Sunday, July 19, 2009

'The BBC Shakespeare Plays' by Susan Willis.

In 1975 when BBC producer Cedric Messina was working on a drama at Glamis Castle, he decided that it would be the perfect location for a production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Thinking about it some more, he wondered why he should stop there? Why not film all of the plays in the canon (thirty-seven at that point, Two Noble Kinsmen and Edward III not having been admitted yet), some jolly good Shakespeare, for broadcast on television? The BBC liked that idea. And eventually so did the American co-producers, oilmen and bankers (the likes of Exxon and Morgan Bank who wanted to be seen to be very interested in culture). A big event, an epic undertaking, televising the canon was a chance for the BBC to thump it’s chest and shout “This is what we do!” (with a little help from some friends).

As Susan Willis explains in The BBC Shakespeare Plays: Making The Televised Canon, a celebration of Messina's undertaking, the Americans having stipulated that it shouldn’t be too radical, so none of that modern dress malarkey, the producer would see his original vision be revised and revised, and ultimately completed six years later, having gone through three producers with three different visions, a panoply of directors (some television veterans new to Shakespeare, some Shakespeare veterans new to Shakespeare) though Messina got his wish to film As You Like It at the castle and surrounds and later taking Henry VIII on location to the actual historical palaces, everything else was shot in the studio, engaging some of the greatest theatre actors of all time and whoever was popular on television.

As anyone lucky enough to own the dvd boxset will know, the results are something of a mixed bag. In her investigation, Willis (associate professor of English at Auburn University at Montgomery) notes (and I agree with her) that those plays which are less well know, Measure for Measure or Pericles or All’s Well That Ends Well are the best served out of the lot because the directors didn’t feel constrained by what has gone before, whereas Romeo and Juliet, huddled then in the shadow of the recent Zeffrelli movie doesn’t do anything new. The crowning achievement is probably Henry VI – Richard III in which director Jane Howell through an ensemble cast doubling roles, on a single set resembling an adventure playground, portrays this history as the games of school boys play-acting; in isolation it’s as entertaining as I, Claudius, with just as many wild performances and narrative meanders.

Writing just a few years after the final broadcast, Willis clearly has a great admiration for the series. Beyond the history, she offers a forensic analysis of some of the series’s auteurs, Jonathan Miller, Elijah Moshinsky and Howell demonstrating how they turned the constraints into benefits by taking full advantage of the televisual medium to emphasise the meaning of a scene through the mis-en-scene or stylising the sets to thematically underscore the motivations of a character. She carefully manages to keep such analysis with the production, only ever broadly venturing into the text when its absolutely necessary usually when describing cuts made or scene changes.

The book closes with some gossipy production diaries for Troilus and Cressida, Titus Andronicus and The Comedy of Errors, contrasting different directing styles and showing how the BBC’s production methods of the time constrained their artistic decisions (familiar to anyone who’s watched the documentaries on Doctor Who dvds – the 10pm shutdown effected high art too). It's the kind of thing which would be of use to anyone with an interest in this period of television or theatre history and has some wonderful moments were the diva gene in some actors takes full bloom, their competitive streak, but unfortunately more often than not, Willis refuses to name names, though a close analysis of the cast list would probably offer a few ideas.

If there’s a problem, having concentrated on her favourites, Willis rather dumps everyone else into a single chapter, though the writer does somewhat justify that choice by explaining what she thought went wrong with, for example, As You Like It. It’s the nature of these things that I’m bound to disagree with her on a great many things but her observations are correct more often than not, especially in relation to Richard Griffith’s Falstaff dozing his way through a The Merry Wives of Windsor (working against a wonderful Judy Davis and Ben Kinglsey), and particularly about the fiery chemistry between Tim Pigott-Smith as Angelo and Kate Nelligan as Isabella in Measure for Measure, an early triumph and one of the reasons I became interested in Shakespeare, which was the aim the project, to get the disaffected interested so it succeeded in that.

