Sunday, December 21, 2014

A lively finish to 2014

Kate Dolan as Portia, painted by John Everett Millais (1829–1896)
We brought our program for the year to a close on Saturday with a moved reading, led by our secretary Rosalind. But really, it's all Rob's fault. Rob put together a most scholarly collection of research into the court scene from The Merchant of Venice and laid out the fruits of his labours in our newsletter, Ariel

The court scene has to be one of the most widely performed excerpts from Shakespeare. I checked YouTube to see how many versions had been uploaded, and found over 1700. As a matter of interest, I sought other famous scenes and speeches: Mark Antony's 'Friends, Romans, and countrymen' takes the cake with nearly 40 thousand versions, with Hamlet's soliloquy coming in second at 32,500. (Many of these, of course, would be accounted for by young hopefuls putting up their audition pieces.) The balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet has been uploaded in 24,000 versions, with Hal V's Crispin Crispian speech showing up over 7,500 times, including a couple by pre-schoolers! The Merchant's court scene only has 1700 versions, but that's still a respectable showing.

At this point, Rosalind picked up on Rob's research and came up with the idea of a moved reading. I've been with the club over ten years and in all that time we've never done a moved reading. In fact, I have never done a moved reading before in my life, and I was surprised at how hard I found it. It's impossible to do Shakespeare half-heartedly - my inner Gratiano wanted to make rude gestures at Shylock whenever he got the chance, even when the Duke was watching. I suspect that in reality, poor old Grat would have been kicked out of court, but this time the Duke was in a mild mood so he got away with it. Of course, every time I gave Shylock the finger I had to take my eyes off the script, and while I know that scene reasonably well, I don't know it off by heart. And therein lies the difficulty of a moved reading.

We all enjoyed the exercise, and members who were not reading (and were therefore a captive audience!) agreed afterwards that it had been enjoyable to watch, too. Perhaps we might make moved readings a regular part of our calendar.

Also at this meeting we celebrated the wonderful contribution made by  Roy Shannon, a member for some decades, who has served in various capacities, most notably as secretary for many years. Frances had commissioned a framed copy of Sonnet 29 as a memento for Roy. Although Roy wants to take a back seat and enjoy the ride for a while, we hope he will continue to attend meetings.

All-in-all, 2014 has been an enjoyable year at the Shakespeare Club of WA. We've learnt a bit more about Henry V, King Lear, Measure for Measure and The Winter's Tale, and we've also had some very happy times just drinking coffee and munching cake!

We have a social get-together in January, and in February one of our favourite guest speakers, Professor Chris Wortham, will pay us a visit. In March we hold our AGM, when we vote on activities for the coming year. I wonder which plays we'll choose this time?

PS - A slight correction to the above - Rosalind tells me the idea for a moved reading came from Frances, our president, so kudos to all three - Rob, Frances and Rosalind - for a whooping end to the year's activities!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Two Gentlemen of Verona (film review)

Another excellent review from Frances Dharmalingham:

Last week a group of our members found a perfect shelter from the unseasonable weather by watching the film of the RSC’s recent production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Before the performance members of the cast and crew repeated the words: Friendship, Love, Obsession, Jealousy, effectively preparing our minds for the themes to come.

The four main characters were strongly individual and contrasted; the lovelorn and changeable Proteus against the energetic and single-minded Valentine; the ultra-fashionable and beautiful Sylvia against the simple, almost dowdy (although very charming) Julia. The two girls differed only in appearance, of course; they were equally steadfast in their loyal devotion. These contrasts were cleverly supported by the differences in setting between provincial Verona, with the town brass band and the al fresco trattoria, and cosmopolitan Milan with its disco music and flashing lights.

The drama of the four lovers moved apace, and any feminist critic would have been proud of the strength and independence displayed by the women, as Julia (in male disguise) followed Proteus, and Sylvia bravely escaped her father’s house with Valentine. The confrontation in the forest was powerful and violent. With Proteus’ words ‘I’ll force thee yield to my desire’ and his evident intention, Sylvia threw him to the ground, and clearly would have strangled him had not Valentine intervened. Valentine held Proteus’ head down in a water barrel several times. It was remarkably convincing action, with the tension abating only when Julia revealed her identity.

