Much Ado About Nothing at the Royal Shakespeare

A-SH-Much Ado (RSC)“Much Ado” as a Sequel to “Love’s Labour’s Lost”!

When the Royal Shakespeare Company decided to  set  “Love’s Labour’s Lost” at the start of World War I (see my review on this site), they also decided to couple it with “Love’s Labour’s Won.” Er, yes. That title does show up in a list of Shakespeare’s works in 1598; and one can assume it is either a lost play or another name for a known one.

So with no evidence pro or con, they decided that “Much Ado About Nothing” was as good as any other and ran it with “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” setting it at the end of World War I at Christmas time. And since Berowne and Roseline in the earlier play are much like Benedick and Beatrice in “Much Ado,” they cast the same actors (Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry) as both couples. They are excellent, Terry being one of the strongest Beatrices I have seen. Now both plays are out on OpusArte DVDs, separately and as a boxed set.

While the production is quite good, I have two complaints. It has become a common fault in Shakespeare productions that the comedy is overdone. So while the rest of MAAN is a mixture of high but human comedy and serious situations, the scene in which Benedick is tricked into believing that Beatrice loves him is staged very cleverly but as pure farce. Again, the first scene with the town watch, headed by the malapropian Dogberry (Nick Haverson), is too slowly articulated (lest audience miss a single joke) and in their second appearance there is far too much pantomime.

There are a good many choral interludes, other than the one called for in the script at Hero’s tomb, and Christopher Marlowe’s “Come live with me and be my love” is heard twice. Arranger Nigel Hess explains things in a short interview in the bonus section. And there is an optional voiceover by Director Christopher Luscombe.

The serious parts are well played and believable: Leonato (David Horovitch), Antonio (Thomas Wheatley), and Don Pedro (John Hodgkinson). Sam Alexander makes a somewhat restrained villain as Don John, while Flora Spencer-Longhurst makes a sympathetic Hero. It is hard to make Claudio likable, since he so easily falls for Don John’s lies, but Tunji Kasim takes a good stab at a difficult role.

The scenery is solid and realistic, the changes working smoothly with the partial help of a rising section of the thrust stage. Even the Christmas tree is put to comic use, but in an over-the-top way.

I suggest that one see LLL first for obvious reasons. And thank you, OpusArte, for the subtitles!

Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Royal Shakespeare

A Superb Production of a Difficult Comedy 

A-SH-Love's Labour's Lost (RSC) “Love’s Labour’s Lost” (British spelling) is a most difficult play to perform today, because it makes fun of euphuism, a way of writing that was both popular and much derided in Shakespeare’s day. Satire is fine, if the audience is familiar with what is being satirized. There are many Latin and Latinate words and phrases in the dialogue, making modern comprehension even more difficult. And many of the comic characters seem just silly to us.

Despite all this, a performance of LLL on an OpusArte DVD, as it was given by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2015, is not only the best production of that play but possibly of any Shakespeare play I have seen.

Set at the beginning of World War I, it tells the tale of the King of Navarre (Sam Alexander) and three of his friends—Longaville, Dumaine, and Berowne—who vow to devote themselves to study and not to have contact with women for three years. Naturally, four women—the Princess of France and her three friends, Maria, Katherine, and Rosaline—arrive to discuss political matters; and the men are smitten. So much for vows.

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Edward Bennett, who plays Berowne

Berowne is the most interesting of the men, cynical but just as much forsworn as his fellow scholars, and Edward Bennett makes him quite likable. His love Rosaline is played with an equally sharp tongue by Michelle Terry. (These two are the Beatrice and Benedict of “Much Ado About Nothing,” reviewed on this website.)

Among the whacky characters are Don Armado (John Hodgkinson), his servant Moth (Peter McGovern), a constable Dull (Chris McCalphy), a schoolmaster Holofernes (David Horovitch), and a curate Sir Nathaniel (Thomas Wheatley). The actors somehow make them human—and therefore funny. I feel that the Princess of Leah Whitaker lacks that command and elegance the role needs to distinguish her from the other three women.

Among the directorial triumphs is the scene in which each of the lovers overhears the others read love poetry to their sweethearts. Setting it on a small section of a roof works perfectly. So does presenting the pageant of the Nine Worthies as a musical in a Gilbert and Sullivan vein. (Some liberties are taken with the text, but no harm done.)

The mood change at the very end is beautifully done, and the lovely song about summer and winter is enhanced with additional lyrics about love.

The dialogue is read slowly and very clearly; and these DVDs have the added advantage of subtitles, which are pretty much essential for this play. The bonus material is, for a change, quite interesting.

