Friday, September 25, 2009

dvd cover for the RSC production

The thrillingly evocative dvd cover for the RSC production has been released:

I love this. Usually it's Hamlet and the skull (see top right for what I was expecting) or the washed out face of the actor. This cuts straight to one of the symbolic heart of the play, the fracturing of Hamlet's personality and how he has to split himself into pieces in order to survive (the irony being that it doesn't work). Plus, look at that certificate. I'm hoping for a particularly bloody duel at the end.

The DVD is now available for pre-order direct from the RSC.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Urgent Appeal.

The roof of Holy Trinity Church, the site of Shakespeare's tomb, is rotting. Work was being carried out in the rafters and masonry came away and nearly fell on visitors, of which I was one not too long ago:

Holy Trinity ChurchShakespeare's tomb at Holy Trinity ChurchShakespeare's memorial at Holy Trinity Church

£50,000 is required for repairs. They're having an appeal and I've already chipped in to save what feels as close as odds to being my parish church. Considering how much the bard has given me, seemed the decent thing to do to give him a structurally sound resting place.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

John Simm wants to play Hamlet.

A lot: "I've asked him about the play he's rehearsing, of course, and he's told me, of course, that it's "a hell of a challenge", and that he was "intrigued" by the script, and the fact that it's "like a split-screen on stage", and that he's playing two characters, a detective (again) and a violent, alcoholic neighbour. And then he announces, casually, that he "wasn't particularly looking to get back on stage again", but was wanting to do Hamlet. Whoa! And he hasn't done any Shakespeare before? "No." And wouldn't it feel a bit like following in the footsteps of David Tennant? "I didn't really think about that." And he's only ever seen one Hamlet? "Yes, at drama school." And doesn't it, um, imply quite a lot of confidence?"

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Macbeth: A Shakespeare 4 Kidz Musical Adaptation

Macbeth played by Jason Lee Scott
Directed by Julian Chenery

Yes, indeed. The Hamlet Weblog is a broad church and with Shakespeare 4 Kidz’s 3D film in production, they were good enough to invite me along to see their theatrical version of Macbeth perhaps to give some idea of what to expect from a visit to Elsinore. So last night I was installed in the stalls of the ornate Palace Theatre in Manchester amid school groups and families watching a child friendly rendition of one of the bloodiest of tragedies. Adapting the Scottish play for a young audience is certainly provocative even at time when arguably kids are being exposed to violence far more than in the past. How would they manage to keep all of the black magic and death without watering down the play's moral message of cause and effect?

The answer is to simplify and modernise sections of the text and add some song and dance numbers and turn the play into a musical. It’s initially quite disappointing that so much of Shakespeare’s verse couldn't been retained and arguably the most powerful moments are when the undiluted text makes an appearance (“Life is but a walking shadow…”). But cunningly, though the iambic pentameter is often jettisoned for clarity's sake, by seemingly taking its influence from Japanese Kabuki theatre in which the characters wear their hearts on their sleeve, the actions are plainly presented, the results generally unsubtle, the performers addressing the audience more than themselves, the overall sentiment is retained.

As is the plot. Done badly, once Macbeth has the Scottish crown, the play can easily descend into a soup of skirmishes and witchery, but adaptors Julian Chenery and Matt Gimblett's script and songs very cleanly set out the consequences of the thane’s actions and how his arrogance will ultimately lead to his downfall. The plot may be simplified but they don’t shirk from showing the more gruesome scenes, including the murder of MacDuff’s household and how that leads to the battle which spans act five. I’m sure I heard a gasp when it became apparent that Macbeth had misinterpreted the witches warning about the circumstances of his death.

In this production, witchcraft is pervasive, the heavily hooded weird sisters (close cousins of the Wraiths from the Lord of the Rings films) never far from and sometimes directing the action. In places they’re genuinely scary simply because of the wrongness of their movements, their speech patterns and the deathly howls which sometimes emanate from their mouths (the voices of the all actors are augmented and projected by speakers on either side of the stage) and it's their incantations that bring the curtains down, suggesting that at any moment their dark forces could break through into the auditorium.