With all this strong drama, the comic aspects of the play were delightfully interspersed. Traditionally the comedy rests primarily with Speed and Launce, the servants, and neither disappointed. Speed was the classic player-with-words, relishing the possibilities of sound and multiple meanings, quick-thinking and quick-moving. Launce was the more lugubrious, and his cross-play with the dog, Crab, was a delight. The dog must have come fresh from winning a competition as Britain’s least prepossessing pet, but it behaved beautifully and performed exactly as required.

Much of the comedy came from the interpretation of Lucetta’s role. I had not previously given much thought to this character, but here she bloomed as a vigorous and quite bawdy young woman reminiscent in voice and accent of Absolutely Fabulous’s Bubbles. The outlaws added their own gentle humour. Far from being fierce bandits, they were really pussy-cats, only too happy to find a new and confident leader.

The entire production was swift and engrossing, leaving me with that very happy sigh of satisfaction at the end which indicates a most enjoyable experience.

Shakespeare's comment on friendship, love, constancy and fickleness, this romantic comedy takes us from the controlled world of Verona and Milan to the wildness of the forest where, it seems, anything can happen.

  • Cast
  • Mark Arends, Elliot Barnes-Worrell
  • Director
  • Simon Godwin

Monday, July 28, 2014

Henry V, Bell Shakespeare Company

Here is a review of Henry V as presented by the Bell Shakespeare Company in Perth last week. It was written by our redoutable president, Frances Dharmalingham.

What an exciting theatrical experience! I saw the Bell Shakespeare production of Henry V last Saturday evening and spent all the next day happily reliving the highlights. There was so much to think about and so much to admire in this richly detailed interpretation.

The imaginative conception of framing the original drama in the context of the Blitz gave us, the audience, layers of meaning and heightened the significance of many incidents in quite extraordinary ways. The performance began with schoolchildren studying Shakespeare’s histories in their classroom literature lessons; soon they began the early exploration of the text, reading their parts not always expertly. Gradually we saw them becoming fine actors as they inhabited their characters and identified with those characters’ experiences; and finally we had the entirely convincing portrayal of Henry and his men during their French campaign.

This is much too facile an account, however. The repeated bombing raids of the Blitz regularly brought the actors and the audience back to the ‘present', so that frequently we were watching a performer as both a schoolboy character and simultaneously a Shakespearean character. There were times when the intensity of a scene enabled the complete ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ — we were with them in France — and other times when again we were back in the classroom watching these youngsters wrestling with the ideas and feelings evoked by the dual influences of the play and the real-life war.

For me, this layering was perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the production, but there were so many features to admire at the time and to enjoy in retrospect.

The set was brilliantly devised. Looking at it before the play started, I wondered if it might be rather too small an acting area, but of course it wasn’t: it was the classroom, but imagination allows the action to spill out and beyond it! The broken windows and jagged edges of half-demolished walls evoked many memories of old bomb sites, and the bookcases with their shelves no longer parallel became the versatile basis of any number of props as required. The sound and lighting were spectacular — the absolute aural battering of the bombs and ack-ack guns, the chilling wail of the sirens, and the sudden black-outs powerfully supported the established setting.

The small cast were uniformly fine performers, each, except for Michael Sheasby (understandably) as Henry, playing many parts. They had hardly an opportunity to leave the stage as they shifted scenery between assuming their different roles. It was altogether a great example of true ensemble playing. The set changes were frequent and beautifully organised, as the trusty bookcases and very few other furnishings were tipped and turned and by sheer force of imagination turned into anything required; even, after Harfleur, into the mud and mire of northern France as the troops struggled towards Agincourt. Later, following the unexpected appearance of a downed German airman, clever use was made of his parachute. The actors convincingly suggested the youthfulness of upper secondary school pupils, but were skilled in quickly assuming their many and varied roles within the main script. Their basic school uniforms were very simply modified to suggest improvisation under austerity conditions; the French identified by red and blue scarves, the knights ready for battle with cardboard ‘armour’ round their knees and shoulders. Princess Katherine’s frilled dress for the final scene, apparently created from rows and rows of old exercise book pages, was quite charming and served to underline the end of hostilities.