“Much Ado About Nothing” is also on an OpusArte DVD with the alternate title of “Love’s Labour’s Won.” These two sets are available separately or together in a boxed set

A “Macbeth” to Avoid

A “Macbeth” to Avoid

A-SH-Macbeth (Globe]
The blood comes from what the director did to Shakespeare

Can you imagine a production of “Macbeth” in which Macbeth gets more laughs than the drunken Porter? Such is the fiasco seen at Shakespeare’s Globe, London, in 2013 when it was decided (it would seemd to perform this great tragedy as a comedy! The results can be seen, if one could stand them, on a Kultur DVD.

Never mind that Macbeth (Joseph Millson) and his Lady Macbeth (Samantha Spiro) simply shout at each other like George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Worse still, Millson throws away great climactic lines (such as “Being gone, I am a man again” when Banquo’s ghost exits) as humorous asides. There is not an ounce of the poetry that makes Shakespeare worth doing. I have seen many a bad production of this play by amateurs, but I never expected to see one this bad by professionals at the restored Globe. Perhaps this director will have a future staging ludicrous versions of operas, which seems to be the fashion nowadays.

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Perhaps the Director had this couple in mind

The cauldron scene is done without a cauldron and no ingredients to drop into it. Just  lot of the smoke to annoy the audience sitting close by. And if Macbeth, as I said, gets more laughs than the drunken Porter, that is also because the Porter gets no laughs at all! Who allowed this production to go through?

And although the notes on the jewel case say there are subtitles in several languages, there are none.

Good Star Cast Keep “Tempest” Blowing Along

Good Star Cast Keep “Tempest” Blowing Along

A-SH-Tempest (Globe)I am of two minds with the Shakespeare Globe productions being released on the Kultur DVD label. Some are quite good, one was absolutely horrible, but all have enough good aspects to make them worth watching. One of the latest, a 2013 “The Tempest,” has some excellent points to recommend it.

Roger Allam, having done a superb Falstaff in the two “Henry IV” productions, is here an excellent Prospero. He shows the right balance of anger, humor, remorse, and finally forgiveness, making him dangerous and sympathetic at the same time. Jessie Buckley’s Miranda is costumed as a somewhat wild thing, which makes sense, and beautifully shows her wonder at the creatures who appear in her “brave new world.”

While the Ariel of Colin Morgan seems too solid—the role is often played by a small actress or a dancer—the Caliban of James Garnon is the best I have seen. Without any animal-like makeup or costuming, he looks like a dirty denizen of some bog and yet the actor has a face and delivery that elicits sympathy. An original and impressive interpretation of a problematic character.

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Miranda and Ferdinand

Joshua James does not look like a romantic Ferdinand (well, Miranda does say that he is only the third man she has ever seen!) and the role is played for laughs. As usual at the Globe, the comic scenes are overdone; although the script does call for a lot of farcical doings between the clownish Stephano (Sam Cox) and Trinculo (Trevor Fox) and then between them and Caliban.

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Clowns meet monster

The rest of the cast are good, although some of their lines are rushed and points are lost. Having decided to use a full script, the director failed an important test. In one scene, there is a series of jokes made about the “widow Dido,” none of which are comprehensible as spoken. Since we know that “widow Dido” was pronounced Wid-doh Did-doh in Shakespeare’s time, that alone would have gotten the laughs sorely needed in that sequence.

And as in every production of this play I have seen, the words of the spirits of Iris, Ceres, and Juno were rattled off with no attention to meaning. Worse, one of the actresses had a voice like a rusty hinge that detracted further from both the beauty of the verse and the meaning of the words. Directors, take heed!

But all in all, the Goods outweigh the Bads in this production, and I can recommend it to those interested in Shakespeare and especially to those local theatre groups who can learn much from these Kultur discs.

An Overblown Midsummer Night’s Dream from the Globe

A-SH-Midsummer (Globe)An Overdone “Midsummer Night’s Dream” from the Globe

There were four major DVDs of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: The 1935 Hollywood version with Dick Powell and James Cagney, the 1968 made-for-television version with Judi Dench and Diana Rigg, the 1981 entry in the BBC Shakespeare series, and the 1999 film version with Kevin Kline and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Now there is a fifth DVD from Kultur of a 2013 production given at Shakespeare’s Globe that could have been the best. But for some reason Artistic and Stage Director Dominic Dromgoole has decided that beautiful poetry beautifully read is not what modern audiences want. For example, I want you, if possible, to listen to Oberon’s’ passage “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows” read by Victor Jury (1935) and Ian Richardson (1968) and then compare them to the angry shouting of John Light, who was directed to make the lines sound as commonplace as possible.

