Sunday, August 18, 2019

Review of Bell's Much Ado about Nothing

Bell Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing  2019-07-07 reviewed by Frances, our president.

A group from the Shakespeare Club went last week to see the Bell Shakespeare production of Much Ado About Nothing.

I confess that I was not immediately captivated by it. The performance opened with a short section of the final scene of the play: the moment in Act V scene iv when Claudio agrees to marry (sight unseen) a veiled woman to replace the supposedly dead Hero, and then discovers that it is in fact Hero. Alas, I failed completely to grasp the point of starting in this back-to-front way, but all was made clear later, as the scenes from then on unfolded in the usual order.

The play is undeniably a comedy, and this production was determined to wrest from the script every last laugh. At first, grumpily, I felt the voices were too loud and the young men’s horseplay too adolescent, but their infectious good humour and energy, together with the fine comic skills of Duncan Ragg, as Benedick, soon won me over. Benedick showed excellent timing not only in the delivery of his lines but also in his address to the audience, with whom he built a lovely rapport.

Beatrice (Zindzi Okenyo) was a more thoughtful character, and gave indications of an earlier relationship and disappointment. Altogether her manner was rather mature for the youthful deportment of Benedick; I felt that she could have been given more opportunity to sparkle. For instance, in the famous gulling scenes (II iii and III i) Benedick had every chance to raise laughs, with many amusing hiding places. However the following scene, where Beatrice is similarly tricked, was disappointing in comparison. She remained seated downstage to one side, with no chance to show her responses fully. When alone at the end of the scene she did show a delighted shiver and hug as she skipped away, but I felt that she could have been given greater scope.

The riotous comedy gave way to a more serious theme with Claudio’s jilting and accusing Hero, leading to her collapse. The change of tone was carefully handled, and led to a sweet declaration of mutual love between Benedick and Beatrice when they were alone. It was unfortunate though that the audience could not quite take it sufficiently seriously, and laughed at Beatrice’s line: ‘Kill Claudio’. The production could have had greater depth by using the strength of Beatrice’s feelings. The dark side of the story might have provided more contrast with the lightness of the comedy.

Of course, speaking of comedy, the Watch make a major contribution to the humour of the play. What an extraordinary group they were! And credit must be given to the clever use of costume to disguise completely the fact that all four of them (in the Watch) were doubling with other characters. Dogberry, the constable, was played by Mandy Bishop, who also appeared as Balthazar and proved to be a charming singer in that role. As Dogberry she rode about on a child’s tiny scooter, in full biker’s outfit: boots, knee and elbow guards, and a helmet, and displayed an amazingly creative style of movement which reflected Dogberry’s sense of his own importance. We possibly lost some of this character’s delicious “malapropisms” (if that’s not too anachronistic a word), but his actions were wildly popular.

To return to the darker side for a moment: Don John needed to project a more sinister quality. The performance was full of cleverly inventive 'business' to show character, but to have Don John show his nasty side by going through the luggage of the arriving soldiers, and pilfering what looked like a piece of underwear, did not reflect the level of his malign spirit.

Leonato (David Whitney) was a convivial host and anchored the scenes with the young men. His shocking lack of loyalty to his daughter, after Claudio’s accusations, was made believable, as was his restored bonhomie at the end. Equally, Antonio (apparently Leonato’s sister despite the name, played by Suzanne Pereira) presented a quietly reliable support in the whirl of events.

It is a credit to the performers that they made the rather convoluted plot quite clear to the audience. I overheard near me a young woman, who obviously did not know the story, gasping with amused relief when she suddenly saw how it would all be resolved.

And so we came to the final scene, and to the section which we had seen at the beginning. The young women entered, Claudio spoke the required words, and Hero unveiled. But here the script was slightly altered. Deviating from the original, in recognition of our 21st century sensitivities, Hero gave Claudio a stinging slap on his face, and then refused to complete the sentence which ends “I am a maid.” Indeed, she then walked away from him, and sat looking extremely miserable. It was clear that this time they would have no happy ever afters.

