Monday, December 17, 2012

My Year Watching Shakespeare.

Crown Jewels

Shakespeare.  Twenty-twelve was an excellent year for Shakespeare.  Arguably, of course, every year venerates Bill to some degree but with the Cultural Olympiad deciding that he’s one our greatest exports, twenty-twelve was indeed an excellent year for Shakespeare.  Not since the birthday celebrations in 1997, has there been such a focus across the media and in theatres, with the Shakespeare: Staging The World exhibition at the British Museum, the Globe to Globe season at the “replica” with all of the plays in various languages from visiting theatre groups, part of a World Shakespeare Festival.

But for those of us in the provinces, it was still a great year for accessible Shakespeare with his plays appearing across the BBC in various forms which was why at around March time I decided that I’d spend a portion of the year working my own way through the canon, with non-broadcast plays covered by other productions on film, video and audio I’d not had a chance to catch up with yet.  So I printed off an alphabetical list and stuck it to my door, ready to be crossed off as I demolished each testament to man’s creative ingenuity.  Plus as it turned out Geoffrey Wright’s disastrous gangster version of Macbeth with Sam Worthington in the title role.

Macbeth

Away from the many documentaries, the BBC’s first broadcast productions were on Radio 3.  A stripped down production of Much Ado About Nothing appeared in the Afternoon on 3 slot designed to highlight the music Eric Korngold composed for a 1910s production with Daniela Nardini as Beatrice and Liam Brennan as Benedick and although it didn’t hold together as drama due to the brevity of the text it was a treat to hear Korngold’s music in situ and there was real chemistry between the stars despite them obviously reading the play in from a script.  It's just a pity that it wasn't filmed as per an earlier A Midsummer Night's Dream which is still available to watch here.

Much Ado About Nothing

On three Saturdays, the Drama on 3 slot brought Twelfth Night, Romeo & Juliet and The Tempest as well as a repeat of last year’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  If the four shared anything other than cast members, it was atmosphere, especially Dream which was recorded on location in a Sussex woodland which meant the timber of the voices and footprints created an extra level of twilight magic (a production aided by Roger Allum’s excellent Bottom).  David Tennant and Ron Cook bestrode the Night and Romeo in various roles with only The Tempest not quite holding together due to a confusing restructuring of the text. Epic Prosporo from David Warner though.

Twelfth Night, 
Romeo & Juliet 
The Tempest
A Midsummer Night’s Dream

June brought BBC Four’s broadcast of the RSC’s then current production of Julius Caesar.  Produced by Illuminations (whose previous work includes recordings of David Tennant in Hamlet and Patrick Stewart in Macbeth), their grand experiment was to record the play’s public scenes in the RSC theatre during a performance and intercut that with intimate moments shot on location in an abandoned shopping mall, an experiment didn’t quite work for me.  The theatre scenes had a glorious energy, which wasn't quite replicated in the interior scenes at first, despite a magnetic Brutus performance from Paterson Joseph.

But it’s worth noting that Caesar isn’t my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays anyway.  After a tremendous first few opening acts, it descends into a tedious miasma of skirmishes and spats but, and this is important, this production somehow managed to make those lucid and emotionally charged especially as the loyalties of the conspirators were wrought asunder.  But I just couldn’t help, during the scenes artistically shot using iPhones wondering who was holding the camera and how they were able to get all of those angles.  Nevertheless this was a bold statement on how television and theatre companies need not be deadly rivals.

Julius Caesar

Illuminations had begun planning on a recording of the RSC’s repertory of The Histories, but this was cancelled when the behemoth that was The Hollow Crown spun across the horizon.  A filmic version of the first Henriad, this didn’t disappoint in entertainment terms with starry casts, incandescent photography and interconnected readings of the plays even if ambitious Saturday night scheduling during Wimbledon meant the audiences weren’t quite as huge as they deserved to be, watching Twitter on those evening revealed that casting Tom Hiddleston drew in a demographic that might otherwise be uninterested.

Of the four, Richard II was the most successful thanks to Ben Wishaw's mesmerising whisper though the title role and a determination to put the text to the forefront, especially during the John of Gaunt sections, where a slow push in did full justice to Patrick Stewart's enunciation of The Sceptred Isle.  If anything, the Henry V was less successful due to its determination not to be anything like the Branagh film, rather than be its own thing and damn the similarities.  But I was please to have seen been able to cross the rarely filmed Henry IVs of my list.  Little did I know what was to come.

Richard II
Henry IV, pt 1
Henry IV, pt 2
Henry V

Hiddleston was actually the second Henry I’d seen of the year, the first being Jamie Parker’s boyishly regal version in the Globe’s touring production of Henry V which I wrote about at length here.  Then, come August, I was hearing the play again along with a dozen others as part of the BBC Radio 4 Extras repeat of Vivat Rex, the twenty-six part mash-up of plays by Marlowe, Shakespeare and their contemporaries describing the history of the monarchy from Edward II through to Elizabeth I produced in 1977 to commemorate the Queen’s silver jubilee, now re-emerging in her Diamond year.

The series was gamely broadcast on weekday mornings for a month and I giddly recorded them all and listened to them across about four days, lost in the maze of words and history.  In project terms it meant I somewhat heard my first production of Edward III, listed as anonymous then but subsequent “canonised” as at least a collaboration thanks to textual analysis.  It also allowed me to include other playwrights in my personal festival, including expectedly John Ford’s Perkin Warbeck and the anonymous Thomas of Woodstock albeit in heavily truncated versions.

Edward III
Henry VI, pt 1
Henry VI, pt 2
Henry VI, pt 3
Richard III
Henry VIII

Which, as far as I can remember, was it for broadcast Shakespeare.  But there was still another twenty-odd plays to cover, having disregarded The Two Noble Kinsmen due to only recently listening to the one available professional recording within months of starting to work through the canon in earnest and assuming that Vivat Rex had more than covered the shortfall.  Luckily because I’m a fan with an overbearing collector gene, I’ve multiple copies of all the plays in various formats from different companies, so it was really just a matter of choosing what to listen to, thinned down somewhat by having to select productions I’d not visited yet.

The Two Noble Kinsmen

So on my flat screen I saw Ralph Fiennes’s visceral Coriolanus, Trevor Nunn’s RSC production of King Lear with Ian McKellen facing off against Sylvester McCoy’s clown, Nunn’s The Comedy of Errors with Judi Dench curiously recorded in a studio with audience cutaways and pretence of having been shot in the RSC theatre, a bizarre 1983 Antony and Cleopatra with Timothy Dalton and Lynn Redgrave with Nichelle Nichols and Walter Keonig in minor roles, Tom Stoppard’s truncation of The Merchant of Venice presented by the National Youth Theatre in 1998 and a charming Taming of the Shrew from Canada’s CBC in the 1980s.

Coriolanus
King Lear
The Comedy of Errors
Anthony and Cleopatra
The Merchant of Venice
Taming of the Shrew

Audio is trickier.  There are essentially four collections available; The 50s Marlowe Society in conjunction with the British Council released on Argo, the 60s Shakespeare Recording Society productions published by Harper Collins, the 90s Arkangel complete works directed by Clive Brill and the BBC radio versions produced in and around the millennium along with a smattering of classic radio releases.  All share some extraordinary casting choices often dictated by contemporary productions but unfortunately they’re also incredibly inconsistent, demonstrating that even the best plays can be rendered unlistenable through bad choices.

In other words, while you might assume the Argo version of As You Like It and might be boring and bobbins and the Arkangel Troilus and Cressida a treat, the reverse is true, but its reversed again when comparing Argo’s unfunny Merry Wives of Windsor and Arkangel’s superb The Winter’s Tale.  John Gielgud crops up as Time in the latter and can also be heard narrating their poignant Pericles, and it’s casting choices such as these which led me, despite their bland Cymbeline to defaulting to ArkAngel anyway.  Their treatment of King John gives it the panto welly it needs, the Timon of Athens a clear, logical communication substituting the new National Theatre production I couldn’t get to.