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Oberon and Puck in the Globe production

Indeed, Michelle Terry, his Titania, is also angry throughout her scene with Light; and again much or all of the poetry is lost. Since these leads double as Duke Theseus and Hippolyta, Terry is still defiant towards her mate, except that as Hippolyta, she seems to enjoy annoying Theseus. It is only in their closing lines as Oberon and Titania that they finally calm down and give a slow reading to describe the witching hour and bless the house.

The two sets of lovers—Sarah MacRae (Helena), Olivia Ross (Hermia), Joshua Silver (Demetrius), and Luke Thompson (Lysander)—know what they are about, when the Director lets them respect the script.

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Titania and temporary lover
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Quigley, an interesting Bottom

The rude mechanicals are given far too much silly business and even more ad libs. Whenever possible, they break into a clog dance (once even on grass!). Probably having James Cagney’s over-the-top histrionics in mind, Pearce Quigley is directed to read Bottom’s lines in the most casual way. It is different and somehow it works. But during the actual performance of “Pyramus and Thisby,” he is allowed to utter an obscenity; Fergal McElherron as Peter Quince is given far too many extra lines, and indeed the whole sequence is twice as long as it should be.

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Not what Elizabethans thought of when they heard “stones”

There is one dirty joke that only a Shakespeare scholar will get. When the Wall realizes there is no hole through which the separated lovers can kiss, he punches one right in front of his crotch. So when Thisby declaims, “My cherry lips have often kissed thy stones,” the original audience must have rolled in the aisles. (Oh, if you don’t get the joke, look up what “stones” meant in bawdy Elizabethan.)

So while this is certainly the liveliest of all the versions, it loses much of the poetry and adds too much “humor” to the script. Shakespeare does not need help.

The running time is 172 minutes and there are no subtitles.

“Henry IV” at the Globe

IMG_20150625_0001“Henry IV” at the Globe

   Performances of plays from Shakespeare’s Globe continue to appear on Kultur DVDs, with mixed results. The production of “Henry IV, Parts I and II” (in two separate jewel cases of two discs each) is extremely well done, except for moments of shtick designed to make Falstaff (Roger Allam) “funnier.” Falstaff is funny but never absurd. Here the director goes for cheap laughs from an audience that is assumed not to understand anything subtle.

For example, it is fitting that the prostitute Doll Tearsheet (Jade Williams) should vomit. It is not that she should vomit again, this time over a member of the audience. But to spend a full minute of Falstaff’s (simulated) urinating into a small pot is more distasteful than funny. And the entire episode of Ancient Pistol (Sam Crane) disrupting the inn is so loud and slapstick that little of the shouted dialogue is understandable.

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Roger Allam out of makeup

Oliver Cotton brings little characterization to Henry IV. When Falstaff reports that the king’s beard has turned white at some bad news, one has already seen his beard to be already white. Didn’t anyone in the make-up department catch this? In fact, Shakespeare uses old age as a theme in Part II, and most of the characters refer to themselves as considerably older than they were in Part I. In this production, no one seems to have aged.

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Hal and Falstaff at Quickly’s inn

The story is that Shakespeare really did not wish to bring Falstaff into another play, but the public demanded it. And to tell the truth, that character begins to grow tedious as Part II goes on. Shakespeare is merely recycling the comic material from Part I by extending it. The director does not help by having Falstaff imitate a rock guitarist when playing a lute, and the pelvic thrusts grow tiresome. Since the costumes and setting are all Elizabethan, such anachronisms defeat the purpose of the enterprise at Shakespeare’s Globe.

On the other hand, Allam is an intelligent actor; and for the most part, his Falstaff is quite good. I blame only the director for the faults in his characterization.

Played by Jamie Parker, Prince Hal is forever barnstorming his lines, so that his lowlife Hal and his serious Prince Henry are hard to tell apart. Perhaps some of this is caused by the necessity to speak at full volume so the entire 180 degrees of audience can hear the lines if not see all of the action.

Thanks to a good supporting cast, this is a very satisfactory production of “Henry IV,” with Part I done better than Part II.

The text is fairly complete, which makes for some very long speeches. The actors, especially Oliver Cotton, should be drilled in breaking these speeches into beats, rather than pushing on through them and losing the strings of thoughts so carefully developed by the author.

Much is made of interpolated songs, mostly to cover scenery changes (which are done efficiently by the cast) and sometimes to set a mood. But the dances at the end use modern moves, which again destroys the illusion of “Shakespeare as it once was.”

Note: Try to read “Richard II,” at least the last two acts, or a good synopsis. Most viewers will understand little of the background of these plays without doing so.

