Wednesday, September 5, 2018

What's next?

We love reading and rereading the plays of Shakespeare, but now and then members of the club can sit back and listen to a guest speaker. The year draws on apace, and the Shakespeare Club has some interesting meetings coming up. Next meeting – 15th Sept Prof Chris Wortham will pay us a visit to talk about books which Shakespeare would likely have read. Prof Wortham is always a popular guest we learn a lot from his talks and are entertained at the same time!)
The October and November meetings will be devoted to reading and discussing Titus Andronicus, then December brings a Christmas concert. (Once the contents have been decided I shall put them up on the blog and the Facebook page.) 

We usually have a social meeting sometime over the semester break, and that’s another fun thing to look forward to!

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Julius Caesar 2018

Julius Caesar: the recent production by Bell Shakespeare Company reviewed by Frances Dharmalingham.

A small group of Shakespeare Club members attended a performance of Julius Caesar at the Heath Ledger Theatre.

The first part of the play, with its glimpses of Caesar’s disturbing ambition and the plotters’ reasons to assassinate him, is challenging because it necessarily involves much talking: a consideration of political ideas, mingled with very personal feelings, particularly in the long dialogue between Cassius and Brutus. Cassius, played by Nick Simpson-Deeks, spoke with admirable clarity as he presented his arguments, but his slow delivery reduced the urgency of the situation. The actor was perhaps aware of possible school audiences: they would certainly have been able to note all the important steps in Cassius’s argument. For most of the scene, he and Brutus were standing too far apart, on opposite sides of the wide stage, which limited the required intensity and intimacy of the conspiracy. Brutus (Ivan Donato) established immediately his sleep-deprived confusion and desperate worry, but engaged in irritatingly repetitive, and therefore distracting, gestures. His speech was frequently muffled.

Caesar was played by Kenneth Ransom. His gestures were suitably imperious, and his commanding height was an advantage: his voice, however, lacked the depth and resonance which would have imbued his speech with a more convincing authority.

The central part of the play, showing the events of the Ides of March, was engrossing and powerful. The actual murder of Caesar was skilfully choreographed, almost in slow motion, as one by one the senators took their turns to stab him and he finally faced Brutus for the death blow. The actors sustained the tension well as their characters came to terms with what they had done. I had some difficulty, however, with the use of a bucket for ‘let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood’ and later, when Mark Antony presented the bucket to the crowd as Caesar’s remains.

The exchanges between Brutus, Cassius and Antony effectively revealed the differences in their characters, which became even clearer in the great speeches to the people. It was a surprise that the interval fell between Brutus’s and Antony’s speeches; we were all waiting in keen anticipation for Antony’s riposte, and suddenly we had to wait a lot longer! I wondered at the time whether this was a good idea, but it certainly was. Mark Antony burst back on the scene after the interval, and gave an absolutely masterly display of subtle oratory. Brutus had adopted a somewhat defensive defiance when he addressed the crowd; it was fortunate that Antony did not immediately follow him, as it would have seemed that he had little to do to win the people’s favour over to his side.

Throughout the play Mark Antony was outstanding. Sara Zwangobani’s emotional range, vocal control, and clarity of diction allowed her to reveal every aspect of Antony’s character. As well as the great speech to the people, Antony’s lamentation over Caesar’s corpse was deeply affecting, and built to a finale of powerful ferocity. The actor displayed fine judgement in handling the modulations of mood following this, with the character immediately turning to war business, planning to contact Octavius.

The third section of the play, the aftermath of all that happens on the Ides of March, can sometimes seem confused and a little disappointing after such dramatic action. Our little group from the club all agreed that the entire second half of the performance was much more engrossing than the first.

I had only one quibble. I have always felt that the most dreadful death in the whole play is that of Cinna the poet, murdered for no reason but that he shares the same name as a conspirator. This follows immediately after Antony’s stirring up of the plebeians, and serves to illustrate both his prophecy that Caesar’s spirit will “cry Havoc” and his warning to Octavius that “here is a mourning Rome, a dangerous Rome, no Rome of safety…” and the scene illustrates all the horror accompanying the loss of civil order and the breakdown of the rule of law.

