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

“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.

Modern Costumes Ill Fit Shakespeare’s Poetry in “Two Gentlemen of Verona”

Modern Costumes Ill Fit Shakespeare’s Poetry in “Two Gentlemen of VeronaA-SH-Two Gentlemen of Verona [RSC]

Shakespeare’s “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” is an early comedy that foreshadows many of the elements to come in his more mature works. A young woman dresses as a young man, three men are in love with the same woman, a father stands in the way of true love, rings are exchanged and one is given inappropriately, and other elements that audiences had grown to expect.

Technically, this play is a “romance” (as opposed to farce or problem comedy). Some of it takes place in the woods where is found a band of brigands that might have been the inspiration for the overly scrupulous Pirates of Penzance some three centuries later.

At any rate, the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-on-Avon gave a lively production of “Two Gentlemen” in 2014, and it can be seen on an Opus Arte DVD. I did not follow with a text, but I am sure that it is complete, including all of the silly banter between the clownish servants Speed (Martin Bassindale) and Launce (Roger Morlidge). Taking a chance, they use a live dog to play Crab (Mossup), who steals the scenes from Launce.

The young lovers are youthful enough. Proteus (Mark Arends) loves his Julia (Pearl Chanda) in Verona until he goes to see his best friend Valentine (Michael Marcus) in Milano and falls in love with his friend’s beloved Silvia (Sarah MacRae). But her father the Duke (Jonny Glynn) prefers the loutish Turio (Nicholas Gerard-Martin)…and so on.

The pacing is quick and the dialogue is well spoken (although the subtitles are most welcome); but now and then the cast is directed to shout at one another or the women to shriek with delight. This play is about witty speech, not histrionics.

And that is why I can’t see why the director decided to set the action in the 1960s. Watch the version shown as part of the BBC Complete Shakespeare television series to see how gorgeous the Renaissance costumes are and how perfectly the heightened language fits them. At the RSC, the costumes could not have been more boring. Proteus spends most of the play in slacks and a white shirt; Julia’s dress in the early scenes could not look shabbier; Turio, who should be a dandy, is given a faded colored sports jacket; and Silvia, invariably described as goddess-like, is first seen doing something like the twist in a plain dress. Shakespearian speech sounds wrong in 1960.

Still in all, if updating doesn’t bother you, the production is very much worth seeing.

Richard II

Richard II” Gets a No-nonsense ProductionA-SH-Richard II RSC

I vowed never to watch any Shakespeare with David Tennant after he butchered the poetry of “Hamlet” in the 2009 telecast. Then I saw only the cover of the Opus Arte DVD release of the Royal Shakespeare Company production of “Richard II”; and there he was, dressed in white running shoes and some casual modern garb, sitting on a throne. I groaned and expected the worst.

What I got was possibly the best “Richard II” on video, shot during a performance at Stratford-on-Avon in 2013! The text is loudly and clearly spoken. Except for speaking his lines too quickly, Tennant respects the poetry of the text—and Richard’s character is that of a poet miscast as a king—and gives a creditable performance.

Others in the cast include Emma Hamilton (Queen), Michael Pennington (John of Gaunt), Nigel Lindsay (Bolingbroke, later Henry IV), and Oliver Ford Davies (York). Jane Lapotaire does a star turn as the Duchess of Gloucester in the first scene, while the rest of the cast keeps up the pace in what is after all a very talky play.

My only disappointment is Lindsay, who gives no subtlety to his Bolingbroke. There should come a point at which the audience knows whether he came back from exile only to reclaim what Richard had stolen from him or he was definitely planning to seize the crown from the start. But when I direct the play myself, I will make it clear. Perhaps in this production Director Gregory Doran did not choose to do so.

The stage is a single set, consisting of a balcony and dimly colored backdrops that do not change from scene to scene. (Nor did it in Shakespeare’s time, so my comment is not negative.) The costumes in the first two scenes are quite colorful; but from then on the men are dressed in the dullest colors, designed perhaps to contrast with Richard’s Christlike white garment.

