Friday, December 30, 2011

@shakespearelogs mentioned in Around The Globe.

Around The Globe is Shakepeare's Globe's Magazine and in the latest issue writer Tom Brown (of So Long, Shakespeare) is kind enough to mention the @shakespearelogs twitter feed in an article about the controversy surrounding the release of Anonymous. I hope they and he won't mind me posting the relevant paragraph below:

Seems only fair to add, though, that the feed is only as good as the content, as the bloggers who are included and listed here in the sidebar on the far right, augmented with the contents of a Google News search.  But it's still exciting to see my name quoted in one of my favourite magazines.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Ken Branagh's In The Bleak Midwinter now available on R1 dvd. Ish.

Tonight, after my usual pre-Christmas viewing of Ken Branagh's In The Bleak Midwinter via an increasingly ropey VHS recording from S4C about ten years ago, I grumpily checked Amazon for a dvd release. I've also done this pretty much every year and come up disappointed.

Not this year.

This year revealed that in December 2010, the film was released on Region One under its US title A Midwinter's Tale by the Warner Bros Archive Collection imprint, and copies are available still available.

There are still a few copies from Amazon's Marketplace.

See where it says 2 new from £11.98?

That used to be three.

Looks like I'll be watching it again in January.

Updated!  It's back up to three.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Shakespeare's Poems (Arden Shakespeare: Third Revised Edition). Edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones.

Recently I’ve been pre-occupied with the question of whether I’ve ever truly been in love. Properly in love.  Head over heels.  The real thing.  Friends and ex-friends might offer a few examples of when it was perfectly possible that I must have been, because of all the talking, but it’s in these moments, right how, when I can honestly say that I’m not, that I wonder if I ever have. Then, I look at Shakespeare and he offers answers, just a few, as he did yesterday when I spent many hours reading this Arden Third Edition of his sonnets.

The reason Sonnet 116, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds…” is popular is because it neatly explains to us how when we are in love, the world can be falling about around us, the person we’re in love with might even be the cause and yet, something within us continues to see something within them that and to paraphrase Laura Fraser in the underrated sci-fi romance Virtual Sexuality, our heart goes “ping!” As he says, love “looks on tempests and is never shaken”.

Which is enough to convince me. But what’s surprising about Shakespeare’s Sonnets is that for all its reputation as a collection of “love” poems, it offers a vast spectrum of emotions, not just passion, but also the kinds of melancholy and disappointment which can only be caused by a lover or, um, prospective lover, especially when realising that they aren’t a paragon, a venus or in Shakespeare’s case, Adonis, or as a school friend once cuttingly said “and then she opened her mouth”.

That’s presumably why they’ve maintained such longevity and certainly considered in higher public regard than his narrative poems and A Lover’s Complaint which was included in the original 1609 Quarto edition and is reproduced here. Whomever the sonnets are written for and directed too, male or female, they capture the same universal truths inherent in the plays and if you’ve ever been as reticent as I have about diving in, as a body of work they’re indispensable.

Katherine Duncan-Jones co-edited the third edition of the poems, but her introduction to this edition is more closely related to her biography, as she wades into the various puzzles which the sonnets perennially throw up, the identities of the youth and dark lady, the dedicatee Mr. W.H., dating the sonnets, publication order and the authorship of A Lover’s Complaint, forever aware that she’s not the first and won’t be the last.

I’ve previously been convinced by Jonathan Bate’s suggestion that Shakespeare, instead of writing autobiographically when constructing the sonnets, had instead rather like Meatloaf and Beyonce created a character or series of characters and then wrote with their voice about fictitious situations and that since there isn’t any documentary evidence to prove anything, although speculation is fun, it has the effect of sullying rather than illuminating our understanding of the sonnets.

Perhaps sensing a potential reader will want something richer, Duncan-Jones dives headlong into her own a document trail (her Mr. WH is William Herbert, the Third Earl of Pembroke) before coming up for air to admit that she too is just speculating because there’s little in the way of hard evidence. The process is not unlike the madcap mayhem of an authorship theory, the key difference being that Duncan-Jones understand that these are just theories, not “solid facts” being criminally ignored.

