Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Film review: National Theatre's Hamlet

Frances Dharmalingham, our president, saw this film recently in Perth. Here's her report:

I have lost count of the number of Hamlets I have seen and enjoyed, but the 2010 National Theatre production, screened last weekend, was one of the very best.

An interview with the director, Nicholas Hytner, preceded the performance.  He mentioned the totalitarian regime of Elizabeth I in which her spymaster, Walsingham, kept control through a pervasive spy network, and he then pursued the idea with reference to modern all-embracing surveillance techniques.  This theme was clear in the production, with security guards, walkie-talkies, cameras and shadowy figures half-seen by open doors or through murky windows:  throughout, a sense was established that speakers might at any time be overheard and reported to their disadvantage.

The play began with the almost unbearably loud sound of a jet plane taking off and flying away into the distance, a sound which punctuated the performance.  It was surprisingly threatening, serving to underline the fact that Denmark was on a war footing and this was further strengthened immediately with the midnight scenes on the battlements – so cold, so nervy, awaiting the arrival of an inexplicable phenomenon.

The ghost’s entrance was quiet, difficult to see.  At times the clever lighting made him appear almost transparent.  There were no melodramatic sound effects, no sepulchral echo, none of the usual 'ghostly' details.  This was a dead king who felt great anger and hurt not only at what had been done to him, but also because the crime was unrecognised and the perpetrator unpunished.  He spoke with complete realism and it was therefore the more believable that Hamlet should accept the whole incident as real. (Although, of course, he questions it in retrospect.)

Rory Kinnear in rehearsals for Hamlet at the National Photograph: Johan Persson
Hamlet was played by Rory Kinnear, whose powerful Iago I had seen only recently.  It is hard to imagine two characters more different, so I was looking forward to seeing his interpretation.  Hamlet seemed to me a terribly unhappy young man, not given the chance to mourn his dead father, feeling manipulated and not seriously respected at court, and verging dangerously close to clinical depression by the time Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrived.  The soliloquies were truly Hamlet’s thoughts.  We could see them working in his face, and the words, although perfectly audible, seemed almost projected from his mind to ours.  Kinnear’s technical virtuosity was admirable, but never intrusive.

All the characters were interesting and plausible.  Polonius, for example, was not the usual senile dodderer who would long since have been pensioned off.  He was of course annoyingly verbose, but still an experienced senior official.  Just occasionally he came to an abrupt halt, lost the track and floundered for a moment suggesting perhaps the onset of age-related dementia, which was far more believable than the sort of ‘lean and slippered pantaloon’ often portrayed.  The comedy inherent in his early scenes was gently brought out too.

Claudius really was a smiling villain, a full-time politician always aware of the media and his audience.  This was particularly emphasised in his soliloquy after the play, in which he tries to balance remorse for his crime with retaining the benefits of the crime.  I had always viewed this speech as the one time Claudius was sincerely wrestling with his conscience, but this Claudius had no conscience, apparently.  His words were rather like a rehearsal; there was an imagined audience, almost an imagined microphone and camera, as if he could not break the habits of a lifetime, and when he knelt to pray one knew very well that his attempt could not possibly succeed.

Gertrude was a middle-aged sexpot – very curvaceous, wearing clothes just too tight for good taste and a hair- style just a little too unkempt for the wife of a national leader.  The strain of events began to show as she drank increasingly recklessly, and this culminated in a clever touch of insolence as she defied Claudius and drank from the poisoned goblet.  Her great scene attempting to upbraid her son was remarkable for the extremes of mood displayed by both characters, from desperate sadness, to anger, to horror, and finally an extraordinary burst of hysterical laughter, quickly supressed, as Hamlet joked while dragging out Polonius’ body.

It was interesting to note that the visiting players really did take note of Hamlet’s instructions.  After the stylised, balletic dumb-show, The Mousetrap was performed without histrionics, simple and realistic.