It was as well that we had the last few exchanges in their 'skirmishes of wit' between Benedick and Beatrice to lighten the mood before the play ended with a delightful song, with the words of Sonnet 116: Let me not to the marriage of true minds. I think everyone left the theatre with a smile.

By William Shakespeare
Director James Evans
Designer Pip Runciman
Lighting Designer Niklas Pajanti
Composer & Sound Designer Andrée Greenwell
Movement & Fight Director Nigel Poulton
Voice & Text Coach Jess Chambers

Zindzi Okenyo
Vivienne Awosoga
Danny Ball
Marissa Bennett
Mandy Bishop
Will McDonald
Suzanne Pereira
Duncan Ragg
Paul Reichstein
David Whitney

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Reading Shakespeare aloud

Dear friends in Shakespeare: I have just stumbled over what looks like a fascinating and useful website. Check it out at Lee Jamieson's site. How to Read Shakespeare Dialogue Aloud.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Shakespeare’s French
 The following post by Rob Baxter comes from our recent newsletter

Shakespeare uses a surprising amount of French in his plays, especially in Henry V. But that use of the French language is not the only way in which French is part of Shakespeare’s language. The vast majority of Shakespeare’s vocabulary comes from French. More profoundly, much of the grammar and the syntax of Shakespeare’s language comes from French. (The English Project ‘Henry and the French Language n.d.’)
French began to be an influence on the English language with the arrival of the French-speaking Norman kings in 1066. In the next five hundred years, English was massively refashioned by French so that by the time Shakespeare was born, English had become a fusion language. (Mulvey 2016)
Some scholars who have examined different aspects of the plays have discovered borrowings from French sources, and apparent allusion to French personages and events, and, of course, the plays include French phrases and occasional exchanges in French.  Let us consider Shakespeare’s use of French in just three of his plays, Henry V, Love’s Labour’s Lost and Hamlet.
Henry V
Henry V is a play that rejoices in its hero king, Henry, warrior and wooer. Henry V not only defeated the French; he went on to win the hand of Katherine, the daughter of the King of France. Henry is powerful and kingly in battle. He is playful and winning in courtship.
In Henry V we find more than a dozen French lines for the soldiers including the exchange:

