelessness as the tongue-tied lover at the beginning of the play, and the verbal skills of the more loquacious lover in the forest. And Nicolas Tennant’s Touchstone is a memorable character, who, even in a wonderful bit of dumb show following the intermission, brought down the house.


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This is a delightful play, which manages to have that touch of magic that every love story contains. Most of the audience left the theatre with smiles on their faces. A wonderful time was had by all, cast and audience alike.

Watch Act III, Scene 2, with Orlando and Rosalind.

Theatre Review: Titus Andronicus by the Royal Shakespeare Company (Redux)

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Last night, as part of my Shakespeare week, I attended the RSC’s production of Titus Andronicus. I first saw this production in June, and wanted to see it again (see this article for a review, and an audio recording of a discussion with the director and two of the leading actors).

Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s bloodiest play. A classic revenge tragedy, one killing leads to another, and another, and another, and the finale leads to almost everyone dying.

But reducing Titus to a body count (as the RSC does in this infographic) oversimplifies this play. In this production, directed by Michael Fentiman, one sees how Titus becomes mad following the rape and mutilation of his daughter, Lavinia. This act of violence, perpetrated by the two sons of the Goth queen Tamora – who, now the empress of Rome, is getting revenge for Titus having caused the death of her first-born son – leads Titus to take his own revenge.

Stephen Boxer as Titus Andronicus is brilliant, as he shifts from war-weary, on his return to Rome from battle, to a wounded father who has seen his daughter mutilated. Boxer’s ability to show that madness, not just in his words, but also in his actions and the way he moves, helps draw a character torn by grief, yet unable to express that grief in tears.

Katy Stephens, as Tamora, the Goth who, from being Titus’ prisoner becomes empress of Rome, is cunning and deceitful, weaving her plan for revenge throughout the play. And Kevin Harvey, as Aaron the Moor, is one of Shakespeare’s vilest characters. He doubles down on that evil in his final words, as he is buried with only his head above the ground, waiting to die of starvation:

O, why should wrath be mute, and fury dumb?
I am no baby, I, that with base prayers
I should repent the evils I have done:
Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did
Would I perform, if I might have my will;
If one good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul.

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But the star of this production is Rose Reynolds, whose portrayal of Lavinia – Titus’ daughter, who’s hands and tongue are lopped off – is breathtaking. Having already seen the production once, I was prepared for the moment when Lavinia’s wounds are seen for the first time. She lies huddled in the center of the stage, her back to the audience, then slowly rises and turns in silence to face the spectators, and her uncle, Marcus Andronicus, standing downstage. In stark silence, Marcus recites her wounds:

Speak, gentle niece, what stern ungentle hands
Have lopp’d and hew’d and made thy body bare
Of her two branches, those sweet ornaments,
Whose circling shadows kings have sought to sleep in,
And might not gain so great a happiness
As have thy love? Why dost not speak to me?
Alas, a crimson river of warm blood,
Like to a bubbling fountain stirr’d with wind,
Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips,
Coming and going with thy honey breath.

At this moment, Lavinia opens her mouth and blood flows down her chin, and she stands there helpless. Some gasps break the silence in the audience at this point. This is a moment of utter despair for Lavinia, and Reynolds plays this perfectly. From this point on in the play, the way Reynolds walks, moves, holds her body is different; she has become this tortured creature.

Titus Andronicus is not without humor, and Titus’ madness, in particular, leads to some funny moments. But once the evil deed has been done, Titus’ tragic destiny cannot be changed. He kills Tamora’s two sons, Chiron and Demetrius, bakes them in a pie, and serves them to Saturninus, emperor of Rome, and Tamora. He kills Lavinia, then all hell breaks loose, as most of the characters at the banquet are killed, and the stage is littered with bloodied bodies.

There was much laughter from some of the younger members of the audience during this slaughter, and it’s hard to pull off this scene. When Tamora’s throat was cut, the blood squirted at least six feet in the air, and it seemed as though it was a parody. I’m not sure whether one should laugh at this or not; it’s a tragic end to a revenge tragedy, where, as in Hamlet, bodies pile up. It goes a bit overboard, but in this production, it all seems to fit.

Here’s one of the trailers for the RSC production of Titus Andronicus.

See Katy Stevens discuss her role of Tamora in Titus Andronicus:

Shakespeare Week

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that one of my interests is Shakespeare. Since I moved to England in April, I’ve been able to see two productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), in Stratford-upon-Avon. They have two wonderful theaters there, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the Swan Theatre. Both theaters are similar, but the Swan is much smaller. The former seats over 1,000, and the latter around 450.

You can’t see the stage very well from this photo of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, but it is a thrust stage, where the stage is surrounded by the audience. There are several rows of seats on each side, and there are voms – walkways – leading off the stage through the audience. The Swan is similar, just smaller.

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Because of this setup, seeing plays in both theaters is intimate, and if you’re sitting in the stalls – the ground floor level – the actors moving on and off the stage via the voms makes you feel like you’re in the middle of the action.

