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.

On Album Covers, Downloads and Textual Pragmatics

Andy Doe likes to poke fun at bad album covers on his blog Proper Discord, but in an article on NewMusicBox, he gives practical advice to those responsible for designing and selecting covers for classical (and other) recordings. He says, “A lot of customers will first experience an album cover as one of those little thumbnail images on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, or some other website. Getting them to click on it is the first step in the process of getting them to buy it, so the cover should make them want to see it bigger.”

What I find interesting is that this article looks at something that I postulated, back in the day when I was studying applied linguistics (I’m a Master), called textual pragmatics. In linguistics, and in particular sociolinguistics, pragmatics is “the ways in which context contributes to meaning.” (Wikipedia) My hypothesis at the time was that visual elements of any text we read – not just the font, but everything that we see, such as the type of book or magazine, the title of a publication, or the type of paper – help define our reaction to it, in particular the level of importance, status or value we assign to it.

You will most likely think more highly of an article in a national newspaper than on a blog like mine, but if an article from my blog were published in the New York Times, you would likely have more respect for the same text in the latter publication. Not because the words would be any different, but simply because its context – the place where it’s published – has higher status.

The same is the case for books (hardcover versus paperback), magazines (glossy versus amateurish newsletters), and other texts. Just look at academia and science: it’s far more important to publish your findings in a prestigious journal than some up-and-coming publication from a small university. And if I print out a text for someone to read, it will make a difference to the reader if they see a header showing a publication with prestige, rather than an unknown source.

This also applies to CDs. Andy Doe’s article discusses covers and packaging, but it’s worth considering what the textual pragmatics are that affect music downloads. Are all downloads the same? Are downloads from iTunes or Amazon “better” in some way than downloads purchased directly from an artist or label? They often are. I’ve bought music from smaller vendors that is poorly tagged or lacks album art. On the other hand, many labels offer digital booklets, that you can’t always get from iTunes or Amazon.

Are downloads considered to be a “lesser” product? Many people think so. Record labels don’t want to stop selling CDs, but since downloads are the future, they should make downloads high-status items. Since you don’t have a physical copy of a record, you’re getting less value from a download; if it’s just the same as the CD.

Downloads should be as good as CDs, or better. At a minimum they should contain everything that a CD does: that includes digital booklets and sung texts, for vocal music. The metadata should be perfect. And they can also contain bonus tracks, videos, extra texts, and, since they’re not time-limited, they can hold much more content than a single CD can hold.

As music shifts increasingly to downloads, record labels need to stop treating downloads as inferior products, and start making digital packages that include music and other content. It’s not hard to make a download a compelling product. Start with good covers, as Andy Doe suggests, then move on to the rest of the added value that is so easy to provide digitally.

Theater Review: Macbeth with Kenneth Branagh

macbeth-branagh-head.jpgThis year’s Manchester International Festival saw a new staging of Macbeth, with Kenneth Branagh in the starring role. This limited run was performed in a deconsecrated church, and, with some 280 seats per performance, sold out in less than 10 minutes.

Fortunately, the National Theatre, through its NT Live program, broadcast a performance of this play to movie theaters in the UK, and will be broadcasting it several more times to theaters in the UK and abroad. I was able to see a performance of this production in my local cinema in York.

The “stage” for the performance was the choir and the apse of the church, with spectators sitting in pews on either side of the choir. As the production opens, the weird sisters have their brief scene through open doors at one end of the church, then, as drums and cymbals resound, lights flash and rain falls on the dirt-covered stage area as a great battle takes place. This battle isn’t seen in the original play, as the next scene is where Macbeth and Banquo discuss their victory. But this production uses the battle as the starting point for the action, and rightly so. Dead bodies litter the battleground during the next scene, and the dirt, which has become mud, is a silent yet present leitmotiv throughout the play, reminding us that the earth, the land, is what is coveted.


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This Macbeth is fast-paced, with the play coming in at around 2 hours, and the tempo nearly breathless for much of the duration. Actors come and go at either end of the choir, or through openings between two sections of seats on either side, and scene changes are quick and fluid.

