Tag Archives: Shakespeare

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

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.

“Now” documentary

I was checking the Shakespeare FB page (I’m not sure who’s actually running it; I suspect it can’t be him), and I found a link to the website promoting the Kevin Spacey and Sam Mendez production of Richard III. I watched two of the trailers and then purchased the documentary.

The production company was exciting for its time because it featured both American and British actors working together in repertory for 200 performances, around the world, of this production of Richard III. I have to admit, my interest was attracted because of the Spacey and Mendez names attached, and what I was hoping for from the documentary was insight into this production of one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces.

Not so much. Like most documentaries, its main goal is perhaps to be interesting. So in an effort to be interesting, it covers a lot of ground: how the old actors got along with the new, how the British actors got along with the Americans, how the traveling got to them, what they saw, what were the impressions of various foreign countries, interviews with Spacey and Mendez–along with various actors and promotors–and how their work on this production mirrored their collaboration on American Beauty, what they did in their spare time, and, finally, a lot interest in bobble heads.

It had a lot of positives though: some of the interviews provided real insight into both actors preparing for roles, how they view their performances, and a few tidbits about the production itself. Confessing that I just saw the Mark Rylance Broadway Richard III, I have something to compare it to.

Of interest to me was the discussion of the Lady Anne wooing scene (always a lynchpin for this play); Spacey felt that it was Richard’s success here that spurred him on to see what else he could do–how far he could push his successes. During the scene where Hastings head is presented, they staged this as Buckingham presenting Hastings head in a box (which Richard cries over, then stabs.) I thought this was a nice touch; in the Rylance edition of the play, when the head was brought out, the American audience laughed at the prosthetic head.

In this production the way they handled Buckingham agitating for the crown for Richard was as a media broadcast of Richard at prayer: Richard accepts the crown via a live stream. The idea here seems to be to portray how tyrants control the media for their own purposes. Spacey also claims to have designed one of his costumes based off of Qaddafi, who was being overthrown at the time.

Spacey also discussed how he tried to play Richard as Richard embracing himself as an actor; that is, the character of Richard understanding that he is playing a part for an audience. I’m studying metatheatricality and its effect on production; I’m wondering if the audience understood how Spacey is an actor playing Richard playing an actor. And if they caught that, could they connect how they are also actors playing parts?

Some other interesting production notes where how the actors deal with laughing on stage (“corpsing”), and Mendez’ advice on casting (“Don’t cast assholes”). Otherwise the only moments I found pertinent were Emma Stone’s discussion of other productions she’s proud of (Peter Brooks famous production of Midsummer Night’s Dream) and Mendez’ view on theatre (“Theatre is only one step away from absurdity”).

If you’re not just interested in Shakespeare or theatre, there are some touching moments in the film; actors relating to each other and one actor discussing his battle with cancer (“Thank God I did what I wanted to do in life”). But, for me, the overall effect was that the film’s dispersed energy leaves it feeling like it needs a center.

Update

Just to record it (so I can find it later), Kevin Spacey also has another project involving Shakespeare; it looks like a documentary about how acting Shakespeare positively influenced high school children.