As I said above, I’ve seen two productions at the RSC so far: As You Like It, in May, and Titus Andronicus, in June, which I wrote about here. To feed my love for Shakespeare, I’ve planned a week-long trip to Stratford in September, to see, in this order: Titus Andronicus, As You Like It, Hamlet, and All’s Well that Ends Well. In addition, I’ll be taking two tours of the RSC, a Behind the Scenes tour and an Inside the RSC tour. I’ll be meeting with a couple of actors who are currently in two of the plays, and I hope to meet a well-known Shakespeare scholar who lives in Stratford.

I’m looking forward to this Shakespeare week, where I will be able to see four excellent Shakespeare plays (two of which I’ve already seen), go behind the scenes at the RSC, spend some time in the attractive town of Stratford-upon-Avon, and meet up with actors and others to talk about Shakespeare. If you like Shakespeare, make sure to stop by this blog around then, as I’ll be writing a lot about the experience, with reviews of the plays, interviews, photos and more.

I’ll be posting reviews, interviews and photos here on this blog, and, if you follow me on Twitter, I’ll be using the hashtag #ShakespeareWeek in tweets about the upcoming week. To start with, you can read this review of Kenneth’s Branagh’s film version of Hamlet.

Film Review: Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet

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Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet is not only the longest version (just under four hours, not counting the credits), but also the most sumptuous version of Shakespeare’s great revenge tragedy on film. With exterior shots of Blenheim Palace, in Woodstock, England, and interiors designed to reflect the English baroque style of that massive country house, Branagh’s Hamlet shows the king and prince of Denmark in an opulent, luxurious setting.

This Hamlet pulls out all the stops. Not only is the setting lavish, but the cast is full of recognizable names. In addition to Derek Jacobi as Claudius (Jacobi notably played Hamlet in the BBC’s television version of the play, filmed in 1980), this film features Julie Christie as Gertrude, Kate Winslet as Ophelia, Michael Maloney as Laertes, Richard Briers as Polonius, and Nicholas Farrell as Horatio. The cast also includes such well-known actors as Robin Williams, Gérard Depardieu, Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal, Rufus Sewell, Charlton Heston, Richard Attenborough, Judi Dench, John Gielgud and Ken Dodd.

So, with big names and a big set, does this Hamlet work? First, you need to settle down for the long haul. At just under four hours, this is a long film. There is an intermission (at around 2:38), so if you can’t plan to see the entire film in one sitting, you can split it at that point. Branagh based this film on a conflated version of the Hamlet text. (There is a book version of the Hamlet Screenplay – Amazon.com, Amazon UK – though this has no notes on the text. The best standard version is probably the Arden Shakespeare edition (Amazon.com, Amazon UK.) There are three main texts of Hamlet, the First Quarto of 1603, the Second Quarto of 1604, and the First Folio of 1623. There are a number of differences among the texts, and each one contains some lines that are not in the others. Branagh used all of the texts, rather than editing a specific version.

Branagh plays Hamlet splendidly, using the character’s feigned (or real?) madness as a prop, and leveraging the luxurious sets and excellent actors. While there are some areas where you could call this film bombastic, it never quite goes over the top. Branagh is, at times, very moving (the graveyard scene), and a bit excessive (the play-within-the-play), but the overall impression is that of a character fully in control of his destiny, with no other option but to head toward his tragic end.


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The cast is generally magnificent. Derek Jacobi is brilliant as Claudius, and Julie Christie is excellent as Gertrude, especially in the cabinet scene where she see’s Hamlet’s madness up close. Kate Winslet is sublime as Ophelia, and some of the smaller roles feature fine actors, such as Charlton Heston, Richard Attenborough, Judi Dench, and John Gielgud.

One element that Branagh introduces that is not in the play is flashbacks. He shows Hamlet making love to Ophelia; Claudius killing King Hamlet; Yorick playing with young Hamlet; and a number of flashbacks and flash-presents of Fortinbras, particularly as his army is preparing to storm the castle. This makes the film much more cinematic, though it does alter the story a great deal. When reading the play, or seeing it on stage, it’s clear that Hamlet is in love with Ophelia, but showing sexual relations lifts the veil on any ambiguity about their relationship, which isn’t spelled out in the play. On the other hand, showing Claudius poisoning King Hamlet is simply an illustration of what the reader or spectator knows has happened, and serves as a counterpoint for the dumb show that precedes the play-within-the-play.

Some elements of the play are a bit excessive. Kate Winslet, as Ophelia, seen in a straitjacket and padded room, seems to be a bit too much. Billy Crystal’s New York accent – he’s one of the gravediggers – is out of place. And the final sword fight almost jumps the shark, as Branagh kills Claudius by throwing his sword, then swings from a chandelier.


But none of this detracts much from the overall impression one gets watching this version of Hamlet. This large-scale approach makes the story much bigger, and instead of the king and queen being the rulers of a handful of people (as is the case on stage), we see them in a more realistic environment. There are many ways to direct Hamlet, and this, a Hamlet of extremes, is the best example of one approach. You may prefer others; there are several on film. But if you like Hamlet, you probably won’t be disappointed by this version.