Monday, July 13, 2009

'Soul of the Age' by Jonathan Bate.

Up until recently, it was generally accepted that William Shakespeare’s final play was The Tempest; there was some historic evidence, not least that it was the first play to appear in the Folio that was published just after his death and how best to commemorate a genius than with their latest, perhaps last work. There’s also the romantic notion that Prospero’s final speech isn’t simply concluding the play but the writer’s career, one final humble exclamation to his audience before retirement:

“[..] Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.”

Sadly, as Jonathan Bate’s brilliant biography, Soul of the Age, demonstrates, Shakespeare’s retirement was a myth. He continued working right through to his death, his hand potentially seen all over the place, his final work most probably the collaboration with upcoming playwright John Fletcher, Two Noble Kinsmen. After all, the man died at the age of fifty-two. He was wealthy, he didn’t need to work, but like similarly successful artists across the years, the impulse to create overwhelmed the potential for leisure.

Bate’s motive here (just as it was in the RSC complete works completed simultaneously) is mythbusting, though he comes not bury Shakespeare but to praise him. Taking Jacques’s seven ages of man speech from As You Like It as a backbone (“All The World’s A Stage…”), he traces through Shakespeare’s life extrapolating him onto those ages, but rather than offering a straight biography, he instead charts his external world, his historical context, gathering the collective miscellany of experiences he must have had in order to write the plays, poems and sonnets.

For example: many biographies give short shrift to his school days; they aren’t well documented and often there’s a preference to motor on to the juicy gossip, his marriage to Anne Hathaway and thence to London. Instead, Bate, using what evidence is available and applying a curriculum from a similar school, conducts a forensic year on year investigation into how Shakespeare may have been educated listing the books he must have studied and then, and here’s where it gets interesting, demonstrates how that learning blossoms within the plays, notably Plutarch (Anthony & Cleopatra, Coriolanus).

From there he sets about attempting to construct the personal library Shakespeare must have kept, suggesting books he must have read in translation and in their own language providing yet more examples from the texts, even to the point of suggesting which edition of the bible he would have had to hand, the heavily annotated Genova. The point he returns to again and again, is that far from the words and ideas popping into the bard’s mind, he was instead a literary magpie, grabbing snatches of language and ideas and themes and slotting them in to fit his own aims.

In other words, he was a writer. The effect should be to decrease our appreciation of the man and his work because it slowly becomes apparent that his original thought was rather less and the legend suggests. But curiously it simply increases our appreciation because though Shakespeare would often take old plays and texts and rewrite them, hammering in all of these allusions, the taste with which this was accomplished and the psychological, thematic and dramatic depth that shimmers through them is breathtaking.

And so Bate continues, explaining how the court scenes will have been influenced by his own brushes with Stratford law in cases related to land rights and how sexual scandal, which appears to have been rife in town, bubbles under in the likes of Measure for Measure. We’re given a thorough description of his contemporaries, his rivals and friends and so the circumstance in which many of the plays would have been written or revived, forever underscoring that though Shakespeare was the greatest writer of most times, he was also a businessman.

Though the cover suggests that it’s from the popular history genre, Bate never shies away from intellectual rigour; in places it reads like one of Stephen Fry’s deviations on QI, as he enjoys the opportunity to demonstrate the depth of his knowledge and simply lets fact after fact spill out on top of one another. Sometimes that can lead the text into areas that are difficult to pursue without a strong knowledge of the text (most impenetrably in a passage about The Tempest which I read twice and still couldn’t quite follow).

But turn a few pages and there’s something new; a useful discussion of the sonnets which, simply by unfurling the publication history (posthumous, exploitative) untangles the idea that in their present form they tell a biographical story of the artist’s amorous extra-marital entanglements, suggesting that there may have been more than one boy, who the dark lady might be and that in any case that these poems may not have been expressing Shakespeare’s own feelings but those of a fictional construct no more realistic than Romeo, Juliet, Hamlet or Falstaff ...