Laertes’ attempted rebellion and the rapid movement of events to the finale proceeded with admirable clarity, though Laertes himself was less impressive than one might have wished.  His voice was hoarse and speech not always clear, suggesting that perhaps he had a cold, obviously a problem when a live performance is filmed.  However, he acquitted himself well in the final duel, which was staged quite simply but, after the unexpected cut, with convincing ferocity.

It must be difficult when speeches are very well-known for an actor to avoid triteness, but Horatio spoke his farewell lines to Hamlet with such natural sincerity as to be genuinely moving.  The arrival of Fortinbras and the English ambassadors could have been an anti-climax after such strong emotion but they served to bring the action to a dignified and respectful conclusion.  As the lights dimmed we heard, appropriately, the last jet plane take off and fly away, fading to silence.

The whole performance was marked by very fine acting and meticulous attention to the text, down to the subtlest nuance.  There was of course plenty of action, and it always arose from the text -- no distracting extraneous flamboyance; no leaping from balconies during the duel; no carrying the corpse cruciform and shoulder-high, even though we knew the body would be borne to the stage later.  Even Polonius and Claudius were dispatched with the minimum of fuss, but absolutely in accordance with the script.  The actors' intensity created for the audience a real sense of what Aristotle must have meant by catharsis.  An added bonus is that such a minute examination of such a well-known play leaves me with so many details to ponder for a long time.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Oxfordian viewpoint

It seems that every year, more candidates for the True Identity of William Shakespeare are put forward Over 80 names have been suggested overall, with some of the more popular ones including Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Henry Wriothesley (the 3rd Earl of Southampton) and  Edward de Vere (Earl of Oxford).

The last-named (pic from Wikipedia at left) is one of the most well-supported, and one of his keen advocates, Alan Tarica, has written a commentary on the sonnets. Read in reverse order, they suggest a case for Oxford's authorship of the Shakepearean oeuvre at least as convincing as any other bardic conspiracy theory.

One might wonder why it's necessary to find another author - after all, the plays and poems were written so long ago that surely we might as well just enjoy them and not worry about who wrote them (and anyway, a pretty good case can be made for Will, the glover's son from Stratford-upon-Avon!) but each new theory brings with it food for thought and some interesting academic wranglings.

If you'd like to  check out Alan Tarica's case for the Oxfordian standpoint and his take on the sonnets, go to - it's a slow job, though, as you have to click on each sonnet (the case is based on reading them in reverse order) to study Tarica's commentary.

Have fun!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Othello film in Perth - a review

Frances, our Fearless Leader, braved Perth's unseasonable weather recently to see the National Theatre’s production of Othello. Here is her take on the film.

The National Theatre’s Othello (shown on film last weekend) was the finest Shakespearean production I have seen in a completely modern interpretation (though I think Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus runs it close). Despite a completely faithful adherence to the script, there was not one jarring note or anachronism.

In a brief interview before curtain-up, the director explained that he wanted the cast to be able to speak as in the present, and indeed the performers made the text their own with never a false step.

The leading men – Adrian Lester as Othello and Rory Kinnear as Iago – were stunning, and were strongly supported by the entire cast. Iago burst on to the first scene already brim full of festering fury and jealousy, and this intensity was sustained throughout as the dreadful course of his revenge unfolded. Not only his stance and facial expression, but even his manner of speech brought to mind the old clich├ęs of ‘coiled spring ‘ and ‘lighted fuse ‘, as he spoke with explosive force, outlining the grounds for his hatred. Othello appeared before the Venetian Senate calm and self-confident with an impressive dignity, clearly a man whose history gave him every reason to feel justifiably proud and to face anyone on equal terms. To watch his gradual destruction was desperately sad.

The two worked superbly together, and the long and difficult pivotal scene (Act 3 iii) in which Iago convinces Othello of his wife’s treachery was enthralling. This was no easy victory: Othello fought all the way not to believe, while Iago played him and reeled him in, and finally delivered the coup de grace.

The women were, as the director said, feisty, and Desdemona did not die without a fierce struggle. Emilia, played as a serving soldier, also exhibited an independent spirit and, when she finally realised Iago’s full guilt, railed against him powerfully.