When you add to this the musical element, if you’re an adult and with more than a passing knowledge of the play, Chenery's Macbeth becomes a camp extravaganza, a great big entertaining panto. For much of the duration I grinned from ear to ear even as Thane of Cordor considers the death of first Duncan then his co-captain with songs like “How Do You Murder A King?” and “Banquo Must Go”, not entirely sure how knowing the declamatory acting style is supposed to be but loving each glorious second of it, as the dialogue drift from straight Shakespeare to the modern idiom into the mix of the two which inhabits The Tudors tv series (incidentally the photographs you can see here were taken at Hever Castle, childhood home of Anne Boleyn).

At the epicentre of all this is Emma Odell’s incandescent sitcom take on Lady Macbeth, who’s reaction on hearing that her husband might have murdered his king but forgot to pin the murder on the guards, is as delicious as one of Sybil’s verbal disembowelments of her husband Basil in Fawlty Towers. It’s not hard to feel sorry for Jason Lee Scott’s chiselled but dominated Macbeth. The deterioration of their relationship is like watching an alternate reality where Prince Charming has married one of Cinderella’s sisters instead and is now suffering the consequences. Odell arguably gets the best song too, “Out, Damned, Spot!” a scat like descent into madness.

But the moment which brings the best response from the children in the audience and when they clearly become locked into the show is Noel Andrew Harron’s Porter. The one deliberately light moment in the play, written by Shakespeare (like the Gravedigger in Macbeth) to give the clown in the company something to do, the Porter can be an opportunity for the show to relax for a moment after the murder of King Duncan. I’ve previously seen his speech replaced by a thematically relevant routine by George Carlin and S4K offers a child friendly version of that as Harron offers the audience some slapstick, knock knock jokes (“Knock knock” “Who’s there?” “Toby…” etc) and a short lesson on duplicity.

The children were wrapt, and that’s the point. At the interval I glanced about the theatre and I think every young face in the place was smiling, eyes glowing. At the end of the show, the deafening applause and cheers as each actor took a bow demonstrates that Chenery, who also directs, has pitched the production perfectly. If kids hate something, you’ll know instantly, through their chatter and toilet visits during the production and general indifference, but that’s not what I saw. If they were talking, it's because they were asking the adults questions, their eyes constantly fixed on the stage and Jaimie Todd’s set design which implies the kind of ruins you might find in a similarly addictive storybook. If any of those children grow up remembering Macbeth as an exciting, approachable spectacle, then Shakespeare 4 Kids’s is to be commended.

Macbeth: A Shakespeare 4 Kidz Musical Adaptation is touring. Click here for venue details.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Dover Thrift Editions.

Who's There?

"Thrift, Horatio, thrift!"

One of the features I always meant to bring to the blog, but failed to due to other distractions, was reviews of the various published editions of the play. Let’s begin. As well as the colouring book and paper dolls, Dover were also good enough to send copies of their version of the play itself, part of their Thrift Edition series, publishing the world’s literature at a nominal price. Already out is a straight reprint of just the play, UK price £1.50, which these days is cheaper than a Penguin.

This is a copy of the text from the 1892 complete works published by MacMillan and Co which combines the Second Quarto with the First Folio and means the gravediggers are still listed as Clowns. Some modern thought suggests that the different versions of the play don’t contain errors but an expression of Shakespeare revising his work later, but as a cheap entry level edition this is very good, drafting in annotations from Alexander Schmidt’s Shakespeare-Lexicon and it’s to Dover’s credit that they take the time to list their sources.

Coming to the UK in November is the Dover Thrift Study Edition (pictured), priced £4.95 which includes the same text married with a reprint of the “literary analysis and perspectives from MAXnotes for Hamlet, published in 2000 by Research & Education Association Inc, Piscataway, New Jersey”. Prepared by Joanne K. Miller from the Department of English, Harrison High School in West Lafayette, Indiana (the United States is a big place) the study guide is split into three sections, an introduction to Shakespeare and the play, a tour of the play noting points of interest and a bibliography (which is really a list of sources).


