Sunday, August 22, 2010

10 Best Hamlets?

Susanna Clapp at The Observer selects ten princes and brilliantly makes some less obvious choices. Irving, Tennant and Gielgud are there, but no Branagh, no Jacobi, no Berkoff. Instead:
"In Jonathan Miller's 2008 production at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol, Jamie Ballard was an almost revolutionarily sane Hamlet: flushed, disturbed but clear-sighted. This was Hamlet as a young man whose incisive mind was running away with itself. He was also a prince with a finely articulated past: from the beginning, he eyed up Laertes suspiciously; he debated with the adroitness and avidity of the philosophy student that he was; he seemed (unusually) truly to be in love with Ophelia. When he cried, he blubbed like a man whose flesh – and substance – really was beginning to melt."
Also has a clip of Jonathan Pryce's famous interpretation of the Ghost scene in which he was possessed by his father's spirit, the words tumbling out of his own mouth, which is unnerving.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Sarah Blasko's new album.

On my other blog, I've reviewed the new album from Sarah Blasko, "As Day Follows Night" which was written whilst she was composing the incidental music for and appearing in the 2008 Bell Shakespeare production. She says of writing about the album concurrently:
“It was good to have something alongside the album writing that had a deadline because it made me slightly more disciplined. It was sort of like exercise that kept my energy up for the task of writing the album,” she says. “When I did the performances for Hamlet over two months last year, in between the time I was on stage, I would sit at the backstage piano and write my album songs.”
As I say in the review I can't detect any direct influences in the lyrics of the album, no scraps of Shakespearean verse, but since the play is steeped in a vast spectrum of human emotion, some crossover is probably inevitable.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Wichita Community Theatre presents Hamlet.

Firstly in 1994:

Wichita Community Theatre presents Hamlet - 1994 from Ben Blankley on Vimeo.

Then in 2009:

Wichita Community Theatre presents Hamlet from Ben Blankley on Vimeo.

Single camera, but in their entirety. I'm posting them here so that I know where to find them as and when [via].

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Juliet by Anne Fortier.

It seems overly cynical to reduce Anne Fortier’s Juliet into a single line pitch, but since it's already been optioned for a film, chick lit meets historical fiction meets Dan Brown meets Shakespeare is presumably how her agent sold the book to Hollywood so it’ll do here. The set up is good enough to drag the reader through the first two hundred or so pages. On the death of her Auntie, American student Julie Jacobs discovers that her heritage began in Siena and stretches back as far as the real Juliet or Guilietta, who’s story was relocated and mangled until it eventually became Shakespeare’s classic about star-crossed lovers.

The novel is then split between first person reportage of Julie's adventures in Siena and a third person historical recreation of the events surround her ancestors life, meeting Romeo, falling in love and becoming separated by familial rivalry, the former impacted by the discoveries of the latter, pieced together by Julie as discovers her legacy. The vital bit of conflict is from forces that are intent on either obscuring the information or using her research project for their own nefarious purposes, as she finds herself caught between the very same families that caused misery to the original Romeo and Juliet.

There are plenty of plusses to Fortier’s book. Her characterisation is excellent. Julie is good company as she navigates Sienese society with very witty asides about her potential suitor Alessandro and the social graces she’s supposed to adopt and appreciates the irony of being connected to such a famous story. Her sister Janet, who we're told ironically played Juliet in a school production is an excellent foil, Fortier employing her mix of attractiveness and cheekiness to move to keep the story moving. The historical characters are also just the right side of cod-Shakespearean camp and the author has some fun demonstrating the differences with the play.

Siena is also recreated in prose remarkably effectively, the geography of the city lucidly drawn. This is still a tourist view of the place; as Joanna Hogg’s British film Unrelated was keen to demonstrate, Siena has been as effected by industrialisation as anywhere, dull motels and motorways just outside of the centre. There’s none of that in this book, though you can understand Fortier wanting to conjure the romantic side of Siena since it’s entirely possible that Julie would keep to relating that herself. Fortier has still clearly researched not just the history but the modern version and is keen to fit as much of that flavour into the book, albeit augmented for her own aims.