Boy. Encore qu'il est contre son jurement de pardonner
aucun prisonnier, neanmoins, pour les ecus que vous
l'avez promis, il est content de vous donner la
liberte, le franchisement.
[“Although it is against his oath to pardon any prisoner, nevertheless, for the sake of the crowns you have promised, he is willing to give you your liberty, your freedom”]
French Soldier. Sur mes genoux je vous donne mille remercimens; et je m'estime heureux que je suis tombe entre les
mains d'un chevalier, je pense, le plus brave,
vaillant, et tres distingue seigneur d'Angleterre.
[“On my knees, I give you a thousand thanks, and I consider myself happy that I have fallen into hands of a knight, as I think, the bravest, most valiant, and very distinguished gentleman in England”]                                                                 [4.4.52-62]
This shows some, but not conclusive evidence, that Shakespeare could write fluent French. In the next Act there is the rather naughty scene between Katherine and her maid, Alice, where the latter teaches the former some English translation of French words.  Whilst Shakespeare shows that he is familiar with French it can be seen that he is also boasting about the superiority of English. (The English Project ‘Henry and the French Language n.d.’)
The subject is parts of the body, so Katherine learns single words ‘de sin’, ‘de fingres’, ‘de mailes’ and ‘de bilbow’ which with a hint of a French accent is probably not so different from a French vocabulary lesson even today. 
The play demonstrates Shakespeare’s knowledge of conversational French, with its sideways glance at the verb ‘baiser’, which, for unsuspecting English audiences means 'to kiss', leaving its more sexual connotations for those French-speaking members of the audience alone. Shakespeare playfully uses the ‘double entendre’ word as a verb four times and is well aware that it was a word one had to be careful with. (White 2015)
The untranslated ‘baiser’ presents a space into which the English translation cannot reach. For French-speaking members of the audience, it denotes an extremely vulgar expression ‘to f**k’; French folk would assume use of the dirty expression, unless it's in a very well-known phrase like "baiser la main" [‘to kiss the hand’], a phrase Shakespeare actually uses in the dialogue. (Montgomery 2012)
History tells us that it was just at the time that Henry was courting Kate – 1415 - that the English language was triumphing in England; it was finally overcoming French as the language of authority and power. Henry’s father had deposed Richard II by an order read in English and the Henrys made English the language of their court. (The English Project)
There is more French spoken in Henry V than in any other Shakespeare play, more in fact, than in any other English play of that period. From 1066 onwards, England had been ruled in French and educated in Latin. English had been a despised tongue though it never ceased to be a written language, as in William Langland's Piers Plowman and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Henry V is not only a play about the defeat of the French army; it is also a play about the defeat of the French language. The English king is triumphant. So is Shakespeare’s English!
Turning to Hamlet, the Memoire’s of Queen Marguerite de Valois, contain the tragic story of a young girl at court who dies for love and grief. 
A young lord, living in the same household, falls in love with this young woman.  Their love is thwarted by the family objections; the young girl has a domineering parent.  Her lover then turns cruel and rejects her. 
She tries to hide her distress, but then breaks down, and dies within days, mourned by a queen. Her lover returns, and comes across a funeral procession.  The coffin is strewn with flowers. He wonders whose funeral it is, and then realises it is his beloved’s.  (Wikipedia: Margaret of Valois)
Does the story ring a bell with you? It sounds familiar, though the participants are not Ophelia and Hamlet, but Hélène de Tournon and the Marquis de Varenbon. Had Shakespeare read some of Marguerite’s Memoires as she had been born in 1553 and the letters seem to have been written in the latter part of the 16th century?
Love’s Labour’s Lost
And fascinatingly, Shakespeare found her a muse as well, basing the events of his comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost on Marguerite’s relationship with Navarre whom she married unwillingly in 1572.
Marguerite describes how in 1578, separated from her husband, she accompanied her mother, Catherine de Médici, as ambassadress of France in negotiations with Henry of Navarre. On this occasion she attempted to influence the outcome of the negotiations by employing the charms of the ladies-in-waiting on Henry and his lords. Like the princess in the play, Marguerite was witty and charming.
The Mémoires contain many particulars of her life, together with anecdotes told with a saucy vivacity which is charming, and an air vividly recalling the sprightly demeanour and black, sparkling eyes of the fair Queen of Navarre. Marguerite died in 1615, aged sixty-three. These letters contain the secret history of the Court of France during the seventeen eventful years 1565-82.
Marguerite de Valois

Hélène de Tournon, daughter of one of Marguerite de Valois' ladies-in-waiting, died for the love of a young nobleman, the Marquis de Varenbon, an incident that is the source for the story of Katharine’s sister in Love’s Labour’s Lost. (Boyce, 2005)The tragic death of Hélène de Tournon was probably the source for that of Ophelia in Hamlet who dies broken-hearted, rejected by Hamlet (as mentioned earlier), the man she loves who has also killed her father. The Marquis learned of the death of Hélène de Tournon when, on returning to Liège (from where he had been absent at the time Hélène died), he encountered the funeral procession, just as Hamlet encounters the funeral procession of Ophelia on his return to Elsinore.
Shakespeare knew of this tragic incident, which was not publicly known until Marguerite de Valois’ Mémoires were published in 1628.
Shakespeare’s Library
The question arises as to how Shakespeare acquired his knowledge of the French language. Concerning Shakespeare’s proficiency Kenneth Muir (1977) writes:
‘Of modern languages Shakespeare acquired some knowledge in French…  He could certainly read French…’
Stuart Gillespie (2001) makes reference to John Eliot’s book written for “English Gentlemen”, published in London in 1593 under the extended title

