Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Movie review: Love's Labours Lost

Frances, our president, writes glowingly of the filmed version of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Love’s Labour’s Lost.

The RSC production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, screened last weekend, was breathtaking. I’m wondering how to record my responses without
maundering on tediously over every little detail. Warning: prepare for a hail of superlatives as you are peppered with exclamation marks and some very staccato-style notes.

Settings, costumes, lighting and music created the nostalgic romance of the last summer before the world changed forever in 1914, and perfectly supported the brilliant cast and their command of the challenging language of the play. In the discussion preceding the performance an actor suggested the audience just let the language wash over us, and avoid attempting “a simultaneous translation”. This was excellent advice. Such was the skill of the performers that within a few moments the elaborate versification ceased to intimidate and the meaning was clear, with all the fun and feelings of these youthful characters.

The four young men were clever, charming and delightfully young, with their foolish plans already shown to lack depth and forethought in the first scene by the slightly more analytical Berowne. He too is young, though, and indulgently goes along with them. Even in that first scene the cast brought out every last trace of comedy, and from then until the change of tone in the last scene, the audience was kept laughing.

The young men shared the comedy with a troupe of gloriously individual characters. There were so many skilled performances on display that it is almost unfair to pick out particular actors, but I must mention some features and scenes that will linger long in my memory.

These include Don Armado’s languid, love-sick poses and his quite touching sentimentality, Moth’s strong and sweet voice, Holofernes’ odd little fadings away in mid-thought and Costard’s triumphant examination of the meanings of “remuneration” and “emolument”; the duet performed by Moth and Armado; and the joyous conclusion to the first half: the uncovering of the young men’s secret passions. This is usually played with the actors hiding in trees or bushes in the park, but here the action took place on the roof – a magnificent re-creation of part of the famous Charlecote Manor. The scene was a wonderful example of how comic suspense can be built up, even when the audience can predict perfectly the inevitable progress of the action. Berowne was played by Edward Bennett, and after his secret was revealed, Bennett achieved a beautiful transition from witty word-play to a warmly sincere rejection of their immature vows and a heartfelt defence of the power of love. It was a strongly effective conclusion to the first half.

The second half was, if anything, even better than the first, having scope not only for unbridled hilarity but also for the intrusion of the outside world, bringing the need to face reality.

In the Masque of the “Muscovites” the young men gave a fair impression of Cossack steps, helped by the wild whirling of Moth, and sang with fine deep “Russian” voices. There was no time to consider the absurdity of their failure to recognise their lady loves, hidden only by minimal eye-masks, as the action hastened on to the Pageant of the Nine Worthies.

These “amateur” acts, with their improvised props, were very funny, particularly Moth’s appearance as the infant Hercules, with fake biceps, wrestling the snakes, but as was observable throughout the play there were constant changes of tone, one instance being the Princess’s kindness to the crestfallen Dr. Nathaniel which softened the mood.

The pageant collapsed with Costard’s challenge to Armado to fight, creating a high point of tension. The arrival of Marcade with news of the French king’s death brought a powerful turn-about, as the ladies prepared to leave and the young men came to terms with the need for a more serious approach to real life and to love.

The final songs of Spring and Winter are always a moving ending, but in this production the composer (Nigel Hess) created an entirely new version, combining the two into one chorus performed beautifully by nearly the whole cast. Armado’s last line: “You that way, we this way” is usually spoken to the audience, but here he addressed the young men. Now dressed in Army uniform, they saluted and marched away.

Setting the play in 1914 was doubtless in part associated with the widespread commemorations of the First World War. Certainly the customary idea of that idyllic last summer, as belonging almost to another world, followed by the dreadful truth of war as the real world, gave added depth to the final scene. It was an impressive finish, as the men faced a far greater trial than that imposed by the ladies, to test their love, though a tiny quibble might be that it could be thought too far beyond the scope of the comedy.

I cannot praise too highly the actors’ speaking skills. Despite the complexity of much of the language, and the speed required for much of the delivery, their diction was perfect. The progress of ideas and the movement of the plot (minimal though it is) were always clear. As well, throughout the show the focus was kept firmly on the theme of language in all its diversity of style and purpose, including the intricate versification and self-conscious cleverness of the young men, the unproductive and smug pedantry of Holofernes and Dr. Nathaniel, the almost total inarticulateness of Dull, the Hispanic mangling of English by Don Armado, the bright self-improvement of Moth, the ladies’ barbed language as a weapon for verbal fencing and their insistence on plain, true speaking at the end, and the confusions over long unfamiliar words shown by Costard. All these uses flowed effortlessly through the lively comedy of the action, and of course led on to the final display of true sincerity of speech at the close.

