Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Henry as you've never seen him

John Bell (Falstaff) with Matthew Moore (Prince Hal)

Bell Shakespeare kicks off 2013 with an exciting new production of Henry 4, directed by and starring Co-Artistic Director John Bell as Falstaff. Bell is, of course, famous for other roles and especially for his directing skills, but this is the first time he’s played Falstaff.

This is John Bell’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts One and Two, meshed into one play, Henry 4. Set in the present day and inspired by the 2011 London Riots, this new production of Henry 4 presents a fresh Australian perspective on English history and culture, with its monarchy, class system and civil unrest.

The story has two main plots that intertwine: the first follows the strained relationship between a rebellious son and an autocratic, domineering father; the second concerns the revolt being plotted against King Henry by a dissatisfied power bloc.

Henry Bolingbroke has fought to usurp the throne of his cousin Richard II, but when he assumes the title of King Henry IV, his teenage son, Prince Hal, shows a particular disregard for his newfound status. He prefers to spend his time in pubs with petty criminals and prostitutes, and with an old reprobate named Falstaff. It is only when a rebellion is staged against the new king that the teenage rebel, Prince Hal, rallies to his father’s side and transforms himself into the charismatic hero who becomes Henry V.

Co-Artistic Director John Bell directs this epic tale as well as fulfilling a lifelong ambition of playing Shakespeare’s greatest comic role, Falstaff. ‘The Lord of Misrule, the life of the party, the corruptor of youth, Falstaff has a gargantuan capacity for enjoying life and a rather pathetic naivetĂ©. His is a nature without malice. He charms us with his lively wit, his mighty intelligence and healthy scepticism. It’s a role I’m looking forward to finally tackling,’ says Bell.

Assisting him in directing the play is Damien Ryan, a familiar face at Bell Shakespeare. Ryan is also Artistic Director of his own Company, Sport for Jove.

John Bell will be joined by 13 of Australia’s finest actors in bringing to life this populous story of kings and beggars, heroes and cowards, lovers and clowns. David Whitney, well-known across musical and classic theatre, will play King Henry IV and Matthew Moore, an Australian favourite across theatre, stage and film, will play Prince Hal.

The superb cast also includes Terry Bader, Jason Klarwein, Ben Wood, Nathan Lovejoy, Yalin Ozucelik, Felix Jozeps, Sean O’Shea, Arky Michael, Tony Llewellyn-Jones, Wendy Strehlow and Matilda Ridgway.

Designer Stephen Curtis will capture the world of Henry 4 in a modern-day set of industrial grit and grime. Costumes fall into five sectors; the court represents the big end of town; the rebels are reminiscent of union bosses; the hapless recruits are drawn from a regional football team and the pub habituĂ©s have a distinct bikie gang flavour! Curtis’s work is complemented by that of composer Kelly Ryall and that of lighting designer Matt Scott.

If you live in Perth, you can catch Henry 4 at the State Theatre from Friday 5 to Saturday 13 April 2013 at 7.30PM.  There are matinees on 6 & 13 April, at 1.00PM. (Captioned: Wednesday 10 April, 7.30PM / Audio Described: Saturday 13 April, 1.00PM.)

Book through the State Theatre Centre on 6212 9200 or via SWABox@stcwa.aegogodenperth.com.au.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Our President meets Two Gentlemen!

Two Gents Productions presents Vakomana Vaviri Ve Zimbabwe or Two Gentlemen of Verona, by William Shakespeare
Directed by Arne Pohlmeier
Performed by Denton Chikura and Tonderai Munyevu From Verona to Milan, via Harare and Bulawayo, Vakomana Vaviri Ve Zimbabwe takes one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies and transforms it into a two-man Zimbabwean riot of love, friendship and betrayal.
Check out their website at http://www.twogentsproductions.com/shows/vakomana-vaviri-ve-zimbabwe 

Our President, Frances, recently went to see this most unusual take on Two Gentlemen of Verona. She gives us her impressions below.

BTW, don’t forget it’s our AGM next Saturday – 2.00PM at the WA State Library.


