Sunday, October 8, 2017

My Favourite Shylock

A post from one of our keen members, Peter Medd, on one of Shakespeare’s most intriguing characters.

In 2016, I heard an ABC interview of Warren Mitchell by Margaret Throsby — about a year after Mitchell’s death. It was a re-broadcast, first recorded in 2001 during one of Mitchell’s many Australian visits. (He had dual British and Australian citizenship.) The interview was amazing, of course, covering Mitchell’s extensive acting career and other skills. (He was a good clarinet player!) Sadly, he could also tell the most appalling anti-Semitic jokes.

The interview caused me to want to watch The Merchant of Venice, recorded by the BBC in 1980, and starring Mitchell as Shylock with John Nettles (Midsomer Murders) as Antonio. In viewing earlier performances of Shakespeare’s plays, it always surprises me how many modern day actors started or at least helped their careers by performing in Shakespeare. For example, in a BBC (2004) version of The Merchant of Venice, I saw in the crowd a very young Kris Marshall as Gratiano. (Marshall was recently in the BBC series Death in Paradise.)

I would have liked to see the role of Shylock played by an orthodox Jew, but I haven’t tracked down any recent ones. However, Jacob Adler (1855-1926) was noted for his sympathetic rendering of the character.

Wikipedia turned up this photo of Adler as Shylock in a late 19th century performance of The Merchant of Venice.

(Credit: Byron Company (photographer) - Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection )

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Bell Shakespeare Company's production of The Merchant - review

A party of members recently attended a performance of Bell Shakespeare’s recent production of The Merchant of Venice  --  2017. According to the blurb, ‘this masterfully envisioned production tackles the biases and preconceived notions of one of Shakespeare’s most challenging plays.

Our fearless leader, Frances, writes about the experience.

There was much to admire in the recent Bell Shakespeare production of The Merchant of Venice.  We saw an engaging performance, full of energy and with a well-judged balance between the darker scenes and the comedy.  The antics of the young men, Portia’s and Nerissa’s irreverent treatment of the unsuccessful suitors, and specially the clowning of Launcelot Gobbo were entertaining.

Jessica Tovey as Portia
From the start a strong emphasis on “Them and Us” made clear the divide between Jews and Gentiles, and the thoughtless arrogance of the Christians’ language was consistently reinforced by gesture, attitude and facial expression.  (Interestingly this assumption of superiority was applied not only to the Jews: it was a clever detail to have the Prince of Morocco overhear Portia’s careless and too hasty line: “Let all of his complexion choose me so.”)

Mitchell Butel as Shylock
The Christians, with the exception of course of a rather pallid Antonio, were a rowdy bunch; even Portia and Nerissa spoke with a vehemence which made me wonder at her submission to the terms of her father’s will without challenging it.  In contrast, Shylock was a sober and dignified figure  -  a serious man of business, quietly conducting his affairs and avoiding unnecessary confrontations.

His grief and shock at Jessica’s elopement were movingly conveyed and we could see clearly the precise moment when quite suddenly Shylock remembered the 'bond'.  Until then evidently he had not given it serious thought, but now the accumulated pains and insults had brought him to a turning point.  He was on a course which everyone in the audience could understand and probably sympathise with.

The court scene was made truly suspenseful, even for an audience familiar with the outcome.

I was interested to see Portia’s approach to the challenge of resolving the case.  I have always assumed that she received the necessary legal interpretation and instruction from her lawyer cousin, Dr. Bellario, who is referred to by the Duke as “learned”.  In the full script the Duke reads out Bellario’s letter to the court in which the doctor says: “I acquainted him (meaning Portia) with the cause in controversy…we turned over many books…he is furnished with my opinion.”

Much of the dialogue relating to Portia’s preparations for her trip to the court was cut, however, and we saw Portia and Nerissa change into men’s clothes there and then in Belmont (with no time to wonder how they happened to be available!) and thus the two arrived in court relying (apparently) on the inspiration of the moment.

So, in this production, Portia appeared not to have a fully-worked-out plan, and it followed that she spoke the Mercy speech as a sincere, deeply-felt effort to persuade Shylock, rather than the routinely dutiful appeal it can sometimes seem, before she pulls out the “big guns” of legalisms.

