Friday, April 29, 2011

Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark (1969).

Hamlet played by Ian Richardson.

Despite its excellent reputation for pioneering the presenter led documentary format, after forty years in which the structure has been developed and redeveloped it's often difficult to watch and properly appreciate Civilisation now. Epochs are passed over in a matter of minutes and Kenneth Clark's idiosyncratic, dismissive attitude to the material (material in this case being the great works of western civilisation) has an alienating quality.

As you might expect, I parted company with Clark somewhere in episode seven when he dismisses all of cinema as being "mostly vulgar, always ephemeral" whilst unfairly comparing it Michelangelo and Bernini which probably lacks a sense of perspective. On the one hand "a personal view" gives him some latitude to stray out of a simple exercise in imparting knowledge. I'm just pleased this isn't my first introduction to some of these great works.

Before that, slotted in at the tail end of episode six, which largely concerns itself with Albrecht Duerer, Martin Luther and the world of the humanists Erasmus and Montaigne, he assigns a measly ten minutes to Shakespeare. But what a ten minutes! Against the backdrop of a ruin, William Devlin wanders through offering a reading of Lear's wrath against the elements and his own mental decrepitude and in voice over Eric Porter gives us his "Tomorrow and tomorrow..." from Macbeth.

Hamlet is served by a beautifully filmed version of Yorick which begins by focusing on Ronald Lacey just slowly revealing the presence of Ian Richardson's Hamlet and a very young Patrick Stewart in an early television appearance from when he was still predominantly known as a stage actor. Interestingly, though all three were at the Royal Shakespeare Company at the time of filming (as far as I can tell) only Richardson is credited as such in the closing credits.

The whole scene is available above. Richardson originally played the role just after leaving drama school at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre which is where he was talent scouted for the RSC (rather like a footballer) by John Barton, a story he told to The Theatre Archive Project in 2007 (just ten days before he left us):
What happened was in 1959 I played Hamlet. And in 1959… Sir Peter Hall - then just ordinary ‘Peter Hall’ - was director - Artistic Director Designate - of the… what was then called the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. And he wanted to start afresh with a young company. So what he did was he sent spies, - there’s no other word for them, ‘spies’, I suppose you call them nowadays ‘talent scouts’ - all over the provinces to see plays done by these many, many repertory companies up and down the country, to see if there were any promising youngish actors - because Peter Hall was not even thirty when he took over, you know. And one of those so-called ‘spies’ was John Barton, and he saw me playing Hamlet at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and he immediately reported back to Peter Hall, ‘I think you’ll want to get this one!’, and the long and short of the story is that I was offered a contract and I joined the - still the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre - as one of Peter Hall’s ‘babies’ as we were all called, and my contemporaries were Diana Rigg, Ian Holm, Peggy Ashcroft to name but three."
Richardson's rendering of the part here, whilst just a fragment and in the Olivier mode (understandable given the requirements of the series) the actor's performance still encapsulates Barton's philosophy of making the pauses count and showcases the supine regality and mesmerising eyes which he'd employ to greatest effect as Francis Urquhart in the House of Cards trilogy.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Shakespeare Manuscript by Stewart Buettner.

With William Boyd’s experimental remix of Cardenio in production at Stratford, discussions about authorship and canonicity have once again entered mainstream discourse which makes Stewart Buettner’s fiction The Shakespeare Manuscript a timely publication. When an agoraphobic actress receives a box of her father’s papers she’s amazed to discover within what looks like the original leaves for a prequel to Hamlet and despite her attempts to keep the text under wraps until it can be verified as Shakespearean by experts, before she knows it her old financially insolvent theatre group have decided to put it into production and she’s agreed to play Ophelia. Meanwhile her amnesiatic father isn’t sure he didn’t actually forge the thing and the company producer is desperately attempting to keep the operation running.

Like similar mysteries revolving around such discoveries, the through line which keeps us reading is whether this possible Ur-Hamlet will turn out to be the great discovery. In portraying the rehearsal process, Buettner bravely offers some of his own faux-Shakespearean verse which certainly rings true enough to maintain our suspension of disbelief within the machinery of the plot. He’s under no illusion that he can mimic Shakespeare – in places his characters actively criticise the verse either for being created by a genius in early bloom or wasting themselves on a drippy love triangle between Queen Gertrude and two brothers. Mention of Hamlet Snr’s bloody battle against Fortinbras Snr also has the ring of Titus Andronicus about it, also written in the period Buettner’s fictional experts suggest this would have been scripted.

But such textual discussions sit on the fringes of what’s mainly the back stage story of an actress regaining her inner confidence. April is the best drawn of the characters, her slow progress from a paranoia at greeting anyone who visits her home in her father’s bookshop to being able to step up in front of an audience again is compelling, the clever choice of Vanessa Redgrave as her idol creating a perfect touchstone for the character. The men who help or take advantage of her in between are perhaps slightly over-familiar and fans of In The Bleak Midwinter or Slings & Arrows will see a similar group dynamic in play, albeit with a slightly darker edge. Buettner’s sets his tale in the New York theatre land of the late 80s, when actors weren’t just intoxicated by the thrill of live performance and the brownstone atmosphere of apartments and town houses is beautifully evoked.