Since I’m a fan, not an educator, I’m not sure how qualified I am to say whether the guide is detailed enough for today’s students (insert discussion about working to the test). Miller’s text is pitched lower than the nerdier excesses of the Arden editions but less arcane than the Signet Classic from which she has sourced some of her material. In other words, it isn’t afraid to throw about the acronyms (Q1, Q3, F1) and is happy to explain that Shakespeare based the play on earlier works. The rest of the ensuing guide is broken up into summary and analysis of each scene, coupled with quiz questions.

The main element I've noticed is that the play is treated very much as a text rather than a script; there's nothing I can see about how the play might be cut for stage and the implications that has on how we view Hamlet’s personality and for example whether he’s aware that he’s being watched during “To Be…” It’s arguable that this is irrelevant for the purposes of secondary education, which is largely about developing the child’s analytical as well as language skills, but its non-inclusion demonstrates a streamlined approach to this study of the play which also lacks the inclusion of previous critical opinion; Dover Wilson and Leavis are nowhere to be seen.

How is it, my lord?

If I was looking for an introduction to the play this would be good enough. One of the problems I encountered at school was because of the weight of critical opinion, the mass of text that surrounded the plays almost submerging them as entities, I did get terribly confused about the essentials of the story and what each scene is basically about. The slightly confusing York Notes lent a hand but ultimately I failed my English Literature A-Level (N-grade). I’m not saying this kind of straightforward study guide would have been the sticky plaster on the gash in my brain were cognitive understanding was spilling out amid exam pressure, but it might have helped

Hamlet. Dover Thrift Edition. Dover Publications. ISBN: 978-0486272788.
Hamlet. Dover Thrift Study Edition. Dover Publications. ISBN: 978-0486475721.

Monday, September 07, 2009

"Great Characters from Shakespeare - Paper Dolls" by Tom Tierney.

Ever on the look out for unusual ways in which Hamlet can been communicated, I find myself looking at the play in paper doll form. As you’ll know, paper dolls are the two dimensional equivalent of dollies, the way that little girls and I expect some boys played dress up before the invention of plastic. They’re of no fixed origin, with evidence of kimonoed versions cropping up in ancient Japan and Balinese designs dating back to biblical times. They first became popular in Europe during the eighteenth century and Milton Bradley made them popular in the US from 1920 onwards (wiki). Virtual versions have followed.

It says in the introduction to this book from Dover Publications that its been the dream of artist Tom Tierney to create a paper doll set featuring Shakespeare’s characters. Judging by the product list on his website he’s something of an expert and enthusiast and a google search reveals hundreds of examples of his work. Tierney’s the illustrator who created the Barack Obama and John McCain dolls during the presidential campaign last year. His latest publication features Obama and his family, part of a presidential series.

The best way to review a book of paper dolls would be to find a pair of scissors and cut out the figures and costumes. But being practically challenge, I’ve decided to simply look at the pictures. On page three of the book are the dolls themselves, Richard and Elizabeth, or Richard Geer and Julie Andrews or Heath Ledger and Jennifer Garner. I’m opinion oscillating but it’s impossible to see these images and not attempt to assign an identity. Elizabeth Taylor then? Elizabeth Hurley? They're painted in a simple comic book style, with their hands close to their chest presumably to allow for some flexibility in the shape of the costumes.

The rest of the book features those costumes. As Hamlet, Richard finds himself tunic’d all in black, clasping the skull to his stomach and wearing a wig which seems to have been borrowed from Adam, prince of Eternia and defender of the secrets of Castle Greyskull (He-Man). Elizabeth’s Ophelia is already gripped by madness, is draped in a white nightdress with long golden hair and clasping those flowers which are often imaginary depending upon the budget of the production. Of the all plays features in the book, it is noticable that Hamlet is about the only one where the apparel so clearly orientates the characters to a particular point in the play.

At the back of the book is a short synopsis of the plays which manages to offer the plot of Hamlet in about seventy words and confirms which part of each story is being illustrated. As ever, Fortinbras is cut. But if I was of a certain age, as with the colouring book I reviewed the other day, I’d probably find all of this fascinating. The only improvement I might have made would have been to include a short extract to give children to act from, but on reflection the lack of such only means they have to pick up a copy of the play which has to be for the good.

