Monday, June 27, 2016

Sonnet competition again


Our sonnet competition has received some very good entries - but not enough of them! While we are delighted with the standard of the entries, we do hope more people can be encouraged to send in their sonnets.

Originally, we barred members of the Club from entering, but entry numbers to date suggest that perhaps most of the people who write sonnets are already members of The Shakespeare Club of Western Australia! Therefore, the Committee has decided to open the competition to members of the Club. Members are advised that they must not enter under their own names, but use a nom-de-plume, so that the judging can take place on a level playing field.

So come on, members! Pay homage to our beloved bard by putting pen to paper. Or, rather, fingers to keyboard!

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Shakespeare 400 film


Several members (see an earlier review below, from our president) have seen this film and enjoyed it, and Natalie has also written a review:

I went along to the Windsor cinema to see the film Shakespeare Live! from the RSC, not knowing what to expect, but convinced that I would be in for a wonderful few hours. It was full of surprises and though realizing at the end that I was out of touch with many of the new ways of presenting things, I left exhilarated. 

The film began with scenes of Stratford, the theatre & its history and a few places associated with Shakespeare’s life; then brought us into the theatre with an audience. From time to time throughout the show, a film would be thrown on a screen at the back or above the back of the stage, and it worked smoothly on the whole. The gang fight and ‘Tonight’ from West Side Story began the performance, followed immediately by the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. This prepared us well for a program consisting of scenes from the plays plus extracts from the works of artists from other countries in varied forms such as dance, opera and music – all inspired by Shakespeare!

Comperes David Tennant and Catherine Tate
The show was compered by David Tennant, and featured many notable thespians including Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellen, Dame Helen Mirren, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tim Minchin, Rufus Wainwright, John Lithgow, David Suchet, Rory Kinnear and Joseph Fiennes. Artistic Director Gregory Doran is to be congratulated on assembling such a notable cast. We got a marvelous ‘Brush up your Shakespeare’ from Cole Porter’s Kiss me Kate, complete with a Jimmy Durante; a melting duet from Berlioz and a chuckling chorus from Verdi’s Falstaff as well as the straight plays. 


R&J: Natey Jones and Mariah Gale
The balcony scene was the highlight for me: the young actress had charm & a young voice full of light and shade. She is surely an up-and-coming to look out for. The actor playing Macbeth impressed me very much and the murder scene was another highlight. The death of Cleopatra seen at close quarters was certainly another. I thought Paul Schofield had walked on to join the group of former Hamlets in the ‘To be or not to be’, skit but it turned out to be Ian McKellen when he turned full face. Still, nothing wrong with that, and a lovely moment!

One scene that surprised me and made me wonder why it had not been done that way always was the proposal in Henry V. I wonder what others who have seen the film thought? Olivier & Renee Asherson were banished forever by these young independent young royals; yet I was puzzled as to how the scene would fit into the play when seen as a whole.

Words in the Hip Hop theatre were lost on me because I could not keep my attention from the dancers’ fascinating trousers. My companion singled out Malvolio’s combined embarrassment and ambition as a highlight and I was sorry this act was over so quickly.

Overall, I missed most of the words of the sonnets, luxuriating in the nice, slow delivery of the Royal Shakespeare players. Some of the effects that particularly caught my eye were the out-of-this-world fairies (blue) on Titania’s float, Bottom’s ears, Macbeth’s dangling tie, the Prince of Denmark’s ruff, and the snake in Cleopatra’s hands. How I would love to see those productions in full, I thought as I left, compiling my own little program!

PS: Photos (by Helen Maybank) are from the Royal Shakespeare Company's website. And if you can't get to see this amazing film, you can buy the DVD from the site.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Shakespeare Live - well, on film, anyway!

SHAKESPEARE LIVE

Once again, Frances, our Fearless Leader, has turned her sharp and probing mind to a film performance, this time of the Royal Shakespeare Company's 400th anniversary tribute. Here's what she has to say:

What an absorbing and invigorating experience it was, to see on screen the RSC’s tribute to Shakespeare, exactly as it was performed in that magnificent one-off concert on 23rd April.

The programme was clearly planned not only to show Shakespeare’s work, but also to reveal that work’s influence on so many other art forms. Mingled with many of the best-known and best-loved scenes from the plays we had excerpts from musicals, ballet, opera and even hip-hop: something for every taste and every age.

There was so much packed into three hours that it’s impossible to comment on everything.  I prefer to indulge myself with remembering my favourites.

If I were presenting awards, equal first would go to Antony Sher for his rollicking but very subtle Falstaff, and Rory Kinnear for his intensely horror-struck Macbeth. Harriet Walter would be right behind them for her fine Cleopatra, and Ian McKellen, who gave us a passionate and topical passage from Sir Thomas More.

Other highlights: Paapa Essiedu’s delivery of “To be or not…..” It would be a major challenge for any actor to follow the hilarious discussion on the appropriate placing of emphasis in the soliloquy’s first sentence, but Essiedu took it beautifully in his stride, allowing the audience to settle and then holding us with his thoughtful interpretation. Alex Hassell’s Henry V made the king’s proposal to Catherine funnier and much more appealing than most versions, and in another scene, as Prince Hal was a perfect foil for Sher’s Falstaff.  Al Murray’s portrayal of Bottom made a lovably cuddly and comical character.

For me special items from other genres included: the love scene from the ballet Romeo and Juliet with Prokofiev’s music; a modern ballet version of Desdemona’s murder, to Duke Ellington’s Black and Tan Fantasy; and the smoothest “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” (from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate) which Henry Goodman and Rufus Hound performed with soft-shoe insouciance and infectious enjoyment.

There were some quirky items. One was a hip-hop performance, in which a speaker? reciter? chanter? “spoke” well-known phrases from the plays in a seemingly random order. In fact I realised by the end that it wasn’t random;  there was a planned sequence of repetition.  He controlled the pace of his delivery sufficiently to allow much of the content to be heard and I think it was probably very cleverly put together, but I need a lot more practice in listening to this art form. (A printed script would have helped.) The accompanying dancer? gymnast? was fascinating to watch but rather a distraction from the spoken words.

Another oddity (to me) was Sonnet 29 (“When in disgrace with fortune…”) composed and sung by Rufus Wainwright. He is certainly not the first to set sonnets to music, but I’m sure he must be the first to need such a Big Band to back him. The music swelled to such an extent that it almost overwhelmed the sense of the words and seemed to require a Cinemascope screen of images to accompany it.

The programme was arranged to follow Shakespeare’s literary life from the earlier to the maturer comedies, through the great tragedies to the late plays. The perfect choice for a prologue, therefore, was The Seven Ages of Man.  Each age was illustrated with an appropriate modern character, but for me the impact and the poignancy of the speech came when it was revealed at the end that each was not a Type, but a “real” inhabitant of Stratford  --  from the baby born in the local hospital, to the “lean and slippered pantaloon” who was a retired backstage employee of the theatre.


The conclusion was equally well chosen, with Oberon and Titania (played by David Suchet and Judi Dench) and Puck (David Tennant) giving us the fairies’ blessings. I confess to having been slightly taken aback by such elderly royal fairies, but in a moment common sense re-asserted itself:  of course, fairies are ageless, or are older than time.

These are just some of the impressions remaining with me, and I may well have omitted scenes which others would have picked as the high spots. Unfortunately I am relying on my shaky memory; cinemas don’t provide a printed programme. I hope my remarks will provoke other club members who saw the film to offer their own opinions, and to comment on (and probably correct) my thoughts.   

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?