Which is rather the problem in the end. The book is five hundred pages long and I would guess over half of that is description or insight, Fortier intent on telling us about everything she has learned. I’m a slow reader at the best of times, and I'm sure there will be some readers who'll enjoy being submerged in the details of the world, but Juliet took longer for me to plough through than some literary criticism. Too often the plot halts in order to allow for this accentuation to the point that you just wish she would get on with it. We know, for example, almost every meal the Julie eats across her stay, none of which really illuminates her character, other than that she likes to try something different abroad. Don’t we all?

It doesn’t help that with the exception of the necessary relocation to Italy, Julie isn’t a particularly goal orientated, most of her “discoveries” documents passed to her, or tales told by new acquaintances, like one of those episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? which have evidently been shot on a tight schedule (cf, David Tennant). It’s left to characters like her sister to do the leg work and then report back and all too frequently when she does piece the facts together, her revelation has already been revealed in an adjacent flashback. As a modern girl, should Julie be as impotent to her own destiny as Giuletta?

In few other places have I seen the appalling position that a girl like Giulietta would have been in, a commodity to bringing union between families from birth. However interesting the contemporary scenes are, they’re rarely as entertaining or exciting as the shorter passages set in 1340 as Romeo attempts to save his Juliet from tyranny, aided by her faithful Friar Lorenzo. On more than one occasion it’s a disappointment when the contemporary passages return and we’re dragged away from this fascinating world, even if, as Fortier admits in her notes at the back, she augmented the reality of some of the characters because of the needs of the drama.

Perhaps Fortier would have been happier turning out a purer piece of histortical fiction telling the story of the original Romeo and Juliet but the publisher has suggested it required the contemporary scenes in an attempt to attract two audiences which are habitually quite distinct or make all of that accessible. Sadly it's impossible to just read the historical fiction and skim the rest; the two are inextricably linked as necessary exposition is included in the modern period and the period story lacks a satisfactory conclusion on its own terms.

Which is then mirrored in the main story. Just as the book looks like its about to become really interesting, and make the kind of genre twist that might also drag in Twilight fans too, Fortier pulls back and delivers a thuddingly conventional climax that largely undoes much of the goodwill which has developed in the meantime and delivers few proper surprises. The back of my my preview copy offers an alternate sales pitch "Shakespeare in Love meets Labyrinth". If only the latter had been referencing Frank Oz rather than Kate Mosse.

Juliet by Anne Fortier is published by Harper Collins. RRP: £7.99. ISBN: 978-0007321865.  Review copy supplied.

Who's best to judge Hamlet?

PJ Purdey makes a good point (in a Guardian article illustrated with a perfect picture of Tennant) about who the best judge of a play should be:
"Who's best qualified to assess the merits of a new production of Hamlet: a practising theatre critic, or a Danish prince? The former brings a certain amount of theatrical experience to the task: he or she has probably seen the play before, and so is at least well placed to judge the originality and competence of the staging under review. But the latter, even if a theatrical virgin, will have valuable insights of a different order to offer, especially if he's of an introspective disposition and has had a father expire in suspicious circumstances. In short, the Danish prince will know how it feels, and can therefore judge whether Shakespeare has got it right."
Purdey is reacting to some of the reviews his new play Subs has received both from critics and the sub-editors it illustrates.

It seems to me the ideal person to judge a new production of Hamlet would be a Danish Prince who is also a theatre critic.

In other words, Hamlet himself.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Press release: Romeo and Juliet at the Fire Station in Croxteth

This sounds rather amazing, so I think I'd best just republish the whole press release:
Setting Shakespeare Alight:
Romeo and Juliet at the Fire Station

A FREE contemporary community production of Shakespeare's play of feuding families and star crossed young lovers is taking place at Croxteth Fire Station 26th – 28th August.

Coordinated by The Reader Organisation, and directed by Neil Caple (Royal Shakespeare Company, Brookside), the Merseyside Community Theatre (MCT) project has been running in the Alt Valley since April and time’s nearly up to move from the rehearsal space at the Jacob’s Cracker factory to the grounds of Croxteth Fire Station where the four performances will be held later this month.

Neil Caple, Director, says:

“I’ve seen people turn from shy, quiet individuals into real actors who are now commanding the stage when they’re on. We’re ready to light up the fire station!”

This unique, community-led project has involved people of all ages and backgrounds, and includes a mix of complete novices and seasoned professionals in the cast and crew. MCT have remained true to their promise of including everybody with a desire to get involved in the show: from acting to stewarding, tea-making to set-building, and the audience for each of the four shows is filling up fast.