Last week I attended a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which has remained vividly in my mind since. I knew, of course, that it would be rather different from other possible productions, because there were to be only two performers, both male, Denton Chikura and Tonderai Munyevu from Zimbabwe, now based in England, known appropriately as “Two Gents.”

As I drove to the New Fortune Theatre I wondered how so few would cope with thirteen or more speaking parts, three of them women, and the band of outlaws. And then, what about the dog? (Yes – one of the actors played the dog, delightfully and convincingly!) Some characters were omitted: the three servants became one, and there was no Thurio or Host. However the actors still had to portray several characters apiece, and keep them all clearly delineated in the minds of the onlookers. This they did magnificently, thanks almost entirely to their extraordinary skills, both vocal and physical; and with the help of minimal props: a length of fabric slung round the hips for Julia, a long white satin evening glove for Silvia, a cloth wound round the head for Lucetta. The minor men were identified by their various hats or a diagonal sash (this also for Julia when in disguise as a man), while Valentine had bright scarlet braces, and Proteus merely needed to flick up the back of his shirt collar and adopt his swagger.

Naturally the main focus was on the two Gentlemen. Chikura, tall and big-built, played Valentine as gentle and faithful, while Manyevu, shorter and slight, showed Proteus to be supremely self-confident, fickle and happily conscious of his own undeniable charm. As I have said, all the characters were unmistakably differentiated, by voice, speaking style, bearing, but one in particular was outstanding: Manyevu’s portrayal of Lucetta. This was no quiet lady’s maid from an urban Renaissance household, but a feisty Zimbabwean maid-of-all-work with a mind of her own, but devoted to her mistress. The female characters were all beautifully observed and subtly nuanced.

The script was radically cut, and lyrical and romantic lines were pared to the bone. This was to be a comic performance and indeed scene after scene was wildly funny. I had never realised how truly comic this play could be. Shakespeare’s own lines were kept to a minimum, and the actors improvised freely (with no attempt at blank verse!), often addressing the audience, or individual members, directly. The play was introduced with almost the suggestion of a formal prologue, to explain the plot and define the characters, with each line delivered with admirable clarity by Chikura and immediately translated into Shona by Munyeva. This was rather a shock, but as the action proceeded, the Shona language was freely incorporated into the dialogue in such a way that it mattered not the slightest that we (the onlookers) did not speak it. The actors’ body language was enough and all was perfectly clear. About half way through “Proteus” helpfully gave us a summary of the plot to date, in case we were confused, which only added to the hilarity. But in fact nobody should have been bewildered, as the two performers established and maintained their separate characterisations with confidence and subtlety. The performance was interspersed with exhilarating African-based singing and dancing, which served most effectively to intensify the emotional tone of crucial scenes.

Among the many delicious comedy sequences, several stand out. I have always enjoyed the scene of the servant Launce (though here called Speed) and his dog, Crab, and was not disappointed. Munyevu on his hands and knees “stood” panting and rolling his eyes until we were quite able to believe we saw a rather unintelligent dog there, and Chikura as Speed complained bitterly, drawing in audience members to help in providing the illustrative shoes, and the moans of his sister. Julia’s learning to walk and talk as a man, under Lucetta’s expert direction, was another delight. Silvia’s plan to flee to the forest provided possibly the funniest episode of the evening. Her admirer, Eglamour, became a taxi-driver; the cabin trunk, which throughout served as whatever furniture was needed, was set down open on the floor; and the two actors crammed in, Sir Eglamour in front as the driver, and Silvia behind. We watched as this ramshackle taxi flew like the wind over bumpy roads, round hairpin bends and over sudden humps. Again I would happily have said that I saw it!

