Tuesday, April 03, 2018

40: Andrew Scott.

Sometimes small moments speak volumes.  Robert Icke's production starring Andrew Scott has numerous innovations, but the most potent, the most emotional is to introduce a romantic back story between Hamlet and Guildenstern.  I've always thought that the mark of a production's quality is the thought which goes into interpreting these old friendships and in this Scandi-noir interpretation, by re-appropriating a few key lines, paying close attention to some interpersonal reactions, a whole history of love and loss is developed between characters whose connection is usually shown as tenuous at best.  Here, it's almost as, if not more potent than  Hamlet's relationship with Ophelia, and it's all in the looks between Scott and Madeline Appiah.

We can see something new is happening when R & G are initially introduced.  Hamlet and Guildenstern are extremely friendly, all smiles and gleeful hugs.  But then he turns to Rosencrantz and gives him the bare minimum of a greeting, grudging at best.  Immediately we know - there's wonder flowing beneath numerous bridges here.  The body language between R & G suggests that they're in a relationship now so and we're seeing Hamlet's disproving jealousy?  But everything is still pretty ambiguous; are we simply seeing the concern of one friend to another's choice of partner or something deeper?  As the play continues, amid all the more familiar relationships, we're forever conscious of how these three characters are regarding each other, how they hold each other, what's happening between them.

It's all about betrayal.  Guildenstern finds herself caught between a current and past relationship and she knows that as soon as she tells Hamlet that they're not in Elsinore of their own volition, that they've been sent for, it'll change their friendship, their relationship forever.  And so it does.  Every interaction after that is powerfully emotional as she finds herself working against her better nature, creating a wedge between someone who was clearly the love of her life.  When she tells him in the aftermath of the Mousetrap, "My lord, you once did love me." (a line transferred from Rosencrantz) and he acidly replies "So I do still ..." we can see that there's no going back and we're now on a path which will ultimately lead to the demise of one side of the relationship.

This production is replete with such fresh yet contextually logical re-interpretations of the text.  Although there are some laughs, for the most part the humour in the production is dialed back.  Polonius's scattershot memory and buffoonery, rather than providing easy laughs for a clown, are suggested instead to be as a result of early onset dementia; in one thrilling moment when addressing Voltemand, he forgets what he's saying and sits for minutes, confusion etched across his face as though he's suddenly aware of how his mind is working against him.  Although Peter Wright does allow his Polonius some levity here and there (especially in dealing with the asides he gives during Fishmonger) we're mainly aware of him forever trying to come to terms with his new weaknesses.

Although it's not unusual for Gertrude to be presented as entirely naive as to her new husband's murder of her previous spouse, this is one of the few times when, in drinking from the cup at the end, we're seeing a mother knowingly sacrifice herself to save her son.  The duel plays out in a kind of theatre montage, to music, applying poignancy to what can seem like the cranking inevitability of tragedy.  It's a mark of Juliet Stevenson's skill that we can see this choice in just a few glances, from the glass to her son and back again.  But it's a production which manages to wring a relatively happy ending for her and everyone else, as they're seen partying in the afterlife with the Queen re-uniting with her dead husband, Claudius's, yes, betrayal having been laid bare.

It's also an occasion when Hamlet Snr is a corporeal being.  Still a "ghost", but the actor David Rintoul is entirely present in his scenes with his son, embracing and holding each other and even Gertrude in the closet scene, even though she can't see or hear him and denies his existence.  Rintoul also portrays the player king and the grave digger and you could interpret this as Hamlet seeing his father in these other beings (or simply appreciate the doubling up of casting).  Having him appear on the security cameras at the opening of the play is an interesting choice though; sure this would mean that there would be a recording of his appearance somewhere?  Unless he's not actually in the space being surveyed but simply imprinting himself on the technology.  Perhaps sometimes it is best to just go with it.

There is one curious scene which tripped up a lot of reviewers, especially Michael Billingham in his Guardian review: "I cannot fathom why Claudius should make his confession of murder not to an unseen divinity but to Hamlet standing in front of him holding a pistol. Why, if the king came clean, wouldn’t his nephew shoot him?"  It is a surprising choice, but my rationalisation, perhaps after having watched a few episodes of Legion, is that what we're seeing is not literal action.  That the supernatural element which has infested the castle has led to Hamlet and Claudius to share a delusion and that the latter isn't aware of the former's presence.  That scene isn't easy to stage, the audience always has to suspend their disbelief to some extent about how much the new King senses his step son's presence.  Icke decides to face it head on, literally.

Even after seeing forty Hamlet's it's still possible to be surprised and yet in a production which apart from the aforementioned tweaks utilises a very full text.  Fortinbras is near complete, his closing army and diplomacy illustrated from filmed news reports (along with shots of the Danish royal family at the funerals which bookend the play).  The second gravedigger's cut but "How all occasions do inform against me" is intact.  This is mainly an interpretation of the Quarto text although it shifts "To Be" earlier to before Fishmonger with Polonius wanding on at the end which means Hamlet won't be aware that he's being watched by anyone within the world of the play so his potentially voicing real thoughts rather than performatively adding a seed of doubt in the minds of those watching.

The actor impressive communicates as though he's saying on the most famous speeches in literature for the first time.  You can see a thought process behind Scott's eyes even as he's also somewhat lecturing the audience.  Every word is clear and although I saw a few people on social media on the night of broadcast questioning his gesticulating, that seemed an entirely natural result of the character wanting to emphasise his words, draw attention to what's important.  Why fold your arms or sit on your hands when you can use your whole body to tell your story?  As some of the contemporary reviews suggested, this is a career defining performance from Scott, who after Moriarty finds himself too often pigeon holed into the crazy villain mode.  He has much greater range than that.

Is his Hamlet mad?  Yes, although I think it's more complicated than that.  I think he does suffer from a mental illness but it's as we'd diagnose and treat it now.  He's feigning madness when it suits him because he's well aware of his other problems in dealing with PTSD as a result of the death of his father.  In other words there are episodes which are a result of his mental illness and what seems like manic episodes which are in fact performances.  But I'd also add that it does become harder to distinguish between them towards the end of the production  Notice how, when he's quizzing the grave digger he seems completely lucid, but then goes off the rails when faced with the Ophelia's corpse yet dials back again just before the duel when he jokes about skills or lack of them in relation to fencing.

If the passion between Hamlet and Guildenstern doesn't manage to overshadow the usual relationship with Ophelia, it's partly due to the easy chemistry between Scott and Jessica Brown Findlay.  Findlay imbues Ophelia with a thick layer of irony to the point that initially we aren't sure if she's complicit in Hamlet's "madness", an impression which is preserved deep into the nunnery scene when its hinted that her complicity may have been one sided.  It's here that we see the power of Findlay as an actress as a single tear drifts through her already sodden mascara as she realises Hamlet knows that she too has betrayed him.  She also doesn't overplay Ophelia's breakdown.  Wheeled on strapped to a chair having been institutionalised, its only in her final moments on stage that she lets her emotions run riot.

That we're able to follow all of these emotional threads is a credit to the television presentation.  When I began this project, it was on the assumption that at no point would it include the prime time transmission of a West End in theatre recording.  But here we are all these years later with BBC Two devoting three and a quarter hours on an Easter Saturday to this Almeda Theatre transfer to the Harold Pinter theatre.  The BBC has experimented with this format, with Sophocles's Antigone from the Barbican turning up in 2015 on BBC Four  and the iPlayer awash with streaming specials (the RSC production of Richard II, the Globe's Dream and a Lear from Manchester Exchange) but I think you have to look back as far as BBC Four's broadcasts of the Globe for a complete Shakespeare broadcast live from or recorded in the theatre.

Until Saturday night, recent Shakespeare has generally meant filmic productions of the plays, The Hollow Crown sequence or Russell T Davies's version of Dream (not to mention the forthcoming Lear with Sir Anthony H) or compilations like Live from the RSC.  But if nothing else, this Hamlet, produced by John Wyver, a veteran of cinema broadcasts, demonstrates that in-theatre captures can be just viable if not essential.  For all the artifice, there's something tangible, thrilling and exciting about seeing those words played in a setting where there's less scope for retakes, in which they're foregrounded and allowed to flow without an actor constantly needing to be aware of how they stand in relation to the camera especially when the production originated in the theatre to begin with.

