Friday, April 1, 2016

The Winter’s Tale and The Gap of Time

 Our president, Frances, has once again written a thoughtful and detailed review of a Shakespearean film and book. Read on to be informed, educated and entertained!

A few weeks ago I saw and very much admired the film of The Winter’s Tale presented by the Kenneth Branagh Company.

Every member of the cast perfectly suited his or her role and the action was enhanced by the excellent sets and particularly by the lighting.

For days afterwards my head was absolutely full of the play and its progression. We watched the transition from the genial warmth of family love and long friendship, through doubt and suspicion to conviction, and on to murderous obsession and sadistic cruelty. After the horrifying result of this pathological jealousy there was the inevitable but futile remorse and the long winter of regret.

To go from that to the Bohemian spring could have been quite a jolt, but here we slipped easily into the new scenes, thanks to the beautiful tenderness with which Antigonus (Michael Pennington) left the baby Perdita to her fate; and then the gentle humour and spontaneous delight of the shepherds when they discovered her.

The sheep-shearing celebrations were all youthful energy, filled with the promise of a fruitful future. We saw the temporary shadow cast by Polixenes’s threats and the lovers’ escape, leading finally to the stunning finale. This was an absolutely magical scene, thanks mainly to the effortless authority of Paulina’s (Judi Dench) ‘stage management’, the brilliant lighting creating mysterious, almost other-worldly shadows and gleams, and the costuming and pose of Hermione, all supported by the music and the rapt attention of the onlookers. We could certainly be convinced that here was a woman finally emerging from the frozen waste of grief and just able to see a way to forgiveness.

Judi Dench as Paulina
While I was still absorbed in the impressions of the play I got hold of Jeanette Winterson’s new book The Gap of Time. Winterson is re-telling the story of The Winter’s Tale in the form of a novel, for a modern reader. And it certainly is up to the minute: set right in the second decade of the 21st century.

With only minor name changes, the characters are the same – Leontes becomes Leo, Hermione is Mimi and Perdita is unchanged – but much more importantly, their status, in the world and relative to each other, is retained. Clearly we can’t expect to see too many kings and courtiers, so Winterson has found the modern equivalents. Instead of ruling a country, Leo is head of a huge financial organisation; Xeno (Polixenes) has made a fortune as the inventor of wildly successful computer games. Autolycus is no longer a pedlar who picks pockets; he is now a used car salesman who cheats at cards. Bohemia has become a large city in southern USA – New Bohemia – and who are the disadvantaged there? Not struggling shepherds but poor black people. And so on …

 It is fun to note the clever ways in which the author has transposed the characters and situations from four centuries ago, but the main interest of the book lies in her skill at creating a fascinating new work in its own right, while remaining faithful to the themes of the original play.

As the writer of a novel, she has certain advantages over a dramatist. A play (nearly always) shows us events in the order in which they occur, but in this novel Time is frequently re-arranged. We are taken back and forth to get a new understanding of causes and effects. Thus, the central turning point of the play, the abandoning of the baby during the storm, is made the strikingly dramatic opening event of the novel, and much later we catch up with what led to it.

The novelist can give her characters back stories, which playgoers have to conjecture for themselves. So Winterson can provide explanations for how individuals met, in what their formative experiences consisted, why they behave as they do. She provides absorbing backgrounds for Pauline and Perdita’s adoptive father, for instance, as well as stories to explain the attachment between Leo and Xeno.

Going even further, a novel can show us the characters’ inner unspoken thoughts. Admittedly Shakespeare used soliloquies, asides and direct approaches to the audience, but there are not many in The Winter’s Tale. Winterson lets us right into Leo’s mind when he is in the grip of his ‘tremor cordis’ with confrontingly explicit (and entirely believable) language, as he spies with the help of CCTV on his wife and his old friend.

It struck me that modernising The Winter’s Tale presented three particular problems: the Oracle, the death of Mamilius and the statue.

What today constitutes an absolute and unquestionable authority equivalent to the Delphic oracle? Well, that proved a minor stumbling block. We all place our faith now in medical science; DNA tests provide certainty; anyone rejecting their results would seem to be irrational.

With modern marriages seldom regarded as life-long commitments, it is hard to believe that a young boy would die of shame over his parents’ separation, even when domestic violence is involved. Winterson keeps us tantalisingly in suspense over the fate of the boy, Milo. We know that he is no longer with Leo but almost to the very end there is the question: what happened to Milo? The mystery is eventually neatly and entirely plausibly explained.