Several valuable minutes were taken up in creating a set for homeless street-dwellers, with numbers of mattresses (brand-new and difficult to manage!) and other accessories, before the action could begin. This broke the momentum built in the preceding scene, and detracted from the shock of the murder, for me. The set really was unnecessary, since it was immediately (and again, obtrusively) dismantled, causing needless distraction and delay again.

From that point on, however, things moved fast and we had a very fine quarrel scene between Cassius and Brutus. Here there was the necessary fire and energy accompanied by clear communication of the ideas and feelings of the characters. Brutus handled the sudden change of mood with most convincing laughter, and the transition to the sad news of Portia’s death was genuinely touching.

The appearance of Caesar’s ghost was suitably ethereal, but the device (? a microphone?) used to make his speech more supernatural unfortunately made it difficult to understand his words. This became a greater problem when the ghost returned in the last scene, and replaced the several characters who are usually asked by Brutus to hold his sword, for his suicide. This might have been justified by reference to Brutus’s earlier exclamation after Cassius’s death: ‘O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet, Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our swords In our own proper entrails.’ However I was doubtful about the wisdom of taking the words so literally as to have Caesar actually physically stabbing Brutus.

It was noteworthy that, bearing in mind the requirements of gender equality, the cast consisted of even numbers of men and women. This required all but one woman to play some male roles. Interestingly, the characters all retained their male names as given by Shakespeare, but (since they were dressed as women, and clearly being played by, and as, women) they were referred to with feminine pronouns. This took some getting used to! I sympathise with any female actor’s wish to play any part in the play, and we have to admit that most of the best Shakespearean roles are for men, but I believe that the performers should attempt to act the parts as written: i.e. to present the characters as men, seriously, just as the young male actors of the sixteenth century would have approached their roles as women. I am sure there must be many different points of view on this subject.

The play’s setting was non-specific: the strange but adaptable construction which served as the set effectively suggested the back veranda of Brutus’s house, the steps of the Forum, the mountains of the battlefield, and so on. The costumes were mainly jeans and trainers, making it at times difficult to distinguish between characters. There was some attempt to separate the patricians from the plebeians, with Calpurnia, Octavius and Antony wearing more “fashionable” clothes than most of the others. As to the period in which these events might have been happening: I thought perhaps it was a few decades in the future. The sound design was interesting, using discordant music at times to heighten the drama, though sometimes at the risk of drowning the speech. Instead of vocal shouts of the crowd during the long speeches, these unidentifiable noises filled the pauses and created a clever impression of the sometimes inhuman nature of a large and unpredictable horde. The lighting was well used to focus on the action at any given point, leaving large areas of the stage only dimly visible; this helped the small cast to create the illusion of much greater numbers of characters, just out of sight.

Although the performance was uneven, both in terms of the actors’ skills, and the extent of the audience’s engagement in various scenes, I was left with much to think about. It certainly made me return to the script of this great play, and appreciate it all over again.

Friday, July 13, 2018

A Shakespeare Resource from Cambridge Press!

Shakespeare Club member Peter Medd has created a post about a publication possibly unknown to most of us. Here is what Peter has to say --

Amongst my late father’s collection of Shakespearian related publications are two volumes of ‘Shakespeare Survey’ numbers 33 and 35.

These were annual publications, published by Cambridge University Press, which I believe started in the late 1940’s and are probably still being published each year and contain studies and essays  on Shakespeare works by eminent scholars.

Numbers 33 and 35 were published in 1980 and 1982 respectively. Although all the contents of these is fascinating, Volume 35 has an article ‘Shakespeare on the Melbourne Stage 1843-1961’.

This contribution covers many pages, but it starts with the following account which I found fascinating.

Barely ten years after John Batman, one of the first settlers in Victoria, had made a treaty with the aborigines which the central government a few years later decided to ignore, Othello was played in Melbourne.

It was the first Shakespearean play to be staged in the colony, on 4 September 1843, under the management of Conrad Knowles, in a wooden shed in Bourke Street which seated 500 and was called the Pavillion.