It's thanks to tv director Rhodri Huw that we're able to absorb the emotional moment I highlighted at the top of this review.  Throughout the presentation, the director offers close-ups of the performers allowing us to notice their micro expressions and so it is that as Hamlet and Guildenstern speak, the rest of the stage almost disappears as the recorder passes between them, the pain etched across her features.  When Hamlet initially replies to Guildenstern's reminder of his previous love for her, "So I do still ..." the camera holds on Scott's face and in the ensuing moments, after cutting to a master featuring all three of them, the prince clasping Guildenstern's hand, a reconciliation seems possible, but then Hamlet decides that her entreaties are just another manipulation and we can see that hope is lost.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

39 Johnston Forbes-Robertson.

When this project began over a decade ago, one of the prescribed rules was that only production which utilised Shakespeare's text would be included in the tally of Hamlets with Simba and the like treated separately. That left me slightly reticent to tackle silent productions because of the fine line between production and adaptation most of them straddle. Hay Plumb's 1913 film (which you can watch for yourself here) is different because in presenting a "capture" of the Drury Lane production from the same year, he's presenting the performances just as they appeared on stage and even the most idle of lip-readers can see that they're very much enunciating the text, even if the viewer can't hear any of it.

That's true of many silent Shakespeares but in the majority of examples, the acting and presentation are in service of the intertitles, cutting and out in a more familiar format. In this Hamlet, sections of the text are utilised to introduce a scene which then plays in a recognisable manner, often the point that it's entirely possible, if you're familiar with the play to see which soliloquy is in process, which famous line is being said. With a little research and the aid of a lip-reader, a subtitled version of the film could probably be produced, which would certainly aid those seeing a version of the play for the first time. Otherwise this all probably makes little sense.

As the excellent BFI Screenonline article explains, for large portions of the play, few of the characters are introduced and story points barely explained: "For instance, when he picks up the skull by the graveside, while we are given the opening lines of the speech, we are not told who Yorick is, and Gertrude's relationship with Claudius, Hamlet and the ghost is not disclosed until halfway through the closet scene, and that only in passing." Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wander in at two points, make little impression and are barely acknowledged by Hamlet who is too busy talking to Polonius or the players to notice.

Some of this has to do with the brevity of the screen time, the play's traffic reduced to just under an hour and all of the major scenes are included thanks to some careful structuring. The Battlements seems to be played as a flashback after "O, that this too too solid flesh would melt ..." instead of at the top of the film. Ophelia's "madness" scene and the revelation of her suicide are presented during what looks like the same conversation between Claudius and Laertes, very quickly on. Hamlet being sent to England entirely happens off screen and we only really become aware of it thanks to the letter he sends home advising of his arrival. Fortinbras is gone.

Other choices must have been as a result of screen grammar not quite having reached editing or close-ups with entire scenes filmed in what we'd now call establishing shots or mid-shot mimicking the proscenium arch of the theatre and leaving some scenes continuing on far longer than might be expected. The actors stand on the bottom of shot although some use is made of perspective with characters walking into the set from the back, creating the sense of the actors walking from upstage to downstage. Ophelia's funeral lasts longer than the Ghost's appearances and the Mousetrap running counter to even some directorial choices in some theatrical productions.

Which isn't to say there aren't a few flourish especially amongst to the location filming. The scene shot outside at Lulworth Cove and Hartsbourne Manor provide a definite scale, and it's quite surprising to see Hamlet on a real beach with the tide threatening to drown the production. The shots on the battlements are more static and often look like they're simply being shot on very realistic sets against a well painted backdrop rather than real battlements and some gorgeous scenery. Having the ghost appear in these circumstances through a double exposure is a technical achievement.

Understandably about the only performance to make its mark is from Forbes-Robertson, very gestural and theatrical clearly designed for an auditorium which translates well to silent film.  But there's no denying his age, seeming older than both his parents which can be jarring to modern eyes although not especially peculiar amongst the great tragedians.  There is a recording of him reading the advice to the players which gives some indication of how his voice would have sounded at least, and he's certainly more contemporary in reading than Herbert Beerbohm Tree.

But perhaps of most interest are the deliberate changes to the story. During the Prince's confrontation with Ophelia an inter-title notices, "Hamlet discovers the king behind the curtain" which he does on-screen without Claudius actually revealing himself despite his hand obviously holding onto the fabric. That makes clear the inference sometimes acknowledged in verbal productions that Hamlet know that his foe is there, either through intuition or an accidental noise (as per the Branagh film). Was this in the original stage production or one of the few attempts at adapting that for the silent screen?

Similarly, there's the moment right at the end in which Hamlet dies on the thrown and Horatio enacts a sort of posthumous coronation as a replacement for Fortinbras having been cut. Many actors have voiced the opinion that with all of this experience, Hamlet would be a good king and arguably he is the for his brief moments before death stopping Horatio's suicide and asking his friend to tell his story, making it part of remembered history. Plumb's film in many ways provides the same function. Although we can't hear him, we can at least see one of our great tragedians at the height of his powers.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Hamlet: Revised Edition. (The Arden Shakespeare). Edited by Neil Taylor and Ann Thompson.

Books In an effort to acknowledge the passage of time and how even some of their Third Series publications might require some reconsideration, as scholarship begins on the Fourth Series, Arden presents this revised edition of Hamlet, first published in 2006 with some thirty extra pages inserted to present additional scholarship and further productions and publications.  For some reason, having gratefully received review copies of the plays for some years now, in my memory I'd already reviewed the earlier version and was all ready to simply link back to my opinion with some necessary amendations of that opinion.  But it appears not.  Right, then.

The Arden Hamlet was and is groundbreaking for presenting all three extant Hamlet texts, first Quarto, second Quarto and first Folio (ignoring later reprints) across two publications and treating them as separate entities worthy of study in and of themselves.  All three texts contain lines and scenes which don't appear in the others or in the case of the first Quarto whole sections which are simply different, some would argue incoherent and there's been much discussion as illustrated by the authors in their introduction as to exactly where they came from before they were published in this editions.

Previously, with the exception of facsimiles, editors have taken it upon themselves to try and create a "right" or "ideal" version of the play, attempting to reproduce "what Shakespeare intended".  This led them to either choose the second Quarto or Folio as their base text (and including variations at the end) or as was customary for years, and often still is, a conflation, drawing together all three texts, compiling a version which mixes together the three texts.  Before I became a fan, I assumed there was only ever one text of Hamlet, the conflated version, surely studied much in schools for many years and was amazed to find that simply wasn't what Shakespeare wrote.

Taylor and Thompson take the view that because can't really know the origin of the texts before they appeared in the relevant publications and that it's their job as scholarly publishers to present the texts in as readable editions as possible that they should, with the exception of modernising the text and "fixing" error in the original printing,  present them pretty much as is.  For more on the implications that has on the Q1 and F1 texts, see my original review of the accompanying volume containing those texts.  For all its textual "faults", Q1's scene structure has become pervasive as a signpost for directors seeking to the cut the text.

The evidence based approach pervades the publication, as the authors seeking to present the arguments of previous scholars whilst enunciating just how much assumption and hearsay has seeped into scholarship, the need to back-up shaky arguments transforming maybes into certainties.  We can't know exactly the relationship between the various texts whether they're successive rewrites, alternative versions for different venues and even if Shakespeare himself had a hand in their preparation or another hand.  But scholars across history have become lost up numerous blind alleys.

The structure of the book is standard Arden with the "eclectic" approach of the Third Series allowing the authors to choose the topic which mostly interests them.  Here that means that although some lip service is given to the psychoanalytic approach to Hamlet's character, the discussion focuses primarily, across the introduction and appendices, on the textual matters and discrepancies which then feeds into a production and publication history hinting towards a suggestion that the interpretation methodologies of editors, actors, authors and directors converge.

The decadal update extends these themes with the inevitable mismatch between four hundred and then ten years being concentrated on in similar number of pages.  The authors also bravely include criticism of their original publication, from the decision to treat Q1 with the same respect as the other versions to individual choices within the actual text.  Inevitably there's still an obvious cut off point, as the text doesn't noticed that Maxine Peake's performance was filmed for release and there's no mention of the Radio 4 Afternoon Drama production starring Jamie Parker.

Nevertheless, of all the Hamlet editions available this is the publication I'd recommend to anyone seeking a scholarly edition of the play and have on numerous occasions.  Reading appendix 2, which carefully unpicks the differences between the texts and the misapprehensions wrought on them across numerous publications was the first time I really became suspicious of scholarly motive and realised that there isn't one Hamlet.  There's what's in the original text and then the hundred of different versions since, on the page and on the stage.

