Thursday, June 2, 2016

Shakespeare Live - well, on film, anyway!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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