Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

As expected from the title, this is a re-telling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, done by a group from Hackney in London. They brought the story into a modern world, where the mechanicals were police officers and construction workers, where the fairies were ‘invisibles’, the unheard youth. They brought in step, rap, hip hop, R&B. They made the story theirs in some very interesting ways.

The acting, on the whole, was not good – with Puck and the mechanicals (who were hilarious) being notable exceptions. The cast were talented singers and dancers, but they were not actors. And it wasn’t until the first mechanicals scene that they really engaged me, really got me in to their production. I’m told they’re an amateur group, so I’m not going to judge them for this, but I did end up with some time at the beginning to think about things.

And what I was thinking about was this: they took the play out of the original language. Now, I’m not a purist by any means. I don’t consider the text sacred. If you need to, by all means cut it the hell down. If you want to change fairies to invisibles, go for it. And, as a friend pointed out, they did change the name. They weren’t trying to claim this was Shakespeare’s Dream.

But. It makes me wonder… What are you saying when you keep the exact story, but take it out of the original text? Are you telling your audience you don’t trust them to be able to understand it? Or is it more important to get the story across and the text can come later?

Because I firmly believe that Shakespeare is understandable, if presented in the right way. For nearly two years I worked with a company that put on Shakespeare for high school students. We cut it down to two hours, because (due to bus schedules) that was all the time we had with the kids. We had young performers and we played it very broad. And the kids loved it. And they understood it. The language doesn’t have to be a barrier.

Thinking about it afterwards, I began to suspect that the cast were asked to put their parts into their own words and that the script came out of that. The most successful at it was Helena, who took her part right down into Essex girl and it worked perfectly. Some of the others ended up with dialogue that floated somewhere between Shakespearian and street talk, and it didn’t quite sit right.

As the show went on, though, more and more of Shakespeare’s text crept into the play in bits and snippets. I wonder if that was a deliberate choice, to introduce it slowly in as the audience comes further into the story, or whether it was the actors becoming more comfortable with the original text themselves.

There was so much that was good, so much that was new and fresh in this production. And the cast had so much passion for it, so much energy. And there was one moment where it all came together and showed me what it could become. Puck’s last speech. They left it entirely in the original text, and rapped it. It was awesome.

They have something wonderful here, and I think the next step would be to put it back into the original language and bring the rap and the hip hop and the R&B to that. Use the original text, but present it in a way that’s theirs. I would love to see that.


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I saw two events at the Book Festival this past week. One was a talk by James Shapiro, a Shakespeare historian. He was discussing his new book, Contested Will, which is broadly about all the theories concerning who wrote Shakespeare. Shapiro is firmly in the Shakespeare was Shakespeare camp, as am I. And I was hoping that his talk (and his book) were all about grinding the opposing theories into the dust. Not so, sadly. It was mostly about looking at the phenomenon itself, and trying to understand why people feel the need to put forth all these other theories of authorship. So there was also some talk about the history of literature and our approach to it.

Shapiro was interesting and entertaining. And he slammed the author of Will in the World, the first Shakespeare biography I tried to read, for exactly the same reasons that made me want to stab said author with a fork. So I felt vindicated.

I will probably still pick up Contested Will at some point. Shapiro has a very accessible style, and I’m guaranteed to learn a lot. I want to finish reading 1599 (Shapiro’s biography of Shakespeare that tries to understand who he was by examining in detail one year of his life) first, though. Shapiro also talked about his next book, 1606. Similar structure to 1599, but set later, while he was writing Lear and Macbeth. I’m looking forward to that one, but it won’t be out until 2016 (the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death), so I have a bit of a wait.

The other event was a talk by two university history professors, billed as being about everyday life in Scotland from 1600 to the present. The two professors were there, and their published books were about everyday life in Scotland, but they mostly spoke about the process of writing and publishing their books. This probably should have been obvious, but clearly I misunderstood.

They were relatively interesting, though. One of the professors had written about history from the political perspective, which was much less interesting to me. The other had actually edited a series of books about everyday life. He talked about how he and the other historians who worked on the books went about figuring out what everyday life was actually like, because no one at the time was writing about the mundane. That was quite interesting, and he mentioned a couple of books that I’ve been reading myself written by early travellers to the highlands.

In the end, though, I went to the festival bookshop and bought two books: The History of Everyday Life in Scotland from 1600 to 1800, and ditto for 1800 to 1900. I’m hoping to get from those what I didn’t get from the talk itself. I’m currently still mired in the introduction to the first one, but I’ll keep you posted.

The vibe at the book festival was very different from the fringe. Much more subdued, in one way, but with much more being elbowed and poked with umbrellas as people jostled to get a good seat. Particularly in the second talk I went to, I was the youngest in the room by a good thirty years, and the questions from the audience were both educated and stuffy.