The most admirable feature of this performance, for me, was the actors’ skilful delivery of the spoken word. Every phrase was thought through and meaningful, every subtlety fully explored and the emotional content modulated masterfully to support and extend the meaning of the words. Sometimes very well-known speeches or phrases can be too familiar to a listener, but here every thought was freshly examined; so, Othello’s famous description of his wooing was lightly handled, not weighed down unnaturally by the amazing imagery. Again, his self-pitying speech of farewell – to the plumed troops, the shrill trump, etc. – was no ‘set piece ‘ but a revelation of Othello’s whole past. Even ‘one that lov’d not wisely, but too well ‘ was re-examined. Altogether, every performer’s delivery allowed a listener to hear the play as if for the first time. They had taken the script and made it, and the characters, their own.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Arr n Jay

This Saturday we start reading Romeo and Juliet. I've been with the club ten years, and this must be the third or fourth time since I joined we've read this ever-popular script. There's a new role for me this time. I'm usually one of the parents - or my favourite part, the nurse - but this time I'm going to be Friar Lawrence, whom I don't think I've played since I was at university. And that was decades ago!

Our playleader, Roy, hasn't let on who is reading each part, so it will be a bit of a surprise party. We'll take two meetings over the reading, and I'm hoping there will be time for discussion before we start and after we finish. We are all reasonably knowledgeable about the Bard's oeuvre, of course, but each reading brings new insights and reports on new research. That's one of the beauties of Shakespeare - there is always more to learn about different ways of interpreting the plays. Check out Jenny's post on Different ways of reading Othello for a taste of the amazing variety of thought on just one play!

One of my favourite renditons of R and J is the 1968 film of Franco Zeffirelli, for which he selected one of the best-looking casts imaginable! The young couple, played by Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, were not only lovely to watch but skilled enough to give touchingly realistic renditions of their characters. The other teenagers were equally convincing: John McEnery was a lively and loveable Mercutio who died with a laugh on his lips. I had a personal interest in the nurse, as Pat Heywood, who played the role, was a schoolmate of one of my older sisters.

We have a few young people in the club at long last, so I'll be interested to see who Roy has cast in the leads!

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Taming of the Shrew (Film review)

Frances, our president, went to see the film of the Globe's The Taming of the Shrew last Sunday. Here is her take on the production.

I went with a friend to see The Taming of the Shrew. She had not seen a performance before, but had read the script, and expressed alarm at its lack of political correctness.

This Globe production was wonderfully funny, with abundant physical and verbal comedy in the first half, but the laughs faded somewhat after the interval as Kate’s torture proceeded, though Grumio still provided some delightful humour with his dead-pan delivery.

By the end, of course, the mood was considerably lightened with an amusing turn of the tables as Bianca and the widow showed their true natures to their new husbands, contrasting with the sweet harmony exhibited by Kate and Petruchio.

Afterwards my friend and I compared notes. Even while admitting great admiration for the acting and staging of the whole play, she remained concerned that Kate had been browbeaten into subjugation and was not happy. I saw it rather differently. For me, Kate had won. The balance of power began to shift after the tailor’s visit, and Kate’s strategy seemed clear on the road back to Padua. She agreed calmly to Petruchio’s absurd quibble about the sun and moon, and when Vincentio appeared she had obviously decided to press Petruchio’s tricks to their ridiculous extremes, triumphantly obliging him to rescue her from the silly situation he had created. Petruchio’s behaviour from then on became steadily more reasonable and they created a charming sense of a growing and warm mutual affection.

 In the final scene we have Kate’s problematic description of the conduct proper to a wife. Taken at face value, it’s enough to make any self-respecting woman of the 21st century see red, and my friend was righteously indignant. However, I felt that Kate gave the words a subtle but definite touch of irony, enough to suggest that this was an effective recipe for matrimonial comfort without implying total surrender of the woman’s autonomy. At the end, as she knelt submissively, Petruchio knelt too, and the play concluded with their joyful embrace and happy exit. This suggested to me that they were set on a path of mutual respect and equality, and it was very clear that the future of the other couples would not be nearly so rosy.