The article continues:

It was astonishing that Shakespeare was produced at all, for instead of the ‘fashionable’ house that The Port Phillip Gazette anticipated, Knowles had to contend with wild unruly audiences.

This was the Yahoo period of Australian stage history when barbarism reigned triumphant. When he played Shylock in September ‘certain parties’ were refused admission to the dress circle.

Shakespeare Survey 70These volumes also contain some photographs of stage plays including David Suchet as Shylock and Archilles (Troilus and Cressida) and Donald Sinden as Lear, and Patrick Stewart as Titus.

Footnote: I (Satima, your trusty blog mistress) chased up this publication’s history. Apparently it started in 1948, and the 2017 edition is now available.  You can see for yourselves at 

Doesn’t this sound fascinating? I hope Peter will bring the magazines along to a club meeting for a ‘show and tell’!

Saturday, May 26, 2018

King John

Frances, our president, has written a piece on this little-known play. Read on and be enlightened!

King John

I last looked at King John in 2004 when we had a group reading of the play during regular Club meetings.  I was lucky enough to be given the part of Constance, and I well remember her powerful support of her son’s claim to the throne, her denunciations of the faithless French and Austrian rulers, and most of all her heart-breaking demented grief over the loss of her son.  Her lament: Grief fills the room up of my absent child… epitomises all bereaved mothers.

The rest of the play, however, had become something of a blur and I enjoyed reading it again recently and re-discovering particularly the character of Philip Faulconbridge, the Bastard.  What a lively and convincingly human portrayal!

Cheery and unabashed, he acknowledges his half-brother Robert’s claim to the family inheritance, with an amusing acceptance that he is a bastard drawing attention to the extreme differences between himself and his father and brother:

Compare our faces and be judge yourself,
If old Sir Robert did beget us both.

Philip is tall, fair and sturdy, while he describes the Roberts, elder and younger, as small, dark and sharp-featured:

O old Sir Robert, father, on my knee
I give heaven thanks I was not like to thee!

Queen Elinor perceives his likeness to her late son Richard Lionheart, and greets him as her grandson, while King John accepts him as nephew.  They pose the question:

Whether hadst thou rather be a Faulconbridge….
……Or the reputed son of Coeur-de-Lion.

(by implication, with a name, but no property.)

King John dubs him knight and re-names him Richard Plantagenet, at which the Bastard shows his adventurous and generous spirit, turning to his half-brother:

Brother by the mother’s side, give me your hand:
My father gave me honour, yours gave land.
Now blessed be the hour, by night or day,
When I was got, Sir Robert was away!

He accepts what fate gives, with a sure sense of self and neither shame nor blame for his mother’s marital misdemeanour.  In fact he has a delightfully warm and frank relationship with her:

With all my heart I thank thee for my father!
Who lives and dares but say thou didst not well
When I was got, I’ll send his soul to hell.

His irreverent sense of humour allows him to stand back at times to observe and comment on the action, most notably in his anger at “Commodity”, or what we might call self-interest for personal gain; but when his scorn is spent, his basic honesty forces him to admit that he too is guilty of similar faults:

And why rail I on this Commodity?
Since kings break faith upon commodity
Gain be my lord, for I will worship thee.

In attendance on King John in France he shows a natural understanding of the strategies of war combined with skilful political manipulation as he manoeuvres France and Austria against each other to England’s advantage; he is just as ready to assume a tax-collector’s role back at home when he duns the rich churchmen in their Abbeys, for gold to finance John’s wars:

Bell, book and candle shall not drive me back
When gold and silver becks me to come on.

While he can be kind and loving in his treatment of family or those in need, the Bastard doesn’t hesitate to show dislike or contempt, as in his colourful insults to the Emperor of Austria.  Later though, he learns to suspend judgement and to avoid hasty conclusions, when he questions Hubert over Prince Arthur’s death.

The Bastard’s character develops during the course of the play; his young, perky self-confidence matures to serious patriotism as he speaks for England in the face of treachery and threats of civil war.  He berates the traitorous English barons who ally themselves with France:

And you degenerate, you ingrate revolts,
You bloody Neroes, ripping up the womb
Of your dear mother, England, blush for shame.

and is constantly loyal and encouraging to King John, sounding almost a fore-runner of Hotspur:

Be great in act, as you have been in thought.
Let not the world see fear and sad distrust
Govern the motion of a kingly eye.