Hamlet: Revised Edition. (The Arden Shakespeare). Edited by Neil Taylor and Ann Thompson is published by Bloomsbury. £8.99 paperback. ISBN: 9781472518385.  Review copy supplied.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

38 Maxine Peake

Theatre Let's begin at the ending or indeed further than the ending into the credits which include the following statement: "The text of HAMLET was created for the 2009 production starring Jude Law and directed by Michael Grandage which played London and New York".  Does this happen much?  It's certainly the first time I remember seeing a production in which, rather than the director and possibly actors taking a view on the text of the play themselves, effectively pulling something prepared earlier from the shelf.  To an extent, doesn't this mean that you're interpreting someone else's interpretation rather than Shakespeare's own words?

The statement appears on the Royal Exchange's own website and was presumably in the original programme, but deliberately ignoring such things before watching any production so as to preserve some surprises, I had spent the duration considering the bold textual choices of stage director Sarah Frankcom when in fact it's Michael Grandage's thought process which should be considered.  It's certainly made me retrospectively rethink my opinion on the production and the role of the actors and director.  Without having seen Grandage's production, how am I to know how much of what I've just seen, such as cutting Fortinbras, was down to the current director and how much is a simple replication of 2009?  Yes, I could go glance at some reviews, but one shouldn't really need to.

So it's to Grandage we look for the choice to shift "To Be Or Not To Be" far later in the play to just after the closet scene, making it a meditation on that act as much as Hamlet's own mortality, though chilling emphasis given on the latter due to the Prince brandishing the revolver which did the deed, weakly pressing it to his temple.  It's fine and I'd be interested to see how it fits in the original staging.  But this textual purist is also bound to say it's not what Shakespeare wrote and unbalances our understanding of his psychology at that moment and the extent to which his feigning madness and shifted off into something else, which is something I'm not sure this production ever really takes a view on.

The one big textual decision which can be attributed to Frankcom is also wrapped in the casting which is to regender a large number of roles to female, most prominently Polonia, Marcella, Rosencrantz and the Gravediggers with pronouns necessarily edited to compensate.  Sometimes a syllable is dropped so "gentleman" becomes "lady" and in one case an extra joke is added as Hamlet on first seeing the Gravedigger initially hails "Whose grave's this sirra?" without reaction before quickly changing it to "Whose grave's this madame?"  For the most part it's invisible and only now and then does it disrupt the rhythm of the pentameter but not the extent of creating too much of an imbalance, an imperfect if necessary solution.

The dynamics do change.  As with Julie Taymor's film of The Tempest, the connections between Polonia and her children reverse with Laertes becoming the favoured of the two, the relationship with Ophelia markedly resembling that between Lorelai and her mother in Gilmore Girls, especially during the embarkation scene which is set around a dinner table similar to the one which Rory's forced to eat at every Friday night.  The style of Polonia actress Gillian Bevan's hair even resembles Emily Gilmore actress Kelly Bishop.  Bevan's the standout of the production actually, dominating the stage, with the advise scene become a moment in which genuine wisdom is being imparted, albeit with Laertes forced to listen as a condition for receiving her credit card.

Although I've seen criticisms about the decision to not regender Hamlet too, but because Peake's blistering in the title role, suspension of disbelief is easy.  Aspects of the performance are problematic, with moments in which Peake is working against the text, or parodying its more masculine aspects, but for the most part its a study in grief, how someone has to deal with so many changes in the house within this foreshortened timescale.  There's a telling look from Peake when she's asked or more likely ordered to stay at Elsinore rather than return to college which shows that an escape plan has been snatched away, underscoring the notion that "Denmark's a prison".  Hamlet's being held against his will.

Nevertheless there is a sense in places that some decisions were never quite worked out in rehearsal in favour of the grander set pieces.  As well as whether Hamlet's actually mad or not, his relationship to Kate West's Ophelia's also poorly developed, the nunnery scene feeling very make-do and actually oddly rushed through.  Similarly his friendship with Horatio, so rich in other productions never quite gels.  This isn't a plea for some LGBT+ shading but the text calls for certain things and the performances don't quite rise to them.  Although it's also true that in the film version, the editing always favours Peake and so it's possible elements of either of their performances have been lost.  The full power of John Shrapnel's Claudius isn't demonstrated until he's alone and commanding the space, his motivations unspooling like Richard III.

More than most filmed production, it seems as though the reaction to seeing the piece in situ could have differed to on television (or indeed at the cinema which was where this recording was originally designed - it's even described in some publicity as "Hamlet The Film".  Although recorded in front of an audience (and can't we, cough, here, cough, it, beep, beep) they're largely invisible within the darkness of the space, with lighting which keeps the illumination of the actors to the minimum required for a given scene.  Like the television version of the RSC production of Macbeth with McKellen and Dench, the characters emerge and disappear into to the black, and there's rarely sense that anything exists beyond.

Some of the staging is beautiful and beautifully shot.  When Hamlet meets the Ghost of his father (doubled by Shrapnel), lightbulbs are lowers from the ceiling creating an orange glow across the actors faces familiar to anyone who's seen the interior of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (it's notable that light bulbs were also a feature of Adrian Noble's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream representing the Forest of Arden).  A camera has also been mounted in the gods, so scenes often begin from above or punctuated by overhead shots to emphasise the action.  When Hamlet rips up Ophelia's remembrances and throws them at her, it's in slow motion.  The home viewer is in a privileged rather than audience position.  During fishmonger, Polonia even breaks the fourth wall.

For all that, Yorick is a mess.  The performances are fine, great even.  Grandage's script privileges us with a rare viewing of both gravediggers and all their banter, both female with the key clown played with a very good scouse accent.  One of the few occasions I laughed here was during the back and forth with Hamlet in relation to whose grave it is.  But Frankcom has gone symbolic, with dirt or some such replaced with a jumble of clothing with Yorick's skull represented by a cardigan with knot in the middle (pictured).  When Ophelia's funeral arrives, her body is represented by the blouse she was wearing during the madness scene and its lain on the ground, the whole business just looks silly, plus it feels wrong that Peake be denied the opportunity to play with an actual skull.

Ultimately not the best production I've seen but it thrums along to its own rhythm.  It takes a special production for me to really become involved in the story any more having seen it so many times, and although there are too many Brechtian distancing effects on this occasion, the compensation of hearing the text performed well is its own reward.  Having Peake play Hamlet doesn't feel controversial and she's more convincing than many of her male counterparts.  Ideally in future there'll be much more gender neutral casting across all productions so long as there's enough leeway in the text and Hamlet's the most accessible of the lot.  Now I'm imagining what Catherine Tate, Gugu Mbatha-Raw or even, yes, Romola Garai would do with the role.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

37 Christopher Plummer

Hamlet played by Christopher Plummer.
Directed by Philip Saville.

Woosh. Ever since seeing a clip of Plummer's Hamlet narrating the players as part of the Playing The Dane documentary broadcast during the Bard on the Box season in 1994, I've been more than intrigued by Hamlet at Elsinore in which BBC and Danish Radio co-produced an outside broadcast recording of the play at Kronborg Castle in actual Elsinore. This has only increased across the years as innumerable documentaries have included shots of its primary curiosity, Michael Caine in his single classical role playing Horatio.  Now, finally, this morning, well, here we are.

The BFI's still invaluable ScreenOnline section has a short explanatory piece about the making of Hamlet at Elsinore.  As they explain, this was a milestone in television history as the first drama recorded entirely on location outside of the studio, the result of the Danish company having originated the idea but eventually bringing in the BBC to produce, the former supplying sets (obviously) and background cast with the latter providing crew and the primary cast.  Given everything they had to work with, bulk cameras and lighting rigs and appalling weather it's impressive that it even exists at all.

That it exists and is also of such high quality is a miracle.  At just over three and a quarter hours and containing most of the play, this is an entirely "cinematic" interpretation which also somehow doesn't deny its theatrical origins.  There are noirish moments which stand alongside both the Olivier and Kozintsev film versions and at only a few points do its televisual origins show.  Although there are certainly moments when Saville experiments but doesn't quite achieve what he set out to do, Hamlet at Elsinore is clearly in the vanguard of great productions.

Saville and the team fully utilise the location with what must every room in Kronburg utilised in some part, with the chapel even being utilised for the nunnery scene and the expansive central courtyard being the perfect setting for the arrival of the players and for Hamlet to hail, from a window, the arrival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  There are shots of the modern interior here but nothing much as change in the past fifty-odd years, even the paintings are in the same positions, which in the show are presumably supposed to depict Hamlet's ancestors.

The key directorial choice here is ceilings - in almost every scene there'll be a shot framed from below across an actors chin, up their nose and towards the ceiling of a room as if to increase the apparent headroom of each location.  Given the technology available,  the number of close-ups is startling, especially for Plummer's Hamlet who is introduced in isolation, the viewer unable to quite grasp his position in the throne room at mother and step-father interact with him until everyone leaves and he has the space to himself.