By starting the play with the full Induction scene, the director found another way to take the sting out of the gender war. The whole story became a play (within the play) to entertain the drunken Christopher Sly, so setting the action at one remove further from reality. In addition the same actor played both Sly and Petruchio, giving the story a sense of its being merely Sly’s imaginings.

By chance I heard a news item after returning home, which made me think again about Kate’s (and Bianca’s) situation at the beginning of the play. A very young girl from the Yemen had put out a plea, via YouTube I think, for her rights to her own childhood, and an education, and the right not to be married to a man chosen by her elders before she was even in her teens. She was eloquent and brave, and for me provided an interesting counterpoint to the situation depicted in the play, which must have been taken for granted by audiences for most of the play’s life.

Director: Joe Murphy
Running time: 180 mins
Stars: Remy Beasley, Becci Gemmell, Kathryn Hunt, Kate Lamb, Olivia Morgan, Joy Richardson, Nicola Sangster, Leah Whitaker

Saturday, July 6, 2013

A guest post from the Ashland Festival

We have a guest blogger: Jeff Burdick, a fellow Shakespeare-lover from California. Jeff loves to go to the famous Ashland Festival. Here is his take on the Shakespeare plays he saw this season. (He saw four other plays as well, so it must have been a seriously busy six-days!) I have left Jeff’s American spelling intact. And, I should add, I am green with envy. Just imagine living close enough to visit Ashford, Oregon, with Shakespeare playing ten months of the year!
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival
The Festival has been going on for many years and long ago branched beyond Shakespeare, though his plays remain the heart of the season, which stretches through 10 months of the year. The height of the season, when most of the plays are playing in cycles, is summer. For about three weeks during the summer, they are producing nine or ten of their annual offerings at the same time. That’s when I go: I watched eight plays in six days.
The festival takes places in a small town of about 20,000 people (many of them stretched out over the rural hills and valleys of the Rogue section of Oregon) so they depend on pilgrims from all over the country to fill the seats. They have three theaters: The Thomas, which is a fairly new black-box theater, the Bowman, which seats 600+ in a traditional proscenium theater, and the Elizabethan, which is patterned on an original Elizabethan stage, including being open to the elements (Rain is common during the summer in Ashland, so patrons come ready to huddle under hoods and plastic blankets).
The actors are professional equity union members, though they are augmented with volunteer community members for 'spear carriers'. It is not at all uncommon to have actors who have appeared on Broadway in the plays. In short, this is not amateur work.
The town of Ashland is exactly what one would hope for: a small town with art galleries, book stores, and walkable streets. Actors and directors are spotted on the sidewalks eating ice cream cones and drinking coffee. It is a friendly place, and it boasts one of the prettiest downtown parks I’ve seen (about 90 acres or 46.5 hectares).
You can visit for more information about the festival. 

I've read it on a few occasions with very little comprehension. It is a weird mess on the page: beheadings and morally questionable decisions (would young Posthumous really wager his wife's virginity?), betrayals, four different nationalities, gods who seem to be quite active (and perhaps ineffective?), the usual boy actor (in this case played by a girl) impersonating a girl impersonating a boy, the lost heirs to the throne, the rash 'father' who is really a loyal subject of the real father, the King, and it goes on and on. 

This weird mess became untangled on stage (my first production). The moral problems do not evaporate – in fact, they appear more rash, more unpredictable, more unreasonable than they do on stage. But the cohesiveness of the story was much more obvious.
Posthumouss parents were introduced through songs, sort of ghostly presences that helped tell the story.

Daniel Molena, the Romeo of last year, did not quite fit his role as Posthumous, partly because he is slight and nearly everyone (outside of Imogen) was very large.  He looked like a boy (as she looked like a girl) in a world where he must be a man. The Imogen was spectacular both as a heroine and as a comic when needed. It is, after all, a comedy along with all else it is. 