[A website about the book has been produced which includes a page from the manuscript and discussion amongst the characters about its authenticity.]

The Shakespeare Manuscript by Stewart Buettner is published by Performance Arts Press. $7.99 paperback, $2.79 Kindle. ISBN: 978-0615462653. Review copy supplied.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Hamlet vexes me.

Happy Birthday William Shakespeare!

The best present I can give is the news that you vex me, or at least your play Hamlet does. I’m suggesting for the moment that this is a positive outcome, because if nothing else any dramatic writer wants to create an emotional response in the viewer. Across your many plays, you wrote some of the most heartbreaking, scary, funny, intelligent, angry verse and prose in the English language so that has to have been your aim. Well that and earning wage enough to pay for the many houses.

Hamlet vexes me for an extensive list of reasons, but since you probably want to get to the heavenly inn and celebrate the day with the rest of the company, I’ll narrow my focus slightly. The most obvious reason is that in writing some of the most heartbreaking, scary, funny, intelligent, angry verse and prose in the English language even in just this one play, you sent me on the path of wanting to watch that text interpreted in as many ways as I can and its become a compulsion. An obsession. So thanks.

But my vexation also emanates from the content of the play and more specifically the title character. Hamlet is me. I am Hamlet. Not the details. I’m not a teenager (much prefer your later draft of the play by the way – he didn’t strike me as the mature student type) and my family dynamic is completely different, thank goodness. Plus I’m not Danish although between you and me, I probably do have some Viking blood. My stubble seems to grow back at least three times as quick as it should.

No it’s the sense of Hamlet, or specifically his inability to take decisive decisions when required and the fact he always has an excuse until it’s all but too late. I’m stuck, in life, in work, in everything, yet whenever an opportunity presents itself I always feel as though I’ve several hundred reasons why not, too far away, too little money, too much this, too close to that which puts me back where I was to begin with, stuck in life and work and everything.

That’s the source of your longevity, of course, your ability to offer characters we can all identify with, most often, when it comes to tragedy as a cautionary tale. It’s probably why I persist in watching Hamlet over all others as way of subtly and unsubtly reminding myself I have to do something. It’s certainly one of the reasons I applied for, studied and graduated from another degree, in film rather than literature, but I’m also possessed of a failed English A-Level and tiny attention span so that couldn’t be helped.

I’m also possessed with an inability to tell the truth or at least the ability to omit certain truths. As everyone around me presents brutal honesty, I hide behind over simplification largely because there are probably things I can’t admit to myself let alone to anyone else or because of some vestiges of my low self esteem don’t think people would really be interested. I’m not boring, I don’t think, but very often I do become bored with the sound of my own voice. Blah, blah, blah, la.

Each time Hamlet recedes away from not killing Claudius, I wince, because I know I’m doing the same. Of course, I don’t have some evil king’s life in my hands, just my own, yet the outcome is the same. I keep receding and I fear there’ll be a moment when my complacency will become everything but not to the point of the acceptance we hear when he says “The Readiness Is All …” I want to say I’m ready for everything, but something keeps pulling me back.

And that’s my present to you, Mr. Shakespeare. That four hundred years later, a play for which you may have produced many versions, possibly in tribute to your own son, still has the power to make me take a good long look at myself and keep watching, desperate to find some answers. Perhaps the problem is that once Hamlet finds an emotional resolution for himself, death isn’t too far behind. Hopefully, mine won’t take that long. I’m not in the mood for irony either. Chin, chin.

[Published as part of the Happy Birthday Shakespeare celebrations from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which features contributions from dozens of bloggers from across the web. You can track their work at the Happy Birthday Shakespeare website.]

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Does Hamlet blow a rasberry?

In Act II, scene ii, lines 388–391 are the following lines:

POLONIUS: The actors are come hither, my lord.
HAMLET: Buzz, buzz.
POLONIUS: Upon mine honour—
HAMLET: Then came each actor on his ass.

As far as I can remember (but there have been so many), every actor I've seen or heard says the words "buzz, buzz", the noise a child makes when they're copying the sound of bees, often with a pause between each buzz. But the Shakesyear blog proposes another option: he's making fart noises:
"Partridge flatly said so in Shakespeare’s Bawdy: the editors I’ve consulted venture that it’s “a sound expressing contempt,” which could well be periphrastic for “raspberry,” but they’re not saying in so many words. It would be extremely effective to play the line that way, as a perfect expression of Hamlet’s contempt for Polonius; that Hamlet’s next line is blatantly anal can only support this reading. But this cinches my point."
I'm convinced too. Though my attempt at making the requisite sound leads to the noise a child makes when they're copying the sound of failure on Family Fortunes [via].