Keeping the action mainly within the walls of the castle necessarily guides the cuts.  Laertes's challenge following his father's murder isn't shown at all and the opening battlements scenes are staccato, even losing the opening line of the play in favour of introducing some dread and mystery as to what the soldiers are encountering, flailing about in the darkness.  For all that, a truncated Fortinbras is present bolstered by an impressive army of extras within what must be the woods at the edge of the castle (doubling as much further away).

Cutting "Who's there" and all aids Michael Caine's introduction as we hang on his every word as Horatio describes to Hamlet the emergence of the Ghost which in the full text usually puts Hamlet's reaction as the focus as a scene which we've already been privy to is described to him.  Caine's militaristic, almost clipped but matter of fact delivery is extraordinary, as though he's the first person to say these words, reveal this uncanny visitor.  So subtle is his work, it almost derails Plummer's performance which at this early stage is far more expressive.

There are deep, deep undercurrents of feeling behind Caine's mesmerising eyes.  Coolly spoken for much of the play, waterfalls of emotion flow from him when Hamlet dies as he's finally able to release the pent up feelings he had for his friend. According to his autobiography, he'd been told by a producer on Zulu that "I know you're not, but you gotta face the fact that you look like a queer on screen." so he worked it to his advantage here and "decided that if my on-screen appearance was going to be an issue, then I would use it to bring out all Horatio's ambiguous sexuality."

Plummer's Hamlet is less convincing.  The mad scenes oscillate between half-hearted and pantomime and the character never quite makes sense even when he's supposed to be sober in decision.  The actor's natural charisma just about masks this indecision but my mind often wandered to questions about production choices while he was on screen which is a strange place to be.  We're never quite able to grasp his inner turmoil, never quite convinced that he's not simply just saying these words because they're in the text rather than because he believes them.

In fairness he's not aided by some of the directorial experiments.  Plummer doesn't deliver his soliloquies to camera, which isn't unusual in filmed productions, apart from a single glance during To Be Or Not To Be.  Except in the desperation to do something different with the famous speech, its delivered as a montage against open spaces within the castle or close-ups on Hamlet, but the necessarily for the time haphazard editing makes the result disjointed and difficult to follow in terms of the emotional thread.

The fourth wall is instead broken when Hamlet addresses his father's spirit and the audience is placed in the point of view of the ghost, the camera hovering above Plummer.  Like To Be, it seems to be a decision born of diversity and then has the added problem of trying to coherently provide a voice at this key moment in the play.  The solution is a disembodied voice, but the actor then spends half the speech whisper-rasping like one of Doctor Who's Ice Warriors so that half of the necessary exposition is lost as is the connection between the two characters which is usually so meaningful.

Fortunately the production is stronger elsewhere.  Jo Maxwell Muller's Ophelia is initially estranged from her father and has an obvious affection for Hamlet.  There's a Brief Encounter moment at the docks as he sees her brother off as her expression becomes cold and disappointed when Polonius arrives and steals their final precious moments together with his endless advice, almost drawing on a smile when she has to turn and acknowledge her Dad.  Later she's unaware of her father and the new King eavesdropping on the nunnery scene, running away in disgust.

It's a strong cast, almost inadvertently.  Peter Luke the producer had decided not to fill out his production with big names so as not to distract from the story.  So he chose Caine, Plummer, Robert Shaw as Claudius  and yes, Donald Sutherland as Fortinbras (at a time when he was still playing Hotel Clerk and Tall Man in Nightclub) which means that a retrospective viewing doesn't have that effect at all.  Even Roy Kinnear shows up as the single Gravedigger years before he became a key player in comedic acting.

Despite my reservations about Plummer, which I'll admit might not be the same for someone who hasn't seen thirty-six actors play the character as well, Hamlet at Elsinore is an incredible piece of work.  The text is rendered lucidly and there are still moment when it's almost like hearing the words for the first time.  If I've drawn anything from it, it's that Michael Caine's self-esteem issues have denied what might have been a career peppered with some excellent Shakespearean turns amid everything else.  Is it too late for him to give us his Lear?

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Macbeth (Arden Shakespeare. Third Series). Edited by Sandra Clark and Pamela Mason.

Theatre  After a couple of years away from the core series whilst they pay attention to other Early Modern Dramas, Arden returns to Shakespeare with their third edition of Macbeth. Glancing through the list which appears in this year’s Arden catalogue there aren’t that many plays still waiting for the edition uplift from the second and a glance through Amazon indicates that by September 2016 everything but A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be available. Not that it will end here; editors for the fourth series have already been announced with those editions due in the 2020 (which just demonstrates the lead time that some of these books require). How these will differ to the A3s, time will tell.

Anyway back at Macbeth and this edition edited by Sandra Clark, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of English Studies in the University of London and Pamela Mason currently a lecturer in English at the University of Birmingham. The former provides the introduction and discussion of textual legitimacy in the appendices, the latter is the editor of the text and provides the textual notes including editing justifications also in the appendices. There’s some heroism in this division of labour because while Clark’s work will implicitly be read by the book’s whole audience, Mason’s notes sit within an interstitial consultation space, only referred to if needed which is a shame because they contain a fascinating quantity of trivia.

The introduction freewheels around Macbeth ignoring anything like a traditional structure or reiteration of the usual themes, this being the sort of play for which there isn’t really a shortage of that sort of thing already. So we have a short discussion of Macbeth as an example of tragedy. A close textual analysis of the use of time in the play. It’s setting and realisation of Scotland as a geographical and historical event. A discussion of its sources but note, its adaptation from Holinshed rather than how that chronicler developed his version. Plus a theatrical “history” which chooses themes a key elements of the play, the extent of Macbeth’s culpability, the pre-eminence of the witches, the setting and how various actors and directors have treated the ending.

Much of this underscores that like most of Shakespeare's plays, Macbeth is set in "Scotland" rather than a real place, the the featured "history" is nothing of the sort and that when productions do affect accents and have the cast sweeping around in kilts they're deluding themselves with an approach which has about as much legitimacy as Hamlet wearing clogs and a fez whilst affecting a Scandinavian pronunciation.  Which isn't to say Scottish actors haven't made great Macbeths and there haven't been useful productions set in Scotland, it's just that the underlying elements of the play don't support it, not least because in other plays Shakespeare made the Scottishness of characters a key component.

As is also so often the case with these Ardens, my eye is caught in the appendices which is where the textual discussion resides. For decades, critical mass has focused on the notion that the version of Macbeth we have now is not as originally written by Shakespeare, that its single textual version as it appears in F1 has been interfered with or adapted by another hand, usually attributed to Thomas Middleton, largely because of the similarity with his own play The Witches, notably in relation to some songs. This led to Gary Taylor including the play in his Oxford Complete Works of Middleton’s plays and it’s this analysis that I’ve seen cited as an example of Shakespeare the collaborator.

Clark reiterates of all of these arguments at length with sources before, like so many A3 editors before her, stripping away the hearsay and presumption to reveal that we actually don’t know anything, that the evidence is circumstantial at best.  She cites an electronic analysis by Marcus Dahl, Marina Tarlinskaya, and Brian Vickers (which is available to read online here) which compares the supposed added passages with Middleton's work and doesn't find a match (though she does note that others have argued against their work because the Middleton database they used it incomplete.  But the general message is that just because the play is short and is interestingly structured in places doesn't mean any of it is missing.

Macbeth (Arden Shakespeare. Third Series). Edited by Sandra Clark and Pamela Mason. 2015. RRP: £8.99. ISBN: 9781904271413. Review copy supplied.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Monday, October 06, 2014

36 Zach Appelman

Hamlet played by Zach Appelman.
Directed by Robert Richmond.

The Shakespeare Folger Library, in conjunction with Simon & Schuster have begun a new series of full text audio recordings of the plays based on their own texts and inevitably, probably, Hamlet is amongst the first off the battlements.  The packaging is pretty basic, a cardboard box with the cds in a similarly cardboard inlay with the cast and credits printed on the first of the three cds, which was difficult to refer to when I wanted to confirm that once of the voices I could hear was John "Q" De Lancie.  It wasn't but I didn't find that out until I had to swap discs.

All of the discs explain this was recorded at Omega Studios and Audio School in Rockville, Maryland.  The cast is from the States who keep their accents, which might seem like a redundant statement, but I have heard similarly US produced versions in which the cast effect "British" accents.  Sometimes, tonally, it is confusing.  The smallish cast often doubles up and I'm sure I heard the same actor playing different characters in the same scene, especially the battlements.  Many audio productions can offer a range of regional accents to provide an extra clarity this does not.