Great Characters from Shakespeare - Paper Dolls by Tom Tierney. Dover Publications. ISBN: 978-0486413303.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Lodestar Theatre Company's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (2009)

Richard Kelly as Rosencrantz.
Simon Hedger as Guildenstern.
Directed by Max Rubin.

Utterly, utterly brilliant.

Before heading off into too detailed an explanation as to why the Lodestar Theatre Company’s production is so utterly, utterly brilliant, it’s important to urge you, if you’re in the Liverpool area and you have an interest in theatre, however vague, to seek out this production before it goes forever on the 13th September. It’s at the Novas Contemporary Urban Centre which you may not have heard of (the taxi driver who took me certainly didn’t), but if you can get to Caines Brewery, it’s opposite (ish) there. Here’s a map and and ticket details. If you manage to visit on 5th, 12th or 13th you will be able to see this show and their Hamlet (previously reviewed) back to back.

Now onward.

Nominally, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is about what happens to these minor characters from Hamlet whilst the rest of the revenge tragedy is playing out, from their summons to untimely death. But rather than simply pouring in more plot, Stoppard wraps these journeymen around a structure heavily influenced by Samuel Beckett’s absurdest Waiting for Godot, unpacking the themes and structure of Shakespeare’s story to discuss the nature of chance, destiny and death and with the aid of the players throw in a meditation on the nature of acting and duality.

The writer isn’t interested in somehow giving G & R inner lives, but instead he creates two figures who find themselves in an impossible situation in which they’re dragged along until ultimately they die, trying to understand precisely what they did and what they could have done to change to outcome. It’s an existential puzzle, which to a degree mirrors reality more closely than a John Osbourne kitchen-sinker since we’re all drowning in a sea of questions which, depending upon your philosophical point of view, are given few answers.

And it’s a comedy. And I laughed like a drainpipe all night, big theatrical belly laughs. It’s to the credit of the actors that they weren’t distracted by my shaking about, head back, gob open, sitting on the front row, right in the middle. But I wasn’t the only one. The whole audience, guffawed and gaped, and oddly at different things. A line that went dead one side of the room became comic gold at the other, but often it was simply because you couldn’t laugh at everything. I’ve had a cold this week and it perked my right up, made me feel like myself again.

Sometimes, it was straight wit of the lines, sometimes the truisms, sometimes the commentary on the acting profession, sometimes the heroic criticism of Shakespeare’s poetry, particularly during Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s first meeting with Hamlet, who as Stoppard points out offers a pack of lies and double talk which doesn’t get them anywhere and leaves them even worse off because the prince knows more about their state of mind than they do of his, proving the old theory from the studenty quiz show Blockbusters that sometimes one head is better than two.

In this production it was also the delivery. In my review of Lodestar’s Hamlet, I gave Richard Kelly and Simon Hedger special mention and thankfully, brilliantly, given the duration of a whole play to work with and these lines, they combine to create a classic double act, with razor sharp timing, and a genuine sense of two people who’s friendship has spanned a lifetime, the Kelly’s empiric Rosencrantz forever undercut by the realism of Hedger’s Guildenstern. There are moments, as they hammer out the dialogue that the words aren’t just simply learnt lines hanging from their lips, but something they genuinely believe.

Kelly and Hedger are one of the best theatrical double acts I’ve seen, at least as tight as Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson were in their classic production of Godot, if not more so since Kelly and Hedger (seemed at least) to lack the fear of doing something approximating classical theatre for the first time, the fear of getting it wrong. Stoppard’s dialogue isn’t easy. This isn’t idle hyperbole. There are sections, such as the linguistic tennis game, which must require supreme concentration, but these two make it look easy. The few occasions I wasn’t laughing, it was simply because I was enjoying the spectacle of two young actors at the top of their game.

The rest of cast aren’t anything to be sniffed at either. The other minor characters to be given feature status in Stoppard’s play are the players led in this production by Liam Tobin. A travelling troupe of tragedians, the irony is of course that the process of them parsing their craft is hilarious. Tobin’s player is a ringmaster, marshalling events, a disruptive influence whenever R & G give the impression of finally marking out an equilibrium in their chaotic world. In fact, all of the players have lashings of pathos; under Max Rubin’s direction their mockable very public under-appreciation slowly gains a poignancy as we eventually understand that if an actor is unable to successfully ply their craft, they are nothing. It’s a kind of death.

