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Branagh’s Winter’s Tale

I went to see Kenneth Branagh’s Winter’s Tale at the Sedona Film Festival over my break. Potentially a lot of hype around this one: Branagh plays the lead (obviously), but also managed to get Judi Dench to tread the boards in a fairly minor role in the opening season of the refurbished Garrick Theatre in the West End.

I’ve thought a lot about The Winter’s Tale, because one of my favorite academic books on Shakespeare, Bridget Escolme‘s Talking to the Audience, discusses Antony Sher’s performance of Leontes by way of introducing the importance of audience interaction during Shakespeare plays. Basically, in lieu of directly addressing the audience to explain why Leontes suddenly gets jealous, Sher discovers the psychological explanation of “morbid jealousy.” Escolme finds his performance disaffecting, since this Leontes needs a doctor to treat his condition rather than forgiveness.

Branagh similarly never addresses the audience, so, according to Michael Billington’s Guardian review at any rate, the reason Branagh supplies for Leontes’ sudden jealousy is that he is “a man still haunted by an idyllic boyhood attachment.” In other words, he’s more jealous of Polixenes than he is of Hermione.

I didn’t get that; Billington cites Leontes’ misogynistic language (“Branagh himself spits out words like ‘sluiced’ and ‘slippery’ as if disgusted by female sexuality”) and his easy way of kissing men (he “eagerly kisses his male courtiers”) as proof of this interpretation.  I think maybe Billington has been reading too much Freud? At any rate, after the screening, my mother asked me, “Does everyone in Shakespeare overact?” Ouch. Branagh overdoes everything, dropping to his knees several times (as also noted in Matt Trueman’s Vanity Fair review) during his performance and “hobbles off clutching his midriff and moaning, as if gripped by acute appendicitis.” According to Trueman,”Branagh pulls focus like a barman pulls pints — that is to say, for a living. Everything he does just seems so earnest.” My mom would agree.

Similarly, Dench seems too big for the role. While Trueman felt that Dench “is a born Paulina; the singular husk of her voice serves a constant sharp reprimand to anyone that dares patronize or boss her about” I felt that she overpowers a relatively minor role. Branagh too easily submits to her will in the later acts (why wouldn’t he have listened to her at the beginning then?), and she misses or overplays a potentially wonderful comedic moment. In Shakespeare’s text Paulina says,

Sir, royal sir, forgive a foolish woman:
The love I bore your queen–lo, fool again!–
I’ll speak of her no more, nor of your children;
I’ll not remember you of my own lord,
Who is lost too: take your patience to you,
And I’ll say nothing.

Except that she by saying “nothing” has already reminded him of everything. These lines go by with no notice of the irony, again, said in earnest, a signal of the overdone approach to the entire play. So it goes without saying that Shakespeare’s famous stage direction, “exit pursued by bear” is also done seriously (we get a projected bear image, a piped-in sound effect, and Michael Pennington disappears on a darkened stage).

Which is all fine. I don’t actually mind Branagh-as-diva, and it’s almost worth it to see Judi Dench do anything on stage. I have a crush on Jessie Buckley (I fell in love with her Miranda in the Globe Tempest), and she’s also wonderful here, especially as a singer. All of my friends enjoyed John Dagleish’s performance as Autolycus (mostly, I expect, because he wasn’t turned into a circus clown as most American actors try to do), and the sets (it opens with an extra-textual Christmas montage) are lavish.

Overall, the play is a stilted, somewhat listless production, but all is forgiven in a romance: for me it’s worth seeing actors the caliber of Branagh and Dench attempt Shakespeare in whatever form that takes.

Cressida as an Empty Space

I read some reposts on the Shakespeare Standard—a website that I ordinarily enjoy—that I have to admit I found a bit disappointing. In “Misogyny, the case of Cressida (part the last–putting her to bed)“, the author takes the perspective that Troilus and Cressida is a misogynistic play. I’m fine with that, on one level: everyone is allowed their opinion.

What I’m not fine with is the dismissive tone taken by author, as if all he has to do is drop the word “misogyny” and quote some bawdy lines from the play, and we can just all “put this one to bed”: no one needs to bother to read this play again. It’s this kind of dismissive, reductionist approach that gives some feminist criticism a bad reputation. There is and will continue to be brilliant critical responses to literature produced by feminist critics; this is not one of those.