A makeshift trumpet was used to good effect for formal and martial purposes, and strong drumming strengthened the urgency of war preparations. Led by Drew Livingston, the actors sang well in the opening scene with the church dignitaries and after Agincourt, and especially in the moving finale.

By referring briefly to Richard II and Henry IV, the introductory scene in the classroom gave a useful lead in to the play, and this was cleverly followed up to explain the church’s concerns about money, and the archbishop’s specious reasoning to justify war with France. This is normally a particularly boring scene and is always going to be largely incomprehensible, but by making it a brisk ‘chalk and talk' session the main point was well conveyed, allowing the players to ease into their performance.

Monarchs to behold the swelling scene. Credit: Michele Mossop
The order of the scenes was occasionally interestingly re-arranged, and the choruses broken by the episodes to which the words referred – a good way to avoid very long speeches, and maintain the action. There were also some sensible cuts which I’m sure no-one would have minded: the leek in the bonnet episode, and the Act V chorus in particular. An addition was Katherine’s reference to Henry’s threats to the people of Harfleur, as a justifiable way to explore her attitude towards him and to marriage with him.

One of the most memorable moments came as we were yet again returned to the pupils’ present time, with a particularly intense bombing raid, a very near miss in fact, in which one of the boys (who played The Boy) was injured. This led immediately into Henry’s speech: ‘I was not angry since I came to France Until this instant’, referring to the slaughter of the baggage boys. This was an electrifying response, as war and its effects on innocent bystanders became real. I had a little difficulty with the introduction of the German paratrooper, but perhaps he was there to provide the schoolboys with a moment of direct confrontation with ‘the enemy’.

Following the epilogue, spoken by Keith Agius with the same admirable clarity he brought to the choruses, the cast (once again school pupils, having finished their study of the play) sang ‘I Vow to Thee my Country’ simply but with stirring feeling. The play reminded me that when literature is made relevant to life it can have profound influence.

This was a strikingly good production. The actors performed with such passion, and between the high points the tension was skilfully lowered with suitable pauses or light and spontaneous comedy. Given that it was the final show of the Perth season, and followed an afternoon matinee, they are all to be heartily congratulated on their never-flagging energy. It was a performance to make me return to the text with pleasure and new insights.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Over the hump with a difficult play

Two milestones: mid-year has well and truly passed and we have just finished reading King Lear.

King Lear: Goneril and Regan by Edwin Austin Abbey
 Lear is a difficult play. It has a couple of subplots that complicate the main issue - the cruel way two daughters treat their mad old father, the King - and it's far from being an easy read. It isn't performed often, and it's not hard to see why. One wonders if our Will made it up in a hurry one dark night because the players didn't have anything to perform for an important gig.

True to form, he stole the main plot from earlier works based on the same tradition, and the sub plots from other sources. Some like to class it as one of the 'problem plays', and certainly it has many problems for anyone bold enough to consider producing or directing it. It's the first time the club has read it since I joined some ten or twelve years ago, and it's not hard to see why it hasn't been put forward for reading before. It is, quite simply, too difficult to embrace in two afternoons of reading. I feel I would have benefitted from a full semester's lectures on this play! And I must admit that I would have preferred an ending like the one proposed by Geoffrey of Monmouth, in which Cordelia restores her father to the throne, and succeeds him as ruler after his death. Our Will must have been in a melancholy mood when he set pen to paper for this one!

Measure for Measure: Isabella  by Francis William Topham
 Never mind - next month we move on to Measure for Measure. While not the lightest of The Bard's works, it certainly appears to be comic relief after King Lear! There are quite a lot of funny bits: enough to keep the attention of people who, like me, will always choose comedy over tragedy.

After that's on with A Winter's Tale, which is another slightly problematical play: it starts off as if it were to be a drama, but becomes lighter and funnier as the plot wears on. Much depends on the production: there are plenty of opportunities for 'business' and a spot of ad-libbing that can lighten the tone of the play considerably.

New members will be welcome to attend any of the remaining meetings for the year. The next one will be on Saturday,16 August - as usual, in the back room of the Citizens Centre on Perth Railway Station Concourse.

Images by courtesy of Wikipedia

Friday, June 13, 2014

Review: Black Swan's As you like it.