Portia’s spontaneity was well sustained; she was frantically re-reading the bond while Antonio’s supporters jeered at Shylock, and then there was the excited discovery, the relief at finding a way out, as she cried: “Why, this bond is forfeit!”  which led, nonetheless, into the prolonged teasing, allowing Shylock to believe that he had won, before the inevitable “Tarry a little…..” and the complete switch from despair to jubilation for the Christians, and from victory to total loss for Shylock.

Normally his enforced conversion to Christianity occurs, mercifully, off stage, but after the dreadful listing of all Shylock’s punishments
Gratiano’s exclamation: “In christening shalt thou have two godfathers” provoked the most shocking moment of the play.  Galvanised by these words the young men launched a brutal attack on Shylock, in which the physical violence vividly represented the spiritual violation, as he was stripped of his orthodox four-cornered tasselled vest, and finally his yarmulke was snatched from his head.  His vain attempts to cover his head while fending off blows were heartbreaking.

After such a scene it was difficult to enter fully into comic or romantic mood, and very sensibly the following episodes were quite abridged.  Antonio was assured of the safety of his vessels, Lorenzo was given his “deed of gift” and the muddle of the rings was briskly sorted out, but into this cheerful scene there was a horribly jarring note as someone carelessly dropped Shylock’s yarmulke on Jessica’s head.  This unscripted action allowed for an ending to the play very different in tone from the original.  This production chose to follow the example established so sensitively in the 2004 film directed by Michael Radford, in which Jessica stole silently away, to gaze back from Belmont towards Venice and all that she had lost.

We really do not know if Lorenzo felt any guilt over Shylock’s fate, but he might well have been affected by Jessica’s responses to his boorish friends.  Though, to go so far as to tear up the deed of gift?  I am not convinced of that.

As the roistering Christians faded from sight all attention was on Lorenzo and Jessica in the single bright spot and the spirit established at the beginning of the play was again underlined: the intolerance and divisions between two societies.  I felt that it would have been sufficient to rely on the actors’ expressive posture here, to make the point, without the need of extra (non-Shakespearean) dialogue.

It was a strong and unsettling conclusion, from which the audience came away feeling uncomfortably ashamed and compromised.  If that was the performers’ intention, they succeeded admirably.  There was certainly much passionate discussion in the foyer afterwards.

The Merchant of Venice is frequently described as difficult  -  not in terms of the language or demands of performance as such, but with reference to interpretation.  There is also the difficulty of its classification as Comedy, but how would, or could, we re-categorise it, what with the wide differences between the three main plots, to say nothing of the sub-plots?

In the past the play was supposed to show that Shakespeare harboured anti-Semitic views, and now this latest version displayed almost the opposite: it might almost have been seen as anti-Christian.  And there perhaps is one of the major fascinations of the play  -  how the director chooses to weight the different themes and balance the competing moods and styles within the one performance.  Depending on his/her decisions, an audience will come away with a particular impression which might be quite at variance with another’s interpretation.

Maybe this gives us another good reason to keep attending new productions!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Film Review: The Royal Shakespeare Company’s film of The Tempest.

(Reviewed by Frances, president of the Shakespeare Club of Western Australia.)

The importance of special effects in The Tempest was certainly recognised by the creative team behind this 2016 production, shown on film recently. In a pre-show interview, Director Gregory Doran and Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis claimed that Shakespeare would have loved the technology available to 21st century theatres. They went all out to use it, just as they were sure Shakespeare would have done.

From the very beginning, the performance was full of stunning, wildly imaginative and absolutely ‘right’ visual and aural effects. No doubt any reasonable theatre can put on a storm, but this tempest was right on top of us – deafening thunder claps and dazzling lightning, of course, and then the (apparent) water – the sense of the boat being inundated, sinking, and eventually settling on the sea bed, with an impression of the violent motion of the waves and ship, the greenish mottled light, and the clever set, which had large curved beams at the sides, suggesting the boat’s ribs. And then suddenly we had left the sea and there were Miranda and Prospero on the island, dry and bright in the sun: a superb beginning.