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Modern Stratford-Upon-Avon

I chose the Curtain Call Guest House because of the name and somewhat because of the price (£35 a night). It’s about fifteen minutes outside the town centre, which meant I had the daily anticipation of going to Stratford. Having not stayed in a guest house before, I wasn’t sure what to expect but this was exactly what I needed – a comfy bed. The landlords, Cheryl and David were very friendly, accommodating and thoughtful; on the nights I was going to be out late at the theatre they left the light on in the dining room. All of the other guests I met were regulars – regular enough to be able to chat about family – so this is the kind of place that people like to return to and feel safe.

Most mornings I kept to muselli and croissants but on the Friday I treated myself to a fry up and it was very, very nice indeed and I could tell it was local sourced – whilst I was eating the delivery from the local farm arrived. I needed a good breakfast because in general I’m horrible about keeping to lunch time whenever I’m away from home, even on day trips and this was no exception. The best lunch I had was at The Posh Corner Shop, a café/delicatessen not too far up from Shakespeare’s original school, where I sat in the window and ate a coffee and giant apricot Danish pastry and wrote my parents a postcard saying as much. I never know what to say on those things.

Evening mealtimes can be the strangest parts of the day when you’re travelling alone. Restaurants tend to be geared towards groups, the event of the meal playing slowly across an evening, whereas us singletons, even if we try and pace ourselves, can be in and out in half an hour and if we’re not careful the process is reduced to the function it really is rather than the entertainment it should be. Most of the streets in Stratford town consist of restaurants, chains and independents so there’s lots of choice, too much choice probably, so I tried to go for the ‘interesting’ options:


The Garrick Inn is reputed to be the oldest pub in Stratford; the building dates from the Elizabethan era and it became a drinking hole in the early 1700s. It was renamed for the actor in mid-late 18th century after he held a three day jubilee for his favourite playwright in the town which is seen as one of the attempts to confirm his legendary status in the modern era. The interior has clearly been remodelled a few times since then, so there’s a proper restaurant section at the back and waitress service.

The chicken and bacon salad was alright; the mix of two different dressings gave it an odd smell but the poultry was succulent enough. But the real entertainment came from watching the serving staff as they negotiated the order of an American couple who were sitting at the back who from what I could gather had given all of the necessary impressions that they hadn’t decided what they were having yet then strolled up to the counter wondering why their food hadn’t arrived yet.

The two waitresses thought through events and compared notes like detectives working over a witness statement and concluded that in fact the couple hadn’t ordered – there was no paper evidence – but then it became apparent that even after the man had appeared and complained they still weren’t sure what it was he wanted to be eating (was it fish and chips?) and that one of them was going to have to go to customer and get a clarification. I didn’t envy them.

The Chain

The “Godfather of Italian gastronomy” (according to his website) Antonio Carluccio has a string of restaurants and cafes across the country; blue and white trimmed interior is split between a well stocked shop and eating area. I think this was the worst experience of the week, but that probably had more to do with me being alone and not being able to work out what I’d be doing with the rest of the evening than the food, the Insalata Di Primaver a “sautéed pancetta, gorgonzola cheese and walnuts with rocket, spinach and radicchio leaves” (the menu is online) or the environment – it was early in the evening and there was only me and a large family group and as much as I enjoy my own company, sitting next to a mirror isn’t the same thing.

The Theatre

The Courtyard Theatre has a restaurant café which like the Everyman in Liverpool offers a mix of standard, regular menu items and specials. Reaching the theatre two hours before the performance I decided to try and spread the meal out so had all three courses (somehow managing the next thing half an hour after the last). Having watched people eating outside the previous couple of nights, I decided to take my soup near the entrance, but of course it was far too windy that and as I’m desperately trying to spoon the mushrooms into my mouth one hand I’m variously holding down my book and some paper napkins with the other.