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Now is the Winter

I made the mistake of standing still (to be fair, I was standing in line to see Simon Callow’s show) and I ended up being flyered to within an inch of my life. It’s a hazard of the fringe. Most of them I chucked out soon afterwards, but one of the people doing the flyering stopped to chat for a while and got me interested. (We bonded over a mutual dislike of ‘actor voice’.)

The woman doing the flyering for this particular show really picked her targets well. The show – of which, it turns out, she is the writer/director/producer – is called Now is the Winter, and is a re-telling of the story of Richard III from the point of view of his servant. It’s a one-woman show, and I believe it’s a mixture of lines from Shakespeare’s Richard III and some new writing.

I went to see it on my day off. I had read a review stating that it was hard to keep up with the content unless you were familiar with the period, so I found myself going over the program before the show started as though I was studying for an exam. Even so, it was challenging and I had to pay very close attention. Not only was I trying to keep up with the politics, but also with the people’s names. Everyone had both name and title – sometimes more than one title – and they were referred to by either interchangeably. And not having the physical body to which to attach the names made it harder.

It was an enjoyable show, though, with a good gossipy tone. It was nice to see the servant going about her business as she talked, cooking, folding, sweeping and so on. It built a whole kitchen out of just a few props. I got an excellent sense of her and her world, although somewhat less of a sense of Richard. He was the master and quite a distant figure, although it was clear that she adored him.

A good show. I’m glad I went.

Putting it Together

This is a show I’ve seen before. A Broadway musical. (And I don’t quite understand the place that established musicals have at the fringe – why not bring a new one? – but there do seem to be a lot of them.) Although technically, I suppose, it’s a Sondheim Review (not ‘revue’, one of the actors points out in the introduction, as Sondheim wants us to think about the result).

Usually, I steer clear of amateur Sondheim; the intervals are tricky, the music is often not exactly lyrical, and the lyrics are complex and fast, all of which can sound terrible when butchered by amateurs. But this production had received some very good reviews. So, as a treat, I decided to go on my day off. To see something familiar.

And it was good. Great, by fringe standards. All the singers were able to keep up with the Sondheim music and lyrics, which at least meant that it wasn’t a painful listening experience. That said, though, they were never quite able to take control of it. To own it.

To be fair, I am comparing them to the version I’m most familiar with – the DVD recording of the 2000 Broadway production. Carol Burnett, Ruthie Henshall, John Barrowman and Bronson Pinchot leave some big shoes to fill.

And the woman playing The Wife in the fringe production may have been having an off night, because she stumbled a couple of times, and we were all a little worried that she wouldn’t quite make it through ‘Not Getting Married’. She did have a beautiful voice, though, and was one of the best actors on the stage.

I did enjoy it, though. It was really nice to hear some of those songs again. I had forgotten how much I love the version of ‘Being Alive’ that ends the show. And ‘Hey, Old Friend’. And the introduction. I had a big goofy grin on my face.

I’m going to have to re-watch the DVD again as soon as I get home.

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The Demise of Christopher Marlow

I hoped this play would be interesting. Given how much Shakespeare-related stuff I seem to be seeing, I thought it would be good to expand to other writers of the era. Sadly, this play just evoked a resounding ‘meh’.

The theory behind the show (and I have no idea how much of this is based on fact, knowing absolutely nothing about Christopher Marlowe that wasn’t covered in Shakespeare in Love) is that Christopher Marlowe was a spy who knew too much. Another spy, this one with royal connections, felt threatened by Marlowe’s knowledge and plotted to have him killed.

Basically, they threatened to take him to Deptford to kill him and… they took him to Deptford and killed him. Not that the tension was ever going to come from that corner – we all know how he died.

They tried to drum up some tension about whether he would betray Thomas Kyd, with whom they implied Marlowe was having an affair, but that storyline never really came together.

And… there just wasn’t much else there. The plot felt a bit straight-line-ish. The blurb made a big deal about maybe Queen Elizabeth was behind Marlowe’s murder, but her involvement in the action was limited. The plotter wrote her letters saying ‘this man is a danger and should be killed’ and she wrote back and said ‘ok, kill him then’.

The man playing Christopher Marlowe was quite good, with lots of energy. The others were mediocre, apart from Thomas Kyd who was bad, but thought he was good.

I wanted to like it, but in the end I just didn’t care.

Green Eggs and Hamlet

I so wanted to love this play. I completely fell in love with the idea of it. I mean, listen to the blurb: “Rome had Carthage, Holmes had Moriarty, and now, Hamlet has Dr. Seuss. Shakespeare’s classic tale of death, deception and madness told in the style of the beloved Dr. Seuss. Shakespeare is weeping in his grave.”

Sadly, the concept was far, far funnier than the play itself.