More interesting are the passages related to how and when the sonnets were written. They’re a microcosm of the treatment of Shakespeare’s canon as a whole. Just as Hamlet’s dating has causes decades of controversy, so single sonnets have proved equally difficult to pin down. The scrutiny applied to these parcels of fourteen lines has been ludicrous especially since, as Duncan-Jones explains, many of them may have gone through the same kind of process of revision as Hamlet.

In gathering this work for publication, and Duncan-Jones is very clear that this is the order he chose even if he wasn’t directly involved at the printing stage, Shakespeare pulled texts from throughout his career in 1609 and arranged them for best expression. If a “story” can’t easily be constructed (though some have tried) there is at least an emotional narrative, especially in the opening hundred odd sonnets directed at the youth, from the first blossoms of infatuation to loss and disappointment.

As proof, there’s a startling section that suggests Shakespeare was also interested in numerology, thematically linking the sonnet to its number. “When I do count the clock which tells the time” is Sonnet 12 (the number of hours on a clock face) and although some of the other associations are looser, it’s clear that these weren’t just a loose collection of poems (a reputation brought about by poor posthumous editing) but as carefully structured as any of his best plays.

A thorough critical history replaces the usual production run found in other editions. The critical treatment of the sonnets have been typically inconsistent as writers and academics have found it impossible, even recently, to reconcile Shakespeare’s muse (or apparent muse) with societal prejudices about homosexuality, especially after Oscar Wilde championed them, by attempting to deny the textual evidence and suggest they’re all about the female even implying corruption by a later hand.

The ludicrousness of that position is highlighted by the fact those same critics are able to cope with the same authorial voice writing strong female characters who’re equally able to communicate their infatuations, females who would have been portrayed by male youngsters on stage. Only recently have critics been able to bring themselves to the point of realising that the muse is besides the point and that it’s possible to offer close readings without caring about the context.

So Duncan-Jones offers an important survey and contribution to these debates. Based more closely than usual on the 1609 Quarto (the exclamation mark is back in Sonnet 123, “No! Time though shalt not boast that I do change…”), each is presented with extensive notes on the facing page with a short explanatory note at the top. These compasses prove invaluable for navigating Shakespeare’s fragmentary maps of the human heart, another helping hand for those of us who’ve become lost along the way.

Shakespeare's Poems (Arden Shakespeare: Third Revised Edition). Edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones. Methuen Drama. 2010. RRP: £9.99. ISBN: 978-1408017975. Review copy supplied.

Friday, November 11, 2011

On Ukulele, To Be Or Not Be

Monday, November 07, 2011

Shakespeare at the BBC:
In Our Time
with Melvyn Bragg.

Prospero and Ariel on BBC Broadcasting HouseRadio  You may have read in the past week that the BBC is in the process of digitising it's entire radio archive with a view to putting the whole thing on-line, which is pretty amazing.  But the Radio 4 website already has a vast amount of content and I've been glancing through to see if much of it is about or at least connected to Shakespeare.  Unsurprisingly there's a fair amount so I've decided to put together a series of posts indexing the streams to help me make sense of it all.

First, In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg.  I've collected together programmes which directly mention Shakespeare in their synopsis and anything else which seems important, though please note any omissions or other programmes you think might be relevant and could be added.  I've included a quote from each of the programme pages to give a flavour of what lies within.  All of these episodes are available as podcasts should you want to go off and find them.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Michael Sheen on Hamlet.

Sheen was interviewed in The Guardian today about his preparation for the new Young Vic production:
"Hamlet's a good play. I know that sounds mad, but it really is! I mean it's really extraordinary. What's extraordinary is you can have so many different productions and actors and directors and their different visions, but it seems to kind of respond to each; it seems to adapt, and that's what I've found. What's quite freaky about it – it is actually a little bit scary – is that it feels like a living organism, it's like a thing that actually adapts. It's this weird thing where if you came along and said, well, I think Hamlet is actually about crocodiles – well, then it does seem to be about crocodiles. As long as it's within the realm of possibility, it somehow seems to throw up these things and you go, well yes, I think this is what Shakespeare actually meant! But not everyone can be right, so it's weird. It seems to kind of meet you in a way that other plays don't. It's an incredibly unusual experience."
No mention of his previous attempt, but as we know each actor's Hamlet changes as they age.

Updated 25/10/2011  The Guardian have now also uploaded some rehearsal photos.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folios. Eric Rasmussen.