Macbeth is a small play, in that much of the action concerns only a few characters: Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and the king Duncan at first; later, after Macbeth kills Duncan to become king himself, Duncan’s son Malcolm and Macduff are key characters.

For much of the play, this breakneck tempo has the action moving ahead quickly, until things suddenly begin to drag, in Act IV, Scene iii, Malcolm and Macduff discuss overthrowing Macbeth, and Macduff learns of the death of his wife and children. He vows revenge, and together, they raise an army to restore Malcolm to the throne.

This long scene drags a bit, and erases the tempo that had been maintained since the beginning of the play. Alexander Vlahos as Malcolm is stiff, and cannot keep the action moving ahead, though Ray Fearon’s Macduff is brilliant in his grief and anger.

Kenneth Branagh excels in this role; his physical and verbal prowess are both outstanding. His diction is excellent, and in spite of his fast speaking, he makes Shakespeare’s word shine. I was less impressed by Alex Kingston’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth. I felt she was too frenetic early in the play, before Macbeth killed Duncan, to pull off the madness in Act V, Scene i. I think there needed to be more contrast, and she over-acted in the latter scene, being far too obviously mad.

I particularly liked the casting of three young women as the weird sisters. Generally cast as old women, as fairy-tail witches, these three young women were powerful in their dark dresses and makeup.


Weird sisters

 
While the choice of the theater as stage was excellent, it introduced two problems. The first was unexpected; Britain was in its hottest summer in seven years, and many of the spectators could be seen fanning themselves with their programs. On the sultry night when this was filmed, together with the rankness and humidity within following the rain at the beginning of the play, it must have been uncomfortable. But those fanning programs were often distracting; several cameras were set up on one side of the choir, showing the actors with the seats on the other side behind them.

The second problem was the length of the “stage” area. This led to many scenes where actors walked, or even ran, from one end to the other, for no apparent reason. In Act IV, Scene iii, for example, Malcolm and Macduff enter the stage on the apse, and Malcolm walks all the way to the other end of the stage to talk to Macduff, who remains stationary. This occurred several times in the performance; it was as if the directors felt that the entire stage needed to be used, but there was no dramatic justification for all that movement.

Nevertheless, the play was masterfully filmed, with, as I mentioned, several cameras on one side of the choir, and a few others above the choir and in various locations. Aside from the occasional shot which began out of focus, the only production oddity was certain shots where a wide-angle lens was used to keep actors far apart on the stage in focus, which led to the distant actor being distorted. When this wide-angle lens panned, it was also a bit dizzy-making.

But the NT Live team managed to bring to the screen this powerful production from a cramped set, giving the feeling, even to those in movie theaters, of being in the middle of the action. This is an excellent Macbeth, and one worth seeing if possible.

Theater Review: Henry VI, by the Globe Theatre, in York

If you saw my recent review of the RSC’s Titus Andronicus, you’ve figured out that I’m a Shakespeare fan. Since I moved to the UK, just under three months ago, I’ve seen four Shakespeare plays, and have tickets to see a few more. This is part of my project to see every Shakespeare play live at least once, as soon as possible.

But you will also have seen, in the Titus review, that I said that “Henry VI Part I was an insipid performance, with wooden actors and uninteresting staging.” Last night, I went to see Henry VI Part II, at York’s Theatre Royal. It was as bad is the first part, so much so that my girlfriend and I left at the interval (intermission). What’s going on here? Why are these performances so bad?

I haven’t ruled out the possibility that I’m missing something. Being aware of early music performance practice, I wonder if the Globe company isn’t trying to do some sort of “authentic” performance. While this is possible, it still doesn’t jibe with what they’re doing on stage. The actors are, for the most part, stiff and wooden, except when one of them turns on the ham amplifier. Some of the actors are simply bad – I won’t mention names – and sound as if they are simply declaiming their lines. Others show emotion, enough to invalidate the hypothesis of some sort of original performance style.

