Thursday, April 16, 2015

Is Much Ado really Love's Labours Won?

As an interesting sequel to her last post, Frances, our president, discusses the Royal Shakespeare Company's approach to Much Ado about Nothing - or should that be 'Love's Labour's Won'?

What an interesting idea to consider: in a pre-show interview the director, Christopher Luscombe, made a strong case for regarding Much Ado About Nothing as the missing Love’s Labour’s Won and treating it as a sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost.

We usually expect a sequel to follow the fortunes of characters we met in the earlier story, in much the same setting. Well, Luscombe had already changed Navarre to Warwickshire, so in the second play 'sunny Sicily' was changed to 'chilly England', the action in the same beautiful country house. However, the cast was now playing completely new characters entirely unconnected with the first play. This gave me an additional pleasure: observing the skill and versatility of the performers in their different roles, notably Sam Alexander, who turned from the superbly eccentric Don Adriano to the authoritative and soldierly, but kindly, Don Pedro. The two leads, Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry, moved from their fine portrayals of the youthful Biron and Rosaline to even more admirable performances as the more mature Benedick and Beatrice. Although Love’s Labour’s Lost was the last film I had seen (and therefore fresh in my mind) I accepted these new acquaintances immediately, greatly to the credit of the actors.

The decision to place the action in the immediate post-WW1 period allowed perhaps more than usual emphasis on pathos and the darker aspects of the play. Beatrice’s chatter was less light-hearted and her exchanges with Benedick had an edge suggesting past disappointment or misunderstanding. She frequently evoked a sense of loneliness behind her outward bravado, while Benedick at times appeared at a loss to understand her and their current relationship.

Iqbal Khan's 2012 production with Meera Syal as Beatrice and Amara Karan as Hero. By Ellie Kurttz.
There were nevertheless some lovely comic scenes, particularly the gulling of Benedick, when he performed amazing contortions behind the window curtains, and survived a near-electrocution in the Christmas tree. Another gloriously funny scene was performed in solemn silence, as the sexton tried to leave Dogberry’s kitchen, but found himself hemmed in by people, furniture and assorted domestic paraphernalia while everyone milled about trying to clear the way. The gulling of Beatrice was treated far more seriously with her listening at the window of a high tower. I thought her stillness and sadness (rather than affronted umbrage) contrasted rather too strongly with the actions of Hero and Ursula, who appeared to try a little too hard in their search for the comedy of the scene.

The audience had been told in advance that the characters of Don John and Dogberry were to be understood as resulting from trauma during the war. I found some difficulty with this. Don John’s use of a crutch and his marked limp tended to evoke sympathy and to reduce the impact of his malevolence, but did not give any clearer explanation of his motives. Dogberry was to be seen as suffering PTSD to account for his mis-use of words. My feeling is that comedy allows us to laugh sometimes at things which polite society does not permit in daily life, and that we can enjoy Dogberry’s extraordinary vocabulary just as later generations enjoyed Mrs Malaprop. I see Dogberry as smugly complacent about his own authority and position and entirely happily unaware of his deficiencies. To give him the extra tics and limps of a disastrous war made it difficult for me simply to enjoy his character.

The build-up to Hero’s wedding was charming, with a pretty scene in her bedroom, the girls in negligee and pyjamas, all excitement and warmth. It led nicely into the fine church setting, with stained glass, choir and guests ready for the big moment. However, this scene for me was perhaps the least successful of the play. Claudio needed more fire and shock-power in his denunciation, and the long and vituperative speech of Hero’s father, Leonato, was accompanied by a distinct drop in the high and engaging intensity of the rest of the performance.

Beatrice and Benedick were outstanding in their interaction. Sensitive timing and well-judged emphases and facial expressions drew from their lines every last nuance of thought and feeling. They moved from some sense of disgruntlement at the start to the joyous surrender to mutual love at the end with charm and a lovely balance of fun and seriousness. The conclusion of the play was a warmly and satisfyingly happy one.

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