The final and (to my mind) the most difficult feature of the tale is the device of the statue. However, thanks to the incidental information scattered through the book, the reader knows what has happened to Mimi. The means by which Pauline brings her back and persuades Leo to attend her return follows logically from the subtly established indications of her breakdown and withdrawal from public life. The ‘effect’ of a statue is cleverly implied.

This is a book which could be read as a gripping and beautifully written story by anyone, even without acquaintance with The Winter’s Tale. However, familiarity with the play provides an extra dimension to a reader’s appreciation. I think that the novel’s greatest strength is that, while able to stand alone on its own merits, it stays true to the play. Thinking about the book brings us constantly back to the characters, the events and the insights into human psychology of the play. 

And here is a little bonus in the form of poem, especially written to honour the film by Frances's friend Erica Jolly.

She has very kindly agreed to allow us to put it up on our blog, as another, completely different, take on the play.

A Real Birthday Present

After seeing "The Winter's Tale"
brought live from London
to a cinema in Adelaide.

Can we face the stretch and expanse of time
the aching grief, the agony we need to feel
the price, the awful price, we have to pay
for decisions made in rage or jealousy?

When will we learn, take in the fearful truth
of the impact of abuse of power and fury
of minds quite lost to kindness and mercy
demanding underlings fulfil their orders?

How many babes must be lost on shores
left, perhaps, to the surge of an incoming tide,
to be food for scavenging bears and wolves or,
with luck, to be found and given the chance to live?

I am asking these questions thinking of Perdita saved
from death by the love and daring of two old turtle doves.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Super-dooper Shakespeare AGM

Today was the Shakespeare Club of WA's Annual General Meeting. Now, we all know that most people avoid AGM’s as if they expected to be offered poisonous cookies, or at least given some kind of job for the year. But this one is always well-attended because after the formal meeting we choose the plays to be read over the next ten months – and we all want a say in the decision-making process.

I was tickled pink when my three picks all ‘got a guernsey’ as we say in Australia. (That’s a saying from the national game of Aussie Rules Football. The players wear shirts called ‘guernseys’, and if you ‘get a guernsey’ it means you got a place on the team.) So the three plays I nominated must’ve been general favourites, because they were the selected works for 2016. They are All Well that Ends Well, Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Like many other Shakespeare enthusiasts, I love the middle-period comedies best of all, so I was really happy to see two of them win a spot. Normally, we try to include a comedy, a tragedy and history in the works to be studied, but this time Julius Caesar serves as both history and tragedy.

Here are quick summaries of the plays, largely by courtesy of our friends at Wikipedia –

All’s Well that Ends Well:
Helena, the low-born ward of a Spanish countess, is in love with the countess's son Bertram, who is indifferent to her. Bertram goes to Paris to replace his late father as attendant to the ailing King of France. Helena, the daughter of a recently deceased doctor, follows Bertram, ostensibly to offer the King her services as a healer. The King is sceptical, and she guarantees the cure with her life: if he dies, she will be put to death, but if he lives, she may choose a husband from the court. The King is cured and Helena chooses Bertram, who rejects her, owing to her poverty and low status. The King forces him to marry her, but after the ceremony Bertram immediately goes to war in Italy without so much as a goodbye kiss. He says that he will only marry her after she has borne his child and wears his family ring. In Italy, Bertram is a successful warrior and also a successful seducer of local virgins. Helena follows him to Italy, befriends Diana, a virgin with whom Bertram is infatuated, and they arrange for Helena to take Diana’s place in bed. Diana obtains Bertram’s ring in exchange for one of Helena’s. In this way Helena, without Bertram’s knowledge, consummates their marriage and wears his ring. Helena returns to the Spanish countess, who is horrified at what her son has done, and claims Helena as her child in Bertram’s place. Helena fakes her death, and Bertram, thinking he is free of her, comes home. He tries to marry a local lord’s daughter, but Diana shows up and breaks up the engagement. Helena appears and explains the ring swap, announcing that she has fulfilled Bertram’s challenge; Bertram, impressed by all she has done to win him, swears his love to her. Thus all ends well. There is a subplot about Parolles, a disloyal associate of Bertram’s. A recurring theme throughout the play is the similarity between love and war.

Julius Caesar is certainly historically-based, but it is less about Roman politics than the character of the man most responsible for Caesar’s downfall, Brutus. The play is an excellent specimen of what today we call ‘psychological drama’ in its depiction of Brutus's struggle with the conflicting demands of honour, patriotism and friendship. I studied this one in high school and always love to revisit it.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is another one with high school memories for many of us. It’s one of the most accessible of Shakespeare’s plays, yet one can read it see it again and again and find further nuances every time.