Performances take place Thursday 26th, Friday 27th, and Saturday 28th August at 7.30pm, with an additional performance at 2.30pm on Saturday 28th. All of the shows are free, just turn up. If you want to guarantee entry, please call Emma on 07739 420009 or email to have your space reserved.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Love's Labour's Lost (Shakespeare's Globe production presented by Opus Arte)

Not being able to visit London often, let alone Shakespeare’s Globe, even though I was lucky enough to see their production of As You Like It last year, I assumed that as usual I would be missing everything else. Now, thanks to a collaboration with Opus Arte, best known for their live recordings of music, opera and ballet, a number of the plays are being recorded on hi-definition for broadcasting in cinema and the lucrative secondary market of dvd and blu-ray. The first wave includes As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet and the revived production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, originally conceived in 2007 but added to last year’s Young Hearts season.

It’s quite easy to fixate on the climax of Love’s Labour’s Lost which doesn’t quite fit the pattern of most of Shakespeare’s comedies. At the moment when the bard seems ready to complete the coupling up of royals and friends, instead the Princess of France gains word of the death of her father and that she must take the throne, their potential significant others entering exile until the winds of change have blown over. The critical assumption is that this cliffhanger was meant to be resolved in the now missing Love’s Labour’s Won, a grand experiment in comedy across two parts.

Dominic Dromgoole’s Globe production, by emphasising the shift in tone from the messy hijinks of courtly romance to the sudden melancholy of the Princess taking office, suggests another option – that Shakespeare was cheekily dramatising the moment when Elizabeth replaced her father on the throne and the shift from the frivolity of youth to ruling the known world. The arc of Michelle Terry’s authoritative performance, perhaps the strongest of the souls on stage, even resolves itself in the moment when grief and recognition combine.

Until then, what a Carry-On! There are essentially two possible approaches to Love Labour’s Lost's complex maze of word play and allusions; emphasise the text in the hopes the audience will be attentive enough to go with it or cut as many of the obscure passages as possible and replace them with slapstick (or songs if you’re Kenneth Branagh). Dromgoole seeks a middle ground. No innuendo goes unemphasised and the director also relies heavily on the bawdy abilities of his cast for a winning combination.

It’s fair to say that even if not all of the senses of Shakespeare’s words are communicated, the humour certainly is, in Fergal McElherron’s Chaplinesque antics as Costard and in the manic desperation between the students not to reveal their amorous ambitions having agreed to put learning before love. Because of the venue, these are not subtle performances, which helps poor Don Armado, one of the least funniest of Shakespeare’s clowns who here is gifted a Borat-like accent by Paul Ready and a heavy dose of pathos which means that for once the play within a play doesn’t drag.

Now and again the text is allowed to zing not least in the barbed exchanges between the charismatic Trystan Gravelle returning as Berowne and Thomasin Rand, whose aristocratic face masks a tender wit. She’s no doubt a worthy replacement for the just out of RADA Gemma Arterton whose appearance in the original version was a spring-board for her film career. But as with the other Globe productions I’ve seen, there’s a genuine sense of comradeship, of the cast pulling together, making the most of the unexpected, when planes are flying over or some other unusual noise bleeding in from modern London, going about the business of living outside this historical bubble.

The on-screen audience laps all of this up, and indeed part of the enjoyment of watching the production is seeing the reaction of the groundlings. Recording in the Globe presents a special challenge; most filmed theatre shies away poking into the auditorium but in this venue, the audience are vital part of the show. Film director Ian Russell treats this as an event, and gives a genuine appreciation of what it’s like within the space, the atmosphere, though with enough close-ups for it not to look static on a television screen, illuminating the delicate details of designer Jonathan Fensom’s period costumes.

Love's Labour's Lost is available from Opus Arte on dvd and blu-ray. Review copy supplied.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Playing Shakespeare.

New to Region 2 dvd, Playing Shakespeare is the Channel 4 series from the 1980s in which, across nine episodes, renowned theatre director John Barton workshops with a group of actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company various aspects of communicating the canon to an audience. It’s an astonishing piece of television which is essential viewing for actors, anyone with a passing interest in Shakespeare and even, I would say, the stage in general and has a quality of thought and presentation which seems quite alien in these times when television assumes the viewer’s ignorance then works backwards.