Although the author does a fairly decent job applying recent critical approaches to the body and its representation, his primary mistake is assuming that the words voiced by the characters are Shakespeare’s voice or the purpose of the play. To quote the lines of Diogenes and then argue that the play is misogynistic because the character of Diogenes is misogynistic is the sort of basic, entry-level kind of character criticism that went out with Freud trying to psychoanalyze Hamlet, as if he were a real person. Diogenes is a character; criticism of that character is not a criticism of the play. For example, if Othello is a bad play because Iago is a racist, then we can throw out Othello also, and we would never have any meaningful plays about racism, because a play would never be able to include racist characters. Just characters sitting around a table talking about how bad racism is. That would certainly make for good, engaging drama.

What I would recommend is that the author read Bridget Escolme’s Talking with the Audience, which has a chapter specifically about how Cressida’s character functions in the structure of the play, something which the author never discusses. Rather than attacking characters’ lines and assuming they express the viewpoint of the author or of play, the structure of the play is such that Cressida functions as a mirror into which you as the audience can discover for yourself what it’s like to be a woman traded by men as a prize.

Hmm, wouldn’t that be a more thought-provoking response to the play? She invites your response; she never offers her own (why she betrays Troilus). The choice is yours; you can take a reductionist approach to the play, focusing on the lowest common denominator among the characters as proof that misogyny exists (there’s shocking news!), or you can use the play as an experience of how woman are mistreated and determine your own response. The choice is yours; either option is there. I would suggest however, that the writer of Hamlet—or even more to the point, the creator of the characters of Viola,  Rosalind, Beatrice, and Cleopatra—presents the voiceless character of Cressida with the hope that you will fill in a better response than the one she was historically forced to receive.

Ps: for more complex reactions, including feminist interpretations, a simple Google search reveals: Feminist Approaches When Viewing Cressida’s Character

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I’ve got a couple of things coming up; new posts on my reviews of the Shakespeare Globe’s Titus Andronicus DVD, Globe Tv productions of the Henry VI plays, and I’m going to see Gemma Arterton in The Duchess of Malfi this Sunday at the Sedona Film Festival.

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Julie Taymor’s Midsummer Night’s Dream

I was just able to see a broadcast of Julie Taymor’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at the  Sedona Film Festival.

For those of you who might not know her, Julie Taymor directed Anthony Hopkins in the 1999 Titus and the 2010 Hellen Mirren Tempest. Maybe more significantly, she directed The Lion King on Broadway (there’s an homage in the play; Snug’s costume as Lion uses paint brushes to simulate a lion’s mane, which looks like a stylized Lion King costume.)

In any event, against the current trend, it’s good to see Taymor still believes in Director’s Theater. She wasn’t really over-the-top on this one, but the set designs and stylized costumes betrayed her more Broadway-appropriate skills. I enjoyed it for the most part; I loved the little LEDs that lit up Titania’s face in the darkened theater and the costumes and set designs were spectacle.

What I realized I don’t like about spectacle, though, is that it distracts. I go to hear a Shakespeare play because I want to hear his poetry done beautifully. But in productions like this Shakespeare’s language feels secondary; the actors run around with props and float up or down from the ceiling and ignore the language. They don’t respect the iambic pentameter and all of their method-acting training runs amok. Every line has a pregnant pause; the actors find reasons to pause several times in any speech and sometimes between every word. They often land hard on rhymes, over-stressing them and making them sound juvenile (sometimes this works with the couples, who do act rather juvenile anyway).

What I thought was great though was Taymor’s use of difference; for example she cast Hermia as a buxom blonde and Helena as an African American. When Helena comes on stage and says, “Call you me ‘fair’? That ‘fair’ again unsay./Demetrius loves your fair. O happy fair!” Hearing a black woman ask why she is called “fair,” I immediately wonder if Demetrius has spurned Helena because she is black. I thought that added interesting complexity to the Hermia/Helena/Lisander/Demetrius foursome. Of course, Shakespeare’s text does not develop it further, but I wonder with how seamlessly it seemed to work whether Shakespeare did or didn’t intend for there to be some obvious differences between them. It’s a central critical question to interpreting the play; is there a difference between these characters? (Is Helena much taller than Hermia?) Or does the fact that love is blind make the only difference?