The play consists of four interconnecting plots, connected by a celebration of the wedding of Duke Theseus of Athens and the Amazon queen, Hippolyta, which is set simultaneously in the woodland and in the realm of Fairyland, under the light of the moon.[1]

The play opens with Hermia, who is in love with Lysander, on wanting to submit to her father Egeus' demand that she wed Demetrius, whom he has arranged for her to marry. Helena meanwhile pines unrequitedly for Demetrius. Enraged, Egeus invokes an ancient Athenian law before Duke Theseus, whereby a daughter must marry the suitor chosen by her father, or else face death. Theseus offers her another choice: lifelong chastity while worshiping the goddess Artemis as a nun.

Peter Quince and his fellow players plan to put on a play for the wedding of the Duke and the Queen, "the most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe".[2] Quince reads the names of characters and bestows them to the players. Nick Bottom, who is playing the main role of Pyramus, is over-enthusiastic and wants to dominate others by suggesting himself for the characters of Thisbe, the Lion, and Pyramus at the same time. He would also rather be a tyrant and recites some lines of Ercles. Quince ends the meeting with "at the Duke's oak we meet".

(Below) The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by Joseph Noel Paton
In a parallel plot line, Oberon, king of the fairies, and Titania, his queen, have come to the forest outside Athens. Titania tells Oberon that she plans to stay there until she has attended Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding. Oberon and Titania are estranged because Titania refuses to give her Indian changeling to Oberon for use as his "knight" or "henchman", since the child's mother was one of Titania's worshipers. Oberon seeks to punish Titania's disobedience. He calls upon Robin "Puck" Goodfellow, his "shrewd and knavish sprite",[3] to help him concoct a magical juice derived from a flower called "love-in-idleness", which turns from white to purple when struck by Cupid's arrow. When the concoction is applied to the eyelids of a sleeping person, that person, upon waking, falls in love with the first living thing they perceive. He instructs Puck to retrieve the flower with the hope that he might make Titania fall in love with an animal of the forest and thereby shame her into giving up the little Indian boy. He says, "And ere I take this charm from off her sight,/As I can take it with another herb,/I'll make her render up her page to me."[4]

Hermia and Lysander have escaped to the same forest in hopes of eloping. Helena, desperate to reclaim Demetrius's love, tells Demetrius about the plan and he follows them in hopes of killing Lysander. Helena continually makes advances towards Demetrius, promising to love him more than Hermia. However, he rebuffs her with cruel insults against her. Observing this, Oberon orders Puck to spread some of the magical juice from the flower on the eyelids of the young Athenian man. Instead, Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius, not having actually seen either before, and administers the juice to the sleeping Lysander. Helena, coming across him, wakes him while attempting to determine whether he is dead or asleep. Upon this happening, Lysander immediately falls in love with Helena. Oberon sees Demetrius still following Hermia and is enraged. When Demetrius goes to sleep, Oberon sends Puck to get Helena while he charms Demetrius' eyes. Upon waking up, he sees Helena. Now, both men are in pursuit of Helena. However, she is convinced that her two suitors are mocking her, as neither loved her originally. Hermia is at a loss to see why her lover has abandoned her, and accuses Helena of stealing Lysander away from her. The four quarrel with each other until Lysander and Demetrius become so enraged that they seek a place to duel to prove whose love for Helena is the greater. Oberon orders Puck to keep Lysander and Demetrius from catching up with one another and to remove the charm from Lysander. Lysander returns to loving Hermia, while Demetrius continues to love Helena.

(Below) A Midsummer Night's Dream by Charles A. Buchel
Meanwhile, Quince and his band of six labourers ("rude mechanicals", as they are described by Puck) have arranged to perform their play about Pyramus and Thisbe for Theseus' wedding and venture into the forest, near Titania's bower, for their rehearsal. Bottom is spotted by Puck, who (taking his name to be another word for a jackass) transforms his head into that of a donkey. When Bottom returns for his next lines, the other workmen run screaming in terror, much to Bottom's confusion, since he has no idea what has happened. Determined to await his friends, he begins to sing to himself. Titania, having received the love-potion, is awakened by Bottom's singing and immediately falls in love with him. She lavishes him with attention and presumably makes love to him. While she is in this state of devotion, Oberon takes the changeling. Having achieved his goals, Oberon releases Titania, orders Puck to remove the donkey's head from Bottom, and arranges everything so Helena, Hermia, Demetrius and Lysander will all believe they have been dreaming when they awaken. Puck distracts Lysander and Demetrius from fighting over Helena's love by mimicking their voices and leading them apart. Eventually, all four find themselves separately falling asleep in the glade. Once they fall asleep, Puck administers the love potion to Lysander again, claiming all will be well in the morning.