As You Like It
Troilus and Cressida
Merry Wives of Windsor
The Winter’s Tale
Pericles
Cymbeline
King John
Timon of Athens

Arkangel is also the place to go to hear a young Damien Lewis offer his Valentine in the neglected The Two Gentlemen of Verona (opposite Michael Maloney’s Proteus) and Harriet Walter’s expressive Tamora in Titus Andronicus.  But eventually I had to resort the Argo with their rather neutral interpretation of Love’s Labour’s Lost and the HarperCollins Measure for Measure in which Sir Ralph Richardson and Margaret Leighton manage to drain their dialogue of all its subliminal bawdiness against which Gielgud’s Duke seems perfectly cast even if he doesn’t quite manage to emphasise the shiftiness inherent in the role.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Titus Andronicus
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Measure for Measure

There was a gap in the middle for the Olympics, which lasted even longer once I became addicted to the Paralympics too.  But eventually I completed the list somewhat were I started six months ago with the BBC All’s Well That Ends Well with Emma Fielding, Siân Phillips and Miriam Margolyes produced to celebrate the millennium and Michael Grandage’s Othello for the Donmar Warehouse recorded for the BBC in studio by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ewan MacGreggor, Hiddleston (again) and Kelly Reilly (which again I wish had been filmed), ending finally with Argo’s dull Hamlet, which I reviewed here.  And if all that’s been exhausting to read you should have listened to some of them.

All’s Well That Ends Well
Othello
Hamlet

If the project demonstrated anything to me, it’s that most of the cliché’s are true.  There really isn’t anyone like Shakespeare for the depth and quality of language, for investigating the human spirit, for capturing our national identity.  But like I said that it’s then up to the director and actors to communicate that language, story and history to the audience, to believe in what they’re doing.  Surprisingly it’s the so-called obscurities which came out best, especially later when listening to the audios, where when someone more used to Lear is handed Pericles they find another character of dimension.

But it's also suggested that every generation deserves its complete works because what all of these endeavours capture, from Vivat Rex to ArkAngel, isn't just an interpretation of the text, but a snapshot of the theatrical life of the nation through directors and through casting.  Television hasn't had a complete works since the 80s, audio since 1998, and although in both cases the BBC is slowly recording version of some of the plays, it's those obscurities that could do with some attention.  Now that Edward III and others have joined the canon, isn't it time for them to be given some professional attention?

[This post was originally written as part of the Review 2012 series on my personal blog, the rest of which can be seen here.]

Saturday, December 15, 2012

35 John Duttine



Hamlet played by John Duttine.
Directed by Gordon House.

The BBC’s Research and Development group has built a prototype which puts the BBC World Service on the web, making over seventy thousand programmes from the past sixty years available to listen to here. Still in closed testing, I’ve been lucky enough to have been given access (which might be able to ask for too via the details on their blog) and have spent the past few weeks in an agog state, boggling at the mass of programming at my finger tips on hundreds of topics across dozens of genres.

Of course my first search was the Hamlet, of course it was, and apart from documentaries, magazine shows and reviews, sure enough there is at least one production, this production. Originally broadcast in two hour long episodes on Sunday 4th and Tuesday 6th September 1983, adapted for radio by Colin Davis, directed by Gordon House, as you can see starred raffish John Duttine in the title role (his appearance in Day of the Triffids is pictured) and what a privilege to have been given the opportunity to listen.

At first, as audio Hamlets go, it seems superficially orthodox. The sound design is basic and period, with echoes for the interior of the castle, harsh winds for the exterior, scene changes are punctuated by some jingly atonal tubular bells and noodling on a pipe organ, Cyril Shaps’s Polonius is a typically bumbling old buffer with little room for a military mind (no Reynoldo scene) with Hamlet Snr played by famous voiceover artist John Westbook to give the character some spooky gravitas.

Except all the while us listeners, if we’re familiar with the play, notice that Davis in his adaptation experimenting somewhat with the structure of the text and in reducing it to fit the timeslot is making some interesting character-based decision, especially in relation to Hamlet. There’s nothing online at all that I can see about the production, which is a shame because I’d love to know the extent to which the adaptation was done in collaboration with the director and actors or if these are Davis’s alone.

After the Ghost, Davis cuts the swearing scene (“Sweeearrr…”) so to add some time for Hamlet to be off stage (off mic) transposes the introduction of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (in what amounts to their longest scene) with Ophelia’s description to her father of Hamlet’s visit which then leads almost directly into Polonius explaining to the King and Queen that their son is mad and the plan that become the nunnery scene later.

Except, and this is where is becomes really interesting, Davis also cuts the Fishmonger which offers a clue as to how he, the director and Duttine view their Hamlet. In losing Fishmonger, we lose the wilder metaphoric excesses of the characters’ “mania” or “faux-mania” and this is repeated when Claudius asks the prince where he’s placed Polonius’s body and he tells him directly, no convocation of politic worms are e'en at him.

This is one of those sane Hamlets you hear about and rarely played. Or rather this is a Hamlet who seems entirely in control of his faculties and whose madness isn’t a mental illness, but anger. He’s an even more sinister and cruel in places than Peter Vaughn’s Claudius, a figure much more representative of the blandness of evil, only really showing emotion and inconstancy during the prayer scene. When Hamlet’s confronting his mother in the closet, we’re not sure if he won’t do her in as well.

Yet there’s still a constant element of doubt as to whether he’s faking these mood swings too, it’s not just controlled anger. Duttine's is a very public “To Be…”, watched by Polonius and Claudius with Ophelia evidently in proximity but when he spies her, his “Soft you now! The fair Ophelia!” so often played as a way of attracting her attention is internalised, as though he’s realised what he’s about to do, what he must do because he’s being watched, and doesn’t like it. Which suggests these choices have to have been collaborative to some extent.

All of which said, presumably dependent on the timeslot and utility, this is still a Hamlet which includes the greatest hits, from Polonius’s advice through to all of Hamlet’s speeches with the exception of “to the manner born” even to the point of including Fortinbras and his Captain, textually missing in action up until that point, so that “How all occasions do inform against me” can be included with some logic (even if the warring army arguably appears from nowhere in much the same way Laertes does at the end of the Welles adaptation).

The break in story occurs just before an all male Mousetrap, as Polonius agrees that Hamlet should be sent to England and Claudius says “It shall be so. / Madness in great ones must not unwatch'd go.” It’s an unusual point, especially given the day between the broadcast of the episodes, but it does mean that episode two begins with the ear catching spectacle of the play, which while rushed through, also underscores the aspect of theatricality and “play” inherent in the story.

The climax is pretty traditional, even if the sword fight is pretty swift and Osric is retained, though Fortinbras’s reappearance at the close jars with the perfectly tender way in which David Horovitch’s stalwart Horatio says, “Good night, sweet prince” which feels like the emotional conclusion of this production, though the mood is retained somewhat by the suitably processional music composed by Bernard Shaw (not George).

There's plenty more Shakespeare in the World Service prototype, along with rare productions of Early Modern Drama, though it's worth noting that it's still relatively populist in its choices, there's no Arden of Faversham or anything by Philip Massinger.  But plenty of Marlowe.  Not that I've the time to listen to any of it.  But at least I found the Hamlet.  At least I did that.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

So Long, Shakespeare by Tom Brown published.

This time last year, writer Tom Brown was kind enough to mention me, or rather the @shakespearelogs twitter feed in an article for the Around The Globle Magazine and now he's been in touch to let me know that his book, So Long, Shakespeare has now  been published.  Here's the synopsis:
"The world is about to discover the true author of Shakespeare's plays - and it's not the man from Stratford...