“Ortho-epia Gallica: Eliot’s fruits for the French, Enterlaced with a double new Inuention, which teacheth to speake truely, speedily and volubly the French-tongue.
Penned for the practise, pleasure, and profit of all English Gentlemen, who will endevour by their owne paine, studie, and dilligence, to attaine the naturall Accent, the true Pronounciation, the swift and glib Grace of this Noble, Famous, and Courtly Language”

and describes the French language manual as one Shakespeare might have had in his possession and seems
“exactly the type of book Shakespeare could have used to teach himself French”.
Robert Miola (2000) goes further referring to the French ‘teach yourself’ books Shakespeare might have acquired to further his studies:
‘Shakespeare’s library certainly contained books in French…including a French conversation manual, and perhaps works by Boaistuau and Belleforest.’
Belleforest’s Les Histoires Tragiques is a 1514 translation of the story of the 12th century Latin Amlethus into French (Amleth) and one of the sources Shakespeare used for Hamlet. The play makes more than fifty allusions to characters, events or words and phrases in Belleforest’s Les Histoires Tragiques, published (in French) in 1572.
These scholars—Muir, Gillespie and Miola—and Shakespeare himself show that he was sufficiently fluent in French to read and make use of French sources and was also familiar with a French person’s vernacular.
Miola’s reference to Shakespeare’s library has exercised the minds of many.  Shakespeare’s will runs to three pages, over a thousand words, with no mention of any book, whether a bible, texts of any poems or plays, or any sources.  The absence of books is a marked feature of the will.  No inventory of books to which a lawyer would, as a matter of practice, make specific reference in the will (for it be valid in law), is known to exist.
One of the few biographical details we know for certain about Shakespeare is how much he read. Over 200 books are quoted in his plays or serve as sources for them.
What did he read? Mostly history, literature, plays, and poems, with some books on mathematics and medicine. It would certainly seem to follow that Shakespeare either owned such books or had access to these relatively scarce books.
Where did he read books? There were no public libraries in England. The largest known library was Lord Lumley’s (1533-1609); he was an English aristocrat whose library contained some 7000 volumes; this collection became the original British Library. There were about 10 libraries of over 1000 volumes in England: the Queen’s, the universities’, the Inns of Court’s, and several other private libraries, including Sir William Cecil's. 
Shakespeare was not a student at a university or an Inn of Court, nor is he known to have been patronized by any of the owners of large libraries. He must have been self-taught.
Stuart Kells (2018) has researched this enigma and writes
‘Over the span of four hundred years, people sought [Shakespeare’s] library out….In all this time, the search came to nought [sic]. Not a trace of his library was found. No books, no manuscripts, no letters, no diaries….’
Kells suggests that one reason the library has been lost is because Shakespeare wasn't really a literary figure in his own time.
‘The idea of a literary Shakespeare as this inspired author was really created in the 18th and 19th centuries….In his time, he was a workaday dramatist, he had [many] other things on the go, [including] investing in theatres."
It seems that there is no satisfactory explanation of this puzzle; searches for any library, indeed any books of any description, belonging to Shakespeare, have led nowhere.                   
Boyce, C (2005) ‘KATHARINE’ in William Shakespeare: A Literary Reference to his Life and Work, Vol 1 Facts on File, New York
Gillespie S (2001) SHAKESPEARE’S BOOKS: The Athlone Press
Kells, S (2000) SHAKESPEARE’S LIBRARY Text Publishing, Melbourne
Montgomery M (2012) EUROPE’S LANGUAGES ON ENGLAND’S STAGES 1590-1620: Ashgate, London
Muir K (1977) THE SOURCES OF SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS Methuen & Co. Ltd., London
Mulvey C (2016) ‘WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: A FRENCH POET?’ A Parisian Celebration of the 400th Anniversary of His Death: 25 May 2016,
The English Project ‘HENRY AND THE FRENCH LANGUAGE’ (accessed 15 Jan 2019)
White R et al. (eds.) (2015) SHAKESPEARE AND EMOTIONS, INHERITANCES, ENACTMENTS, LEGACIES Palgrave Macmillan, London
Wikipedia contributors, "MARGARET OF VALOIS," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia (accessed January 15, 2019

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Queens in Shakespeare's plays

What a fascinating topic! Our president, Frances, has researched and commented on Shakespeare's depiction of the Queen consorts depicted in his histories.

A comment by fellow member Claudia a few months ago has set me thinking about the history plays.  We had just finished reading Henry IV part 2 and she mentioned an interesting little detail: there was no queen in the play.

