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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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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.

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.

Race and Othello

So this is a subject that has been beaten to death, but I listened to Emma Smith’s (Oxford) Approaching Shakespeare podcast on Othello. I feel like it’s unfortunate that she chose this subject to be her first podcast; I’ve listened to several now and some are excellent. This one, however, I felt, not so much.

She starts off strong; similar to a Great Courses series of lectures I’ve listened to (Marc Conner argues that you can understand Shakespeare by using a set of tools he can teach you), Smith says that she will give you a set of interpretive tools that you can use to approach any Shakespeare play. This particular lecture strives to show you how to can approach Shakespeare by using the techniques of close reading, looking at Shakespeare’s sources, and genre (she also uses performance).

For better or worse, the question she wants to ask is, “What is the significance of Othello’s race?” She starts off by asking whether Shakespeare intended Othello to be a Sub-Saharan black African or a North African Arab (I guess, avoiding the fact that many North Africans are not Arab), and briefly whether Othello is Muslim or not.

Eventually she gets around to mentioning that she wrote a book arguing that Othello is unavoidably a racist play. Then she mentions you’re “welcome to argue with that.” I get the feeling she is playing devil’s advocate here a bit, which is fine. From a certain perspective of course there is a racist element about the play; I’ll talk about this more when I write about both Emma Smith’s and Alan Cohen’s podcasts on The Merchant of Venice. On the question of whether Merchant is anti-semitic or not, Professor Cohen argues that it has to be, because historically, as a man growing up in the South, even as a liberal, he was racist.

On one had you can say, there were no gender or race studies departments at the Universities during Shakespeare’s time. There was no education about race or gender inequality. So post such studies, of course we are more sensitive and better educated about such subjects than any Elizabethan, including Shakespeare, could be. He probably thought he wasn’t racist, but at the same time wouldn’t let his daughters marry a blackamoor. Or so the argument goes.

The problem with this view, as enlightened as it may be, is that there is no conclusive evidence one way or the other. Let’s look at the evidence Smith gives to prove that Othello must be a racist play.

First, she argues that we’re encouraged to be sympathetic towards Iago and disinclined to be sympathetic towards Othello. She argues that this must be the case, because Iago is allowed to talk to the audience (via soliloquies or asides), and Othello is not. So we’re supposed to sympathize with Iago, like, for example, Hamlet, because he talks to us. In Tibetan logic, the way to answer this is to say “not necessarily.” Can you think of a character in Shakespeare who talks to the audience who we are not supposed to sympathize with? I can; have you seen Richard III? He constantly talks to the audience about how is going to steal, kill, and manipulate his way to the crown. Are we supposed to sympathize with him?

Next Smith argues that perhaps Iago’s “motiveless malignancy” is due to his dislike of Othello’s race. In Shakespeare’s original source material , Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi, Iago (“Ensign” in the original story) hates Othello because he’s in love with Desdemona himself. So the question is, why did Shakespeare remove this obvious motivation? (What Stephen Greenblatt calls “strategic opacity” in his book Will in the World.) Maybe, Smith suggests, it was to hide a racial motivation.

This is borderline detestable. Sure, racism may be one of the possible motivations for Iago’s hatred. He certainly tries to play on racist feeling in 1.1.91-92 (“an old black ram/Is tupping your white ewe.”) But does Iago hate Othello because he is black? Or because he cuckolded him? Or is it because he passed him over for promotion? Iago gives all these reasons, then says, “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know” (5.2). Is Shakespeare hiding a racist motivation?

It seems unlikely. If he wasn’t afraid to write Iago’s speech to Brabantio, I don’t see why he would be afraid to let Iago confess a racist motivation. In Merchant, are the characters afraid to call Shylock “Jew”? Is Shylock afraid to say that he hates Christians? So if that’s what Shakespeare wanted us to think, why not say it? He’s not afraid to let us know that he’s an anti-semite, but he is afraid to let us know that he’s racist?

Iago is not the only character Shakespeare creates with “strategic opacity.” Is he hiding a racist motivation when King Lear asks how much his daughters love him? Because he removed Lear’s motivation from the original source. My personal theory on “strategic opacity” (I haven’t read Greenblatt’s book yet) is that Shakespeare removes obvious motivations because he doesn’t want us to think about that; he wants us to focus on the results. What is the result of hatred? Or perhaps Shakespeare is asking, is the hatred of any other human being justifiable? Can you have a reason to legitimately hate someone, or is any one reason as good as any other? “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

Anyway, the last piece of evidence Smith gives here is a possible etymology for Iago’s name. Scholars have conjectured that “Iago” is a contraction of Santiago, a Saint made famous for slaughtering “Moors.” Whether this is true or not is only speculation; there is no real evidence that this is the case. But even if it is (it’s possible), then this only again implies a racial motivation among the other (possible false) motivations Iago lists, but refuses to name at the end.

And all of this ignores what Smith herself admits; you can’t say what an author’s beliefs are based on what their characters do. Shakespeare wrote characters of almost every persuasion; does that mean he condoned or agreed with all of their behavior? Was he expressing his views with which characters? In which plays?

The truth, as Smith discusses to better effect in later lectures, is that Shakespeare appears to be interested more in asking questions than giving answers. He removes the obvious motivations for his characters; he changes his source material to make his plays more ambiguous. Smith’s second lecture is on Henry V; is he a mirror (role-model) for Christian kings or a violent sociopath? The only answer you can give to that question is “yes,” because Shakespeare represents him as both in the play. So, is Othello’s race significant? Yes, it could be. No, it’s not really in the Orson Wells version. Is the play racist? Yes, it could be read or performed that way. But if you found it that way, it might say more about you and less about Shakespeare. Because what Shakespeare seems to want us to do is to ask the question.