Firstly, their idea of ‘Dr. Seuss rhyme’ was broadened to include ‘any rhyming couplet’, and I’m sorry, but that’s just not good enough. Dr. Seuss has a very specific metre (“I do not like green eggs and ham, I do not like them, Sam-I-am”), and they ignored that and just jammed any number of syllables into their lines.

Secondly, there were random passages of actual Shakespeare left in there for no real reason. And I have to say, they’re not exactly two styles that mesh well.

Thirdly, they didn’t know whether they were trying to be funny or serious, and various actors swung back and forth between the extremes. Either you’re parody and you go all the way, or you take the bizarre and play it straight, but this was all over the place.

Lastly, the only actor who could act at all was Hamlet himself. He did quite a good job, expertly walking the line between being funny and taking it seriously. As for the rest… at least two of them were abjectly terrible, having clearly never acted before in their lives. The other two were your average amateur actors.

There were individual moments of cleverness and humour (Ophelia’s “I like the flowers, I like the daffodils” madness speech actually got a snort of laughter from me), but not nearly enough to sustain a 50-minute-long show.

It did make me think, though, that a one-man show, telling the story of Hamlet using the rhyme and structure of one or more Dr. Seuss books could potentially be hilarious. It would, however, have to be a lot smarter than Green Eggs and Hamlet.

A disappointment.

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I’m not sure when I became so fascinated with Shakespeare. Certainly not in school. But somewhere in the last few years it happened with a vengeance.

I saw Simon Callow’s show on Friday, Shakespeare the Man From Stratford, and was completely riveted. It doesn’t hurt that he has made his show enormously accessible to just about everyone.

He tells the story of Shakespeare’s life – or, his interpretation of it, I should say – framed by the seven ages of man from the speech ‘All the World’s a Stage’. He uses text from the plays and sonnets – beautifully and clearly acted – to illustrate his points. When discussing Shakespeare’s childhood at his mother’s skirts, for example, we had scenes from The Winter’s Tale, Queen Hermione talking to her young son Mamillius, with Simon Callow acting all the parts.

I particularly enjoyed his take on Shakespeare’s life. He is firmly in the Shakespeare was Shakespeare camp. He posits that Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, not for money or because she was pregnant (although she undoubtedly was), but for love. That during the ‘lost years’ Shakespeare was living quietly in Stratford trying to support his family. That he left for London to find a job to be able to support them. That his parting from them was heartbreaking.

And then, arriving in London, a boy from the sticks, he would have ended up in the taverns alongside boatloads of immigrants from Europe and Africa – plenty of fodder and inspiration in that company.

In need of money, Shakespeare couldn’t have taken a traditional job, which would have required a seven-year unpaid apprenticeship, and so he turned to a new industry, still unregulated: the theatre. He began as an ostler outside the theatre, as Simon Callow put it, valet-parking the patrons’ horses, but then gradually began to get to know the players. He worked backstage and then onstage, and also as a sort of script doctor, working with a group of others to patch up old plays. And, eventually, he began writing his own.

One of the most interesting bits to me was Simon Callow’s examination of Shakespeare’s school-boy life. To those who think that Shakespeare could not have written as he did without a university education, he pointed out that education at that time was heavily based in grammar and rhetoric. He used a sequence of different texts to illustrate all the techniques Shakespeare was using that he would have learned as part of that curriculum.

The second act covered the adult years of Shakespeare’s life, living and writing in London, buying and selling property, then his gradual ‘retirement’, and then his death. It was still interesting and very well-played, but had less in it that felt new to me.

Though he brushed against it, Simon Callow didn’t retread any of the ground covered in There Reigns Love, his sonnets play. There’s nothing in either to refute the other, though, and I’m happy to have seen both. There are similarities in structure and staging that I quite enjoyed.

All of it, of course, is still speculation in the end, since we have so few concrete facts about Shakespeare’s life. As I mentioned, text from the plays and sonnets was interwoven and acted out as illustration, not as evidence. The thing with Shakespeare is, though, that he wrote about such a wide range of experience that you can use his text to support almost any theory.

As far as theories go, I do like this one. It has made him seem the most human. Just a man, who loved his family, and in trying to support them discovered his incredible genius.

In terms of the production itself… Simon Callow was, of course, wonderful. The set was minimal, as were the props, and both were used well. There was an effective use of lighting to create mood and space. I liked the actual roaring fire that made a couple of appearances, too. As with so many shows I’ve seen this year, there was a projection element with some evocative images, although in this case it was unnecessary, really, since I never took my eyes off Simon Callow.

Wonderful show. Absolutely worth seeing, whether you care about Shakespeare or not.