The fairies then disappear, and Theseus and Hippolyta arrive on the scene, during an early morning hunt. They wake the lovers and, since Demetrius no longer loves Hermia, Theseus overrules Egeus's demands and arranges a group wedding. The lovers decide that the night's events must have been a dream. After they exit, Bottom awakes, and he too decides that he must have experienced a dream "past the wit of man". In Athens, Theseus, Hippolyta and the lovers watch the six workmen perform Pyramus and Thisbe. The performers are so terrible playing their roles that the guests laugh as if it were meant to be a comedy, and everyone retires to bed. Afterwards, Oberon, Titania, Puck, and other fairies enter, and bless the house and its occupants with good fortune. After all the other characters leave, Puck "restores amends" and suggests to the audience that what they just experienced might be nothing more than a dream.

So, we embark on another Shakespearean journey! If you live in Perth, why not come and join us in our odyssey?

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Sonnet Competition - change of closing date

The Shakespeare Club of Western Australia has decided to keep the Sonnet Competition open until September 23, 2016. This brings us into line with various other events planned to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. Put on those thinking caps, friends - maybe you will come up with even more ideas for sonnets now you have more time!

Just click on the link at the top of the left hand column to find more info.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

HAMLET presented by National Theatre Live

Another Hamlet, this time the Cumberbatch performance on screen, reviewed by Frances, our president.

A few weeks ago I went to see 'yet another' Hamlet, this one the film of the National Theatre’s production starring Benedict Cumberbatch and, I must add, many other very fine performers. And what an extraordinary experience it was. I have held a mental conversation with myself about it ever since.

The central motivation for the whole action appeared in the simple opening scene — Hamlet sitting on the floor, leafing through an old family photograph album and listening to Nat King Cole’s ‘Nature Boy’ on a portable record player. The depth and intensity of his grief was apparent and it was soon explained in his welcome to Horatio, who in turn reported the visitation of the ghost. It was an engrossing and very efficient entry to the rest of the play.

Then of course in Scene 2 we were into the action, with all the main characters stablishing themselves with vivid individuality. This scene also brought us the first of the great soliloquies, presented so imaginatively by allowing the surrounding action to fade into dimness and slow motion, and all attention to be focussed on Hamlet.

The other soliloquies followed the same style, perfectly creating the sense of the speaker’s inner concentration, completely oblivious to external events. The speeches were all beautifully delivered with attention to every subtle detail of meaning and emotional nuance. With close-ups on Cumberbatch’s face, we could literally follow the working of his mind. The speeches arose so naturally within their contexts that it was possible to believe that we were sharing silent thoughts, with none of the possible “stage-iness” that can sometimes dilute their effect.

This was particularly the case with ‘To be, or not to be…’ which in this production followed Hamlet’s dismissing Polonius with the words: ‘You cannot, sir, take from me any thing that I will more willingly part withal; except my life, except my life, except my life’, which made a perfectly natural lead in to the soliloquy’s questions. The usual placing of this speech in the Nunnery scene, with Hamlet apparently but not very believably failing to notice Ophelia, must make it much more difficult for the actor to make clear what has prompted these thoughts.

All the soliloquies were retained, even the one from Act 4 scene 4, (How all occasions do inform against me) which is sometimes omitted. This was part of the well-defined sub-plot relating to the political and military relations between Denmark and Norway. In Act 1 scene 2 Claudius (Ciaran Hinds) gave a masterly exposition of the background story, which is often difficult to grasp, finishing with dispatching Cornelius and Voltimand on their mission to Norway. Then to accompany Marcellus’ query about the nightly toiling and 'daily cast of brazen cannon' there was an amazing Sound and Light impression of huge ironworks and mass production of heavy armaments. I cannot imagine how this was achieved, but it was a stunningly impressionistic momentary picture of preparations for war. Later the successful return of the ambassadors was given due emphasis; and then we met Fortinbras and his army as they marched towards Poland, reminding us of the futility of so much military action. Without this clear story line, Fortinbras could seem to have little relevance at the end of the play.
Photo from
The actors were nearly all very fine, with some interesting characterisations. Claudius was a powerful and ambitious man, who knew what he wanted and how to get it; Gertrude (Anastasia Hille) grew in stature as the play progressed. At first apparently colourless, she showed powerful responses to Hamlet’s upbraidings in the Bedroom scene, and came into her own during Ophelia’s madness, particularly as the possibility of Ophelia’s suicide suddenly occurred to her. She delivered the news of Ophelia’s death quite beautifully, in that very difficult speech: ‘There is a willow grows aslant a brook….’ I did wonder, though, why Gertrude was robbed of her very last line, and why it was decided that Horatio should say that the drink was poisoned. This was her moment to show finally that she recognised the nature of the man she had married, and to make a desperate bid to save her son.