In any event, difference (including race) was also used to good effect with the rude mechanicals. Bottom has a Brooklyn accent, Starveling is gay, Flute is Latino, and Snout is African American. All of the actors playing these characters got laughs playing differences; again, I was really struck by how easy it was to incorporate differences into the play without it seeming stilted or forced. Oberon was also black; Titania white (literally here, Oberon was black man painted black, Titania was a white woman painted white).

Also deserving mention is Kathryn Hunter’s Puck. I read a great article by Bridget Escolme about other possibilities for actors from the prospective of training; most actors do some kind of method or Stanislavsky-based training. Escolme used Hunter to point out there are other possibilities. She has trained in physical comedy and clowning including with Jacques Lecoq. You can see it in her acting style, which is quite appropriate for the character of Puck.


Finally, I have to admit I’m over watching children run around as the fairies. Anyone familiar with Kott will be aware that this play is not necessarily for kids; besides the bestiality and threat of rape in the forest, there are enough dark and/or sexual overtones in the play to make it rather adult-oriented. Taymor ignored all of these. Her fairies are children, Helena happily barks like a dog, and Titania is happy to be tricked into sleeping with an ass and giving away her fairy boy in order to create the happy ending.

However, my quibbles aside, I have to say the full capacity crowd I saw the broadcast with seemed to enjoy it. It was the largest crowd I had seen at this theater; I’m wondering whether it was the play or the director that brought out the crowd.

In any event, I enjoyed it. Besides overdoing the dramatic pauses, the actors were good, and perhaps MSD is Shakespeare’s most bulletproof script; the rude mechanicals never fail to entertain.

Random bits:
–There were some shaky closeup steady cam shots early in the shooting; they eventually (thankfully) disappeared. There was one good rack focus from a foregrounded Oberon to a background Titania.

mnd rack focus

–Thisbe followed the Michael Hoffman 1999 MND, in that they went for a moment of real acting as Thisbe prepares to commit suicide over Pyramus. Not as good a performance from Thisbe, but this production used some music to also communicate to the crowd that this was not a comedic scene.

Birdman review

Ostensibly this blog is for Shakespeare and Shakespeare-related subjects. Birdman is not directly relating to Shakespeare, but hopefully you’ll see the connection by the end.

I initially was interested in watching Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) because I read a review on another Shakespearean review website, which claimed that if you were interested in Shakespeare you should see it. I am interested in Shakespeare, so I went to a Redbox and rented it.


Okay, it’s got some great actors. Check. You might want to watch it for that reason. I wasn’t myself overly impressed with Keaton, but with Emma Stone, Ed Norton Jr, and Naomi Watts also contributing, that’s a pretty impressive list. Zach Galifianakis also does a good job in a fairly small part.

But my problem with it is the movie doesn’t have an ending. So I was thinking, “Why does this movie not have an ending,” and my mind when to, “Well, what is it trying to say?” And then I realized, basically nothing.

The point of the movie is that it’s hard for artists to make big money. The only big money comes from making easily-digestible eye candy that doesn’t require an intellectual investment from the audience (in this story, the writer/director specifically takes a shot at the current trend in superhero movies). Boo hoo. It’s so hard to make movies that matter! I want to make art! Right, because to make movies you take money from studios that are businesses. Because they are businesses, they are trying to make money. If you want to make a art that matters, raise the funds on GoFundMe. Otherwise, what are you crying about? Some great films have been shot with iPhones, so again, stop the whining.

The film is really symptomatic of the whole problem; it mocks superhero movies and Keaton’s character Riggins complains he wants to do something that matters, but then [spoiler alert] he only shoots off his nose rather than actually kill himself. Why? Because the writer/director doesn’t have the balls to kill off the character and make the movie sad. Why? Because it would be sad if someone killed themselves because the only choice they have is to continue acting in theatre or go make tons of movie doing a superhero movie sequel.

First-world problems.

Anyway, see the film; there are some good moments, and again, the acting is good. But when you’re puzzled by the end, don’t worry about it, because it’s hard to end a movie that never really had anything to say.