"Hollywood visionary Joe Seabright has one more movie to make in his blockbusting sci-fi saga - which means one last chance to win his longed-for Oscar. Alas, his writing is as wooden as a plank, and desperately needs improving for his dream to become reality.

"Through a miraculous feat of genetic enhancement, Joe inspires himself with Shakespeare's creativity, only to write a screenplay so teeth-itchingly terrible it can mean only one thing: 'Shakespeare' didn't write 'Shakespeare's' plays.

"Meanwhile, in London, authorship boffin Wendy Preston leads her jolly band of Shakespeare-sceptics in their annual conference - little guessing that her life is about to be turned upside down, and an impossible truth uncovered at last.

"So Long, Shakespeare throws together the worlds of Shakespeare and space opera to create a boisterous cultural comedy full of big questions and even bigger egos. Along the way we meet a brilliant, beautiful geneticist, a spooky collector of great artists' DNA, and an embattled mathematician, desperately flailing for a numerical grasp of human artistry. From start to finish, it's a rollicking summation of everything that makes us care about great art, and the geniuses who create it. "
The Kindle edition is available here

Friday, December 07, 2012

Shakespeare at the BBC: The BBC Television Shakespeare on YouTube.

At the beginning of this month, BBC Worldwide began uploading archive television to its YouTube channel which includes samples from the BBC Shakespeare collection.  So far there are seven plays, all complete:

As You Like It

The Tempest

Hamlet

Macbeth

Julius Caesar

The Merchant of Venice

Othello

The Wikipedia has a typically voluminous article with cast lists and background to the series. The rest of BBC Worldwide's uploads are here, whole series of documentaries and dramas including Terry Jones's Medieval Lives.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Shakespeare at the BBC: On The Road with Jonathan Miller.



This week's episode of the excellent Matthew Stadlen presented series from BBC News (which shares its tone with The South Bank Show or Omnibus) greets Jonathan Miller as he once again oversees King Lear, on this occasion for City Lit, the centre for adult learning, with, as you can see, plenty of rehearsal footage which highlights his directing style.

You can watch it here on the iPlayer for the next week.

Just so that there's something in this post when that expires or it's inevitably uploaded to YouTube, here's a link to Miller talking in general terms about directing Lear on Charlie Rose in 2004, also on YouTube.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Eyewitness: Experiencing Hamlet completely fresh.

This comment from The Guardian is self-explanatory:


This is why, even with classical theatre, I'm trying to stay completely spoiler free.  Not too long ago I attended the theatre and ten minutes before the play was due to start, the audience member behind me began reading a full synopsis of the play she'd pulled from the web.  I sat with my fingers in my ears.

In the end I left the performance at the interval.  It was an awful production and I decided that I'd save the ending for a version I was enjoying.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Shakespeare joins AT&T's security team.



Well, this is one way to deal with corporate training. Here's "The Bardster" in love. Here are the rest.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Google Cultural Institute's Hamlet photographs from the LIFE Magazine archive.

In their ongoing endeavour to make all the world's knowledge searchable, Google has teamed up with an array of museums and archives to produce Google Cultural Institute.  The Museum's Association has some background.  Most of the venues are related to great cultural shifts or dedicated to commemorating awful moments in human history, Anne Frank House or the Nelson Mandela Centre for History.

Also in the mix is LIFE's Magazine's extraordinary collection.  These are not new to Google, and have been part of the image search for a few years, but Google Cultural Institute's presentation makes them far more accessible and provides a much richer experience in information terms.  Inevitably I wanted to see if some of the production history of Hamlet is available, and oh the riches.

Here then is LIFE Magazine's Hamlet history:

1865     Henry Irving
1956     Siobhan McKenna
1963     George Grizzard
1969     Nicole Williamson

* and not Greigud as the database would have it.

The Chamberlain Hamlet seems to be this production for the ITV Sunday Night Theatre, adapted by John Barton and Michael Redgrave as Polonius, Alan Bennett as Osric, Martin Shaw as Horatio and with John Gielgud as the Ghost.  Pieces of a fifth generation VHS copy of it are available on YouTube, but the sound's too horrendous to listen for too long.  Chamberlain has recently turned up in indie documentary Three Days of Hamlet as Polonius.

There are also a range of images listed under the headings Lit Shakespeare Hamlet and The Show Shakespeare Hamlet though the data on those is negligible though there seem to be line drawings of the likes of Kean.  When I have a moment I'll check through and see who's there and add them to the above chronology.  Nonetheless this is a fascinating collection especially the Burton photographs which include some colour images.

Monday, October 08, 2012

34 Anthony White


Hamlet played by Anthony White.
Directed by George Rylands.

In the late 50s and early 1960s, under the auspices of the British Council to increase understanding of Shakespeare abroad, the Marlowe Dramatic Society, a theatre group for Cambridge University students aided by professional actors, set about recording all of Shakespeare’s plays for release by the Argo label initially on vinyl (in mono and stereo!) and later cassette. I first encountered them at school when researching my A-Level at the Central Library in Liverpool, shelves full of records in austere blue boxes with Liverpool City Council emblazoned on them in gold lettering (which I know for sure because when they were sold off years later I managed to buy their copy of Measure for Measure). I have a memory from the 1990s of listening to their production of Cymbeline, copy of a complete works in my lap.  I remember enjoying the language but not really understanding the plot.  Having listened to Cymbeline again in a different version over the summer, I'm not sure my appreciation has much changed.

The Hamlet has a few useful points of interest. The Ghost’s appearance is heralded by a peel of what sounds like trumpets which saps it of any sense of “mystery” but does at least underscore the regality of Hamlet’s father. I’ve not been able to find a complete cast list, but I’m sure it’s Derek Jacobi’s voice which can be heard as Fortinbras’s Captain, which would make sense since he’s an alumni of the Marlowe Society. The female player sounds like Judi Dench and Osric could be Kenneth Williams. Whoever’s playing Polonius interprets the man as the ancient old dodderer who appears in countless illustrations with his lengthy beard, which makes little sense in the context of the moment when he sends Reynaldo to spy on Laertes. Oh and the duel is intercut with the sounds of battle and a peel of trumpets to indicate the encroachment of Fortinbras’s army, a rare audio addition which prefigures the Branagh film.

Unfortunately elsewhere, like so many of these Marlowe productions this is an incredibly dull and often frustrating listen. In between rendering the text with all the earnestness of a 1950s news report, few of the actors tackle their roles as though they’re characters, often treating each of their lines as though they’re unconnected to the others or else any emotional through line spread across an entire speech rarely differentiating changes in thought. A contemporary review argues that the prince “starts weakly, but gathers strength and authority. His sibiliants are aggressive, but his passions magnificent”, which, assuming that the writer’s referring to Anthony White, the actor not his character, is amazingly sympathetic to a performance in which the advice to the players sounds like a training day in a call centre and whose death has all the tragedy of losing a remote control down the back of the sofa.

As I’ve said before, Hamlet or indeed any Shakespeare play isn’t simply a text to be read or more specifically in this case, read out loud. While I understand the need for clarity given one of these production’s primary utilities, that text can become lost in translation if there isn’t a real human emotion behind it, if as is so often the case here, there’s only the vaguest sense that these characters are related to one another or to create an atmosphere. There are individual shining moments, Ophelia’s madness, Claudius’s prayer, the Mousetrap, oddly, though it’s dented slightly by the inclusion of the dumb show which is read in via Shakespeare’s stage directions which only makes dramatic sense if you assume that its being described in the space while the actual mime is occurring. Whoever it is playing Gertrude is really quite good too, but handstung by director George Rylands lack of a particular vision for what the play’s supposed to be about. I simply can’t tell is Hamlet’s supposed to be mad or not.