Indeed he seems to bear the full weight of the hard-fought battles alone; even the rebel Salisbury says of him:

That misbegotten devil, Faulconbridge,
In spite of spite, alone upholds the day.

After King John has died, the Bastard remains constant in his loyalty to the new king, Henry:

…..with all submission, on my knee
I do bequeath my faithful services
And true subjection everlastingly.

and to his country.  He is allowed the final lines of the play as he expounds in ringing tones the power of strong alliance between the barons; if they all stay loyal to the English crown, the country can resist all outside threats:

Nought shall make us rue,

If England to itself do rest but true.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Edward III

Frances, our Fearless Leader, has written an appreciation of a little known play, Edward III. Now accepted as having been written at least in part by our beloved bard, this play is a welcome addition to the canon. Shakespeare was a prolific writer, but not prolific enough for his C21 fans!

Frances says...

As an eight- or nine-year-old I listened rapt during History lessons while our teacher, a brilliant narrator, told stories of mediaeval England.  We heard about Edward III (Longshanks, as he was known), the founding of the Order of the Garter, the battle of Crecy, the gallant Black Prince, and the intervention of kind Queen Philippa for the six burghers of Calais.

I had no idea then, or until very recently, that there was a play about Edward III, apparently by Shakespeare.

From Wikipedia: Alex Peckman as the Earl of Warwick and Julie Hughett as Countess of Salisbury in the Carmel Shakespeare Festival production of Edward III, August 2001.
Edward III was known particularly for three things: he was a powerful warrior, a dedicated supporter of the code of chivalry and a constant philanderer, all of which characteristics are evident in the play.

Actually it reads more like two plays.  Acts 1 and 2 largely concern Edward’s besotted infatuation with the Countess of Salisbury and her spirited rejection of his advances;  Acts 3 to 5 deal with Edward’s successful attempts to claim the throne of France.  The very beginning of the play has a clear summary of the hereditary bases for such a claim, similar to the legalistic arguments later presented for Henry V.

The love story is very wordy, lacking credible feeling.  The one dramatic moment occurs when the Countess suddenly produces two knives with which to get rid of the obstacles to their affair.  One is for Edward to kill his wife, while the Countess will kill herself because, as she says, her husband is there in her heart.  The King’s eventual remembrance of his wife and his final return to duty are strangely unconvincing.

I found the treatment of the French campaign of greater interest.

Unlike the wars in Henry VI and Richard III, for instance, there are almost no actual battle scenes (just one sight of the Prince racing across the stage and the French king and others fleeing.)  All the major events are conveyed by descriptions  (sometimes quite vivid) during or after the action, and there is frequently a lively sense of the chaos of the battles.  The account of the disposal of the troops for the battle of Crecy was astonishingly precise; it could have come from a participant’s report in a history book.

At times there is almost an echo of Greek tragedy, with the action off-stage and then described by, for example, a Messenger.  The Messenger’s description of the sea battle as the English fleet approached the French coast (Act 3 sc. 1) is extraordinarily detailed and conjures dreadful visions of the horrors experienced by the French defenders.

Most of the language is formal and rhetorical, but one scene (Act 3 sc. 2) gives us a more personal and individual glimpse (still applicable) of the universal impact of war.  We see the peasants taking to the road, fleeing the oncoming armies, carrying their goods with them as best they can.  It is the same image that we see so often in our nightly news bulletins.  The French effectively portray the destruction of the countryside by both armies, regardless of which cause is just.

Upon the right hand comes the conquering King,
Upon the left his hot unbridled son,
And in the midst our nation’s glittering host,
All which, though distant yet, conspire in one
To leave a desolation where they come.

Edward’s chivalric interests are shown in an interesting little scene, where the Prince is ritually prepared for his first major command (before Crecy); his breastplate, helmet, lance and shield are presented in order by senior noblemen with solemn formal liturgy.  The King’s extraordinary sense of knightly honour is emphasised by his refusal to rescue his son from mortal danger in the ensuing melee.