What does this have to do with Shakespeare? Well, first off, Birdman quotes Macbeth’s “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech. But more than that, Shakespeare is the answer to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s problem: Shakespeare was able to create intellectually-stimulating, yet entertaining, art that has held interest for over 400 years. How? Got me; but I know he didn’t do it by whining about it, and he had the balls to give his plays endings. Love’s Labour’s Lost is rarely staged nowadays, but audiences can’t handle the (non)ending (or directors and actors don’t know how to stage it). It’s a joke now, but obviously Shakespeare wasn’t afraid to kill off his characters; every major character by the end of Hamlet dies.

If you want to say something, say it. And if the studios won’t let you do it, don’t work with the studios. But an entertaining, commercially-viable, meaningful production can be done; Shakespeare is proof. But maybe, as an artist, to pull it off you have to be a Shakespeare.

RSC Love’s Labour’s Won review

I went today and saw the broadcast live version of Love’s Labour’s Won (Much Ado) at the Sedona Film Festival. Although I have quibbles (see below), I really enjoyed it, because it achieves what any good version of Much Ado should achieve: the end of the play is a magical triumph of love between two people who choose to love each other even though they can think of lots of reasons why they shouldn’t.

The broadcast included an artistic director Greg Doran explanation of why they chose to call it Love’s Labour’s Won instead of the tradition Much Ado About Nothing. For those of you that don’t know; there are two references to a Shakespeare play know as Love’s Labour’s Won, and scholars have identified two possibilities to explain those references. One, it’s a lost play, at least one that we know of. Two, the references are mistaken about the title and refer to Much Ado. Greg Doran (and director Christopher Luscombe) are going with the latter theory.

Without taking a position on whether that theory is true or not, in this case it works pretty well, since it let’s them run LLW as a sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost. I don’t like, for example, running Henry 4.1 and Henry 4.2 together as a double bill. It isn’t effective; the plays thematically are very different, and to run them as modern-day sequels ruins the individual effects of the plays. But here, Luscombe put a lot of creative energy into making it work.

[Warning: spoilers below.]

The first play, LLL, is set pre-WWI and then LLW is set post-WWI, which allowed Luscombe and his actors to make some interesting choices. For example Luscombe described in the pre-show how he and the actors choose to play Don John (Sam Alexander) and Dogberry (Nick Haverson) as shell shocked war veterans. I don’t usually like actors forcing method acting motivational techniques on Shakespeare, but I thought this one worked. Nick Haverson as Dogberry, in particular (who I unfortunately, except for one spit take, mostly found unfunny—see the Joss Whedon film Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry instead) made one really interesting choice: at the end of the “I am an ass” scene (4.2), after the lines, “Dost thou not suspect my place? Dost thou not suspect my years?” Haverson gives a really honest, touching emotional performance in which we see that it’s not easy being Dogberry.

Tunji Kasim as Claudio also made an interesting choice; after asking Don Pedro if Hero is Leonato’s sole heir or not, pauses, as if nervous. Previous actors, directors, and scholars have wondered if Claudio is honest or not; maybe he doesn’t love Hero and is just after her inheritable fortune. But here we see a Claudio that sees this fortune as an impediment rather than a bonus. Fyi, they also dropped his “even if she were an ethiope” line.

Frances McNamee as Ursula also deserves a mention; in the Beatrice gulling scene (3.1) she choose to overact her character’s acting, which I found really funny. (“Fear you not my part of the dialogue.”)

Okay, the quibbles: the audience laughs when Michelle Terry delivers the “kill Claudio” line. Not her fault; I think. She gives an admirable performance (playing a “protofeminist suffragette”); it felt like the audience is just conditioned now to laugh at that line. But for a better version, see Emma Thompson in Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 version.

They also copied Joss Whedon’s version in having the characters drinking all the time. Whedon felt this made the character’s actions more believable. Poo. In a film that got a lot of things right, it’s unfortunate that mistake is what other productions are copying.