At the very least it’s important because it captures a moment in cultural history when a range of what are now household names were still perhaps best known for their theatre work. Younger versions of amongst others Sinead Cusack, Sheila Hancock, Ben Kingsley, Jane Lapotaire, Ian McKellan, Mike Gwilym, David Suchet, Roger Rees, Lisa Harrow, Michael Williams, Patrick Stewart and Judi Dench all appear, an unprecedented line-up united because they’d previous been directed or advised by Barton, all apparently still learning their craft and having great fun simply working the text outside the pressures of a real production.

Barton’s contention, which he describes as the two traditions approach, is that actors should take to heart Hamlet’s advice to the players, totemically repeated throughout the series, “Speak the speech I pray you as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue” and find a middle presentational ground between Stanislavskian naturalism and the Elizabethan tradition. An actor should consider each phrase and clause carefully so that it seems naturally to be the only thing a character would say in that situation. He’s fighting against the tendency in some actors to simply provide the general sense of Shakespearean dialogue, sapping its spontaneity.

Barton also seems well aware that his televisual approach, a kind of loose rehearsal in front of cameras does have an inherently artificial quality. Certainly there are moments when some actors are trying create a moment of spontaneity which almost always looks like what it is -- a feed question or line so that Barton can move on to the next bit as an actor approaching from the side "John, can I just ask you ...?" But he confronts it by playing the famous Footlights clip of Fry & Laurie rehearsing several meanings of the word "time" then having much the same discussion with his own actors in a more thoughtful tone, to demonstrate that however well parodied his approach might be, it's still extremely useful.

In my review of the book shaped transcripts of these episodes, my main concern was that Barton’s thesis could only be properly illuminated once we we’re able to hear and compare the changes brought by the actors when Barton’s direction and suggestion is assimilated. Sure enough, in the episode when Dench and Pasco work a section of Twelfth Night, we can now see their performance subtlety develop across readings, Dench’s Viola becoming much stronger, Pasco's Orsino more reflective. Sometimes these manipulations have obviously been worked out in advance for illustrative purposes but all of them demonstrate that a performance is a collusion between actor, director and Shakespeare himself.

That’s especially true in the episode dedicated to investigating the differing interpretations of Shylock from David Suchet and Patrick Stewart. Barton directed them both in acclaimed productions and it allows him to also demonstrate that no matter how many suggestions the director gives, the final decisions should be left to the actor. Stewart employs an aristocratic approach against Suchet’s near stereotype but both have strong justifications for their choice, the former the need to assimilation the latter to emphasise their heritage as a way of shielding him from cultural influences, both available in the text. Shakespeare has gives the actor choices.

Not least in the matter of pauses. Barton notes and the actors express that Shakespeare communicates great meaning in the instants when the actor and so character isn’t speaking when their either considering what to say next or indeed waiting for the reaction of their rival or potential lover to their curse or oaths. In speeches too. As Michael Pennington exquisitely reveals, all of Hamlet’s big soliloquies become entirely legible when the commas are emphasised and Shakespeare even offers a hint in “To be..” when he says the results of death “Must give us pause.” Pennington’s contributions are the strongest Hamlet contingent, though Barbara Leigh-Hunt gives a wonderfully restrained Gertrude for “There is a willow…” to illustrate how the greatest melancholia can be communicated through restraint.

Even for those of us who are less interested in the technical aspects of acting, the series is worth seeing for the powerful moments in which the various actors tackle these famous speeches. Patrick Stewart’s Titus consoling himself when all seems lost. Sheila Hancock’s heartbreaking Mistress Quickly on hearing of Falstaff’s death. Lisa Harrow’s horror as Innogen in discovering a headless body. Ian McKellan’s late appearance as Shallow, his pipes whistling in their sound prefiguring Gandalf the Grey. On more than one occasion my reaction was much the same as the bewildered Hamlet on seeing the Player King weep for Hecuba, summoning great emotional depth seemingly from nowhere. Astounding.

With all of the talk of looking to the detail of the text, it’s impossible to also gain some fascination from the chance to see these actors in such unvarnished circumstances, without any of the barriers that are thrown up in their appearances on chat shows. Williams stepping through the shadows at the back of the set looking for a lighter (many of the actors are chainsmokers) or Dench fidgeting with a plastic cup which she quickly realises is making too much noise and hides under her chair. Roger Rees and Mike Gwilym are inveterate flirts, Lisa Harrow entirely receptive. The gentle rivalry between Stewart, Suchet, Kingsley and McKellen.