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Two more fringe shows today. The first was called Shakespeare’s Mothers: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know. The loose framework for the show was William Shakespeare being grilled on a television infotainment show and being held responsible for the rise in numbers of female terrorists due to the kind of women’s roles he wrote. Shakespeare then takes us through some of his female characters, with the three actors performing a scene or two for each. In an hour, we visited Lady Macbeth (she was a mother, even if it was only a throw-away reference), the sisters from Lear, characters from Pericles, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, and a couple of Richards, among others, and (of course) Gertrude from Hamlet.

‘Shakespeare’ was very funny, and I enjoyed all of his commentary. The Shakespeare scenes were… ok. All three performers suffered (to varying degrees) from what I call ‘actor voice’ during those scenes. This happens when actors choose to wear Shakespearian roles like diamond-encrusted mantles and then use Great big Voices to fill them out. It all results in a Great Big Barrier between the audience and any kind of emotional connection with the material. Not at all crippling in this case, but I did notice people starting to tune out.

Personally, I got the most out of the scenes from plays that I knew well. Scenes from the ones I have never spent time with (Pericles, Cymbeline and the like) kind of passed me by, though Shakespeare did his best to put them into context.

But the best part came at the end, when some of the mothers broke out of their scenes to interact directly with Shakespeare. All of a sudden, the whole thing really came alive, and it left me wishing more of the play had been like that.

On the whole, a good show. You’ll get the most out of it if you’re familiar with a wide range of Shakespeare’s canon.

I also saw Darcy’s Dilemma. From the blurb in the guide, which begins “Pride and Prejudice – the story continues”, I expected this play was going to add something to the story. But, no. He covered no ground that wasn’t already better trod by Austen herself.

Set in Darcy’s study in the period immediately after his rejection by Elizabeth Bennett, this is essentially Darcy’s reaction to that event, and really just recaps the story thus far. With a lot of raging and angst-ing.

The script is poorly constructed. Supposedly a one-man show, it relies far too heavily on pre-recorded dialogue from other characters, and twice Darcy walks off-stage to talk to a non-existant footman. Now, either it should be a one-man show in which he creates for us the other characters in his world, or it should be a play with multiple characters. It is, however, neither here nor there.

Not to mention the fact that the pacing was absolutely glacial. Interminable pauses left me repeatedly wondering if one of the many sound cues had gone awry. And the sound cues themselves could easily have been played at double speed and not raised any eyebrows.

Mr. Mickleburgh as Mr. Darcy mumbled many of his lines, and twice left the stage completely empty to shout his lines from the depths of the side-stage curtains.

All in all, it felt like one man’s vanity project – an excuse to dress up in a tailcoat and sideburns and pretend to be one of literature’s greatest romantic heros.

What with the names of Austen and Darcy attached, this show will sell well, but I wouldn’t recommend it. And for a final nail in the coffin? The woman beside me slept through the whole thing.

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Today, on my break, I sneaked out and hit the box offices across the street to book tickets for the shows I’m desperate to see.

I found the ticketing window at The Hub and sat down at the wicket for the Book Festival. There were three on my list of things to see, but the Simon Callow one was sold out. I did get tickets for James Shapiro’s talk about his new book, though, which was second on my must-see list. He’s debunking all the Shakespeare-wasn’t-really-Shakespeare myths. I haven’t read the book yet, but I really want to. I’ve read bits of his other work, and he’s very good. Unlike some other Shakespeare historians whose work makes me want to jab them with a fork.

I also booked a ticket to a session with two university professors who will be talking about life in Scotland from 1600. I’ve been putting together my family tree over the last couple of years, and from my grandfather on back it’s all in the same small area of the Isle of Skye, so I’m hoping this session will help me understand what their life was like.

Then I moved down one wicket and sat with the guy from the Edinburgh International Festival and booked another two tickets. These two were for two different dance companies. I sat down for lunch the other day at Auld Jock’s Pie Shop and there happened to be a brochure for the dance portion of the international festival and I flipped through it as I ate. I don’t usually go to see much dance, but I felt like branching out, and these two sounded fascinating. (One of them is some kind of Maori retelling of The Tempest, which I didn’t actually realise until after I had bought the ticket, but which fits well with the whole Shakespeare theme I seem to have going here.)

Sadly, the wicket after that would not sell me Fringe tickets, so I trouped across the road and around the corner to the Assembly Halls to buy a ticket for Simon Callow’s show about Shakespeare (yes, Shakespeare again) and one for Danny Bhoy.

I worked with Simon Callow, a little bit, a couple of years ago, and he is a thoroughly delightful man. Very intelligent, very articulate, and I love his theories about Shakespeare. So I was determined to see him.

Danny Bhoy is a Scottish comedian who I have seen on endless reruns of Just for Laughs. I like him, and when I saw he was here, decided that he would be my one stand-up comedy splurge.

So, yes. I have tickets! This makes me very happy.

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