All of which sounds wildly cruel and having listened to it yourself thanks to that Spotify player, might just consider that its just dated and that I’m simply criticising the mode of acting which was prevalent in that era. That might be true. I wasn’t much of a fan of Gielgud’s audio rendering of the same era. Or Paul Schofield’s which was published at roughly the same time.  Both of them were great actors.  Legends. White too was a stalwart of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (which later became the RSC) so I'm willing to entertain that there's an expectation presentment mismatch.  But I can only provide an opinion on what I've heard and what I've heard are performances in which the passions seem to be engaged in the wrong places and lacking in psychological complexity.  It says much that when EMI re-released these Argos in the 80s, they swapped out this original production for the superior Jacobi Old Vic version (which is why it’s taken so long for me to alight here).

Nevertheless there’s a definite sense in being steeped in a kind of history listening to this recording. It is a rarity and having listened to say many of the other Marlowe Players productions (even if I’ve not enjoyed many of them) it’s good to tick it off that list. The provenance of the recording’s open to question. The album cover on the Spotify version is very home made, dated. The recording itself is directly from a vinyl copy; the clicks and drop outs are all there and the sound becomes distorted as it reaches the end of the each of the sides. There’s also a pretty big mistake. Part 4 is an exact copy of Part 3, which means its missing the fishmonger, the arrival of the players and the initial greeting with R&G. So, yes, this is a review of an incomplete recording. But given that this is the only recording available, it’d be wrong not to add it to this list. Some of these productions are a revelation. Some of them are a box ticking exercise. The joy is, I’m never always sure which it’s going to be.

You can make up your own mind. Here it is on Spotify:



If you're looking at this post in RSS you might have to open the post in order to see the Spotify embed.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Tragedy of Mariam (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Ramona Wray.

Elizabeth Cary was born in the mid-1590s at Burford Priory in Oxfordshire. She was educated at home, mostly in ancient languages including Hebrew. She was married in 1602 to the soldier John Davies and amid giving birth to ten children and following her husband’s promotion to Ireland, she became highly regarded in the community launching an apprenticeship scheme for poor and orphaned children. She would later return to England but after a short spell of imprisonment due to her conversion to Catholicism, and estrangement from her Protestant husband, poverty overwhelmed her and she died, penniless in 1639.

Ironically given the relative obscurity of her work outside academic circles then and now, our understanding of her life has been enhanced beyond most of her contemporaries because a decade after her birth her daughter Lucy penned a biography. If only one of Shakespeare’s children had been as interested. This work is also a reason why we know that during her already full life, she also became an accomplished scholar, with a strong published history which included historical texts, poetry and drama, including The Tragedy of Mariam, now published by Arden’s Early Modern Drama.

Billed as the first early modern play written by a woman, this dramatises the sixteen year relationship between notorious Herod and his wife Mariam “telescoped” into twenty-four hours retaining the classical unity of drama and synthesising as the cover synopsis describes a decade and half's worth of “family intrigues, missing monarchs and extra-marital liaisions” as well as “madness and martyrdom”. One of a number of plays in the that period working from religious subjects, this is widescreen epic four hundred years before Cecil B De Mille picked up a camera played amongst a cast of few within a private setting.

In contrast to the other texts in the series, Cary’s play is an example of closet drama written either to be read or performed within a private setting perhaps by amateurs (though there's no evidence of Mariam having been acted in her lifetime). As Wray’s blistering introduction indicates, that’s diminished its reputation and stifled academic consideration of the work; she mentions originally having greeted the play at college through a nearly unreadable version photocopied from microform. As I’ve said before, that’s why Arden’s work is so important, and that of New Mermaids too: producing readable copies of otherwise obscure plays, revealing a variety of drama from the period beyond the usual suspects.

But more recent editions have led to reappraisals and as Wray's discussion elucidates, Cary’s writing is as rich as any of her contemporaries with diverse literary allusions and a solid thematic apparatus investigating as sections of the introduction indicate, Jerusalem as a modern city, the tyranny of empires in this case Rome, the role of women in that society exemplified by Mariam treatment at the hands of her husband with her ensuing martyrdom and how beauty and sexuality are codified through her relationship with her sister Salome not to mention the parallels the story has with Cary's own biography.

As is customary, there’s a thorough discussion of the contemporary text, in this case a single Quarto publication in 1613, so there’s little need for the investigation into textual difference seen in other Arden, barring printing errors and sections omitted when the play entered the public realm. There’s also surprisingly a short production history which charts the efforts of colleges and the odd semi-professional theatre company to mount productions of Mariam the general consensus being that its entirely possible to produce an exciting, thoughtful evening with some ingenuity. As Wray suggests, it’s about time a professional theatre company took the work on board and revealed it to the wider public.

The Tragedy of Mariam (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Ramona Wray. Methuen Drama. 2012. RRP: £9.99. ISBN: 9781904271598. Review copy supplied.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Shakespeare For A New World in Manhattan.

Hello, Stuart!

My name is Sarah Eismann and I am the Artistic Director of Manhattan Shakespeare Project - Manhattan’s All-Female Shakespeare Company.

We are currently trying to raise funding and awareness for our latest project: Shakespeare For A New World: The Palestinian Voice. We are sending two teaching artists and a documentary film director to Palestine to work with students and artists in Ramallah on how to use Shakespeare to create lines of communication between culturally diverse communities. Here is the link to our IndieGoGo campaign: http://www.indiegogo.com/shakespeare-for-a-new-world

We were hoping you could mention our project on your site and possibly link to it.

If you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact me, or visit our website for more details: manhattanshakes.org

Thank you so much for your time and consideration!

Sarah Eismann
Artistic Director - Manhattan Shakespeare Project

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Shakespeare at the BBC: Shakespeare Unlocked

Coming up on Friday at 4am in the morning on BBC Two, Shakespeare Unlocked, the twilight education strand will be covering the RSC's Julius Caesar which should act as an excellent companion piece to the BBC/Illumination's recent adaptation.

If previous episodes, filleted into the clips on the website, are an indication, these will be a valuable insight into the rehearsal process with the actors and director talking about their process.  It'll also be interesting to see if they use footage filmed in the theatre or the aforementioned studio version.

Update: The whole programme in the form of clips is now online.

Globe to Globe festival's Hamlet now available at The Space

Now posted to The Space, finally, is Meno Fortas's production of Hamlet, as performed as part of the recent Globe to Globe festival at Shakespeare's Globe.

There's not much more to say than that. Other than I will review it when I have access to a viable web connection and that I previous wrote about it here.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

The Liverpool Shakespeare Festival 2012

The Liverpool Shakespeare Festival 2012 begins soon with productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream ...
"Hermia loves Lysander loves Helena loves Demetrius loves Hermia.

A night of magic and music in Liverpool clubland as four friends try to escape the wedding plans that their parents have put in place. Fairies and dreams light up the night as love tries to find its way. But the course of true love never does run smooth and there is mischief to be had."
And the Scottish Play:
"Gang warfare rages on the streets of Liverpool. General Macbeth is elevated to Thane of Cawdor, the right hand man of Duncan, the gang’s undisputed Kingpin. A loyal soldier, Macbeth is set to be leader one day if he bides his time. He can be Kingpin sooner if he listens to his Lady, screws his courage to the sticking place and takes matters into his own hands."
Both featuring the same cast with includes Michael Ryan (Across the Universe / Hollyoaks) and Zoe Lister (Hollyoaks / Doctor Who) and both at the Royal Court Theatre between 21st September and 13th October.  Full details available here.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Shakespeare at the BBC: Prefaces to Shakespeare on Radio 4?

There's been a curious addition to BBC Radio 4's programme database.

During the broadcast period of the BBC Shakespeare series in the late 70s and early eighties, Radio 4 broadcast a series of "Prefaces to Shakespeare" in which well known actors, directors and writers offered introductions to plays.

If that sounds familiar, they were the inspiration for the recent television series, Shakespeare Uncovered, whose original title was to be Prefaces to Shakespeare (and still is on the Amazon listing).

The Hamlet edition of the original radio programme introduced by Derek Jacobi from May 1980 is available to stream at the BBC Archive.