To be fair, these early history plays are not the most interesting. Yet Henry VI was written around the same time as Titus Andronicus, and the RSC production of that play was unforgettable. (It’s so good, I’m planning to see it again in September.) There is little scintillating language in Henry VI, the plots are tangled and confusing, and at both performances, it was hard to follow what was going on. This was compounded in Part I, where several actors played two roles, one of an English character, the other of a Frenchman.

Another thing I wonder is whether the Globe company can play on a normal stage. The Globe Theatre in London has a thrust stage – where the stage reaches out into the audience, so the actors are playing in the middle of the spectators – as does the RSC’s two theaters in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Perhaps being forced to use a standard stage limits them in their movements and actions. It was almost painful to see, at times, a dozen characters standing stock-still on the stage as one or two characters were speaking.

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One element that was particularly poor was when, in Act II, Scene I, four falconers stood on stage, holding their arms up with invisible hawks, going, “Caw, caw.” But the shark-jumping moment came at the end of the first part of the play, just before the interval. In Act IV, Scene I, Suffolk is executed. In this production, he is led up to the top of one of two metallic scaffolds on the stage which represent towers. His head is lopped off, and a rubber head is dropped onto the stage just before the lights on stage are extinguished. But the dropping of this head is funny, and, at what should be a very serious moment in the play, the audience laughed quite loudly. Doing something like this to provoke laughter, at this point in the play, makes no sense.

I found little in this play to be enjoyable. Even assuming that the Henry VI plays are among Shakespeare’s weakest, I feel the Globe should have done much more to try to make these plays interesting. I note that the York performances were the first on a tour of these plays. I wonder if things will change as they go on, and especially whether they’d be better when they play in their home theater. But it’s more than just the stage. Most of the actors don’t seem invested in their parts, and the ones who are stand in stark contrast to the blandness of the rest of the troupe.

This all surprises me, as I have seen several DVDs of the Globe performing in their own theater, all of which have been very well done. There’s a real disconnect here between what the Globe can do, and what they’ve done with the Henry VI plays.

I won’t be going to see Part III, and hope to be able to get a refund for my unused tickets. There were plenty of empty seats at Part I; there seemed to be more at Part II; I wonder how many people will stick it out and see Part III.

(An aside: the York Theatre Royal is extremely uncomfortable. I’m six feet tall, and I felt, sitting in the theatre, like being on an airplane. Even my girlfriend, who is about six inches shorter than me, found the legroom too limited. I may not go back to that theatre.)

Theater Review: Titus Andronicus, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

Strictly by chance, I ended up seeing two Shakespeare plays on two consecutive days this week. The first was Henry VI, Part I, here in York, performed by Shakespeare’s Globe. This is the first of three plays, and I’ll be seeing the next two on the two coming Wednesdays.

Then on Thursday, I attended an event for bloggers at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre (the smaller of two RSC theatres) in Stratford-upon-Avon, seeing their current production of Titus Andronicus, and attending a question and answer session after the performance with director Michael Fentiman, and actors Rose Reynolds (Lavinia), Katy Stephens (Tamora) and Stephen Boxer (Titus). It has been an interesting week.

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Rose Reynolds and Stephen Boxer at a question and answer session after the performance.

While Henry VI Part I was an insipid performance, with wooden actors and uninteresting staging, Titus Andronicus was a revelation. Both of these plays are among Shakespeare’s earliest, and Shakespeare may have collaborated with other authors when writing them. Henry VI was probably written in 1591, and Titus Andronicus between 1590 and 1593. Both are considered to be among Shakespeare’s weaker plays, as well, and Harold Bloom, in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, is very critical of Titus Andronicus. Bloom says that “Everything and everyone on stage is very remote from us, the rigid Titus most of all,” and, “I don’t think I’d see the play again unless Mel Brooks directed it, with his company of zanies, or perhaps it could be made into a musical.”

My experience with Titus Andronicus was limited to the 1985 BBC version, which greatly tones down the blood and gore which is at the heart of the story, and is also devoid of any humor. I also have the 1999 film Titus, directed by Julie Taymore, with Anthony Hopkins as Titus. I watched a half-hour of it a few days before going to Stratford, but didn’t get around to watching the entire movie; it didn’t grab me.

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