There was a brief interval before the much shorter second half, which began with Valentine’s election as leader of the outlaws. Here there was clever use of audience members, as puppets, to provide the necessary extras. As the action moved towards the strange and potentially distressing climax of the attempted rape of Silvia by Proteus the pace slowed, and the difficulties inherent in (at least) four characters being played by two actors became apparent. The rhythm became choppy, with some unavoidable breaks as speakers changed roles. The attack itself was dealt with by a sudden freeze in the action, and silence. While accepting that it was probably the only way the two male performers could handle the scene, I was conscious of a loss of intensity. However, the hiatus served as a transition to the markedly changed mood of the conclusion. Valentine’s line: “the gift hath made me happy” was heartbreakingly ironic, as were the final phrases: “one house, one mutual happiness” as it seemed only too clear that the future for these two couples would be anything but rosy.

For me the most significant feature of this production was the glimpse of how readers or audience might respond to Shakespeare when they are almost completely removed from the context in which the plays were written. Of course we are all removed in time (400 years) and we all have varying levels of knowledge and/or understanding of Shakespeare’s social and historical setting, but these two players presented the work as it would be seen by 21st century Zimbabweans who had not left their own country.

I was happy also that this was one of the 37 plays in 37 languages which comprised “Globe to Globe” in 2012, at the Globe Theatre, and that we in Perth had a tiny glimpse of that astounding undertaking.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Different Readings of Othello

A former Member of our Club, Jenny Hines, prepared a talk on Othello to accompany our reading of the play, back in May 2011. Jenny, who now lives in England (their gain, our loss!) was kind enough to send the text of her talk for the blog. Jenny had done a considerable amount of research, and here is what she had to say:
I was particularly struck, when doing my research for this little presentation of Othello, at the divergent views of the so-called Critics — you wouldn’t think they had read the same text! I got the impression that anyone who reads or sees Othello performed can respond any which way they want, and make up their own minds about the characters.

So I decided I would like to examine more closely how critics have dealt with Othello down the years and what readings we could look at. Some of the recorded negative responses go back as early as 1693, when Thomas Rymer picked up on what he saw as the improbabilities and absurdities; he says ‘Nothing is more odious in nature than an improbable lie and certainly never was any play fraught like Othello with improbabilities. What moral construction can we make out of this Catastrophe?’ In more modern times of course, the psychologists and avowed feminists have had a go at it: a certain Joel Fineman referring to ‘its ambiguously misogynist jealousy’ while both TS Eliot and WH Auden have difficulties with the idea of the Moor as a tragic hero. Eliot believes Othello fails to understand at the end what he has really done, that he is in fact still pathetically deluded rather than in the last agonies of a noble and erring nature. Auden, I think, is particularly perceptive in his analysis: in his 1963 work “The Joker in the Pack”, he writes “If Othello is a tragedy—  and one certainly cannot call it a comedy —  it is a tragedy in a peculiar way. In most tragedies the fall of the hero from glory to misery and death is the work, either of the gods, or of his own freely chosen acts, or more commonly, a mixture of both. But the fall of Othello is the work of another human being; nothing he says or does originates with himself. In consequence, we feel pity for him but no respect; our aesthetic respect is reserved for Iago. That’s interesting! (I’m not sure I respect Iago in any way, aesthetic or otherwise!)

If we ignore the inherited tradition of the mediaeval dramas and the social mores of the Shakespeare’s time, then I think the feminist reading has some plausability; Iago hates women, despises his wife, slanders women in general.  As he sets the whole sorry saga in motion, he knows full well that Desdemona will be the victim and actually suggests the form of her death, and then goes on to murder his own wife. Othello, on the other hand, doesn’t hate women (he seems genuinely in love with his wife and loath to believe in her infidelity almost to the end) but he assumes that she is his property, just as her own father Brabantio, had assumed Desdemona was his until marriage. The penalty on the woman who is unfaithful is an unquestioning speedy death penalty, with no trial, and no hint that this isn’t the right course of action. Here we do have to acknowledge the established patriarchal society and even if Shakespeare is questioning the institution of marriage himself, the play is seen by many feminists to be a case study of systemic abuse of women. Both Desdemona and Emilia acknowledge they are bound to obey and serve their husbands and are both killed by them. (In fact, it’s ironical that 400 years later some women still include those words to’ honour and obey’ in their marriage vows!) Is this a warning to women not trust men?