This was a beautiful, richly comic and sensitively subtle performance. I found much to enjoy and admire, and to think over at leisure afterwards.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A lively finish to 2014

Kate Dolan as Portia, painted by John Everett Millais (1829–1896)
We brought our program for the year to a close on Saturday with a moved reading, led by our secretary Rosalind. But really, it's all Rob's fault. Rob put together a most scholarly collection of research into the court scene from The Merchant of Venice and laid out the fruits of his labours in our newsletter, Ariel

The court scene has to be one of the most widely performed excerpts from Shakespeare. I checked YouTube to see how many versions had been uploaded, and found over 1700. As a matter of interest, I sought other famous scenes and speeches: Mark Antony's 'Friends, Romans, and countrymen' takes the cake with nearly 40 thousand versions, with Hamlet's soliloquy coming in second at 32,500. (Many of these, of course, would be accounted for by young hopefuls putting up their audition pieces.) The balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet has been uploaded in 24,000 versions, with Hal V's Crispin Crispian speech showing up over 7,500 times, including a couple by pre-schoolers! The Merchant's court scene only has 1700 versions, but that's still a respectable showing.

At this point, Rosalind picked up on Rob's research and came up with the idea of a moved reading. I've been with the club over ten years and in all that time we've never done a moved reading. In fact, I have never done a moved reading before in my life, and I was surprised at how hard I found it. It's impossible to do Shakespeare half-heartedly - my inner Gratiano wanted to make rude gestures at Shylock whenever he got the chance, even when the Duke was watching. I suspect that in reality, poor old Grat would have been kicked out of court, but this time the Duke was in a mild mood so he got away with it. Of course, every time I gave Shylock the finger I had to take my eyes off the script, and while I know that scene reasonably well, I don't know it off by heart. And therein lies the difficulty of a moved reading.

We all enjoyed the exercise, and members who were not reading (and were therefore a captive audience!) agreed afterwards that it had been enjoyable to watch, too. Perhaps we might make moved readings a regular part of our calendar.

Also at this meeting we celebrated the wonderful contribution made by  Roy Shannon, a member for some decades, who has served in various capacities, most notably as secretary for many years. Frances had commissioned a framed copy of Sonnet 29 as a memento for Roy. Although Roy wants to take a back seat and enjoy the ride for a while, we hope he will continue to attend meetings.

All-in-all, 2014 has been an enjoyable year at the Shakespeare Club of WA. We've learnt a bit more about Henry V, King Lear, Measure for Measure and The Winter's Tale, and we've also had some very happy times just drinking coffee and munching cake!

We have a social get-together in January, and in February one of our favourite guest speakers, Professor Chris Wortham, will pay us a visit. In March we hold our AGM, when we vote on activities for the coming year. I wonder which plays we'll choose this time?

PS - A slight correction to the above - Rosalind tells me the idea for a moved reading came from Frances, our president, so kudos to all three - Rob, Frances and Rosalind - for a whooping end to the year's activities!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Two Gentlemen of Verona (film review)

Another excellent review from Frances Dharmalingham:

Last week a group of our members found a perfect shelter from the unseasonable weather by watching the film of the RSC’s recent production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Before the performance members of the cast and crew repeated the words: Friendship, Love, Obsession, Jealousy, effectively preparing our minds for the themes to come.

The four main characters were strongly individual and contrasted; the lovelorn and changeable Proteus against the energetic and single-minded Valentine; the ultra-fashionable and beautiful Sylvia against the simple, almost dowdy (although very charming) Julia. The two girls differed only in appearance, of course; they were equally steadfast in their loyal devotion. These contrasts were cleverly supported by the differences in setting between provincial Verona, with the town brass band and the al fresco trattoria, and cosmopolitan Milan with its disco music and flashing lights.

The drama of the four lovers moved apace, and any feminist critic would have been proud of the strength and independence displayed by the women, as Julia (in male disguise) followed Proteus, and Sylvia bravely escaped her father’s house with Valentine. The confrontation in the forest was powerful and violent. With Proteus’ words ‘I’ll force thee yield to my desire’ and his evident intention, Sylvia threw him to the ground, and clearly would have strangled him had not Valentine intervened. Valentine held Proteus’ head down in a water barrel several times. It was remarkably convincing action, with the tension abating only when Julia revealed her identity.

With all this strong drama, the comic aspects of the play were delightfully interspersed. Traditionally the comedy rests primarily with Speed and Launce, the servants, and neither disappointed. Speed was the classic player-with-words, relishing the possibilities of sound and multiple meanings, quick-thinking and quick-moving. Launce was the more lugubrious, and his cross-play with the dog, Crab, was a delight. The dog must have come fresh from winning a competition as Britain’s least prepossessing pet, but it behaved beautifully and performed exactly as required.

Much of the comedy came from the interpretation of Lucetta’s role. I had not previously given much thought to this character, but here she bloomed as a vigorous and quite bawdy young woman reminiscent in voice and accent of Absolutely Fabulous’s Bubbles. The outlaws added their own gentle humour. Far from being fierce bandits, they were really pussy-cats, only too happy to find a new and confident leader.

The entire production was swift and engrossing, leaving me with that very happy sigh of satisfaction at the end which indicates a most enjoyable experience.

Shakespeare's comment on friendship, love, constancy and fickleness, this romantic comedy takes us from the controlled world of Verona and Milan to the wildness of the forest where, it seems, anything can happen.