The running time of Part I is 167 minutes, that of Part II is 171. The picture is in 16:9 widescreen and there are no subtitles (which are badly needed).

“Playing Shakespere”

IMG_20150623_0001“Playing Shakespeare”: an Indispensable Tool for Actors

Since 1984, English and Theatre Departments have been swapping original and dubbed tapes of a series called “Playing Shakespeare” that was shown on British and then American television. Well, they can all relax, because it has been for some time now available in a boxed set of 4 Athena DVDs—and what a joy it is.

For starters, just as a pop singer cannot take on a role in opera without a good deal of training in a new style of singing, not just any actor can take on a role in Shakespeare without the same kind of reorientation.

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John Barton, head of Playing Shakespeare workshop

“Playing Shakespeare” is a filmed record of nine master classes conducted by Royal Shakespeare Company director John Barton before a small studio audience. The topics discussed are “The Two Traditions,” “Using the Verse,” “Language and Character,” “Exploring a Character,” “Set Speeches and Soliloquies,” “Irony and Ambiguity,” “Passion and Coolness,” “Rehearsing the Text,” and “Poetry and Hidden Poetry.”

The students are a cross section of British acting talent from stage, television, and film. Among them are Judi Dench, Ben Kingsley, Peggy Ashcroft, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, David Suchet, and others who will be instantly recognized as “Oh-where-did-we-see-him/her-before?” personalities.

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David Suchet, not as Poirot, who swaps Shylock with Patrick Stewart

One of the gems among the tasks Barton sets out for his cast concerns Stewart and Suchet alternating as Shylock and Tubal in the scene in which Shylock learns about his runaway daughter’s squandering the money she has stolen from him. It is remarkable how utterly different approaches can both seem exactly right.

Another exercise that stands out in my mind is having one of the actors play the dying Hotspur, first with all sorts of realistic sounds of pain (which overwhelm the meaning of the lines) and then with only a suggestion of pain while the lines are perfectly comprehensible. Many of our modern actors should learn this skill, once they learn to enunciate their words from the start!

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Peggy Ashcroft

The most touching moment comes when Ms. Ashcroft hears on old recording and does not recognize her own voice!

There is also a small booklet with extra information of some use to serious students and teachers. The subtitles are a great help.

One does not have to be a theatre major to enjoy established stage artists honing their skills to endow Shakespearean performances with that extra more-than-life aura that the plays demand. This set is a winner from every point of view.

Our local Shakespeare groups should find this set most helpful–if not essential.

A Shrew is Tamed at Shakespeare’s Globe

 

A-SH-Taming [Globe]A Shrew is Tamed at Shakespeare’s Globe

Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” might be done as a comedy rather than as a farce; but that would be very hard to pull off. After all, Petruchio is sadistic in his taming techniques. And if we consider Katherina as a sentient human being, this play can be painful. Also a modern audience’s attitude toward the husband-is-master axiom is not that of the 1590s. So farce is the way to go.

And that is the course taken at Shakespeare’s Globe production in London in 2012, now available on a Kultur 2-DVD set. Here Simon Paisley Day plays a tall, unsexy shrew-tamer to Samantha Spiro’s unwilling bride. Using an unabridged script, they decided to introduce a drunk “from the audience” to play Christopher Sly, who is gulled into thinking he is a noble lord. This gimmick doesn’t work, because the drunk wakes up to speak Elizabethan English for no discernible reason.

As I found Spiro to be the worst professional Lady Macbeth ever in the Globe production—or parody—of that play, I find her Katherina to be too one-dimensional up to the scene in which she realizes what Petruchio is up to. Then she gets some non-shouting comedy into her characterization. The famous/infamous speech at the end about women being wholly subservient to their husbands is done straight without any winks to the audience or any other suggestion of irony. The audience is deadly silent during the lines and applauds her reading, if not the sentiments.

Sarah Macrae shows Bianca to be the real shrew early in the play and a really nasty piece of goods at the end when the three newlywed husbands bet on their wives’ obedience. (You do know the plot, don’t’ you?)

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Quigley, a very good Grumio

I really like how Pearce Quigley plays Petruchio’s much abused servant Grumio. He reminds me of Baldrick in the “Black Adder” series, and is given that horse-hoof clapping gimmick from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” to make up for lack of that animal on stage. It is not, however, necessary for Day to show his bare bottom to cast and audience when he shows up for the wedding. (The idea is stolen, I think, from a live Monty Python performance in which the entire male cast moons the audience. Very funny.)

The costumes are colorful, the pacing fast but with little loss of comprehensibility. And if it is too much to expect Kultur to include the subtitles that are on the British DVDs (on the OpusArte label), one can always keep an open text on one’s lap. I do so enjoy the productions’ keeping the Shakespearean tradition of a dance before and during the final bows.