Then finally—the quibble I often have with RSC-directed shows—there were some scenes that would have worked much better if the actors had addressed the audience, rather than each other on stage or staring blankly out into the black void of the darkened theatre. In particular, Terry chose to address the “I know you of old” line towards Benedict (in my experience, much more powerful for the audience if shared with them) and Benedict (Edward Bennett) did the “One man” speech (2.3) towards the back of the stage staring vaguely upwards trapped behind a bunch of stage furniture.

To be fair, he makes up for it later when he addresses a woman in the front row after she laughs at him as he tries to sing his poem (“The god of love,/That sits above”) for Beatrice (5.2). But it also shows what he could have done with the “one man” speech as well. (“One woman is fair, yet I am well” begs for the actor to point at someone in the audience.)

But again, I loved the play. The music is good (Nigel Hess, interviewed on the break), there were several interesting choices, and the performances were all good (Don John, in particular, does not overdo it). I don’t mind admitting that I cried several times, but also left the theatre feeling that there’s hope for us all yet.

Dangerous Shakespeare

I just finished watching Antony Sher’s Primo; it’s a one-man performance Sher adapted from Primo Levi‘s description of his experience surviving Auschwitz (If This Is A Man).

sher primo

I found it after reading Sher’s biography Beside Myself about his life growing up gay in South Africa and moving to London to become an actor. I had to read it for one of my classes at the Shakespeare Institute, because he’s famous amongst bardolaters for playing Richard III, Macbeth, and Leontes (as well as recently playing Falstaff in last year’s RSC 1 and 2 Henry IV).

What has any of this got to do with Shakespeare? Well, I’m really interested in exploring the idea of “dangerous Shakespeare”; that is, how and in what ways is performing Shakespeare dangerous?

For example, Nazi Germany’s favorite Shakespeare play was Merchant of Venice. Is Merchant an anti-Semitic play? Can we still perform it today? Should we?

Most bardolaters go round and round about Shakespeare being the “universal humanist.” He was 400 years ahead of his time with his characters and his sympathy for them. He wrote great parts for women, sympathized with black and Jewish characters, and wrote about the horrors of colonialism before anyone even knew there were any.

Or did he? What if Shakespeare thought Petruchio should tame his shrew, Othello deserved to die, and/or it was right to force a speechless Shylock to become a Christian? How would our view of Shakespeare, and particularly Shakespeare in performance on the modern stage, have to change?

I wonder if someone would let Sher perform Primo in rep with Merchant. It might make for some interesting conversations.

What do you think?


Orson Welles’ Othello

I checked the Sedona Film Festival website today and discovered that they were showing Orson Welles’ film Othello. I ran over and got tickets, and saw the 3:10 showing.

It started off with a speech about the film by Beatrice Welles, one Orson Welles’ daughters. These are just mostly notes for myself, but for anyone interested, she claimed that:

  • She sees herself as managing the Orson Welles’ estate; Othello is the only film that she owns. She said that Othello and Chimes at Midnight were the only films that were not “messed with” by other editors; that is, the only films that were untouched and edited only by Welles himself.
  • Orson Welles originally wanted to be a painter, and traveled to Ireland to paint. She credits his directorial eye to this background.
  • She feels Chimes at Midnight (showing Wednesday) was his best acting performance.
  • Welles got his first acting job (originally only in order to raise money) at the Gates Theatre in Dublin by claiming that he was a big Broadway star (actually, she says they knew he wasn’t, but liked his “hutzpah”).
  • The actor in Othello who plays Iago was from this theatre.
  • The film got little attention when it was released due to Welles needing five years to finish it, in which time black and white films fell out of favor. It won a major award in Europe, however.
  • Welles was “the most wonderful father in the world; very funny” (she also however admitted her half-sisters might not have had the same experience with him).
  • She said whenever Welles did not know what project to work on next, he always “went back to the Bard.”

She also brought with her and displayed a pen and ink drawing that Welles made of the last day of shooting in Venice.

Although apparently suffering from sciatica, she was also there for a Q&A at the end. I asked three questions, which she was kind enough to respond to:

  1. Did Welles prepare the script? Yes, she says he wrote the whole script himself. [There were drastic and major cuts, more below.]
  2. What was Welles take on Iago’s motivation? She said Welles told her that the source of Iago’s problems was that he was insecure, and his various jealousies all arose from this.
  3. Welles has a very deep, resonant voice. Did he do any voice training? No, nor did he believe in it.

