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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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?