The interior looks as you’d hope it would, with proper café style furniture with tables in RSC red the walls covered in posters advertising the latest productions. Being awkward and admittedly slightly ironic, I asked the waitress if I could have half of a Warwickshire share-board, a sort of ploughman’s lunch for two people. The question was passed through many mouths until it reached the kitchen then back again in the positive. It turned out to be a breadboard covered in chicken, ham, cheese, salad and bread and turned out to be the most filling meal of the week, so I can’t imagine what the full one was like.

As ever I hummed and hahared over the desert, eventually coming down on the side of a victoria sponge after the waitress suggested it because I was clearly going to miss the start of the play if she didn’t point me in a direction. I maintain I would have got there in the end, but given I was the sitting next to stage its probably best that I wasn’t trolling in, cake crumbs across my front, just as Caesar got the sharp end of Brutus’s knife. I told them as I left that this had been my best meal of the week. Which it had. Then.


Banjaxed for reasons I’ll get to some other time (this holiday will be good for a fair few more blog posts I’m sure) I was looking for something easy but also interesting for my final night. I did consider something with a Shakespearean theme – Othello’s perhaps? Mistress Quickly’s? But stopped instead at Edward Moons. The penny farthing on the sign makes it stand out as does the mission statement printed in the window and also appearing on the website, describing who Mr. Moon was and why he deserved to have a restaurant named after him:
”Edward Moon was a travelling chef working in the British Colonial service in the early nineteen hundreds. […] Edward was also a creative cook, enthusiastic and excited by the local ingredients, cooking styles and methods he encountered on his exotic travels.[…] He retired to England in 1940 and recorded his experiences, philosophy and recipes in a book “The Travelling Cook’s Companion” It is the spirit described in this book that has helped us inspire our restaurants. “
I’ve trimmed it a bit but you get the message. I was intrigued. Then the specials board drew me even closer to the door. Game pie. Game pie!?! I’ve always wanted to try that, properly cooked, not the soggy relic you find in some supermarkets. Inside the restaurant a group of people had spotted me looking in and were grinning and waving, two empty wine bottles nearby. I asked for a review. My thumb went up. Three thrumbs up was the reply. Good enough.

Inside looks like an Edwardian working men’s club. I sat next to a fireplace in which it looked like Phyllius Fogg had stacked his luggage whilst he to took repose and there was a general atmosphere of comfortable sophistication totally unlike anywhere else in Stratford. Some of that had to do with the waitresses; for the first time that week I felt like I was talking to a human being as they greeted me, sat me down, took my order, but all in such a way that made me feel welcome, like a regular. After each course they asked me if I’d enjoyed what I’d been presented with but in such a way that sounded like it actually mattered.

The tomato soup was light and a good appetiser but the Game Pie was something else. An oval dish filled with birds of a flavour I couldn’t identify, gravy and topped with a mountain of mashed potato but unlike similar dishes even when I thought I’d decimated the flesh, another piece appeared from underneath an onion. It tasted familiar and yet not at the same time and I was glad I was only drinking water with it so that my tastebuds could savour the culinary vacation they were experiencing. When asked all I could muster was “Lovely, thanks” which was understating things a little bit. In the donchyouknow parts of the world this is probably average, but for a mouth used to a frozen shepherd’s pie from Asda this was paradise.

But here’s why I’d return to Edward Moon’s again, and it’s a very small thing. At the end of the first two course I needed a break but knew I wanted to try one of the deserts which I’ve seen floating by. The waitress said that they closed at about 8:30 or 9:00 and after spending an hour at the RSC again I returned. They remembered who I was, remembered I was back for my desert and seemed genuinely pleased to see me, none of which sounds too special and should be standard but often isn’t. After I’d ordered the strawberry Crème-Brule (another new experience) she asked if I’d like another glass of water. She’d remembered that too and I hadn’t had to ask. Oh how I tipped …