If you’re one of those people and looking to steal a very rare book, whatever you do, never, and this should be underlined and repeated, never, steal a Shakespeare First Folio. Not because stealing a Shakespeare First Folio is necessarily that hard; if the heists detailed in Eric Rasmussen’s The Shakespeare Thefts are an example, it’s actually a relatively straightforward process to steal a Shakespeare First Folio. Not quite sticking a Harry Potter under your jumper in WH Smiths, but security in some places has been strangely loose and based on much trust between a reference library and the person purporting to be an academic.

No, the problem with stealing a Shakespeare First Folio is that you’ll never be able to sell it on. Well, you might, on the black market, assuming you have the right contacts, but only for a fraction of what it’s actually worth. The problem is, at least for a prospective thief is that not only do Rasmussen and a team of researchers have a record of the location for all the couple of hundred or so Shakespeare First Folios in existence, they’ve also tirelessly created a descriptive record of them all so that if a Folio is stolen and then another Folio appears on the market, they can tell relatively quickly if they’re one and the same.

Soon this data will been published. It’s in The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Index and although – based on the section quoted in this supplementary book – it’s going to be a fairly dry read it also provides added security to those owners who’ve agreed to have their Folio recorded. You may have seen the documentary on television last year, the story of how Raymond Rickett Scott carried a Folio into the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington claiming to have bought it in Cuba, and although it was missing its covers and first pages, they were very quickly able to identify it as the copy stolen from Durham University ten years before.

The Shakespeare Thefts is a cautionary tale and there are numerous other examples of less educated thieves who’ve fallen into the same trap of assuming that stealing a Shakespeare First Folio is just like any other rare book. But Rasmussen seeks to underscore the point by revealing that it's not simply the description of each book which identifies it, but it's provenance. They’ve been able to identify who originally purchased each of these Folios and the book's journey through time, some simply sitting on a shelf in the intervening years, some having escaped war zones, some even having apparently saved lives, taking a bullet themselves.

All of which is very exciting, but the book itself is something of a curate’s egg, not quite sure what it wants to be. On the one hand it is about the thefts of the folios and on the other it is about their history. Then there’s a third hand about the actual processes of recording the folios and some anecdotes about that and the inevitable forth about those Folios out of reach, locked away in private vaults with orders for them not to be seen the frustration of which Rasmussen returns to on a number of occasions. He returns to a few subjects on a number of occasions even repeating the same information. This is a messy book. 

Perhaps a more schematic approach would have helped. The Descriptive Index promises to have full provenance details and perhaps a better approach here would have been to simply pick the more interesting Folios and offered the story of those with an anecdote about its recording as this attempts to do in a few chapters. But that would also have a required a slightly more academic tone and the other slightly problem is Rasmussen (who amongst other things co-edited the RSC Complete Works with Jonathan Bate) is attempting to write for that market and the popular history section which in some cases makes it very readable but in others slightly insubstantial. I managed to finish the book in about two hours.

It's worth adding, I think, that these comments are based on an Advanced Reader's Edition ("an uncorrected version") received through Amazon's Vine scheme which has warnings all over it that the quotes should be checked for accuracy.  Interestingly although this copy has 214 pages, the published copy advertised on Palgrave Macmillan's website (and pictured above)  boasts 240 pages but given the size of the text here, unless the font's even bigger, there has to be more content.  So it's possible this might be an early text too and due for much editing before it hits the shops or online retailer attempting to do away with shops.  Expect this review to be edited when I have more news.

As it stands, what is here is never less than enthralling and the slightly random approach does give it the tone of an extended after dinner speech or spending an entertaining evening in the office of an academic after hours as they regale you with war stories or fishing tales, the Folio destroyed in fires or nibbled by rats. There’s an excellent short chapter about the preparation of the text for the recent RSC Hamlet with David Tennant, the production we didn’t see, and the appendix is as clear a description of the process of the original publication of the folios as I’ve ever read. Approach it in the right spirit and this is a thoroughly entertaining read.

The Shakespeare Thefts In Search of the First Folios by Eric Rasmussen. Palgrave Macmillan. 2011. RRP: £16.99. ISBN: 9780230109414. Review copy supplied.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

'Tis Pity She's A Whore (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Sonia Massai.