Horatio (Leo Bill) was a slightly eccentric but entirely devoted friend, unaffected by the grandeur of the court and always to be relied upon. He created a tenderly touching moment as he farewelled his friend, at Hamlet’s death.

Ophelia was unusual. From the start she was jittery and it appeared that it would take little to provoke a breakdown. The mad scene omitted the St. Valentine’s Day song, which left the impression that her distress arose almost entirely from her father’s death, with little reference to Hamlet’s treatment of her. A detail of the mad scene was the inclusion of lines spoken by other characters in other scenes, but here spoken by Ophelia. Her ever-present camera was an unexpected symbol, which served to remind us of the lack of privacy in the castle, and the constant sense of surveillance.

Polonius (Jim Norton) suggested a careful and reliable elder statesman; he even made notes to refer to when giving his son farewell advice. His role was considerably reduced, so that we did not see his nasty little plans to spy on Laertes and there was little of Hamlet’s baiting and ridicule of him as a senile has-been.

The Ghost (Karl Johnson) was unlike many versions I have seen: no weird distortions of his voice, no vaporous trails and eerie lighting. This was a middle-aged man, cut off in his prime, exceedingly cross about it, and clearly suffering all the pains of Purgatory that he hints of to Hamlet. A striking moment was when he tore open his military tunic to reveal his skin “bark’d about most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust” as he described the effects of the poison. Johnson also played delightfully a quick-witted Gravedigger, bringing just the right amount of light relief before the final horrors.

An interesting feature of the production was the attention given to the visiting Players, particularly the full Pyrrhus speech and the description of Hecuba. This gave a perfect entry to the ‘Oh what a rogue…’ soliloquy. We could see in Hamlet’s eyes the precise moment when he linked Hecuba with his own mother. Later, in preparing for the performance of The Mousetrap, the ‘Speak the speech’ instructions were delightful, with Hamlet suddenly realising that he really shouldn’t be telling these professionals how to do their jobs.

Throughout, there was tactful modernisation of the language, most of which worked smoothly, but substitutions were noticeable in the very well-known speeches. So, in the final scene, the King put a ‘jewel’ in the cup instead of ‘an union’, without violence to rhythm or meaning; but I thought it a pity, for instance, to sacrifice the peculiarly evocative phrase ‘in hugger-mugger to inter him’ referring to Polonius’s death, to be replaced by a dry legalistic description of what was done.

The entire performance was marked by superb clarity of speech and meticulous attention to the detail of the meaning, without ever losing a wonderful spontaneity. This attention to detail applied even to the minor characters: there was a perfect example when Horatio and the two guards tried to dissuade Hamlet from following the ghost. In their few short sentences they managed to suggest three differing personalities and therefore different attitudes to the situation.

The staging was impressive, with a huge set well used to suggest the various locations of the action. However, the introduction, for the second half, of piles of what I assume were supposed to be cinders, in great drifts all through the palace, was inexplicable to me and a distraction during the last scenes. It was obviously difficult for the actors to walk on them, and of course they had to be pushed aside for the duel scene. If it was intended to suggest the dissolution of Claudius’s reign I found it unnecessary, since he did after all remain king and in charge until the moment of his death. However, I hope somebody will explain to me what I have missed here. It is a small quibble about what was such a satisfying performance in so many ways.

The exciting duel displayed excellent fencing skills; it was short and sharp, with a clear increasingly deadly intent. The ferocity was thoroughly convincing.

Supported as he was by a fine team, this production belonged undeniably to Benedict Cumberbatch. Quite apart from the obvious magnitude of the role, he was Hamlet and he shared with his audience all his technical skill and emotional range to give us a memorable interpretation. In a pre-show interview with Melvyn Bragg Cumberbatch described his conviction that an actor has to ‘find the need to say’ his lines, to make the words fresh, and spoken as if for the first time. He did exactly that.