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Kevin Kline says: "I would do Hamlet again."

Not be too ungracious about an actor's age, but Kevin Kline is sixty-three. Where did those years go too? This probably isn't entirely serious, but he's looking in Elsinore's direction again:
“The French film was a challenge,” he says. “Certainly doing Lear a few years back. Cyrano, that was a challenge. Not a man of few words, and we decided to do that play only a few months before we opened. I would do Hamlet again, you know. Maximilian Schell called me a while back, he said, ‘Ve should do Hamlet, both of us!’ I said, ‘No, I’m too old,’ but he said, ‘You can do dat part at any age!’ You used to be able to, too. I was actually trying to talk Meryl into doing ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ a couple of years ago. She thought I was crazy. Maybe, but in the old days, you could play those roles into your 60s. Of course, in the really old days, doing ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ I would have played the nurse!”

Friday, April 01, 2011

Shakespeare: Upstart Crow to Sweet Swan: The Evolution of His Image: 1592-1623 (Arden Shakespeare Library) by Katherine Duncan-Jones.

Ask any musician, author, artist or producer of a television science fiction franchise and they’ll tell you that some of their biggest fans are also their harshest critics who'll venerate them in the best of times but topple them when the work falls below expected standards, able to even more viciously highlight the flaws because of their volumous background knowledge. As Katherine Duncan-Jones’s enthralling page turner proves, this is not a new phenomena and even though Shakespeare has now risen to become a literary messiah, during his own lifetime, the man was just as much part of the theatrical rivalry that threaded throughout his peer group and beyond as some of the lesser known figures. As she says he had a “huge fan club” “out there”.

A prime example is John Weever, the poet and antiquary who on the one hand wrote sonnets venerating Shakespeare’s literary output but on the other heavily criticised his portrayal of Sir John Oldcastle (or Falstaff as the character’s name was later changed to after objections from the real person’s family and supporters). Duncan-Jones suggests Weever’s “responses to Shakespeare’s writings appear conflicted”. But his behaviour is entirely “fannish” in the modern sense, especially considering he also created Faunus and Melliflora, a lengthy poetic homage to Shakespeare’s own Venus and Adonis. The internet is now littered with similar endeavours. The book even includes an engraved portrait of Weever with his hand wresting on a skull.

By those standards, Henry Chettle could be considered an “uberfan”. Playwright and printer, Chettle was the alleged author of the “upstart crow” passage from Robert Greene's Groats-Worth of Wit (and the author provides ample evidence). He would go on to produce unauthorised copies of the plays, sometimes inserting his own passages (to the horror of later critics), like the (to quote Duncan-Jones) “charming scene 9, mostly in rhyming couplets, in which the lovers meet and plight their troth in Friar Lawrence’s cell”, before still later attaining a-list status by gaining Shakespeare’s aid in writing Sir Thomas More. Fans of television science fiction franchises will see some obvious parallels in Chettle’s rise.

The achievement of Duncan-Jones’s book is in choosing to focus on these lesser known figures and glancing at the “upstart crow” from their point of view rather than simply as supporting characters in the greater narrative of Shakespeare’s life. While her motive is to tease out parcels of information about his life story that have previously been overlooked, there are no biographies of Weaver available at Amazon, Bill Bryson isn’t beavering away on couple of hundred pages charting Chettle’s existence. The light shines on Shakespeare so brightly now that unlike similar literary figures the shadow he casts is long enough to blot out almost everyone else. Chettle rarely rates a few mentions in a typical biography of the bard.

To be fair to Bryson, Ackroyd et al, they’re working also within in a relatively populist field whereas, as part of the Arden series, Duncan-Jones’s is a very scholarly endevour. As the author warns in the preface, “some of this material is explored in rather minute detail, since it has not been much explored before” and a plentitude of research has clearly been undertaken, with allusions to historical events and other texts wrung out of single lines. The prologue spends twenty-six pages scrutinising an anecdote about a young boy killing a calf, arguing that it may be about young Shakespeare by amongst other effects listing all of the allusions to butchery in the plays. This is an intimidatingly dense text.

But what your left with is the sense that somehow Shakespeare was an even more complex figure than many writers give him credit for. Duncan-Jones convincingly demonstrates, even through the words of his critics, that far from simply writing the plays with acting as a sideline (simply?), an image that still persists, the “sweet swan” was as central a part of the performance end of the company as Burbage or Kemp and may even have played Prospero in the premiere performance of The Tempest, giving his final lines extra poignancy. That’s why it was the initial play in the first folio: it was the work that was still close to the public conscience at the time of his death. Even in 1623, publishers understood the importance of fan service.

Shakespeare: Upstart Crow to Sweet Swan: The Evolution of His Image: 1592-1623 (Arden Shakespeare Library) by Katherine Duncan-Jones is published by Methuen Drama. £55.00 hardback. ISBN: 9781408130148. Review copy supplied.