Now, Prefaces to Shakespeare has been added to Radio 4's website, with episode pages added for three of the plays:

Henry V with Robert Hardy (originally broadcast Fri 21 Dec 1979)
King Lear with Tony Church (originally broadcast Sun 19 Sep 1982)
Richard III with Edward Woodward (originally broadcast Sat 22 Jan 1983)

The last one of which has a photograph. Originally I thought that perhaps it was to herald a broadcast on BBC 4 Extra, but there isn't any next on information and only the record of the first and only broadcast.

So either they are soon be broadcast again but the scheduling information hasn't been added yet (which can happen) or this is another occurrence of the BBC website's process of back-filling information from the BBC Genome project (see also the Doctor Who website).

Let's keep our eyes or rather ears peeled ...

02/09/2012  Something definitely is happening.  A 1998/99 series, The Shakespeare Trade has also been added and the Prefaces about Richard III has been assigned a QR code.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Shakespeare at the BBC: Vivat Rex: At a Glance.

Yesterday I completed listening to Vivat Rex and its one of the best drama experiences I've had.  Coincidentally this morning in the post I received the accompanying booklet published in the seventies which has a nice introductions from producer Marin Jenkins and composer Christopher Whelan, a map with notable places, a useful family tree and a synopsis for each of the episodes.

What it doesn't have is a simple list of which plays constitute which episodes so I've produced that list below.

Why is this useful?

The whole of Vivat Rex is available to download on AudioGo at £1.84 an episode.  To buy the whole lot would be £47.84 which is still a bargain but you could understand if someone might want to pick and choose individual plays, especially since as I mentioned the other day, Vivat Rex includes rare dramatisations of Edward IIEdward III, Thomas of Woodstock and Perkin Warbeck albeit in abbreviated versions.

Vivat Rex: At a Glance.

1/26 The King's Favourite
Edward II

2/26 Revenge
Edward II

3/26 Obsession
Edward II / Edward III

4/26 The Black Prince
Edward III / Woodstock

5/26 Treason
Woodstock / Richard II

6/26 King of Snow
Richard II

7/26 Victims
Richard II / Famous Victories of Henry V / Henry IV, pt 1

8/26 Vulgar Company
Henry IV, pt 1

9/26 Rebellion
Henry IV, pt 1 / Henry IV, pt 2

10/26 Corruption
Henry IV, pt 2

11/26 Deception
Henry IV, pt 2

12/26 Tennis Balls
Henry IV, pt 2 / Henry V

13/26 Harfleur
Henry V

14/26 St. Crispin's Day
Henry V

15/26 Joan of Arc
Henry V / Henry VI, pt 1

16/26 The White Rose - And The Red
Henry VI, pt 1

17/26 Witchcraft
Henry VI, pt 1 / Henry VI, pt 2

18/26 Jack Cade
Henry VI, pt 2

19/26 The Paper Crown
Henry VI, pt 2 / Henry VI, pt 3

20/26 Warwick The Kingmaker
Henry VI, pt 3

21/26 The Tower
Henry VI, pt 3 / Richard III

22/26 The Little Princes
Richard III

23/26 Ghosts
Richard III / Perkin Warbeck

24/26 The Pretender
Perkin Warbeck

25/26 Divorce
Henry VIII

26/26 Elizabeth
Henry VIII

Some notes:

The Edward III, Woodstock and Perkin Warbeck are heavily truncated and edited for the elements which reflect most on the Shakespeare/Marlowe portions of the piece.  That said, the Henry VIII though also shorter is coherent in and of itself.  The Famous Victories of Henry V contributes is just one scene.

The episodes are available here.

The above information is on the individual programme pages but I still hope you'll find this at a glance version.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Audio Early Modern Drama: A Proposal.

With some time to spare I'm spending this week listening to Vivat Rex, the twenty-six part BBC Radio series which utilises a range of Early Modern plays, mostly from Shakespeare to offer a chronicle of the English crown from 1307 to 1533, from Edward II to Elizabeth I.

One of its great joys, other than the rather epic cast list, is that it includes within its make up sections of Edward III, Thomas of Woodstock, The Famous Victories of Henry V and John Ford's Perkin Warbeck in what may be their only radio outings, providing useful context to the action within Shakespeare's more famous plays.

Finally we can understand Henry IV's fear that his son Hal, by loafing around with Falstaff is repeating the mistakes of his predecessors Edward II and Richard II (albeit without the homo-erotic subtext of their acolytes) and that Richard's "hollow crown" speech is a near synopsis of the action in Edward III, including the appearance of a "ghost".

Listening to these rarities reminded of a proposal I wrote a few months ago suggesting that an audio or radio company produce a line of full text adaptations of just these kinds of rarely produced early modern dramas so that an interested public might be able to experience the work which was around at the time Shakespeare wrote the dozen or so plays which are constant production.

Disclosure: I did send a version of this to a company but it wasn't something they were really interested in doing which was understandable since its not necessarily a sure fire winner and would need to be planned and executed careful if it's to work as a business proposition.  I wouldn't know where to begin myself even.  It probably needs an existing production infrastructure and some hope.

I know that some people aren't fans of audio but it offers two benefits.  Firstly it's relatively cheap in comparison to video at least in production terms and from an artistic perspective since this would potentially be the only copy of the play available, the idea would be to follow ArkAngel's lead and produce something which emphasises the text.

Anyway, on with the proposal:

Audio Early Modern Drama: A Proposal.

Pitch

Lesser known plays by William Shakespeare and his contemporaries as audio productions.

Introduction

William Shakespeare is back in focus this year thanks to the Cultural Olympiad with a season of programmes on the BBC and the World Shakespeare Festival across a number of venues. But he’s largely receiving the lone genius treatment even though he was influenced by earlier playwrights, was part of a thriving theatre community collaborating with others and would go on to influence writers within just a few years.

Writers like John Fletcher, Francis Beaumont, Thomas Middleton, Philip Massinger, John Ford, John Webster and George Chapman were once household names, some of them collaborating with Shakespeare and succeeding him during his retirement and although some of their work is produced its not in the same bulk as Shakespeare and treated as something of a novelty by comparison.

Except that’s also true of some of Shakespeare’s own plays too especially in the late period, which ran rather further than the conclusion of The Tempest suggests. Collaborations which thanks to the latest techniques are becoming considered part of the canon, Sir Thomas More, Edward III, Arden of Faversham and Double Falsehood (or Cardenio) are again not accessibly available to watch or listen to outside of the theatre despite their high curiosity factor.

All which became abundantly clear last year when I was reviewing Arden Shakespeare’s own Early Modern Drama series and found myself unable to source recordings of these plays so that I could experience them in performance rather than simply as scripts. All are filled with extraordinary poetry but none of them can truly be understood or enjoyed without an actor’s intent behind the words and a directorial thought process interpreting the story and themes, especially by laypeople like me.

Proposal

That these plays be turned into audios on cd or for download, bringing together actors with the high production values.  Advertised correctly these should draw a curious general audience, one which is already eagerly seeking out what material is available in their local theatre. But of course there would be students and academics wanting to access high quality recordings of these plays especially those for which there is either only a single option or none at all.

Logistics

The scripts are obviously already written. Editorial choices would be in which texts to produce and preparing those scripts. I’m obviously unaware of budgets, but a writer’s fee (since these are four hundred year old plays) could be ploughed into the cost of the pre-recording rehearsal time which must be required

The texts could be those already in circulation through academic publishers, a collaboration which could go as far as branding the releases to tie-in with the books already available allowing for cross promotion, perhaps even utilising the same artwork:


With the plays also being sold through their website and through the audio producers, perhaps even as a set containing cd/download and book.

The trick would be to produce the Shakespearean curiosities along with the other work. An experimental series of four or six to test the market and then on from there. A Shakespeare collaboration, a Marlowe, a Beaumont and Fletcher, perhaps a Webster. A tie-in with Arden for example, would mean these choices are already made.

