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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.

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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.