Beginning way back with King John, all the other English histories feature at least one queen, sometimes several, and while most are relatively minor, some are quite significant and certainly very interesting characters.

There is no wife in King John, but his mother Queen Elinor is an outspoken woman.  In the very first scene she feels free to comment disapprovingly on the French ambassador.

She is a strong supporter of her son, to the extent that she is not too scrupulous about legal questions:
“Your strong possession much more than your right,
Or else it must go wrong with you and me:
So much my conscience whispers in your ear,
Which none but heaven and you and I shall hear.”

Elinor is so well ensconced in the court that she follows John to France, giving her opinion and advice frankly, often acting as though a reigning queen herself.  She is decisive and confident in her own judgement, making a surprisingly quick decision to adopt the Bastard, Falconbridge, as her grandson.

So firm is her backing of her son that she openly reveals her antipathy to Constance’s demands for Arthur’s rights, and accuses Constance of promoting Arthur’s claims so that she can be queen.  She uses phrases such as “that ambitious Constance”, “Thou monstrous slanderer”, “Thou unadvised scold” and calls her “insolent”.  We notice that she makes no effort to dissuade John from his plan to have Arthur murdered.

After making a strong impression in the first half of the play, she disappears from the action of the battles and John’s final downfall.

John’s great great grandson was Edward III.  In the play Edward III we meet good Queen Philippa.  Her virtue and beauty have so strong an influence that, when Edward sees her features mirrored in their son’s face, he is instantly released from his overpowering infatuation with the Countess of Warwick.

Philippa accompanies him to the battlefields of France, and it is her pleading which saves the brave burghers of Calais from Edward’s vengeance.

In real life she did indeed follow him on all his travels in England and France, and bore him many children, including Edward the Black Prince, father of Richard II, and several other sons who became the influential uncles in Richard’s life.

Richard II was Edward’s grandson.  In Richard II the queen is not even named. She takes no part in state affairs, having only a domestic role.

She is devoted to her husband, calling him “my sweet Richard” and is much distressed when they are parted by his going to Ireland.  Her nervous sense of impending doom is justified by news of Bolingbroke’s arrival back in England, saying “I….have woe to woe, sorrow to sorrow joined.”  This is more strongly expressed when she eavesdrops on the gardeners: “They’ll talk of state, for every one doth so Against a change; woe is forerun with woe.”

She rallies slightly and shows some spirit in scolding the gardeners’ talk of the king’s likely deposition: “….for telling me these news of woe, Pray God the plants thou graft’st may never grow.”

The last we see of her is as she waits for Richard to pass in the street on the way to the Tower.  They take a very tender and loving farewell of each other.

The usurper, Bolingbroke, was crowned Henry IV, and as was noted, the Henry IV plays do not feature a queen.  In fact, the real Henry IV was married twice and managed to sire six children with his first wife, in between all the insurrections and battles.

Henry V also does not have an actual queen, but we meet Princess Katharine of France, who would become Henry’s wife after the events of the play.  Our first glimpse of her shows her learning English with her lady-in-waiting, revealing self-confidence and a youthful sense of fun.

Later, when Henry has reached agreement with the King of France, she faces a fairly business-like courtship.  Henry has told the King that she (Katharine) “is our capital demand, comprised Within the fore-rank of our articles” – referring to the schedule of English stipulations for peace.

Henry tells her: “Take me, take a soldier.”  She resists for some time:  “Is it possible that I sould love de enemy of France?”  “I cannot tell.’  “I do not know.”  “As it sall please de roi, mon pere.”

However, on being assured that her father approves, she softens and eventually yields to his kisses.  It is interesting to note that from there she says not another word!

Henry V died young, and his infant son became Henry VI at a tender age.  The three plays comprising Henry VI  feature probably the most unforgettable queen of them all: Margaret of Anjou.

When her marriage to Henry is arranged she stuns the envoy Suffolk, and then her new husband, with her beauty, but soon reveals her steely ambition and a callous determination to be more than a decorative consort.  She quickly sums up the power structures of the court and deviously plots her way to control.  She takes little trouble to disguise her affair with Suffolk, or to hide her impatient scorn for her gentle husband.