Competition

Of the complete or near-complete Shakespeare works available only the ArkAngel production of The Two Noble Kinsman is already available, but the others listed above are under produced. Of the others, even the better known playwrights, Kit Marlowe or Ben Jonson’s greatest plays, some of them on school curriculums, have no unabridged audio productions available.

There are amateur crowd-sourced productions online if you know where to look, but not professional and not consistent. Shakespeare’s Globe has monthly series of this material called “Read or Dead” but as yet none of it is available outside their library’s archive. Modern productions of this material even on BBC radio is rare (most often the Drama on 3 slot of the kind already downloadable) and usually heavily abridged.

Conclusion

This could become a very exciting series for whichever company accepts the challenge, taking their work into new markets and creating a legacy of material which could have commercial potential for years to come.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Friday, August 17, 2012

Shakespeare's Sonnets.

In the early noughties, television producer and writer Daisy Goodwin presented Essential Poems (To Fall in Love With), a series of programmes to coincide with Valentine's Day in which various verses were presented in the form of mini-dramas with a true galaxy of stars (from Christopher Lee to Julie Delpy with Amanda Holden between) characterising them within a cityscape. Shakespeare’s two contributions were Sonnet 129, in which Greg Wise sighed his way through “the expense of spirit in a waste of shame” slumped on a couch and the outcast state of Sonnet 29 becoming Matthew Macfadyen’s musician’s inability to get solid work from a demo he’s passing around.

Framed by Goodwin popping up in some biographical locations sometimes with family members, the idea was to make the poems accessible to audience brought up on television who might find their existence on the page somewhat intimidating. While it was entertaining in its own way, the obvious set back was that the scenes were often at odds with the poet's original meaning and the readers and actors themselves had various levels of comfort in relation to how they should be speaking the words, contemporary poetry fairing better than most. The best interpretations were undoubtedly when the actor simply broke the forth wall and addressed the viewer forcing us to interpret the words ourselves.

That’s precisely the methodology at play in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the more linear reproduction of the sonnet recordings created for the iPad app produced by Touch Press in association with Illuminations, Arden and Faber. Select “play all” from the menu screen and after Patrick Stewart reads the original title page and acknowledgements, each of the ensuing sonnets is read in turn directly to the viewer by a similar group of actors as the Goodwin project (from Jemma Redgrave to Dominic West with Stephen Fry between). Sonnet after sonnet, face after face appears and the sheer variety of the text and approaches to interpretation even within these limits becomes obvious, especially when Ben Crystal pops up for his original pronunciation of 141.

Shorn of gimmickry, an intimacy is created between actors and viewer which replicates the brief moments in televised plays when a soliloquy has to be addressed to camera. Some performers have a more actorly approach than others, with the younger players often favouring a straight reading over Fiona Shaw or Noma Dumezweni's attempts at providing an emotional context. RSC director John Barton classically utilised sonnets as exercises to help structure the text within performance and it’s certainly the case that actors who’ve been through Stratford provide the clearest readings. But some of the non-professionals are equally impressive, James Shapiro’s Sonnet 138 underpinned by an academic understanding.

Each of the readings is relatively fascinating in and of itself. They beed filmed in a variety of places, in contributors homes and offices, back and on stage at theatres. I imagine director John Wyver and his crew travelling the length and breadth of the country dropping in on the actors depending on their availability and it’d be interesting to know how they were selected. In the main they’re perfectly chosen, some having even appeared in similar sonnet related projects on audio, David Tennant for Naxos’s From Shakespeare With Love (in which he also read “Shall I compare thee …”), Sian Phillips and Fiona Shaw on EMI’s When Love Speaks (different choices).

Watching these sonnets in a three hour block isn’t the best way to consume them and admittedly I didn’t. They were created as part of the app and outside that context they become “just” Shakespeare’s words well read. Perhaps it’s possible for those of us without an iPad to create a low-fi version with this dvd as the cornerstone. The app includes Katherine Duncan-Jones’s notes from the Arden Shakespeare edition which you might have to hand. Fellow contributor Don Patterson has also produced a book on sonnets (and this lengthy article for The Guardian). There are various facsimiles of the 1609 edition of the sonnets at archive.org.

Apart from added interactivity, about the only element unavailable are the additional interviews with experts and given the dvd is more expensive than the app, it’s a shame room couldn’t have been found for those here. That’s not the only niggle. Each of the actors is given their own biography screen which also lists the sonnets their reading, but there’s no play all for these and after watching one of them the viewer’s kicked back to a list of actors rather than the screen they were working from which means they have to go off and find the actor again to see another of their contributions. There’s a similar problem with the numerical list too, which makes the process of wanting to see a sonnet again quickly less efficient. A subtitle option would have been a useful addition.

Otherwise, the presentation is clear and nicely replicates the design of the app judging by screenshots in the accompany booklet (which also includes the actor profiles from the dvd itself). Once you’re used to navigating the menus there’s a definitely an addictive quality to it, wanting to watch one more sonnet, or the same sonnet again. If nothing else, it’s a way of exploring the less well known poems, most of which are generally ignored the face of the mighty 116, 18, 2 and indeed Goodwin’s choices 129 and 29. Few writers can say that 103, read beautifully here by Kim Cattrall, doesn’t capture the desperation of facing something with near flawless qualities and being infected with an inability to write about it.

Shakespeare's Sonnets is out now.  Review copy supplied.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)

Schoolboy Oskar Schell sends himself on a mission to find the lock which fits a key he's found in the closet of his father who's recently died in 9/11. Days turn to weeks and eventually he's bursting to tell someone, that someone ultimately being "the renter", an elderly gentleman who lives with his grandmother. During one of the film's breathless montage sequences, he mentions the school's production of Hamlet:



It's a thematically pertinent choice as both Oskar and the Prince are experiencing the death of a parent in unbelievable circumstances.  The removal of the the skull mask to reveal Oskar's face fits all the relevant iconography into the shot making it entirely recognisable especially since as the novel indicates, he's playing Yorrick rather than the Hamlet.

Hamlet has a much stronger presence in Jonathan Safran Foer's novel.  Throughout Oskar mentions his Hamlet rehearsals and carries a copy of the script about with him on his quest, "so I could memorize my stage directions while I was going from one place to another, because I didn't have any lines to memorize".

In the film, Oskar notes that there are more people alive in the world now than have died in human history and that eventually there won't be enough places in the world to bury them.  In the novel, he says instead "if everyone want to play Hamlet at once, they couldn't, because there aren't enough skulls."

The book also features a section about the resulting production, "it was actually an abbreviated modern version, because the real Hamlet is too long and confusing, and most of the kids in my class have ADD.  For example, the famous "To be or not to be speech" [...] was cut down so that it was just "To be or not to be, that's the question."

This brief wiki is also worth reading for dialogue and thematic parallels: " Oskar, has a similar issue to the one represented in Hamlet's soliloquy - What is our purpose, what is the point to our life? After his father dies in 9/ll, Oskar struggles with why he should even live his life, What is the point of doing something if you could die tomorrow?"

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Shakespeare Uncovered:
David Tennant on Hamlet



The story so far: Shakespeare Uncovered is a series of six introductions to plays introduced by leading actors and directors produced in association with the Globe theatre. The highlights have included Joely Richardson magically covered in snow during her first visit to the recreation of Shakespeare’s playhouse and discovering during Trevor Nunn’s exposition on The Tempest that there’s a recreation of Blackfriars in Staunton, Virginia. Less appealing is Sir Derek Jacobi’s ten minute detor into authorship madness during an otherwise informative introduction to Richard II and Ethan Hawke subtly damaging a First Folio by stroking his finger across a page and knocking out an existing burn mark leaving a hole, the text on the next page now clearly visible.