The running time is 167 minutes and there is no cast or tracking lists provided.

“Merchant of Venice” Gets a Superior Reading

“Merchant of Venice” Gets a Superior Reading

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By an interesting coincidence, a new CD recording of “The Merchant of Venice” appeared on the Naxos Audiobooks label. I finished hearing it on the very day that I watched an episode of the marvelous John Barton’s “Playing Shakespeare” master class on DVD in which Patrick Stewart and David Suchet switched Shylocks in some of that character’s famous moments.

Not only were their readings radically different but their very bodies and facial expressions added to the masterful but different characterizations. I belabor the obvious, because it is difficult to judge a performance accurately from an audio medium rather than from a visual one. I am sure that this Naxos version was based on the much celebrated performance of Antony Sher as Shylock. I found it hard to get a good idea of how he looked on stage; but he came across vocally as a man who has kept his dignity at the expense of great suffering all these years and is then driven into madness by his daughter running off with a good deal of his riches.

The question of the play’s anti-Semitism is best avoided here; but a lot depends on the Shylock to treat the subtext one way or the other.

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Sher as Shylock in one of drama’s most terrible moments

The fact that the rest of the cast is just as greedy for money as Shylock is well handled in the non-vocal reactions, such as laughter at the money lender. Although his role is fairly small, Roger Allam creates a noble Antonio, while Emma Fielding (Portia) and Cathy Sara (Nerissa) handle their first scene with good pacing and humor. It is not clear if Portia knows in the trial scene exactly how she is going to beat Shylock or is winging it; but any director would be hard put to “show” that on a CD.

It is a good point that the Prince of Aragon (Sam Dastor) and Prince of Morocco (Ray Fearon) are not played as pantomime fools but show just enough arrogance to get what they deserve in choosing the wrong caskets. Good grades to Director John Tydeman.

Older recordings I have heard feature Tony Church, Hugh Griffith, and Trevor Peacock as Shylock. This new set surpasses them all.

The running time of the two CDs is 150 minutes and there are photos and brief bios of the cast.

“Henry V” at the Globe Lacks the Grand Style

 

A-SH-Henry V[Globe]“Henry V” at the Globe Lacks the Grand Style

I am delighted that videos of performances at the Globe Theater reconstruction in London are becoming available again, this time on the Kultur label. The first of the current releases is a 2012 “Henry V” with Jamie Parker in the title role. The text is fairly complete and the show runs close to three hours. And while there are no subtitles, the cast speaks clearly enough, and at a rapid pace. Dominic Dromgoole directs.

After seeing too many modern dress productions of the history plays, it is a pleasure to see the proper period costumes here. I recall how unfunny the comic characters are in some recent productions. At the Globe, Sam Cox makes a fine Pistol, along with a really carbuncled Paul Rider as Bardolph. It is interesting that Chorus is played by a woman, Brid Brenna, but she does not get to speak the closing bid for applause.

Fluellen is your comic stage Welshman, with his obsession for the Roman way to conduct a war and his references to Alexander the Pig.  The joke here is that he is favorably comparing his beloved King Henry to a pig, which brings me to the main point.

Shakespeare was able to see quite through the facades that history puts around its heroes. He knew that Henry V was considered a great English hero and he couldn’t safely deny it in a play. So he lets the Chorus praise the king to the skies, while the play itself shows him to be as scheming as certain recent politicians in whipping up a war to consolidate his power on grounds so shaky that audiences still laugh at them.

Where King Henry IV is shown taking an active part in the battle in “Henry IV, Part I,” Henry V is not seen in action at all at Agincourt in Shakespeare’s script. In fact, the only confrontation Shakespeare gives is Pistol capturing a terrified French knight. It seems that Henry is good at getting his men into a war and shouting rousing speeches to keep them going, but that is all.

(The film versions (Olivier in 1945 and Branagh in 1989) are careful to show Henry as a warrior king. Olivier, of course, was making propaganda during wartime. Branagh’s Henry’s big moment was carrying a dead body across the battlefield. Many stage productions follow as this tradition. Shakespeare, however, knew what he was doing.)

Parker’s Henry gives no indication of the disparity between the usual positive view of him and Shakespeare’s view of things. I would like to hear from some local English teachers and theatre groups about their view of this play.

Alas, following the current trend, all the heightened language inherent in the lines are flattened by a refusal to bring dramatic utterances to any dramatic climax (as Henry’s off-hand “God for Harry, England, and St. George”). It is like playing Chopin with no regard to note values or dynamics. Why bother?