As expected, due to its educational purposes, this is a pretty neutral rendering, director Robert Richmond realising that the target audience of teachers and students do not really wanting to deal with an eclectic interpretation of the text.  The audio design and music are basic, with simple suggestive stop effects and, I think I heard, two different synthesised musical jingles depending on whether the text is shifting between scenes or acts.  The intent is presumably for the listener to read along with a text, probably Folger's own.

The neutrality extends to the performances which dedicate themselves for the most part to textual clarity.  At times the irony of the text is ignored (Horatio admitting to Hamlet he's seen his father's spirit), at others its somewhat pantomimed (Gertrude's course correction on the identities of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern).  But it's difficult to fault this kind of production when you're aware of the intent, that the creative decisions have led to a purposeful blandness that can only really be apparent to someone who's seen/heard this many productions (albeit not recently...).

Polonius is largely played as though he drifted in from one of the comedies, probably Much Ado, notably when Ophelia's describing her strange visit from Hamlet to him, her father very pleased that he's taking an interest.  As sometimes happens, the Ophelia actress, in this case Emily Trask, really comes into her own during the descent into madness.  She also poignantly plays Gravedigger II later, which if this was on stage would provide the spooky image of Ophelia posthumously digging her own grave.  Ian Merrill Peakes's Claudius sounds disconcertingly like Jacobi.

In about ten days, Zach Appelman begins a two month run as Hamlet in Hartford.  His prince is not especially mad.  It's more that we hear the more adolescent, uncertain man in the private moments, but play-acts a kind of aristocracy in public.  As the production winds onward, particularly through the closet scene, the latter becomes his default as he gains a clearer direction of purpose.  His breathing, which earlier is raspy, the words difficult to say, reduces, increasing the coherence of what he's communicating. But like the rest of the production he's never, ever difficult to understand right up to and including his final words.

Folger Shakespeare Library presents Hamlet By William Shakespeare is out now on cd. Review copy supplied.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Shakespeare at the BBC:
The Secret Life of Books: Shakespeare's First Folio.

As the BBC website describes, in The Secret Life of Books, "Six classic British books are considered with a fresh eye. Returning to the authors' original manuscripts and letters, expert writers and performers bring their personal insights to these great works."  Given the eclectic mix of books chosen, it wasn't exactly certain that Shakespeare's Folio would appear especially since it's been so well served on television previously not least during The Big Read whose campaigning series this 6x30mins superficially resembles.

There's a short potted history of Shakespeare's publishing history, the usually glee at the sheer apparent wrongness of "To Be Or Not To Be..." in the original quarto which Beale attempts to read out loud from the British Library copy, the words crumbling in his mouth.  Perhaps some day we'll have a series of programmes about literature's oddities which'll look at more closely.  The programme doesn't come to any real conclusions about its origin and even uses the words "bad quarto" almost in a pejorative sense as though it's a term we used in the past but we're much more enlightened now.

It's interesting to note the extent that scholarship has mode on that this kind of programme is now comfortable enough to stress Shakespeare as a collaborator in a way which I've not quite seen with such force in this kind of veneration.  That make's the oddity that the BL's manuscript copy of Sir Thomas More with its page and a half of potential Shakespeare handwriting isn't mentioned while Beale talks about how we don't have the ability to see the playwright's original papers quite strange.

Nevertheless this an enjoyable half hour and even more so thanks to Beale's own performance of speeches from Lear (which appeared in at the National during the production of the film), Timon of Athens and Hamlet which is represented by his heart-stopping rendition of "To Be Or Not To Be..." stood on the banks of the Thames, words spoken with a force of understanding which I've rarely seen, especially in extract.  You can really tell that this an actor whose lived with the play and Shakespeare's words his entire life.

The Secret Life of Books: Shakespeare's First Folio is on the iPlayer here and available to watch for the next month in the relevant territories.   

Clips from the programme can be sampled here.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

One-Man Hamlet at the Henley Fringe Festival.

Across my two blogs I receive a lot of press releases and every now and then there's something relevant which is worth quoting in full. Here is something relevant worth quoting in full:

Judi Dench signs on as Patron for Revolve Theatre Company ahead of their debut performance of One-Man Hamlet at the Henley Fringe Festival

Judi Dench has shown her support to the new era of theatre as she signs on as a Patron for up and coming theatre production company, Revolve Theatre Company. This summer, The RTC will be debuting their first ever performance as a company with their rendition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet performed by a single lone actor at this years’ Henley Fringe Festival. The show will be held at the Henley Town Hall Chambers over a period of five days throughout the 21st-26th July. Starring the show is RTC’s own Artistic Director, Oliver Dench, who will be playing all 15 roles using Shakespeare’s original text.

Dame Judi Dench, whose stage and screen roles have seen her perform in many of Shakespeare’s plays, including the role of Ophelia in Hamlet, and serves as an advisor to the American Shakespeare Center and Shakespeare Schools Festival, has given her support by signing on as patron for the company.

RTC aspires to change the face of theatre with their passion for the arts and love of theatre. After meeting together at work, Tom Smith, Oliver Dench and Joe Morris have pooled their performance and technical skills together to offer something new and exciting to the Oxfordshire and Berkshire theatre scene. Their motive is to strip the vanity and indulgence from theatre and take it back to the art using theatre as a tool for purpose, rather than an end to itself. As well as delivering high quality theatre, RTC set out to inspire young minds and promote the power of theatre in educational establishments by taking One-Man Hamlet around local schools after their debut at the Henley Fringe Festival.

Oliver Dench says: “We firmly believe that the common aversion to Shakespeare’s language stems from a lack of exposure to it. Students are forced to study plays in school to a certain level, often with teachers who don’t fully understand the beauty of the language. The emphasis is put on the drama, rather than the poetry (Shakespeare’s real gift to the literary world). Once students become exposed to the occasionally strange syntax and vocabulary of Shakespeare, it becomes far more understandable. The language was written to be heard, not read; it is for this reason that we feel it is so important to show children Shakespeare, rather than have them read it, before they make the conscious decision that it is boring, or difficult, or old, or a host of other adjectives that we have heard applied.”

So set a date in your diary to witness this years’ finest tales of revenge retold from Shakespeare’s original text seen only at the Henley Fringe Festival this summer. Tickets are on-sale now via the Henley Fringe Festival website.

Tickets are available to purchase from Henley Fringe Festival website via http://www.henleyfringe.org/ or call on 01491 578631

Ticket Prices:

Standard entry only - £8.00

Show Times: 21st – 26th

Monday and Tuesday – 7.30pm
Wednesday – 6.00pm
Thursday – 8.30pm
Friday - 6.30pm and 8.30pm

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

National Theatre 50th Anniversary Timeline App.

Having recently availed myself of an ipad I've had a chance to experience the National Theatre's new archive app highlighting fifty productions from across their half century in existence. Probably rightly, it's not all Shakespeare, but some of the most important productions are there, Olivier's Othello from 1964, Dench and Hopkins in Antony and Cleopatra in 1987, the Lear/Richard III tandem productions from 1990 which ultimate led to the film version of the latter with Ian McKellan, Fiona Shaw in Richard III from 1995 and Ian Holm's Lear in 1997.

Hamlet is represented by the 2000 production with Simon Russell Beale in the title role. The app is image rather than textually rich. There's little in the way of anecdote or analysis of the productions beyond a short introduction by the playwright Nicholas Wright (also a board member at the NT). A more elaborate approach would have included audio or video of the productions and more extensive text, perhaps at least relevant contemporary interviews with the cast and crew. But to be fair, this is free and such material is available elsewhere.

None of which is to devalue what is here, which includes black and white photos from the rehearsal process, Russell Beale wearing a baggy sweatshirt from an NT Othello production, fabric samples from his real costume, and annotated excerpts from the script showing the actor's movements and stage management cues (revealing Osric filled the role usually assigned to a second gravedigger and that the length introduction to Yorick featured in all its glory). The colour shots of the actual production suggest the production was lit in a style which evoked the Jacobian indoor theatre, faces against the darkness.

Overall I suspect the app will be of most interest the theatre scholars and audience members with long associations with the National. Those of us outside of London without access will feel inevitably frustrated. At some point, probably elsewhere, someone (!) should compile an accessibility guide to all this. Many of these productions have been filmed to some extent and even Russell Beale reprised his role for ArkAngel (my second review on here) (I wonder how I'd approach it differently).  But for all that, this is still well worth a download, should you be able to.