Now we reach David Tennant on Hamlet and although I’m biased the best of the episodes. Focusing on Hamlet’s struggle with his mission and his own mortality, David gallops through the story from the ramparts to “the rest is silence” aided by a number of fellow actors, academics and as he wanders about in the bridging cutaways the architecture of Stratford-upon-Avon and the Southbank, struggling with the question of why the play is still considered the pinnacle of English literature, the one secular text which continues to enthral and inform us as much as holy texts if not more so. But again, I would say that, I’m biased. Yet as Ben Whishaw notes for six months after playing Hamlet in 2004 he found himself applying all of life’s big questions and presumably some of the small ones to the play, recalling the text over and over. I do that too.

Utilising a synopsis of the play as a spine for observation is a fairly typical approach (cf, Imagine ... Being Hamlet and Playing the Dane, the inspiration for this blog), questioning the action at key points, with contributors providing their experiences of playing the part or analysing them. Because Hamlet is so thematically rich the producers have had to make similar decisions to a company producing the play so the focus is very much on the domestic elements, with little to nothing on the politics of Elsinore and Denmark, the succession.  Fortinbras is cut. Lost too are Rosencrantz and Guidenstern other than the fact of their existence so nothing on the implications of their murder. “England” is generally glossed over. This is all about Hamlet’s personal j-word and those who’ve chosen to follow him.

All of which is perfectly understandable actually since entire books have been written about all of them, and there’s just an hour to play about with. It’s natural that you’d want to concentrate on the icons, whilst hinting at what lies beyond, the feigned madness, the implications of the willow scene that sort of thing. That’s especially true of the section shot at the Novell Theatre in which Michael Dobson offers a potted history of the closet scene which glanced towards Freud and also explains how Hamlet’s sometimes inappropriate attitude to his mother developed. Some productions almost treat the action in two discrete sections but as David notes there’s something very uneasy about Hamlet being so obsessed with Gertrude’s sex life with Polonius’s cadaver close by.

There are some unexpected inclusions. As with some of the other episodes, David was given the opportunity to see original copies of the text, in this case at the British Library and crucially all three versions including their copy of Q1 (one of only two in the world), comparing and contrasting the different versions of the big speeches and stage directions, discussing with curator of Early British Literature, Tim Pye the source of this earlier version. It’s worth noting that one of the potential weaknesses of the documentary is when David rhetorically asks who created this extraordinary character and where he came, we're not told about the Ur-Hamlet or Saxo Grammaticus but (admittedly touchingly) Shakespeare’s family and the death of Hamnet, which was also an influence on Twelfth Night in a very similar sequence in the Joely Richardson episode, one of the few occasions when the original source of a piece hasn’t been expounded upon.

Indeed, David has an impressively full participation, the episode’s presentation echoing his earlier presenter led episode of Doctor Who Confidential, “Do You Remember the First Time?” in which like this, he shared his affection for a much loved character whilst wearing a brown jacket. Then he visited the hallowed ground of Studio 8 of television centre, here it’s King Edwards Grammar Schoo, Shakespeare's school. Then he interviewed fellow fans like Steven Moffat and here we see him joshing over old reviews with David Warner and comparing approaches to the character with Jude Law.  At least in terms of the language of television, my favourite interview might be with Simon Russell Beale who (like Whishaw) has appeared in nearly all of the episodes in interviews clearly shot all together and so it seems here until David asks a follow up question and camera whip-pans in his direction. Beale himself almost startled to suddenly have his fellow actor sitting there.

Like that Confidential, this features dozens of illustrative clips though interestingly limited to Olivier directing himself, Zeffirelli directing Gibson and understandably Doran directing Tennant. An early trip through the RSC shop with David indicates other versions are available, but these three are interesting choices in that they’re not traditional renderings of the text, Olivier adding some, Zeffirelli deleting practically everything and Doran shuffling the order of the scenes. Odd that we should have the Warner interview but not the clips of his RSC appearance seen elsewhere. As with the other episodes, the emphasis instead is on newly filmed sections performed by the Globe’s cast with Jack Farthing (pictured below) cutting a youthful, lonely figure in a near empty theatre during “To Be Or Not To Be..” and Tom Lawrence later a teary Horatio as his prince dies.



As well as David greeting Andrei Tchaikovsky's skull again (pictured) the most poignant section for me is right at the very end, when he’s pondering what the part means to him and startling it resonates with comments he made when he left Doctor Who. Indeed just for a moment (thanks to a reference to filming), I wondered which role he’s actually talking about:
"In the end, there’s just no other character like him. […] I remember on the last day of filming thinking, “I’m so proud to have done that. I’m so pleased that’s something I got to do. And now I will never go there again.” And there was a huge relief to that. It was like having a weight lifted off your shoulders. And then, where are we now? Three years on… I do find myself, I catch myself, slightly fantasising about doing it again, going back there and seeing what that would feel like. But … that way madness quite literally lies.”
Fiftieth anniversary next year then.

[Assuming I haven't spoiled it too much for you, David Tennant on Hamlet is available on the iPlayer until 26th July.]

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Shakespeare Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Maureen Dalby.

Sometimes, just sometimes, I cry in supermarkets. This shouldn’t surprise regular readers who’ll know my emotion gland can be overwhelmed by the simplest of things. There’s a three-fold complexity to my feelings about supermarkets. Firstly, it’s the rudeness of fellow shoppers with barging tendencies unable to understand those like me with weak decision making skills. Secondly it’s my lack of decision making skills and wanting to taste everything despite there only being three meals in a day and seven of those days between shopping trips.

But thirdly, and primarily it’s what supermarkets represent. Weeping in the cheese aisle amongst the crumbly varieties with county names, the Lancashires, Cheshires, Cheddars. I thought about the history of those cheeses, the heritage and how centuries of tradition now sit wrapped in plastic for our convenience with labels designed to attract us with an idealised version of the history, the heritage, the centuries of tradition. The answer is to purchase such at farmers markets, but supermarkets are convenient, which also make me inadequate.

Unfortunately The Shakespeare Cookbook by historian Andrew Dalby and cook Maureen Dalby goes some way to increasing that inadequacy, since although I’m not necessarily a terrible cook I’m an unpractised one which means there’s little chance of the recipes listed being anything like the mental pictures they conjure (another reason for the supermarket tragedy). Luckily then, it’s much more than that, the authors utilising a number of contemporary sources to offer a taste (sorry) of eating habits and favourite dishes in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.

The Shakespeare connection involves ransacking the plays and their sources for food references and extrapolating those out into explanations for the surprisingly large variety of dishes which were available in the period, some of which are now available in supermarkets but many entirely alien to our tastebuds, though it’s almost disappointing Baxters don’t produce a tinned variety of Swan Chauder. As well as quoting from a variety of cookbooks (most of them now available online), the authors also provide contemporary equivalents for modern chefs to try.

For Hamlet, that’s the feast Hamlet refers to when question Horatio on his appearance in Elsinore, “Thrift, thrift, Horatio. The funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.” The Dalbys aren’t sure if the prince is speaking literally but we’re quickly introduced to the food he’s referring to, “cooked meats” being pies, the pastry cases before filling fittingly, given the themes of the play, called “coffins”. We’re then provided with recipes for hot water crust pastry and shortcrust pastry neither of which seem that complicated even though they undoubtedly are.

Given my culinary inadequacy I’m probably not the best judge of whether this works as a cookbook. Structurally it’s unusually set out, with chapters themed around various plays with a short introduction focusing on various textual victuals, either metaphoric or consumed on stage followed by short pieces explaining these various elements, some more tenuous than others. Would a serious foody want these recipes to be more conventionally clustered around the usual headings, starters, meat dishes, fish dishes, deserts and drinks?