So then, we are left with the majority view, that this is a very great play, for the beauty of the language and the imagery; for its classical simplicity, whereby almost every scene is relevant to the central issue, needing no justification; and of course for its moral beauty directly opposed to what we can only call the evil of Iago’s thoughts and actions.

Finally, that leaves us with all the conflicting readings of the main characters and their strengths and their flaws. There isn’t time here for me to go into the multiplicity of opinions that have been recorded; suffice it to say that Desdemona is variously lauded for her pure and innocent love, her courage in defying her father and in remaining faithful to Othello; and yet panned for her passivity, her foolishness over the handkerchief in particular, her whimsicality which shuns realism, and her delusion in putting Othello on a pedestal , continuing to believe him a noble hero.

Iago is the tricky one, ideas ranging from demi-devil, evil personified, to a man who could be excused because he has just cause for grievance, unfairly passed over, a victim of a class conspiracy and neurotically jealous at the thought of being perhaps truly cuckolded by Othello. Whatever position we take, Iago is certainly very clever at changing his personality and his language to suit the occasion and its purposes and it’s difficult to put specific labels on him.

I was pleased to find a comment of high regard from Australia’s own Germaine Greer (always thought-provoking) who reminded us that Shakespeare had taken over traits from the mediaeval morality plays, showing evil working on the protagonist in the form of a Vice. In 1986 she said, ‘… it is futile to demand motivation from the Vice, or reasons for his actions, for the point about evil is that it is absurd, unmotivated and inconsistent. Such a character is Iago, whom generations of critics have struggled to psychoanalyse, without success. His one object is to destroy Othello and he can have no good reason for it. Shakespeare is at pains to show how a certain kind of evil, common enough in truth, is apt to manifest itself.’ I also like Professor John Wain’s reminder of A.C. Bradley’s critique: Professor Wain said ‘To me, Bradley is closer to the heart of the play: he recognizes that the tragedy lies in the assassination of love by non-love. He understands the essential truth about Iago, that  he was less than a complete human being, because love had been left out of his composition, left out so completely that he did not recognize it or suspect its existence. Othello, egotist as he is, unpractised at understanding other people as he is, retains the possibility of development because he knows what it is to love.’

Which brings us neatly to the eponymous hero: is he the Noble Moor, a great man suffering terrible destruction at the hands of another agent, embodying evil? Is he the ultimate romantic, and when you look at his speeches, perhaps more poetic than Hamlet.? Excuses are made for him: Perhaps his faults are good ones, he just lacks experience, and has a passionate nature, which is easy prey to Iago.  On the other hand, critics can see an Othello who is self-glorifying, hasty, blind to common sense, and whose love for Desdemona is possessive and impersonal. He is the outsider, who has the seeds of his own destruction in him, and Iago is really almost incidental, which is certainly a challenging take. Yes, Othello has plenty of faults, with pride perhaps the overriding one, but then we could excuse his hasty judgements and preference for action without real thought, because of his background. Sadly, due to time constraints, I have had to leave out any analysis of Emilia, who is my favourite character: she is hampered by the restricting customs of that male dominated society, and initially defers to Iago (especially over the handkerchief) but by the final Act she is able to encourage Desdemona and assert her own values, albeit still becoming a victim. Look closely at Act V, scene ii, where she finally stands up for what she knows to be right and defies her husband at last; we feel like cheering her on! Looking at other people’s ideas certainly helped me to realize what a rich and complex play Shakespeare made of it from such an unpromising source — but in the end we are free to read it from our own point of view.

Ira Frederick Aldridge (July 24, 1807 – 7 August 1867) was an American and later British stage actor who made his career largely on the London stage and in Europe, especially in Shakespearean roles. He is the only actor of African-American descent among the 33 actors of the English stage honored with bronze plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. He was especially popular in Prussia and Russia, where he received top honours from heads of state. A more complete biography can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ira_Aldridge

The portrait is attributed to James Northcote (1746-1831) and is found on Wikimedia Commons.