The download gateway is here.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A Jovial Crew (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Tiffany Stern.

Like most of culture or indeed everything with a history, theatrical history tends to be considered in chunks which in the case of early modern drama for some of us means Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline periods but for others is before, during and after Shakespeare’s career. As a result, the fine grain detail of the moments, especially at the fringes, in the wake of epochal changes can be lost. Bog-standard histories will often group the death of Shakespeare in 1616 and the closure of the theatres in 1642 in the wake of the English Civil War together almost as connected events even though there’s clearly a good few decades worth of fascinating events to discover in between.

The latest Arden Early Modern Drama, as with many of the editions in the series seeks to demonstrate that an awful lot did happen in that gap with Richard Brome’s A Jovial Crew, which was the last play staged before the theatres closed. If like me, you’re shelving this series in publication order, this is the edition which will presumably sit at the end of the series and stay there. As the editor Professor Tiffany Stern poignantly explains, Brome, knowing that this would be the last play performed by his company, Beeston’s Boys at the Cockpit Theatre, made sure there were enough parts for everyone, from veterans to youngsters, over thirty speaking roles, and enough spectacle to grandly fill the space one final time.

But it’s also a summation of the preceding decades of theatrical history. In crafting his story of a bored nobility seeking adventure amongst vagabonds, Brome was influenced by the work of his mentor Ben Jonson, parodying pastoral comedies (notably I think As You Like It in general story terms though Stern doesn’t mention this) whilst also drawing from near contemporaries, notably The Spanish Gypsy, a collaboration between Middleton, Rowley, Dekker and John Ford. The language of the plays too, recalls earlier eras, with the cant vocabulary of the beggars sometimes just slightly out of phase with modern coinage due to some extent Brome borrowing from earlier plays.

Ironically, given his theatre’s alternative name, the Phoenix, once the playhouse’s re-opened the play itself became a key influence on theatrical history. Chopped about and rewritten as was the custom in the Restoration period, with chunks of the text replaced with songs (expanding on or substituting the six which are already included), Stern argues that The Jovial Crew (as it had become by then) ultimately became the model for The Beggar’s Opera, the two becoming inseparable until Gay’s 1728 piece carved out its own place. But the play is rarely if never produced on this original form. Even when the RSC mounted a production (with The Beggar’s Opera as a sibling), Brome’s words were extensively substituted and rewritten.

Now the play is commemorated in this fine edition, the first, it’s suggested by the bibliography and the editor’s preface, properly edited version of the text in over forty years. Perhaps understandably, Stern’s introduction keeps to the usual formula of examining the plays characters, politics, themes and language in the first section, then sources, then interweaving the publication and performance history, this being an example of a work in which the two are inextricably linked. For clarity, Stern’s biography of Brome which makes the case for his independence of his from Jonsons, is hidden away in appendix 3 after a glossary of “cant” terms and an investigation of the play's songs.

The general sense one has from this Arden edition is that it finally refocuses and steadies a work that has been in flux from the moment it was written. Brome himself even included updates and rewrites to include more contemporary allusions when the play was published ten years later. Which isn’t to say that Brome has fallen into complete obscurity. As Stern acknowledges, the valuable Brome Online page also has edited versions of all the texts, along with video excerpts from rehearsals of the plays and a thorough staging chronology. But in producing this handsome edition, another punctuation mark in theatrical history is emphasised and how lucky we were that it was a comma rather than a full stop.

A Jovial Crew (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Tiffany Stern.  Bloomsbury. 2014. RRP: £10.99. ISBN: 978-1904271772. Review copy supplied.

Here's an interview with Tiffany Stern about the other end of the period and the opening of the playhouses in London.

Also from the Shakespearean London Theatres (SHALT) project, a short documentary about Christopher Beeston, the owner of the Cockpit where A Jovial Crew was premiered.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Maxine Peake on Hamlet.

Peake is due to play Hamlet at Manchester's Royal Exchange.  Here she talks to Creative Tourist about the why question:
“Male actors I know who’ve played Hamlet keep saying what a huge responsibility it is to play that part. But, even though I’m petrified, I’m not a man so I don’t feel that sort of responsibility”, she argues. “I just feel excited and, if we fail, we fail. But it’s about having a go, about saying we can do it.” Peak is adamant that this part has got absolutely nothing to do with gender-swapping for shock’s sake. “When there are all-male companies doing Shakespeare, no one minds and no one should bat an eye if a woman plays Hamlet or Henry V,” she asserts. “We’re actors doing a part and, on stage now in 2014, it’s about time there was a freedom to do that. When else are female actors going to get an opportunity to do those great speeches? So far, men have had all the fun!”

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Forty-five Hamlets.

Yesterday for Shakespeare's birthday, The Guardian published forty-five images of Hamlet from various productions.

Which was essentially an opportunity for me to say, "Seen that. Seen that. Haven't seen that. Haven't seen that. Not old enough. Seen that. Seen that."

Michael Billington also offered his suggestions for the best of each the decades in his career.

I still maintain my favourite's been Natalie Quatermass.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Shakespeare at the British Pathe Archive:
Happy Birthday!

Today would have been Shakespeare's 450th birthday, so to celebrate let's delve again into the Pathe archive to see how it was marked in earlier years. Essentially it's a history of the traditional tour around Stratford.

We begin in 1920. You'll notice as we continue through these that Stratford doesn't much change across the century.

Our first proper glimpse of the flag raising ceremony in 1930. Sixty-four nations at this point.

In 1936, the birthday was relegated to few shots in the News in a Nutshell montages. Same as 1935.

In 1938 at the dawn of the Second World War. Merriment in general though a key country has been removed from the flagpoles.

A reigning monarch's first visit to Stratford apparently. Includes tour of birthplace and shots inside the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre of a Julius Caesar rehearsal and greeting Anthony Quayle in costume as Henry VIII.

The annual tradition continues in 1957, now in full colour.

It's 1964, the 400th birthday and here we're in in Techniscope and Technicolor. What looks like the opening of The Shakespeare Centre up the road from the birthplace. The Duke of Edinburgh is there. Frustratingly it looks like its been transferred at the wrong speed obliterating the sound.

Oh, hold on, here's the same thing in black white with sound.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The New Yorker's Relics.

Shellshocked. That's the only reaction one can draw from receiving a PR email from the venerable The New Yorker magazine about the Shakespeare related article in the new issue. Since this is a momentous occasion, at least for me, find below the guts of the press release as it appeared in the email:

Why Do We Still Search for Relics of The Bard?

In “The Poet’s Hand” (p. 40), Adam Gopnik explores scholars’ painstaking efforts to discover authentic vestiges of William Shakespeare’s life and work, and the doubt that often surrounds their findings. What drives people to search for bits and pieces of Shakespeareana four hundred and fifty years after his birth? Gopnik met with two Manhattan rare-book dealers, George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler, who are convinced that a heavily annotated sixteenth-century quadrilingual dictionary they purchased on eBay once belonged to Shakespeare. “They believe that he kept it on his desk and scribbled in its margins, learned French by turning its pages, and was inspired to poetic flights by delving among its Latin synonyms,” Gopnik writes. Some of the connections that Koppelman and Wechsler have espied between the dictionary and the Bard—they are self-publishing their findings this month—“seem a little far-fetched,” Gopnik writes. But some of them “are genuinely arresting.” One counter-argument: the handwriting, Gopnik notes, “just doesn’t look like Shakespeare’s.” Additionally, “there is what might be called the argument from Inherent Improbability: it seems fantastically lucky that, of all the thousands of possible annotators of a single dictionary of the time, it would be the one in the world you would most want to be the guy,” Gopnik writes. “We live in an Elizabethan world of our own reductive devising, populated by the Queen and Ben Jonson and the Dark Lady and the Bard and a theatre full of groundlings.” Gopnik continues: “But the real Elizabethan world had a lot more people in it than that, and countless more possible . . . annotators [of the dictionary].” Shakespeare is a prime candidate “only because we don’t know the names of all the other bird-loving, inquisitive readers who also liked their dabchicks and their French verbs.” Gopnik spoke with Daniel Fischlin, a scholar at Canada’s Guelph University, who has spent years researching the “Sanders portrait,” a painting he believes to be “the best mirror left of Shakespeare’s face.” Though the portrait is dated “1603,” and, Fischlin claims, it can be traced to Shakespeare’s London neighborhood, the portrait does not immediately seem to resemble the one verified image of the poet. David Scott Kastan, a professor of Shakespeare studies at Yale, tells Gopnik that enthusiasts are “trying to get close to this most wonderful and mysterious of authors, this most mysterious genius—what has he touched?” The truth, according to Kastan, “is that it doesn’t change one thing about what we think about Shakespeare or why we love him or why we value him.” He continues, “It’s easy to be glib and dismissive of Bardolotry, but that’s how we all got here, in some way.” http://nyr.kr/1qUtNGO

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Hamlet at the British Pathe Archive.