Look closer still and Playing Shakespeare even contains moments of genuine poignancy. Donald Sindon fighting his natural tendency to over egg within a television studio, keenly aware that his style is at odds with the more naturalist work of the others. Peggy Ashcroft’s nostalgic reaction to hearing a recording of herself playing Viola thirty years earlier, the memories of another time flooding back to her. Dench and Williams’s marital affection, during the segment in which the actors work a longer section of Twelfth Night, the latter with just a few lines but patiently following his cues. And who should be in the studio audience, her acting career stretching in front of her?

Helena Bonham-Carter didn’t apparently receive any formal training as an actress. By the end of that decade she would be playing Ophelia on film and Olivia in Twelfth Night five years after that. If John Barton’s Playing Shakespeare was part of her informal training, she was off to a flying start.

Playing Shakespeare is available from Acorn Media UK. Review copy supplied.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Kevin Kline on his Hamlet, other characters

In being interviewed about his new film The Extra Man, in which he offers us his aging playwright, Kline talks to Movieline about his attitude to theatre acting, straying inevitably ...
Can an actor have his or her work stolen?
Sure, but I think it’s a compliment. It’s emulation. I saw Hamlet once, and I thought, “This guy saw our production, because he’s stolen… not acting things, but certain costume things, certain period things. I guess I wouldn’t say “stole.” Maybe “borrowed.” I did a production of Hamlet that was quasi-modern dress. Why? The budget. Because if we did it in Elizabethan garb it would have been cheesy Elizabethan costumes. Better to get good versions of a more contemporary [style]. And also because Shakespeare, when he did it, he did it on a bare stage — which is how I directed it — and he used contemporary clothes. Little pieces of this and that might suggest a period. Olivier did Hamlet the film in black and white. Why? Because he was having a row with Technicolor. In retrospect, though, we say “Black and white! That’s the only way to do Shakespeare. Black and white is not real.” Shakespeare’s not real! People don’t talk like that! It’s not natural! But as I say, when you’re doing those parts, it’s what works for you.

Thursday, August 05, 2010


You will have noticed, if you read the blog through the page rather than RSS feed, that I've changed the layout slightly to accommodate a new experiment.

One of my other projects is Liverpool Blogs, an attempt to collection together a list of all the blogs in my home city with a connected twitter feed.

Shakespeare Blogs is an attempt to do the same for Shakespeare weblogs and news websites. If you aren't listed, please do email at the address to the right.

The experiment also has its own twitter feed which should automatically update whenever something new is posted to one of these website which can be followed @shakespearelogs.

Why @shakespearelogs? Because twitter wouldn't allow the extra 'b'. Not enough characters.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Jude Law interviewed about his Hamlet in new book.

New from Nick Hern Books is "Shakespeare on Stage: Thirteen Leading Actors in Thirteen Key Roles" by Julian Curry, a collection of interviews.

As well as the "establishment" actors you'd expect (Dench, McKellan, Jacobi, Pigott-Smith, Stewart and Mirren) there are a couple of wildcards.

According to the Amazon blurb, "Kevin Spacey (brings) an American perspective to playing Richard II" and the Hamlet is Jude Law.

Law did offer some publicity for his Donmar Warehouse appearance, this Telegraph interview being typical, but as is the way with these things, they were full of generalities, not much about the specific choices made, conscious not to give too much away.  

Having missed the production, I'm very keen to hear about those things, so Curry's book, which the blurb says "is a mini masterclass in playing that role, aimed at other actors, students of Shakespeare, and audiences of the plays" sounds like it will very useful.

What did Law think of his work in hindsight?

"Shakespeare on Stage" is published on 19th August 2010.

Hapi-D in India.

To Kolkata in India, where Fourth Bell Theatres are staging a spoof, Hapi-D:
"Hapi-D is a meta-theatre. It’s sort of like a comedy of errors, based on a group who attempts to enact Hamlet, which is one of the most well recognised tragedies by Shakespeare” Fourth Bell actress and member Debleena Tripathi told IBNS.

The group said the play is about seven odd people of an ambiguous theatre group who are caught unawares by an unwelcome audience as the star-cast is either too shy to act or busy playing carom.