Margaret is devastated when Suffolk is murdered, but her response shows her firm resolve as she tells herself:
“Oft have I heard that grief softens the mind,
And makes it fearful and degenerate;
Think therefore on revenge and cease to weep.”

She becomes a warrior queen, recognising Henry’s lack of martial spirit, and devises strategy and directs action.

Margaret is furious with Henry over his agreement with York about the succession, and shows her devotion to her son:
“Art thou King, and will be forced?  I shame to hear thee speak. Ah, timorous wretch! Thou hast undone thyself, thy son, and me.”

Her treatment of the captive York shows her at her worst, delighting in the death of York’s son.  York’s invective sums up her chilling cruelty:
“O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide!  How couldst thou drain the life-blood of the child  To bid the father wipe his tears withal, And yet be seen to bear a woman’s face?”

As the wars drag on, Margaret becomes the courageous leader, even displaying diplomatic skill when pleading for help from the King of France.  Her valiant spirit shines before the battle of Tewkesbury; she inspires her followers with patriotic zeal, ending her speech:  “Henry, your sovereign, is prisoner to the foe; his state usurp’d……And yonder is the wolf that makes this spoil.  You fight in justice; then, in God’s name, lords, Be valiant, and give signal to the fight.”

Alas, she and her son are captured; she is forced to watch the prince’s murder, lamenting with heartbreaking sincerity.  She exits, cursing the York brothers:  “So come to you and yours, as to this prince!”

Although at the end of Henry VI part 3, King Edward orders that Margaret be returned to France, she reappears in Richard III, still resentful and insisting on her right to be England’s queen.  She seems the personification of hatred, completely obsessed with the reversals of her fortunes, and shows startling imagination in the range of insults and curses she flings at Richard.  Even in Henry VI she called Richard:  “…a foul mis-shapen stigmatic, Mark’d by the destinies to be avoided, As venom toads, or lizard’s dreadful stings.”  And so in the later play she adds:  bottled spider; hell-hound; cacodemon; elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog.  Among her curses: “The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul!  Thy friends suspect for traitors while thou livest, And take deep traitors for thy dearest friends.”

As Hastings comments: “My hair doth stand on end to hear her curses.”

She “lurks” (to use her own word) about the court, to observe the workings of fate on her enemies and she finds grim satisfaction in Queen Elizabeth’s grief for her young sons:
“Plantagenet doth quit Plantagenet,
Edward for Edward pays a dying debt.”

After metaphorically placing all her woes on Queen Elizabeth, she finally resolves to leave all behind and return to France:
“Now thy proud neck bears half my burthen’d yoke;
From which even here I slip my weary neck,
And leave the burthen of it all on thee.
Farewell, York’s wife, and queen of sad mischance:
These English woes will make me smile in France.”

Margaret is such a powerful character that one can almost overlook poor Queen Elizabeth, widow of Edward IV, and a third queen, Anne.  Anne was the widow of Henry VI’s son and inexplicably agrees to marry Richard.  She soon has reason to feel regret and shame.

The last play is Henry VIII, where we meet Queen Katharine of Aragon, a noble and dignified woman, concerned for justice both in government and in her own claims.  She pleads her case against divorce strongly, but continues to be loyal to Henry and accepts her fate with resignation.

Anne Boleyn, artist unknown (courtesy Wikipedia)
Katharine is supplanted by Anne Bullen, a lady who enjoys a party, and whose beauty soon catches the king’s attention.  She expresses sympathy with Katharine’s plight, but clearly does not convince her interlocutor, and shows secret pleasure in her predecessor’s downfall.
We do not see her coronation, but her appearance and behaviour are described by onlookers most admiringly.

This is hardly surprising, given that she was the mother of the real-life Elizabeth I, ruler of England for the greater part of Shakespeare’s life.  Writers had to be careful, even if the play was written after Elizabeth’s death.

I have enjoyed this little excursion through the history plays.  It has given me a different way of looking at the works, and the chance to think about characters who might not otherwise attract so much of my attention.

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.