As you might have heard, British Pathe have taken the rather epic decision to upload much of their archive to Youtube, around eighty-five thousand news reels. With that sort of breadth of coverage, most subjects and topics are featured and Hamlet is no exception.

A shot from the 1913 version of Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' starring Sir Johnstone Forbes Robertson. This appears to be Act 1, Scene 1 with Horatio (S A Cookson), Marcellus (A. Roberts) and Bernado (G. Richards) greeting Hamlet Snr for the first time.  Notice how the Ghost is achieved by superimposing one exposure over another on the film. The old Hamlet page at the BBC website contains the follow up scene from the same film of Forbes-Robertson meeting the Ghost for himself., though it's true that the actor could be in the above clip.  It's confusing.  Here's a clip of the actor offering reading of the advice to players. Screen Online has a short essay about the production. Here's a painting of the actor in the part from the V&A's theatre collection and photographs at the National Portrait Gallery and Folger Shakespeare Library.

Here's the footage again in a '63 film about its discovery and restoration.  This would seem to indicate the BFI has the whole film in its archive somewhere though it doesn't appear on their collection of Silent Shakespeare.

Douglas Fairbanks Jnr (!) accepts the 1948 Best Picture and Best Actor Oscars on behalf of Sir Lawrence for his Hamlet.

"Twenty-one gun salute being fired from Hamlet's Castle at Elsinore."

Czechoslovakian craftsman produce a model of Hamlet from glass.

This travelogue offers a colour glimpse of Elsinore (3.40 onwards). Film notes that the palace was actually built in the 16th century.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Globe to Globe Hamlet Kickstarter Appeal.

In a bid to pull together more funding for the Globe to Globe tour, The Globe has begun a Kickstarter. Here's the widget:

They're trying to raise £200k. Click through for the pledge video which is worth watching anyway to offer some idea of the logistics of what's being attempted.  Two Hamlets, three Polonius's.

Friday, March 28, 2014

BBC's Drama of the Week is Hamlet.

Just a quick note to say that Radio 4's Drama of the Week podcast is episode one of Hamlet.

You can download it here.

Hopefully the other four episodes will go up too, but they've been known to only include a single installment of series.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Benedict Cumberbatch to play Hamlet.

I'll add a link to The Guardian's article when it's republished. It was up earlier thanks to an embargo jump.

Updated  26/03/2014  Here's a link to The Guardian's article now that it's been republished.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Radio 4's Hamlet will be in the Afternoon Drama slot.

Genuinely surprised. Here is Hamlet spread across the whole week in the prestigious 2:15pm slot in five parts (an act per day?) starting next Monday 24th March for five days, total duration about three and three-quarter hours which in audio terms is a mass of airtime allowing space for plenty of the play's textual real estate. For comparison, this is just shorter than the Branagh "full text" film and longer than his Renaissance Theatre production broadcast in 1992.

The programme page is here, with full cast list and clips of Jamie Parker talking about the role.  And here.

Notice that it's not listed as being part of the Afternoon Drama strand, which usually features new drama by living writers.  Will this affect its chances of being a downloadable podcast in the Drama of the Week?

Expect a review here in due course, then.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Shakespeare at the BBC:
More of The Hollow Crown?

At Illuminations, sorry @illuminations, noticed a good case of burying the headline in a Michael Billington column about BBC radio's adaptation of O What A Lovely War. Towards the end he addresses some of my usual complaints about the lack of theatre on television before smuggling what feels like a pretty impressive leak:
"TV, on the other hand, does little to acknowledge the existence of theatre. You might get the occasional news report if there is a startling controversy or the opening of a big musical. The Review Show has been shunted on to a little-seen monthly Sunday-evening slot on BBC4. But, although I'm told there is a second season of Shakespeare history plays being planned for BBC2, it is rare to find a play from the theatrical canon being televised. And none of the big companies, such as the National or the RSC, has established the kind of link with television that they have with cinemas that allows their work to be seen not just around the UK but across the world."
As @illuminations says:

Let's hope so. The first series did well in international sales, especially in the US where it got huge press, certainly more than it received here. As with the other pieces, it has the perfect shape for a series of films, brilliant parts not least John of Arc and ends with Richard III as the finale. The Jane Howell version for the BBC Shakespeare filmed against a venture playground backdrop with hobby horses with Brenda Blethyn as Joan and Ron Cook as Richard is still a high televisual watermark for this material (and only appearance I think for Henry VI), but it is a very stylised piece and it'd be interesting to finally see it with massive casts and no double (even though as the recent Globe productions and the Howell version have shown that can create interesting thematic resonances).

Perhaps my old plan to do the whole of Shakespeare in this format doesn't look so silly after all. Um.

Updated  25/03/2013  The Hollow Crown Season Two commissioned.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

New Hamlet for Radio 4.

The press release for BBC's new Radio 4 awareness drive, the clunkily titled "Character Invasion" does include this interesting nugget:
"Beginning with a new production of Hamlet - often thought of as the definitive character portrayal - starring History Boy Jamie Parker and broadcast over five afternoons in the week leading up to Character Invasion Day"
After seeing Parker in the Globe Henry V, I hoped he'd appear in Hamlet at some point and here he is, albeit on the radio, though it's not clear which slot. Ideally it'll be afternoon drama since it probably needs all of those minutes, but I suspect it'll be a fifteen minute daily broadcast instead. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern unlikely, Fortinbras absent?  In other news, Radio 4 broadcasts Shakespeare.  That's the real surprise.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Prince of Jutland explained.

Gabriel Axel, the director of Hamlet reimagining The Prince of Jutland died recently and The Guardian has an obituary which includes this nugget about the production:
"Prince of Jutland (1994), shot in English in Denmark, was a risible effort to retell the story of Amled, drawing upon the 12th-century work that inspired Shakespeare's Hamlet. The starry cast - Helen Mirren, Kate Beckinsale, Gabriel Byrne and Christian Bale – struggled against bad dialogue and cinematography. There was some excuse for its failure, because Axel fell ill during the editing process and was unable to complete post-production work. In the US, Miramax acquired the rights, re-cut the film and eventually released it on video in 1998 under the title Royal Deceit."
Which explains many of the film's problems, though as you can see from my old review, I really rather enjoyed it, especially the moment when Bale eats a tree.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Kenneth and Alex.

From the BBC's press office:
"Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston to star in new BBC Radio 3 drama of Antony And Cleopatra for Shakespeare’s Birthday: Sunday 20 April

"Actors Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston will be cast as Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra in a special production directed by BBC Radio drama’s Alison Hindell for BBC Radio 3 to mark the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth.

"Commenting on the announcement, Kenneth Branagh said: "I'm so happy to be teamed again with Alison Hindell, whose brilliant production of Life And Fate was one of the great pleasures of my work in radio. I'm also excited to be reunited with Alex Kingston after our hugely rewarding partnership in Macbeth on stage. To play another pair of Shakespeare's great couples, and for a personally beloved medium, is a privilege."

Friday, January 24, 2014

"Hamlet is, of course, the Genesis of the Daleks of Shakespeare."

Philip Sandifer is writing about the history of Doctor Who within a historical and somewhat literary criticism context which sometimes includes material which is influenced or tangentially connected to the television science fiction franchise. This week he's covered David Tennant in Hamlet at the RSC in 2008:
"Hamlet is, of course, the Genesis of the Daleks of Shakespeare - the one that is so canonically the best as to render further discussion oddly superfluous. Like Genesis of the Daleks, it has more than enough oomph to live up to its billing, and yet its status seems oddly out of proportion. Sure, it’s very good, but it’s tough to argue that it’s head and shoulders above King Lear or Othello. But Hamlet is nevertheless the prestige piece - the big one, if you will. Tennant, for his part, is very good at the role. The same skill that makes him a good Doctor - his ability to insert an unusually high volume of decisions into his reading of a given scene - helps him just as well in Shakespeare. He can deliver Shakespearean dialogue at speed in a way that makes the content of the lines clear. This is no mean feat - Shakespeare is brilliant, but the fact that the language is not normal conversational English makes it difficult to pick up on things at conversational speed. Being able to add, in effect, a second channel of communication through gesture and tone of voice helps in a big way. And it’s not particularly distinct from how Tennant is capable of having dialogue about, say, Z-neutrino energy and using it to deliver actual information instead of the patent nonsense that it actually is."
As I said in my original review, what's interesting about Tennant plays the role is that when he's feigning madness he seems to very consciously go full Time Lord, all of the Tenth Doctor's various ticks in full effect which makes the contrast with the darker, more internalised prince all the starker.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The New York Times's Hamlet in 15 seconds competition.