What struck me about this play is something I've thought about several times regarding Shakespeare's late plays. The moral ambiguities get worse and the events become quite unhinged in several cases (Tempest for another example). Rash behaviors are commonplace. Cruelty is too often a momentary reaction that reveals frustration rather than a cruel nature (one cannot really call Posthumous cruel, though he strikes out at the slightest provocation). But what saves the plays from this period are two things: (1) the disclosure of who and what things and people really are: we discover that the boy is a girl, that the wild Welshmen are the heirs, that the glozing Italian is petty trickster; and (2) forgiveness takes the place of grace. Or forgiveness is grace. Forgiveness is seen as the greatest force in the world, even beyond love and divine intervention. Here, when Posthumous allows the trickster to live (when he has no reason to do it), he gains strength and says that he does gain strength. Forgiveness, even when not required or earned, is the grace that puts things right and allows the future to happen.

Jack Willis as King Lear
King Lear
It is the next day noon, and I am still trying to decide whether I liked the production last night. The first thing is that modern dress hurts Lear in a way that it doesn't hurt most of the other plays. We must believe that Lear is god-like, that he is divinely ordained to his position, that he is powerful in politics and in his person. But when he walks in and is wearing a business suit and when his changes are into fishing gear and then rags, we don't see the King that we must see in order for this play to work. So, one strike against.

The characters, especially the fool, the bastard, Cordelia, Kent and Gloucester were remarkably done. Edgar was uneven, but very good. He was hampered, I think, by being nearly naked through much of the play as Tom. It wasn't that he was self-conscious – he wasn't – but that the audience – or at least I – was trying not to notice what was right in front of us. The fool, an Asian kid with duct tape to fix everything was too clingy (bad direction) but utterly winning – poking holes in the king's folly with great enthusiasm and real concern.

Why didn't Shakespeare give Cordelia a lot more to do?? She is as strong as a punk chick in the first scene, returns as a strong warrior at the end – but we needed so much more of her. Don't I remember that she had a scene (s?) in France while she reacts to news? Must look that up.

[Nope: I guess I just hoped that S had written a scene in France for Cordelia. A creative memory isn’t the best attribute to have. The play would have been better if S had simply listened to me.]

Lear is being played by two actors, alternating. I saw the one that has the reputation of being less likeable. I won't be seeing the other so can't make that comparison. He was dynamic, perhaps too weepy too soon. But a fine actor.

A huge iron fence across the stage was off putting. It placed a barrier that seemed (oddly) to restrict our hearing for those on the other side. Certainly it hurt the blocking and sight lines. The odd scenes after the war with burned out furniture (that no one noticed?) strewn across the floor. A huge iron wreck suspended from the ceiling (perhaps the post-war remnants of that ridiculous fence?)

The bastard in the early scenes was perfect; in the later ones, not quite as focused. The two sisters, frequently drinking (and for good reason), one as a horsey type with riding gear, the other one a princess with flowing hair and clicky high heels – good differentiation. The husbands not so grand. Too old for the women, too ineffectual as men. Odd. As was the husband for Cordelia, who looked older than King Lear, but mercifully stayed away once he had claimed her as wife.

What was so important for me on this production was the intensity. I literally stayed up until after 1:00 in the morning, letting the tension drain a bit before i could sleep. The bodies were all around us. The actors were within a few feet. The fool’s first scene was from an audience seat directly behind me: he’d been planted before the play started and sounded like a heckler. A thrown drink splashed my face. Stage "spray" was evident. This is such a huge play that placing it in this small space made it almost too immediate. The tension was high because the stakes for the audience were high – we were living this.

Which brings me back to the contemporary dress issue. When a car alarm goes off, when an intercom buzzes, etc., we laugh. The comedy in Lear is deadly serious, and must be: it is the fool's role to make us laugh with insight. The domestic laughs relieve tension. But the car alarm "jokes" drag us out of the play with cheap laughs that accomplish only a laugh.
I won't soon forget this production and probably won't read the play without remembering the delivery of specific lines and scenes. But I didn't love it. 