Not surprisingly the tone of the play is anti-French.  The English are a heroic crowd, the French cowardly, superstitious and untrustworthy.  Indeed the English have an equally poor opinion of the Scots:  the Scots king, David, is called treacherous and ignoble, and the Countess refers scathingly to the Scots’ 'broad untuned oaths', their 'rough insulting barbarism' and 'their wild, uncivil, skipping jigs.'  Even John of France joins in with a comment about England’s allies, the Dutch: 'Those ever-bibbing Epicures, Those frothy Dutchmen, puft with double beer.'

The unrelenting regularity of the blank verse threatened to make the reading tedious and would challenge skilled actors to hold an audience’s attention, but nevertheless a first look provided for me many striking details and did sustain my interest right to the (inevitably jingoistic) conclusion.

Please feel free to comment on this post. Discussion of plays and matters related to them are always welcome on this blog!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

My Favourite Shylock

A post from one of our keen members, Peter Medd, on one of Shakespeare’s most intriguing characters.

In 2016, I heard an ABC interview of Warren Mitchell by Margaret Throsby — about a year after Mitchell’s death. It was a re-broadcast, first recorded in 2001 during one of Mitchell’s many Australian visits. (He had dual British and Australian citizenship.) The interview was amazing, of course, covering Mitchell’s extensive acting career and other skills. (He was a good clarinet player!) Sadly, he could also tell the most appalling anti-Semitic jokes.

The interview caused me to want to watch The Merchant of Venice, recorded by the BBC in 1980, and starring Mitchell as Shylock with John Nettles (Midsomer Murders) as Antonio. In viewing earlier performances of Shakespeare’s plays, it always surprises me how many modern day actors started or at least helped their careers by performing in Shakespeare. For example, in a BBC (2004) version of The Merchant of Venice, I saw in the crowd a very young Kris Marshall as Gratiano. (Marshall was recently in the BBC series Death in Paradise.)

I would have liked to see the role of Shylock played by an orthodox Jew, but I haven’t tracked down any recent ones. However, Jacob Adler (1855-1926) was noted for his sympathetic rendering of the character.

Wikipedia turned up this photo of Adler as Shylock in a late 19th century performance of The Merchant of Venice.

(Credit: Byron Company (photographer) - Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection )

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Bell Shakespeare Company's production of The Merchant - review

A party of members recently attended a performance of Bell Shakespeare’s recent production of The Merchant of Venice  --  2017. According to the blurb, ‘this masterfully envisioned production tackles the biases and preconceived notions of one of Shakespeare’s most challenging plays.

Our fearless leader, Frances, writes about the experience.

There was much to admire in the recent Bell Shakespeare production of The Merchant of Venice.  We saw an engaging performance, full of energy and with a well-judged balance between the darker scenes and the comedy.  The antics of the young men, Portia’s and Nerissa’s irreverent treatment of the unsuccessful suitors, and specially the clowning of Launcelot Gobbo were entertaining.

Jessica Tovey as Portia
From the start a strong emphasis on “Them and Us” made clear the divide between Jews and Gentiles, and the thoughtless arrogance of the Christians’ language was consistently reinforced by gesture, attitude and facial expression.  (Interestingly this assumption of superiority was applied not only to the Jews: it was a clever detail to have the Prince of Morocco overhear Portia’s careless and too hasty line: “Let all of his complexion choose me so.”)

Mitchell Butel as Shylock
The Christians, with the exception of course of a rather pallid Antonio, were a rowdy bunch; even Portia and Nerissa spoke with a vehemence which made me wonder at her submission to the terms of her father’s will without challenging it.  In contrast, Shylock was a sober and dignified figure  -  a serious man of business, quietly conducting his affairs and avoiding unnecessary confrontations.

His grief and shock at Jessica’s elopement were movingly conveyed and we could see clearly the precise moment when quite suddenly Shylock remembered the 'bond'.  Until then evidently he had not given it serious thought, but now the accumulated pains and insults had brought him to a turning point.  He was on a course which everyone in the audience could understand and probably sympathise with.