Putting all this aside, the lines are beautifully read, sometimes shouted. Moreover, this is one of the very few Shakespeare videos that is a staged production and that has subtitles! At last.

A very long pause in a scene with Richard and his cousin Aumerle (Oliver Rix) leading to up a kiss is utterly unnecessary or at least given too much stage time. And an interesting change is making Richard’s killer in the penultimate scene not Exton but Aumerle. This is why the tiny scene (V. iv) in which a certain Exton says he will kill Richard is omitted.  Other than that, the text is just about complete.

The two scenes Shakespeare intended to be funny—the throwing of glove after glove onto the ground as challenges (IV, i) and the pleading of Aumerle’s parents that King Henry should and should not kill their son (V, iii)—get the laughs they usually do.

The tracking is very helpful: each new scene gets its own track. This increases the educational value of this disc considerably. The running time is 165 minutes and there is a short interview with Tennant and a commentary. The latter is poorly done, because the sound track of the film is too loud and it is hard to hear what the director is saying. Didn’t any sound engineer or quality control person spot this?

All in all, this is still a grand “Richard II” and not to be missed.

Note.  The “Richard II” seen as part of the Complete Shakespeare series on Public Television and still available on DVDs has an excellent Richard in Derek Jacobi but it does have some cuts. An older production on VHS only with Michael Pennington in the lead role is hard to get and not worth it. Pennington is far too old for the role and almost all the scenes in which he does not appear are cut! There are one or two other videos which I have not seen.

Nevertheless, I will still recommend this Opus Arte disc as the one to have.

Henry IV, Parts 1, 2

A-SH-Henry IV RSC

Royal Shakespeare Company Performs Both Parts of “Henry IV”

Very few go to see Shakespeare’s 2-part “Henry IV” for the political plot. Rather they go to see Sir John Falstaff. My favorite video version, albeit abridged, is that included in the 1960s “An Age of Kings” with Robert Hardy as Prince Hal and Frank Pettingell as Falstaff. The BBC Shakespeare series has Anthony Quale as Falstaff, while the new “The Hollow Crown” butchers the poetry of all the plays in that series and is not worth considering.

Not long ago, Kultur released both parts of “Henry IV” as it was seen at the new Globe Theatre with an excellent Roger Allam as Falstaff, but he was given far too many “funny” bits; and the lack of subtitles made it difficult to follow many of the lines.

And now the Royal Shakespeare Company has produced an interesting “Henry IV, Parts 1 and II,” sold on the same label either separately or as a boxed set. Each Part is on 2 DVDs, each play with a running time of 168 minutes, plus some interesting bonus features and optional running commentary. Best of all, there are subtitles. But there are faults.

The next most popular character in Part I is Hotspur, who forms one vertex of a triangle: Hotspur is all for Honor, Falstaff  thinks it merely a word, Hal seems utterly unconcerned with it until he decides to surprise them all.  I think the best Hotspur is a very young Sean Connery in “An Age of Kings.” Tim Pigott-Smith is quite good in the BBC series. However, in this RSC production Trevor White looks far too old for the part and overdoes the hyper-energetic aspects of the character while underplaying the humor of it.

The comic scenes are paced very slowly, but most of the jokes fall flat. The scene with Ancient Pistol (Antony Byrne) misses fire, but those with Mistress Quickly (Paula Dionisotti) and Doll Tearsheet (Nia Gynne) are very nicely done. I am afraid that Jasper Britton’s King Henry is far too bland, while Alex Hassell’s Prince Hal is adequate but never outstanding.

Antony-Sher-Falstaff-and--008As for Antony Sher’s Falstaff, his take on the role is fascinating. In an interview, he says he sees the part not as a comic role but as a character one. Sher’s face has a certain manic look to it but one of intelligence. While I won’t say he is the best Falstaff of the lot, he is certainly a different one.

Given the complete text (only the Epilogue is omitted) and subtitles, I would recommend this set above all the rest. But do not ignore “An Age of Kings” by any means!