I enjoyed the film; however Welles hacked the bejesus out of it to get it down to 90 minutes and also added some voice-overs in the beginning to move the plot along. I think a perhaps unfortunate side effect of some of the early cuts is that Desdemona moves to the background; this is Othello and Iago’s story. Desdemona’s early lines are cut and instead she is represented visually as innocent. For example, there’s a gorgeous shot of her lying down on the marital bed with her blond hair fanned out.

There are also some fairly famous lines cut, the most noticeable to me being the “circumcised dog” line (“I took by the throat the circumcised dog, And smote him, thus.”). In this staging, Othello stabs himself first, then says his final lines. He avoids the problem of where did the weapon come from by having Othello behind bars; there’s no chance for anyone to intervene. (There are lots of scenes shot with very prominent iron bars, a visual motif for Othello trapping himself or being trapped.)

The overall effect of the film is dark and haunting and, I think, works, although I felt he cut the actual murder scene a bit too short to have its full effect.

For fun, if you’re interested, I found a 1955 New York Times review of the film.

Shakespeare in the Park – Much Ado 2014 (Review)

I’m in NYC, so the only thing I wanted to do was make it to Shakespeare in the Park. I’d really like to see the John Lithgow King Lear (I’ve seen a couple of King Lears recently, and would like to compare), but right now they’re doing Much Ado About Nothing.

I’ve never done Shakespeare in the Park before, so I was really excited. I woke up early (on a Saturday!) and took the 50 minute commute in from Brooklyn to the Upper West Side. I arrived at the Delacorte Theatre at about 10am, and the line for tickets, according to my smart phone, was about a quarter of a mile long.

much ado line

So I waited the two hours for the ticket hand out to start, then about forty-five minutes to get my tickets. I would guestimate that there was 600-700 people in front of me, maybe fifty still received tickets after I did.

 much ado tix

Row X, for those of you wondering, is exactly the last row.

I arrived to the performance a bit early (it started at 8pm); here’s a photo of the expectant crowd:

park ado 2014

Note the closed gate, pond, and garden which I’ll discuss later.

Before they started, some of the actors moved through the crowd or talked to each other on stage. The actor playing Balthasar (Steel Burkhardt) for example, started from the back of the theatre playing guitar and worked his way up to the stage. Then, as the show began (with some extempore playing in Italian), the great omniscient voice of the theatre manager told us we couldn’t use cellphones, and other important details, to which the actors all looked up as if experiencing the omniscient voice of God.

Which was quite funny; all-in-all it was an entertaining, funny performance. I was disconcerted, especially at first, at hearing the voices of the actors projected over a sound system. At the beginning of the play there are a lot of actors on stage; in hearing their voice through a sound system it’s difficult to know which actor is speaking (at least from row X). I noticed it less as the performance went on, because you figured out which voices went to which actors.

If I was going to write an essay on this performance, I noticed a few things. First, it’s interesting to me that they felt it was okay to add dialogue not written by Shakespeare as long as it was in Italian. Questions of Shakespearean authority; you’re not allowed to add scenes to Shakespeare’s play ordinarily (acting out scenes described off-stage, as done here, being one exception), since this harkens back to the hatchet jobs done on Shakespeare’s plays done post-Restoration (see for example, John Lacy’s Sauny the Scot) previous to Shakespeare’s canonization as England’s national poet. Ordinarily, it’s also a sin to change Shakespeare’s text; here they also felt it was okay to do that. I think they made several changes to the text; the one that I caught was Leonato tells Doggberry that he is too “confusing” to be understood (“This learned constable is too cunning to be understood” 5.1). Maybe they felt it was okay to change the text because it’s a production in the park? I wonder how many Broadway or Lincoln Center productions have taken similar liberties.

They also did a strange extempore bit on this giant gate that they had; if Balthasar played guitar to it, it would open. Not sure what that had to do with anything.

But it made for a great scene in which Benedict (Hamish Linklater) is gulled; as Leonato, Claudio, and Don Pedro try to fool Benedict into believing Beatrice is sick for love of him (2.3), he climbs up a tree, through a fence, over a wall, and leaps from the top of the gate into the tiring house, returning below to claim the dead rabbits he dropped in situ (unfortunately for him, the cook has already claimed them, thanking God–again in extempore Italian).