In the past few months, The New York Times has been tasking high school students with creating short performances of fragments of Hamlet through Instagram's video service.

Now they've posted some of the results having received over five hundred entries.
With only 15 seconds and the small field of vision offered on Instagram, capturing an elaborately staged scene from “Hamlet” is a technical challenge. But some students found ways to make the most of the format.

Emma Anderson, who plans to graduate from Palos Verdes Peninsula High School in California in 2016, used an iPhone and text messaging to help deliver Hamlet’s lines about the “special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” Lit up only by the light of her iPhone in her bedroom, she said she found making the video less challenging than adapting Shakespeare’s writing to the 15-second format of Instagram video.

“The most difficult part was picking the line,” she said. “I think finding the right line for that span of 15 seconds was a very important thing.”

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Shakespeare at the BBC:
An Age of Kings released in the UK.

Well, this is exciting news.  Here's the full press release because it is such exciting news.


Illuminations presents an exclusive 5-disc DVD of

An Age of Kings

Eight History plays by William Shakespeare

'Monumental; a landmark in the BBC's Shakespearian tradition.'
The Times

Groundbreaking adaptation of Shakespeare's Histories available for the first time in 50 years

960 minutes including extras
£34.99 including VAT

An Age of Kings is the BBC's compelling 15-part series from 1960 of William Shakespeare's great national pageant of eight History plays. Watched by over three million viewers, it is the most ambitious Shakespeare project ever filmed for television.

Hailed by the Guardian as 'ambitious ... exciting ... a striking example of the creative use of television', it was a powerful demonstration of the BBC's unique strengths and abilities in a time when Britain's public service broadcaster was not principally in the hunt for ratings.

Planned as the inaugural production in the newly-built BBC TV Centre, An Age of Kings was later broadcast live on Thursday evenings every fortnight from Riverside Studios in Hammersmith as the series wasn't ready in time for the opening.

For more than 50 years, this TV landmark has been entirely unavailable in Britain. Yet its drama of power politics, betrayals, deceptions and deadly rivalries is as alive as ever. So too is the beauty of some of Shakespeare's greatest poetry and prose.

An Age of Kings features outstanding actors, including Robert Hardy, Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, and Sean Connery, at the beginning of their highly successful careers. More than five decades after it was first seen, An Age of Kings is a vivid and vibrant drama, with an unparalleled clarity and immediacy, sense of scale and poetic depth.

With 600 speaking parts and 30 weeks of rehearsal before filming, each episode cost £4000. The series was shot on only four cameras with a cyclorama used for the battle scenes and lots of smoke.

DVD extras: The Making of An Age of Kings features Tony Garnett (Cathy Come Home, Days of Hope) interviewed at Riverside Studios. Garnett recalls his experiences on this groundbreaking series and the challenges of making one of the most ambitious Shakespeare projects ever filmed.

Also included in the 5 disc DVD pack is a 24-page booklet giving background information and critical writing about the production.

Barcode: 5060291820072
Catalogue number: AOK166

William Shakespeare & Others: Collaborative Plays. Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen.

Oh the apocrypha, the elusive teasing Shakespeare apocrypha, plays which somewhere along the line, either because a publisher ambiguously slapped some initials on a title page or wedged new texts into a reprint of the Folio edition and may, or is most often the case, may not contain the words of one of literature’s great geniuses. Or the anonymous plays which critical and theatrical tradition has been suggested to have a glancing connection with him. Or the works, solidly attributed to someone else, but which may still contain his hand in later additions. It’s got to the point where you can’t definitely say how many plays are in Shakespeare’s canon any more.

Which is the point of the multiple authored William Shakespeare & Others: Collaborative Plays. Having produced their sumptuous “complete works” a few years ago based on the First Folio, the RSC in a companion volume, turns its attention towards everything else, the list of plays that show signs of Shakespeare attention, in a couple of speeches, odd scenes or through later adaptation, once again highlighting that he wasn’t a man who worked alone and utilising centuries of literary criticism attempts an arbitration as to what should be considered canonical and what has been simple wishful thinking and then producing properly edited versions of those considered worthy enough.

Jonathan Bates’s general introduction introduces the concept of Shakespeare’s canon and then offers a brief history of the apocrypha which is in general the result of the good faith of critics desperate to increase Shakespeare’s canon and printers who in bad faith and greed were desperate to do the same. Literary criticism has changed markedly over time. In the past, whole texts would be dismissed as being unworthy of Shakespeare with little regard for outside evidence especially if they were collaborative and only relatively recently has the “problem” been considered more scientifically or dispassionately, with a more evidentiary approach to these works relying heavily on biographical knowledge and textual comparison.

The majority of the volume contains the selected plays and there are a few surprises or at least seem so until Will Sharpe’s section on Authorship and Attribution explains some of their workings out. The proof copy I was sent to review only contains Arden of Faversham, The Spanish Tragedy and Sir Thomas Moore, all of which are now pretty much assumed to have had Shakespeare’s hand in them somehow, however minimally and all are treated with the same care and attention in the complete works with an introduction covering the play’s themes and key facts boxes containing a synopsis, summary of authorship, creation date, sources and publication history followed by textual notes.

But undoubtedly the most compelling section of the volume is Sharpe’s as the methodology of textual analysis is investigated before explanations are given for the inclusion of each of the plays in the volume, with justifications for omissions included as an epilogue. In what must have been a superhuman task, the writer must have read through dozens of volumes, acres of print as forces for an against passages and plays fought with each other across time, usually directly criticising each other’s ignorance about what constitutes Shakespeare and whether a play under consideration fits within their criteria. Speeches, lines, even individual words have been scrutinised to the point where the dramatic elements of these dramas almost becomes beside the point.

Of those chosen, some plays feel like a given: Arden of Faversham, Edward III, Sir Thomas Moore and most lately The Spanish Tragedy 1602 and Double Falsehood. Locrine with its teasing W.S. on its printed title page is included because there simply isn’t enough evidence that those initials don’t mean William Shakespeare. Thomas Lord Cromwell is utilised as an example of the collaborative nature of theatre companies, Shakespeare possibly having been in the room when it was written. The London Prodigal and A Yorkshire Tragedy are both atypical but contain passages of a literary complexity, which might betray his presence. The new outlier is Mucedorus which computer analysis has thrust into the limelight after years of dismissal.

Between the lines, the background theme, and this is especially true of the omitted plays, is that once a work, especially an anonymous work, has been thrown out of Shakespeare’s orbit, there’s little appetite in discovering who the author actually might be, which is another example of the inbuilt snobbery which overhangs Shakespeare’s contemporaries whose work has become eclipsed by Shakespeare across the years. No serious textual analysis has been done on Thomas Lord Cromwell other than to disprove Shakespeare’s involvement and though it’s not widely considered to be a “great” play, it could be an important part of another author’s story, but because the world’s not interested in other author’s stories, we might not ever know.

This is frustrating. If there’s a greatest theme to the book it is that Shakespeare should never be viewed in isolation and that, because he did collaborate with is contemporaries, it’s important to pay attention to the great worth of those contemporaries. The shift in complexity in his plays in the Jacobian period wasn’t some whim but a reaction to the changing tastes of the market with the likes of Measure for Measure his attempt to create his own version of the city dramas being produced by Dekker, Fletcher, Jonson and the rest. But their work is so little produced (because of a self-perpetuating disinterest) that someone approaching these aspects of Shakespeare’s career for the first time will find them someone alien (as I did at school).

The volume ends with Peter Kirwan interviewing theatre professionals about the challenges of producing these plays and the extent to which Shakespeare’s potential authorship effects their work. For the most part the answer is simply that it doesn’t, that it’s about serving the story and characters and themes and that it’s generally left to the marketing department to decide on the extent to which they want to highlight the connection. But there is some recognition that they’re pioneers because most of the audience will be seeing these plays for the first time unaware of the story and characters and themes. Perhaps the best legacy for this volume would be for that to change.

William Shakespeare & Others: Collaborative Plays. Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen. Published by Palgrave Macmillan. RRP: £25.00. ISBN-13: 978-1137271440. Out now. Review copy supplied.