The court scene was made truly suspenseful, even for an audience familiar with the outcome.

I was interested to see Portia’s approach to the challenge of resolving the case.  I have always assumed that she received the necessary legal interpretation and instruction from her lawyer cousin, Dr. Bellario, who is referred to by the Duke as “learned”.  In the full script the Duke reads out Bellario’s letter to the court in which the doctor says: “I acquainted him (meaning Portia) with the cause in controversy…we turned over many books…he is furnished with my opinion.”

Much of the dialogue relating to Portia’s preparations for her trip to the court was cut, however, and we saw Portia and Nerissa change into men’s clothes there and then in Belmont (with no time to wonder how they happened to be available!) and thus the two arrived in court relying (apparently) on the inspiration of the moment.

So, in this production, Portia appeared not to have a fully-worked-out plan, and it followed that she spoke the Mercy speech as a sincere, deeply-felt effort to persuade Shylock, rather than the routinely dutiful appeal it can sometimes seem, before she pulls out the “big guns” of legalisms.

Portia’s spontaneity was well sustained; she was frantically re-reading the bond while Antonio’s supporters jeered at Shylock, and then there was the excited discovery, the relief at finding a way out, as she cried: “Why, this bond is forfeit!”  which led, nonetheless, into the prolonged teasing, allowing Shylock to believe that he had won, before the inevitable “Tarry a little…..” and the complete switch from despair to jubilation for the Christians, and from victory to total loss for Shylock.

Normally his enforced conversion to Christianity occurs, mercifully, off stage, but after the dreadful listing of all Shylock’s punishments
Gratiano’s exclamation: “In christening shalt thou have two godfathers” provoked the most shocking moment of the play.  Galvanised by these words the young men launched a brutal attack on Shylock, in which the physical violence vividly represented the spiritual violation, as he was stripped of his orthodox four-cornered tasselled vest, and finally his yarmulke was snatched from his head.  His vain attempts to cover his head while fending off blows were heartbreaking.

After such a scene it was difficult to enter fully into comic or romantic mood, and very sensibly the following episodes were quite abridged.  Antonio was assured of the safety of his vessels, Lorenzo was given his “deed of gift” and the muddle of the rings was briskly sorted out, but into this cheerful scene there was a horribly jarring note as someone carelessly dropped Shylock’s yarmulke on Jessica’s head.  This unscripted action allowed for an ending to the play very different in tone from the original.  This production chose to follow the example established so sensitively in the 2004 film directed by Michael Radford, in which Jessica stole silently away, to gaze back from Belmont towards Venice and all that she had lost.

We really do not know if Lorenzo felt any guilt over Shylock’s fate, but he might well have been affected by Jessica’s responses to his boorish friends.  Though, to go so far as to tear up the deed of gift?  I am not convinced of that.

As the roistering Christians faded from sight all attention was on Lorenzo and Jessica in the single bright spot and the spirit established at the beginning of the play was again underlined: the intolerance and divisions between two societies.  I felt that it would have been sufficient to rely on the actors’ expressive posture here, to make the point, without the need of extra (non-Shakespearean) dialogue.

It was a strong and unsettling conclusion, from which the audience came away feeling uncomfortably ashamed and compromised.  If that was the performers’ intention, they succeeded admirably.  There was certainly much passionate discussion in the foyer afterwards.

The Merchant of Venice is frequently described as difficult  -  not in terms of the language or demands of performance as such, but with reference to interpretation.  There is also the difficulty of its classification as Comedy, but how would, or could, we re-categorise it, what with the wide differences between the three main plots, to say nothing of the sub-plots?

In the past the play was supposed to show that Shakespeare harboured anti-Semitic views, and now this latest version displayed almost the opposite: it might almost have been seen as anti-Christian.  And there perhaps is one of the major fascinations of the play  -  how the director chooses to weight the different themes and balance the competing moods and styles within the one performance.  Depending on his/her decisions, an audience will come away with a particular impression which might be quite at variance with another’s interpretation.

Maybe this gives us another good reason to keep attending new productions!