There were some other creative stagings of the play; the mise en scène included a garden in front and a small pool, which several characters used to seem to refresh themselves by splashing water; at the line “Shall I never see a bachelor of three-score again?” (1.1) Benedict flings water on Claudio. They also used the garden a few times: Beatrice tries to hide in it, Don Jon steps maliciously on a plant to show he is a villain, and Benedict pulls carrots out of it to use as cuckold’s horns.

Beatrice (Lily Rabe) also has a band for her dancing metaphor and colored lights were occasionally used to create mood (heavy blue for Don Jon’s plot, warm orange for singing).

The acting was good in general, with of course some better than others. An interesting choice, to me, was to make Leonato the slow one in the gulling scene (usually it is Claudio that struggles to be convincing, as in the recent Joss Whedon version). Benedict is very funny, often alternately yelling lines at inappropriate times (“the world must be peopled!”) to humorous effect or whispering emotional ones to pull on our heartstrings.

I wasn’t as impressed with Beatrice, but maybe that’s by design? The intention seemed to be that Benedict is in love with Beatrice from the beginning, but really can’t emotionally bare her taunts. This make Beatrice a less sympathetic figure, with a proportionate increase in sympathy towards the struggling Benedict. After having seen the Kenneth Branagh version of the play (Roach’s surrogation in effect here again) I also always wait for Beatrice’s line “Kill Claudio” (4.1.285). I have never seen a Beatrice deliver that line with anything like the emotional power that Emma Thompson does in the 1993 film; nor can Lily Rabe match it here.

The crowd really enjoyed the play, however. Doggberry (John Pankow) got applause twice add he exited, as did Linklater and Rabe after 4.1.

All-in-all an entertaining and enjoyable production. I took a friend (who has been living in Brooklyn for years) who told me she had never seen Shakespeare in the Park before. Don’t let that be you! It’s entertaining, education, and free. If you can go, you should go; you won’t regret it.

Review: Almeida King Lear

I downloaded and watched Digital Theatre‘s production of the Michael Attenborough/Jonathan Pryce King Lear at the Almeida Theatre. It’s definitely worth watching if you have the time.

Digital Theatre has a number of Shakespeare plays on hand, including several from the new Globe Theatre. These, however, you can also get on Amazon. They have a number of other Shakespeare plays however, including this King Lear, a David Tennant Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth, Comedy of Errors, and As You Like It. I’ve also seen the Comedy of Errors–hopefully sometime I’ll have the time to write a review of it–which I recommend.

But this production of Lear is quite good. It’s mostly done in the naturalistic style of acting, which suits Jonathan Pryce very well. He agony at the death of Cordelia is believable and moving; he goes deep down the emotional well. He appears to almost have a psychotic break after the “let me be not mad” speech; the fool holds him in an attempt to calm him down. It’s great naturalistic acting (Anthony Sher would be proud), but during this the daughters on stage seem totally unmoved, which doesn’t seem to me to be a very realistic response. But perhaps this is no fault of the actors; Shakespeare was writing for Elizabethan actors on an Elizabethan stage and wasn’t writing a script designed for realistic acting.

As with all these productions; naturalistic acting has its limitations. For me, another example is that during Lear’s death scene he feels the need to convulse and shake–I suppose intimating that he is having a heart attack or stroke. (He sets this up earlier in the production; when Cordelia gives him nothing he clutches at his heart as if to suggest he has a heart condition). Erin Sullivan has written a convincing argument on this subject, but Elizabethans would not have required “realistic” convulsions to make this scene believable; they would have believed that someone could die from emotional causes, and, I have to admit, in theatrical terms watching Pryce convulse on stage while no one does anything came off, to me, just a bit weird. (Kent does say “Vex not his ghost. O, let him pass,” but would you say that if someone were convulsing?)

Pryce’s howl, howl, howl (5.3.270) was also slightly disappointing; I’ve seen this done to great effect. A supernumerary carries in Cordelia for him (rather than dragging her on, which is how many of the productions I have seen have handled it), and he says “howl” at some of the other actors on stage, as if challenging them to howl. Which makes sense, given his next line is “Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so/That heaven’s vault should crack.” But then, shouldn’t he have done this himself? In other words, how can he criticize the other characters for not howling when he did not? I’ve seen actors do “howl” as a cry of anguish with great feeling, which really seems to work on stage; saying “howl” comes off, again, a bit weird.