  • Cast
  • Mark Arends, Elliot Barnes-Worrell
  • Director
  • Simon Godwin

Monday, July 28, 2014

Henry V, Bell Shakespeare Company

Here is a review of Henry V as presented by the Bell Shakespeare Company in Perth last week. It was written by our redoutable president, Frances Dharmalingham.

What an exciting theatrical experience! I saw the Bell Shakespeare production of Henry V last Saturday evening and spent all the next day happily reliving the highlights. There was so much to think about and so much to admire in this richly detailed interpretation.

The imaginative conception of framing the original drama in the context of the Blitz gave us, the audience, layers of meaning and heightened the significance of many incidents in quite extraordinary ways. The performance began with schoolchildren studying Shakespeare’s histories in their classroom literature lessons; soon they began the early exploration of the text, reading their parts not always expertly. Gradually we saw them becoming fine actors as they inhabited their characters and identified with those characters’ experiences; and finally we had the entirely convincing portrayal of Henry and his men during their French campaign.

This is much too facile an account, however. The repeated bombing raids of the Blitz regularly brought the actors and the audience back to the ‘present', so that frequently we were watching a performer as both a schoolboy character and simultaneously a Shakespearean character. There were times when the intensity of a scene enabled the complete ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ — we were with them in France — and other times when again we were back in the classroom watching these youngsters wrestling with the ideas and feelings evoked by the dual influences of the play and the real-life war.

For me, this layering was perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the production, but there were so many features to admire at the time and to enjoy in retrospect.

The set was brilliantly devised. Looking at it before the play started, I wondered if it might be rather too small an acting area, but of course it wasn’t: it was the classroom, but imagination allows the action to spill out and beyond it! The broken windows and jagged edges of half-demolished walls evoked many memories of old bomb sites, and the bookcases with their shelves no longer parallel became the versatile basis of any number of props as required. The sound and lighting were spectacular — the absolute aural battering of the bombs and ack-ack guns, the chilling wail of the sirens, and the sudden black-outs powerfully supported the established setting.

The small cast were uniformly fine performers, each, except for Michael Sheasby (understandably) as Henry, playing many parts. They had hardly an opportunity to leave the stage as they shifted scenery between assuming their different roles. It was altogether a great example of true ensemble playing. The set changes were frequent and beautifully organised, as the trusty bookcases and very few other furnishings were tipped and turned and by sheer force of imagination turned into anything required; even, after Harfleur, into the mud and mire of northern France as the troops struggled towards Agincourt. Later, following the unexpected appearance of a downed German airman, clever use was made of his parachute. The actors convincingly suggested the youthfulness of upper secondary school pupils, but were skilled in quickly assuming their many and varied roles within the main script. Their basic school uniforms were very simply modified to suggest improvisation under austerity conditions; the French identified by red and blue scarves, the knights ready for battle with cardboard ‘armour’ round their knees and shoulders. Princess Katherine’s frilled dress for the final scene, apparently created from rows and rows of old exercise book pages, was quite charming and served to underline the end of hostilities.

A makeshift trumpet was used to good effect for formal and martial purposes, and strong drumming strengthened the urgency of war preparations. Led by Drew Livingston, the actors sang well in the opening scene with the church dignitaries and after Agincourt, and especially in the moving finale.

By referring briefly to Richard II and Henry IV, the introductory scene in the classroom gave a useful lead in to the play, and this was cleverly followed up to explain the church’s concerns about money, and the archbishop’s specious reasoning to justify war with France. This is normally a particularly boring scene and is always going to be largely incomprehensible, but by making it a brisk ‘chalk and talk' session the main point was well conveyed, allowing the players to ease into their performance.

Monarchs to behold the swelling scene. Credit: Michele Mossop
The order of the scenes was occasionally interestingly re-arranged, and the choruses broken by the episodes to which the words referred – a good way to avoid very long speeches, and maintain the action. There were also some sensible cuts which I’m sure no-one would have minded: the leek in the bonnet episode, and the Act V chorus in particular. An addition was Katherine’s reference to Henry’s threats to the people of Harfleur, as a justifiable way to explore her attitude towards him and to marriage with him.

One of the most memorable moments came as we were yet again returned to the pupils’ present time, with a particularly intense bombing raid, a very near miss in fact, in which one of the boys (who played The Boy) was injured. This led immediately into Henry’s speech: ‘I was not angry since I came to France Until this instant’, referring to the slaughter of the baggage boys. This was an electrifying response, as war and its effects on innocent bystanders became real. I had a little difficulty with the introduction of the German paratrooper, but perhaps he was there to provide the schoolboys with a moment of direct confrontation with ‘the enemy’.

Following the epilogue, spoken by Keith Agius with the same admirable clarity he brought to the choruses, the cast (once again school pupils, having finished their study of the play) sang ‘I Vow to Thee my Country’ simply but with stirring feeling. The play reminded me that when literature is made relevant to life it can have profound influence.

This was a strikingly good production. The actors performed with such passion, and between the high points the tension was skilfully lowered with suitable pauses or light and spontaneous comedy. Given that it was the final show of the Perth season, and followed an afternoon matinee, they are all to be heartily congratulated on their never-flagging energy. It was a performance to make me return to the text with pleasure and new insights.