But if the book has a particular strength its that it doesn’t just rely on Shakespeare for illustrative quotes featuring when necessary works by his contemporaries, with Middleton’s The Witches allowing us to see what may have been on the Macbeth’s table during Banquo’s visitation and a rousing speech from Maid Marion in Jonson’s unfinished Robin Hood play The Sad Shepherd providing a glimpse of the Bohemian sheep-shearing feast in A Winter’s Tale. And when that fails they quote from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, which shows an eclectic attention to detail.

Whether any of this will improve or deteriorate further my ability to visit supermarkets without it becoming some great personal tragedy will be hard to tell. Perhaps the trick will be to select a recipe at random, wait a moment, yes, hodgepot, gather the ingredients and make an attempt. The authors replace marigold flowers with saffron so that seems perfectly doable. Perhaps I’ll report back. But until then at least when I see marchpane, or rather marzipan on the shelf, I’ll know it’s always been a convenience food, even in Shakespeare’s day.

The Shakespeare Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Maureen Dalby is out now from the British Museum Press.  RRP £10.99.  ISBN: 978-0714123356.  Review copy supplied.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Shakespeare's Restless World.

Hats! What’s often forgotten about Hamlet is that amongst the psychological introspection and political intrigue, the prince’s headgear is a vital element in broadcasting his madness, feigned or otherwise, and one of the triggers which leads to Polonius’s investigation of his psychological well being. It was not just a tradition but law, from a parliamentary statute of 1571, that all men in society to wear caps and they became an important part of confirming social divisions.

If someone wasn’t wearing their headgear it was a pretty good indication that they weren’t well, so when Ophelia notes to her father “My lord, as I was sewing in my closet, / Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced, / No hat upon his head…” it suggested the privy councillor and us that something is terribly wrong with the young prince. Arguably it could also indicate there’s something terribly wrong with the production if that line’s in there and no one else is behatted in some way.

Broadcast a few months ago on Radio 4 and now out on cd, Shakespeare’s Restless World, one of the epicentres of the BBC’s year long coverage of the bard’s work, seeks to investigate his plays, his life and his world through the objects of the British Museum and further afield. Presented by Neil MacGregor, director of the museum, it’s an audio adjunct to the Shakespeare: staging the world exhibition (part of the cultural Olympiad) in the style of his previous History of the World in 100 Objects.

As with that series, the objects are really enry points into exploring a particular aspect of the Elizabethan and Jacobian world and so a rather anonymous apprentice’s cap inspires a discussion of the class system, social propriety and rioting, feeding into the series other aim of finding parallels with contemporary Britain.  In another episode MacGreggor indicates chillingly it was quite natural then as now for young men to carry knives around ready to defend themselves.

These twenty episodes do cover similar ground to the catalogue which accompanies the British Library’s exhibition but there’s a much greater, perhaps more convincing effort to link the objects to Shakespeare’s plays. When considering The Stratford Chalice in the second programme in relation to the country’s religious strife as a symbol of the new Protestant faith, he explains that the language in the Ghost of Hamlet Snr's speech is of the old religion, of the old ways.

Sometimes the themes and objects have been selected to indicate what isn’t in the plays. In an episode about Plague Proclamations, we’re reminded that even though pestilence was prevalent in the period and a massive influence structurally on Shakespeare’s career, as far as we know no plays were written on the topic and it was barely mention in the canon except for briefly in Romeo and Juliet. Quite a contrast from public executions which were bloodily dramatised.

The list of contributors is smaller than A History of the World, relying on some of the usual academics like Bate and Shapiro along with curators across the country who handle the objects like Jan Graffius, curator of the Stonyhurst collection who hold the Oldcorne Reliquary. In an episode about duelling, Alison de Burgh, Britain's first female theatre fight director entertainingly teaches MacGreggor how to hold his own.  Luckily, has he says "Health and Safety regulations kicked in and stopped her killing me”.

Threaded throughout the episodes are a collection of excepts from the plays brilliantly read by the likes of David Warner, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Rory Kinnear. In episode two there’s a brief part of the duel scene in which Don Warrington gives us his Claudio, and we also later hear the aforementioned closet flashback. Frustratingly a cast list isn’t included in the accompanying booklet (or a full list of contributors for that matter) but then that doesn’t include images of all the objects either.

But, other than duration, it's too short, that’s about the only criticism I have of this fascinating release which constantly surprises with its nuggets of tangential information and enthralling stories. The Shakespeare’s Restless World website of course has all the episodes to listen to again, download as podcasts and complete transcripts so you might question what’s to gained from buying the cds. But for collectors of Shakespeareana they’re probably essential.

Shakespeare's Restless World is out now from AudioGo.  Review copy supplied.

David Tennant on Hamlet scheduling update.

Yes, this is an important scheduling reminder/update for the final Shakespeare Uncovered documentary and most important to this parish, David Tennant on Hamlet.  For some ungodly reason, the BBC have decided that far from appearing after The Hollow Crown on Saturday presumably because it doesn't have a thematic connection or in the slot some of the shows had on BBC Four because it's David Tennant on Hamlet, they've seen fit to broadcast it on ...

Tuesday 17th July at 11:20pm after Newsnight

that's ...

Tuesday 17th July at 11:20pm after Newsnight

Exactly why this isn't on after The Hollow Crown is beyond me.  For one thing it's the episode for which you'd think there was a built in audience even after a couple of years and for another the expected timeslot has instead a QI repeat and half a rerun of a TOTP.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

For Schools: Hamlet screened the BFI.

On the Sceenplay's blog, John Wyver reports on the BFI screening of For Schools: Hamlet, the 1961 ITV series starring Barry Foster in the title role:
"Jennifer Daniel is a posh Ophelia who fails to convince in the ‘mad’ scene. As Gertrude Patricia Jessel, who had been a regular at the Stratford Memorial Theatre since 1944, has a rather remarkable neck, but she falls short in the ‘closet’ scene. The best of other players is probably Sydney Tafler as Claudius, another criminal role to add to the actor’s tally in British noir films of the previous decade."
This was thought lost for many years until a copy was found in the Library of Congress and returned to the BFI. For all John's reservations, let's hope an accessible edition (streaming perhaps since a home release seems unlikely) is made available soon.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Shakespeare on Spotify: Rare Marlowe Players production of Hamlet with Patrick Wymark.

An amazing rarity has cropped up on Spotify. Based on the various parts of editions I've collected, my understanding has always been that the production of Hamlet included in the Argo imprint was this recording of the Old Vic Company production with Derek Jacobi. That hasn't always sat well with me though, especially since the others were recorded with the Marlowe Society in conjunction with the British Council and it seemed strange that such an arrangement wouldn't also include the greatest play, especially since they also polished off King Lear.

Now the mystery's been solved:

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Shakespeare and me in The Observer

Today's Observer has a special section, Shakespeare and Me in which various actors and directors talk about the plays have effected them. There's plenty of Hamlet interest.

Simon Russell Beale: "I think it was the actor Paul Rhys who said to me: "Hamlet will change you", and I didn't believe him. He was right, though – it's the only part you can't hide behind – and you spend most of the time contemplating your death, which is quite hard to do when you're 40, not yet ancient."

Judi Dench: "I made my professional debut as Ophelia in 1957. I didn't know enough to be daunted by it at the time. I learnt an incredible amount from it. My notices were certainly daunting. You learn from them – you learn very soon. You just have to grit your teeth and get on and learn to do it better."

Alan Cumming: "It probably wasn't a great idea to play Hamlet opposite my ex-wife [Hilary Lyon] as Ophelia. We were coming towards the end of our marriage and I pretty much had a full-on breakdown after it. The play also dredged up some awful things with my father, and I realised there were a lot of unresolved issues in my life that I needed to deal with."

Michelle Dockery: "Anyone who's ever played Ophelia should all get together for a big group hug. I played Ophelia with John Simm at Sheffield and I began to suffer terrible insomnia in the same way that Hamlet does. It's such a tough part and Ophelia is a huge leap, especially in the end, when she descends into her madness."

But the whole thing's a pleasure and all available here.