But then in the same article I’ll criticize him for ranting and raving in the first act. He gets so angry at Cordelia at times that he seems like a lunatic. Naturalistically speaking, this is consistent–but the problem then is there’s no pathos when things start to turn against him. No tragedy. If he’s just a crazy, inconsiderate, self-centered, angry old man–which you can play him as, it’s in the text–then who cares when his daughters turn against him? They should! He’s just a crazy, angry old man. When he rants and raves in the storm, my mind is honestly thinking, “Well, you should have been nicer to them,” where I think we’re supposed to be feeling emotional sympathy towards him.

I’m also going to take issue with the interpretive choice of suggesting that there has been some sexual impropriety between Lear and Goneril, or especially Regan. When Lear comes to greet Regan after leaving Goneril, he kisses and caresses her as if coming home to a lover. This has become a more popular interpretation recently, but it’s not textual and doesn’t seem to work in production. Again, it just adds nasty and cruel to the list of Lear’s faults, making sympathy for him during the storm difficult.

Pryce also delivers the always questioned “my fool hanged” line as if looking around for his fool, which doesn’t make sense to me. Why, as he cradling Cordelia in his arms in grief, would he suddenly think of his fool? It seems much more likely that he referring to Cordelia as a fool. (Trevor Fox’s very good fool quietly creeps off stage after they lead Lear off to Dover as if he’s thrown in the towel.) But, I quibble, these are choices every actor has to make; all in all Pryce’s Lear is one of the best I have seen. His character choices are believable, he acting very moving, and his madness seems very real.

I just always wonder how much better this production would have been with the lights on. As I’ll write more about later, there is no right or wrong way to produce Shakespeare, but to me it seems to work better on stage when actors can see the audience. Shakespeare wrote for an Elizabethan theater, which performed plays during the day in natural light. So it makes sense that he took that into consideration when he wrote his plays. They can be done other ways, of course, and to good effect. But who is Edmund talking to?

All in all, however, this is a good production with some fine acting and a few interesting interpretations, well worth watching. If you’ve seen it, leave me a comment and let me know what you think.

Production Notes

Other small notes; after have seen live music in performances, I dislike piped in music or noticeable sound effects. Lots of theaters and directors use them; I wish they wouldn’t. Rain/thunder effects are okay, but they, as here, tend to be overdone. I tend to dislike as well how these plays are lit; again, my preference is for the lights to be turned on. Here, other than the already mentioned problem with being unable to address the audience, creating mood lighting makes it difficult for the cameras. The scenes in the storm are lit so badly for the cameras that at points you almost can’t make out what is going on. Cameras are hungry for light.

The sword fighting however, was quite good (fighter director Terry King). A little bit long perhaps, but athletic and believable; Edgar (Richard Goulding) and Edmund (Kieran Bew) appeared to be quite practiced at it.

On the text, they used at least some text from the quarto version (Goneril’s trial). I would like to check how much of it they used; Edgar’s poor Tom speeches in particular I think are from the quarto version. Note to self; I’ll check. Edgar delivers the last lines of the play.

As with most British productions, the verse speaking is good. I like how Pryce emphasized “a rat” in the line “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, And thou no breath at all?” (5.3.321-22). There were some noticeable accents in this production, Edmund and the Fool especially, but I didn’t find it distracting and actually rather enjoyed them.

No problems with the set design (credited to Capitol Scenery); a fairly bare stage, sometimes with a wooden throne/chair, the background is made to look like stone. Nothing of note, but not distracting.

The actor playing Kent (Ian Gelden) is older than I usually seem him; no judgement, just a comment. He does have to trip Oswald and do some physical bits; I thought he was fine. The Fool does some magic tricks when he first comes on stage, which was interesting. The entire production was very physical; Lear slaps Oswald at one point, Albany chokes Goneril and Cornwall steps forward to threaten Lear until Reagan intercedes. I’m not sure the text warrants this, but again, choices have to be made.