Just some of the many other memorable moments include (for me) a beautiful image of the ship, whole and as if freshly launched, unexpectedly glimmering in the distance while Ariel assured Prospero that all was well; the conjuring up of the pine tree with Ariel caught fast in its twisted trunk as Prospero reminded him of his imprisonment by Sycorax; the dreadful harpy hanging in mid-air as it harangued the courtiers; the abrupt disappearance, apparently in flames, of the feast; the scenes accompanying the goddesses during the masque; and the amazing first appearance of Ariel, seeming to materialise out of thin air, floating in space. This technique, relating to ‘motion capture’ was explained by the actor in an interview during the interval.

As well as these and other visual effects, there were the music and sounds: Ariel’s lovely simple singing, the goddesses in full operatic mode, the noises of the island, and the live musicians in their gallery. It was all exciting and impressive, but the best feature of it all was the fact that every detail served only to support, enrich and elucidate the action and dialogue. The special effects were not a distraction.

The actors were never over-shadowed by the technology. Prospero (Simon Russell Beale) was powerful and angry as he wrestled to balance revenge and mercy, and Miranda (Jenny Rainsford) reflected her unusual upbringing in her strongly independent demeanour. They were ably supported by the rest of the cast.

Then there were the two original inhabitants of the island. Caliban (Joe Dixon) was very interesting. He was tall, but shambled about with bent knees and his body was grotesquely distorted with a great paunch in front and an exposed spine on his back and sores and blemishes all over, but his face was allowed to remain ‘normal’. Unexpectedly, perhaps, he had a lovely voice, which particularly suited the passages in which Caliban described the island as he knew it. He covered the full range of the character’s moods, eliciting both pity and revulsion.

Mark Quartley as Ariel
Ariel (Mark Quartley) was outstanding. I became aware as the action progressed that his face remained at all times entirely impassive: the character was unable to feel (and therefore show) human emotion, and this became entirely clear at the moment of confrontation with Prospero, so delicately handled:

Ariel: … if you now beheld them, your affections
  …Would become tender.
Prospero:  … Dost thou think so, spirit?
Ariel: Mine would, sir, were I human.

I do not know how the actor achieved it, but throughout the play he conveyed the sense of Ariel’s desperate yearning for true freedom; he had been released from the physical bondage of the pine tree, but was then kept subservient to Prospero’s will. Through voice and action (and without the aid of facial expression) he showed us Ariel’s constantly dashed hopes as he faithfully fulfilled each ‘last’ order, only to be set another task. His songs had new accompaniment and I was specially struck by ‘Where the bee sucks’. It was not a jolly little ditty (as it often is) but contained all Ariel’s longing.

It can be easy to forget that The Tempest is a comedy, but this production made sure that no humorous episodes were wasted. Trinculo (Simon Trinder) and Stephano (Tony Jayawardena) worked perfectly together, and with Caliban. The courtiers were costumed to suggest the late 1800’s so Trinculo, the court jester, appeared as the typical 19th century music-hall clown: white face, loud check suit and a hooter with which to punctuate each joke. His and Stephano’s discovery of Caliban was riotous with the confusion of the four-legged creature under the gabardine, and all their scenes were delightfully inventive.

This was a multi-faceted performance in which highly-skilled acting and imaginative use of modern facilities gave us a detailed and thoroughly satisfying exposition of an endlessly fascinating play.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

News from our library

Our president, Frances, has penned a post on a fascinating book, new to our library:

A beautiful book, Shakespeare in Ten Acts by Gordon McMullen, has been donated to our Club by former Secretary Roy Shannon. It has many fascinating accounts and discussions of all sorts of topics relating to Shakespeare's writing and its staging. This includes an account of the first performance of The Tempest in 1610 or 1611, and goes on to trace the 400 year history of the play's production with special reference to the staging and to the interpretation of the text.

The Tempest was the first of Shakespeare's plays to be written specially for the new indoor Blackfriars Theatre. McMullen considers the main differences between the Globe and Blackfriars, which would influence the writing and presentation of plays.

First, the question of light: the productions were no longer reliant solely on daylight, since the use of candles allowed night performances. The artificial light led to an awareness and consideration of which colours and textures would show up best. As well, sequins and other accessories were used more freely, thanks to their sparkling and reflecting qualities.

The sound and acoustics differed. The huge, open Globe required loud and relatively unsubtle noises, but in the confined and more intimate space of Blackfriars it was possible to introduce a greater range of more delicate sound effects. This is particularly striking in The Tempest, which employs many different noises, both pleasant and chaotic. Music became a much more important feature, with many and varied purposes for both instrumental music and song in The Tempest.