Several members saw the WA State Theatre's production of one of Shakespeare's best-loved comedies. Frances Dharmalingam gives us her impressions.

Jovana Miletic as Rosalind. (Image by Rob Frith)
The recent Black Swan State Theatre’s production of As You Like It was at least the fourth professional performance I have seen (apart from a student show in which I participated) and this was certainly the one which provoked in me the most frequent outbursts of real laughter – not just silent chuckles.

This version was not just modernised.  It was right up to the minute, and I was amazed at how easily it was delivered in 21st century idiom.  Corin the shepherd (Greg McNeill) provided a notable example, expressing his comfortable aphorisms in the voice of an outback Aussie farmer.

One of the delights of the whole performance was the clarity of the actors’ diction and their impeccable phrasing.  Not a word or a subtlety was lost.  The characters were strikingly individual, and their energetic portrayals were effectively supported by the clever and amusing costumes.

Le Beau (Brendan Hanson) made use of every possible innuendo in his lines, but managed to do so without offence, and created an unforgettable character out of one who normally fades rapidly from the memory.  Similarly, Phoebe (Cecelia Peters): a very pert little miss flouncing about on terrifyingly high shoes.  Her exit through the forest, off to write a stinging rebuke to Ganymede, was stunningly funny (even though the accompanying music went right past me: I’m not well acquainted with current pop music).  Then there was Audrey (Caitlin Beresford-Ord) with her extraordinary fidgety gestures perfectly suggestive of her excitement at Touchstone’s proximity, and her extraordinary contortions while locating and eliminating a flea.

This is not to suggest that the supporting players outshone the main performers.  The three young leads had energy, charm, humour and intelligence in abundance.  Orlando (James Sweeney) began the play with a style which set the tone for the evening. He dealt skilfully with the long opening speech, evoking more laughs than I would have thought possible in what is essentially necessary background information.

Rosalind (Jovana Miletic) and Celia (Grace Smibert) were delightful as best-friend schoolgirls and grew to lovely maturity in the course of the play. Celia was a more assertive character than sometimes depicted.  Her ‘forest’ costume of smart riding breeches and boots emphasised her self-confidence while in no way reducing her femininity. Rosalind on the other hand looked convincingly boyish and adopted an amusingly gangling walk, while never letting us lose sight of her essentially female nature. Her transformation at the end, revealing herself as daughter to the old Duke, and lover to Orlando, was delicately charming, and she brought the performance to a perfect conclusion with her handling of the epilogue.

Other highlights – and there were many – included the brilliantly choreographed wrestling match and the beautiful forest setting.  Although the bursts of recorded modern music were no doubt well chosen to enhance the point of particular scenes,  they meant little to me; but I enjoyed Brendan Hanson’s live singing (as Amiens) which set the quietly nostalgic mood for the exiles in the woodland.

This performance was a happy interpretation of a well-loved comedy.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Getting a handle on the Bard's language

The English language has been constantly developing and evolving over the centuries, and here Richard, a member of the Shakespeare Club of WA, seeks to give the modern reader a clue to the meaning then extant of some of the words the Bard used or in some cases, invented! William Shakespeare’s extensive vocabulary would have been generally understood and appreciated by those of the play-going upper-class, some of whom nevertheless might have blushed at the earthier expressions relished by those of the hoi polloi audience. Yet the latter, ignorant of many of the high-falutin’ terms, would still have given each play a rousing reception, at times interacting vociferously with the players.

punishment/torture by caning of the soles  of the bare feet
hag, virago
flatter fulsomely
cheat, defraud, act deceitfully
dregs, refuse
bunch of twigs for burning at the stake
broad, curved sword
express disgust,  or pretence of outraged propriety
fiery dragon
(v t)
avert, keep off
no doubt, truly,
dupe, fool
express indignation, surprise
solid, weighty
in spite of
pell mell
(a, adv)
in disorder, recklessly
small basin/bowl for soup, etc
having great power or influence, mighty
impudent/ill-behaved girl or woman
member of a sect
tax rate
abandoned habit
bar person who draws & serves liquor
(v t)
condescend to do

a = adjective      adv = adverb     int = interjection      n = noun                              
 prep = preposition       v = verb     v  t = transitive verb