The Taming of the Shrew.
The earliest of the comedies, and a total and complete joy. Silliness, a compact plot that fit easily in two hours. An inspired and completely silly cast played this to the hilt. Sited at a 'Coney Island' beach carnival in Italy. It is impossible not to like this play. Kate was far more fiery than usual, with an attitude that seemed impenetrable. All of the actors were spot on. 

The most important thing here was the finessing of the misogyny that is so evident at the end. Kate capitulates totally, giving in to her husband, her lord and master, giving up everything she is. But what the director did here was brilliant. Petruccio, listening to her speech, realizes what she is giving up for love, and he, accepting the resignation, resigns to be with her. As she kneels to him, he kneels to her. It really was a transforming pantomime, and it felt exactly right. 

Two hilarious hours. 

A Midsummer Night's Dream
I almost regret booking this one, but I had the evening free and didn't want to pass up anything I could see. So, here's hoping this evening's performance will be as original as My Fair Lady's. 

I must mention the set. The same set is used for Cymbeline, Robin Hood (which I did not see) and A Midsummer Night's Dream. It is, without doubt, the ugliest set I’ve seen at Ashland in two years. The stage is nearly swallowed by six huge columns that stray off in random directions and, apparently, are there for no reason at all. The center of the stage is dominated by a two story construction that leaves a deep cave in the middle so the people off to the side of the theater must certainly miss a great deal of the action. I was fortunate to have center row seats for these plays so I could see. There are trees and trellises and vines and mushrooms all over the place. The result is a small apron where much of the action takes place and a variety of places where things happen with a great deal of climbing about. Since this is already an Elizabethan theater with various windows and openings, the whole thing is redundant nonsense. A bare stage would have been preferable. 

As usual with 'Midsummer', I go in thinking I can’t stand another production and then laugh myself silly throughout the evening. This was conventionally done except the time period: a 1964 graduation ceremony from a Catholic high school is the jumping off spot. Delightful ensemble acting. Silly opening with Theseus and Hippolyta represented by a priest and nun who are planning marriage! 

The only let down was Puck, whose character seems to have been some sort of afterthought by the director. She (Puck is a sprite who is decidedly male but frequently played by a female) starts off as a sort of lady in waiting in formal court dress, then changes into ... rags, I guess is the best description, with colored pieces of cloth hanging off her, in an attempt to look fairy like, perhaps? The overall effect was young bag lady. Her energy was varied. Her voice was grating and hard to understand (the only actor I had trouble hearing and understanding during the entire week), and she was neither of the things that Puck frequently is: a bit menacing or totally delightful with mischief. She waivered and never found a center.

The mechanicals stole the show, as usual. This time, they were the gym teacher, the lunch lady, the janitor, etc. from the high school. “Wall” was the lunch lady, decked out in strainers for her bra and lunch trays arrayed around her body and hanging from her arms. A hilarious site gag. But more important was these characters threw themselves into their roles entirely, believing in their play. 

Pyramus, the gym teacher, is inspired. His deaths (I think there were 8 or 9 alternate deaths) were hilarious and played directly to the audience. But what Shakespeare does – and what these actors made real – is use language to do exactly what he wants to accomplish. When, finally Pyramus is dead for the final time, Thisbee, an extremely tall and skinny Ichabod Crane type who is now dressed in drag, whispers her goodbyes to her friend, and in one second the audience moves from chaotic laughter to sentimental tears.

Turned on a dime. Amazing work. A thoroughly enjoyable evening

About Me
I am a college English instructor. I focus on Freshman composition, critical thinking, and literature in a small community college in the California central valley. I am also president of our Academic Senate, chair of our Honors program, and a leader of our Student Success program. The notes are simply my aide-memoire, not formal reviews or critiques. They were written in most cases the morning after the performances and then revised and augmented after returning home, after I had had a chance to think more deeply about the plays. They, in short, are not polished productions, but personal 'diary' entries.

Satima and I have been Facebook friends for many years, and I’m flattered that she asked to place my notes on your blog. I am happy to share them. I am happy to answer questions.