When the rest of the cast from the other production do sweep through it’s like greeting old friends. As I suspected, in this space, more intimate than the Concert Room at St George’s Hall, the actors an increased vitality, though in the transfer, the performances are more clipped, slightly caricatured, perhaps as a way of melding them into these slightly different circumstances. The effect of having already seen them in that earlier production is to have the other story, in the other setting, playing at the back of your mind, almost imagining as Claudius and Gertrude disappear from this stage, that they’re reappearing over there, before a different audience.

It must be rather strange for them to get into those same costumes, prepare themselves and then have to wait for a cue to present just a splinter of their previous performance, albeit reconfigured slightly in this new venue. Does Tom Latham, who plays Horatio, wait around all night, or just turn up half an hour before the end to give a reprise of his final big speech? Stephen Fletcher has the most difficult job, because at times he's an on-stage presence, maintaining Hamlet's epic intensity while his fellow cast members clown about, sometimes mocking that thing which defines his character in the other production.

The Wake Theatre at the Novas is a bit of an unlikely space; like the rest of the centre it’s built into an old warehouse, but resembles a cinema screen from the period before multiplexes brought in stadium seating. It’s what you’d expect a dedicated university theatre to be like, large enough to hold a student body greedy to see their classmates acting up, but small enough to hold classes. The props from the previous production reappeared here, a rich on-stage visual reminder of previous events, some, like Shakespeare’s characters, reduced to silhouettes by the atmospheric lighting and dry ice effects. Just another demonstration of how well conceived these productions have been and I look forward to seeing what Lodestar do next.

Any chance of a Measure for Measure?

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is at at the Novas Contemporary Urban Centre until the 13th September 2009. Click here to buy tickets.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

'Great Scenes from Shakespeare's Plays' illustrated by John Green and edited by Paul Negri.

The task of bringing Shakespeare to children (or children to Shakespeare) has become something of a theme on the blog lately and Dover Publications have been good enough to send me examples from their Shakespeare lines directed a youngsters. Founded in 1941, Dover were one of the companies to spearhead the growth of the paperback book, republishing works which have fallen into the public domain, and one of their great successes was Albert Einstein’s The Principle of Relativity. Inevitably the wikipedia has a good biography of the company.

First up, Great Scenes from Shakespeare’s Plays, part of the pictorial archive series, a colouring book with drawings by prolific illustrator John Green who looks to have provided an infinite number of similar images on a range of topics, in science, the natural world, well, everywhere. Looking back, I even think he drew the A-Team colouring book I was given on holiday when I was a pre-teen. The format of the book, edited by Paul Negri, marries Green’s illustrations of various scenes from Shakespeare’s plays on the right hand side of a spread with a short synopsis and extract on the left.

For Hamlet, right at the front of the book, that means the gravedigger scene and the duel, the former perhaps because it’s the moment and speech which have become folklore because of the skull, the latter for its dynamism and there’s certainly something of the Errol Flynn about the way the two rivals grimace at each other mid swash. Green seems to have been influenced by a range of sources in creating his images; his Hamlet and Henry V both look like they've stepped out of Lawrence Olivier's films, Rossetti’s Proserpine portrays Lady Macbeth, and his King Lear looks just like a still from The Ten Commandments.

That’s not a criticism. I love the idea of child working tirelessly to fill in these drawings and at the same time building a acquaintance with the images and then later in life revisiting them in their original forms with an pre-built familiarity. And the scenes chosen reflect the sheer variety of different types of incident in Shakespeare’s plays and doesn’t shy away from the darker images, of Othello suffocating Desdemona, of Leontes denying his child, of Caesar’s assassination. Indeed, both of the Hamlet images are about death, and this is underscored by the inclusion of the prince’s final speech.

Hatches, matches and dispatches. They’re all here.

'Great Scenes from Shakespeare's Plays' illustrated by John Green and edited by Paul Negri. Dover Publications. ISBN: 978-0486409603.