Because candles needed regular trimming it was convenient to break the action into scenes. While the candles were attended to, it was possible to introduce entr'acte music, and there was the chance to change hangings or scenery.

In Blackfriars there were various new stage tricks available, for instance allowing characters to disappear (or appear) from below or above (such as the goddess Juno descending to bless the wedding). Although we don't know exactly how it worked, there was also the ‘quaint device’ by which the magic banquet vanished before the courtiers could eat.

After this summary, McMullen, describes three landmark productions:

a) In 1667 a free adaptation by Davenant and Dryden had many changes of characters and plot, but it retained a lively awareness of the importance of special effects.

b) In 1857 Charles Kean's production had such complex scenery that 140 plus stage hands were required to move it. At that time most observers agreed that elaborate spectacle was essential, but there was an interesting divergence of opinion from Hans Christian Andersen, who said: ‘Everything was afforded that machinery and stage direction can provide...(but)...Shakespeare was lost in visual pleasure; the exciting poetry was petrified by illustrations; the living word had evaporated.’

c) The 1904 production by H. Beerbohm Tree was the first to use electric light. Tree said that ‘The Tempest most demanded the aids of modern stage-craft.’ (Interestingly, in this production Caliban was portrayed sympathetically, not, as traditionally, a clown.)
McMullen surveys the modern era, with its continued use of spectacular effects, but evolving to more sophisticated political interpretations of the text. He notes that since 1950 productions have aired questions of colonialism, racism, sexual and familial psychology.

He concludes: ‘The tradition of The Tempest spectacle has ... retained its hold, in one way or another, to the present.’

Having just seen the film of the RSC's 2016 production, I can endorse this comment. It was an extraordinary piece of theatre in which the director and his designer (and indeed a large creative team) used every 21st century means available to them to make for their audience an absolutely magical experience.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Another year with our Will

Another AGM, another year to look forward to. I have stepped down from the committee, although I might still go to at least some meetings as a guest. I hope to use the time to keep this blog rather more up-to-date this year: I have been very forgetful of it lately, and try as I might, I haven't often been able to persuade people to write posts. Come on folks - review a performance (live or on screen), talk about your favourite plays or sonnets, or your own interest in Shakespeare and drama or literature generally. At least a couple of members have intimated that they first found out about The Shakespeare Club through chancing on the blog, so let's keep it alive and thriving.

Speaking of membership, it has grown a lot in recent years. When I joined, back in 2002, we used to have trouble casting our readings, and once or twice I even found my father's daughter in conversation with my grandmother's granddaughter when I'd been entrusted with several small parts to read. But now we regularly have attendances of over twenty, which has made casting the readings very much easier. What's more, the standard of reading has improved a great deal. Practice makes perfect, or at least encourages readers to improve their posture, breathing, projection and diction.

Anyhow, back to the AGM! The committee, apart from my replacement by Susan, a recent recruit, remains the same. I hope Susan enjoys her time on the committee as much as I enjoyed mine!

We waded through the election and necessary discussion very quickly, and so turned to the serious business of creating a program for the year. Now, I must reveal that I am happy with the middle period comedies, year after year, with an occasional history thrown in, so I was a bit sad when none of my favourites made the cut this time. It does look like an interesting program, though; one that will stretch our knowledge and appreciation of English Renaissance drama.

In April and May we shall read Richard III, and in June we shall have a guest speaker, the prolific and highly respected author/poet, Emeritus Professor Dennis Haskell (pictured at left). July and August will be devoted to The Duchess of Malfi, a tragic   if not downright macabre  play, written by the English dramatist John Webster and first performed in 1613–14. (I don't know how I'll go with that one: I have to cover my eyes during many scenes of Game of Thrones!)

For September, we shall organise a set of readings on a particular theme (still to be chosen) and the October and November meetings will be devoted to Henry IV, part one, with an implied commitment to open 2018 with a reading of part two! December's meeting will no doubt be given over to Yuletide celebrations, with or without a guest speaker, and January, as usual, will probably also be devoted to socialising.

So there we have it - plans for 2017 in a nutshell. Feel free to add comments if you wish, and better still, send me a post of your own making to add to the blog!