The Arden Early Modern Drama edition of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore isn’t the easiest book to read on the bus.  As ever, the noise of the other passengers calling work to tell them they’re late or the sound of some teenager playing Beyonce through the speaker on their phone simply aren’t conducive to concentrating on an academic text. But there’s also the self-consciousness of watching the not so subtle glances of my fellow passengers, the double take in which they have to look again to make absolutely sure that they did see “whore” the first time peeping just above my index finger.

All of which is utterly crazy and probably says more about me than the book, not least since the same title with the same pejorative as plastered all over Liverpool during the Everyman production I missed last year due to it being sold out on the days I wanted to go. On the basis of this splendid edition (and the reviews of the production) I missed something of a treat, a potent investigation into human sexuality, morality and taboos (if my fellow bus passengers are anything to go by) that still resonates in modern society.  ITV’s Midsomer Murders utilised the story as the basis for the their first ever episode.

Editor Sonia Massai confronts these issues head on, beginning with the play’s central storyline, the disastrous incestuous relationship between brother and sister before dollying outwards to show the stunning effects that has on society, in this case the city of Parma. The play is often thought of as a rewrite of Romeo and Juliet, but as Massai notes, whereas Shakespeare’s text retains its comedic structure because the death of the lovers still has the power to unify the Montagues and Capulates, ‘Tis Pity falls into utter tragedy, as Annabella and Giovanni’s indiscretion leads to the wrecking of not only their own family but that of those for which they’re intended.

Massai demonstrates that the play is both very simple but also utterly complex, oscillating between the monosyllabic lust which grips the siblings and the intellectual justification offered by Giovanni (which essentially amounts to “Well, we’re already of one flesh so …”). As with other Arden Early Modern Drama editions, her textual notes show once again that it wasn’t just Shakespeare who was capable of creating a text rich with allusion, who was influenced by Ovid and other classical authors. Even less is known about Ford (born in Devon in 1586, matricated in Oxford in 1601) but he was clearly just as well read.

The content of the play has kept it in relative obscurity up until very recently. After a burst of contemporary productions, it was left largely unproduced for centuries (with the exception of a few private shows, one of which was attended by Samuel Pepys and an “ingenious lady” in the 1660s) until a strong unbroken run in the past sixty years where it’s generally been edited to focus on the incest plot, generally portraying the lovers as victims of circumstance. Which isn’t to say their haven’t been some spectacular performances. The book includes photos of the set used for Alan Ayckbourn’s 1988 NT production, a Renaissance urban landscape on many levels.

About my only criticism of this edition is that it's so brief.  The introduction is afforded just ninety pages, and Massai must be sitting on a wealth of research which she hasn't the room to fully explore  Some of the best material is in the footnotes, the reference to Pepys diary, comparisons with modern media (the aforementioned visit to Midsomer and a useful comparison to Stephen Poliakoff's film Close My Eyes) and seems to tease a longer more baroque, more comprehensive text.  But what is here is enthralling and I look forward to seeing what other non-Shakespearean dramas Arden will be publishing in the future.

'Tis Pity She's A Whore (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Sonia Massai. Methuen Drama. 2011. RRP: £9.99. ISBN: 978-1904271505. Review copy supplied.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


In his latest video blog about film projects by great director that didn't happen, Mark Kermode drops an amazing bombshell ...

The World's Strangest blog has more:
4. Hamlet, starring Cary Grant
In the late 1940s, Hitchcock hit on an odd idea: he wanted to produce a modernized version of Hamlet set in England with Cary Grant in the title role. According to Hitchcock, the project “would be presented as a psychological melodrama.” The idea hit the rocks after Hitchcock’s studio, Transatlantic, announced the project and a professor who had written a modernized version of Shakespeare’s tale threatened a lawsuit.
Sounds rather like the Kurosawa or the Kaurismaki.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Duchess of Malfi (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Leah S. Marcus.

John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi is a (so far) atypical selection for the Arden Early Modern Drama series because it’s one of the few plays by a contemporary of Shakespeare which is still performed with great regularity, enjoying over forty commercial productions between the mid 1940s and late 80s (with countless others since). Which is doubly unusual given that most of Webster’s plays are lost, with only a couple of others including the equally popular The White Devil and a smattering of collaborations still available.

Which isn’t bad considering he was largely a part-time playright, with recent research uncovering evidence of a second life working in his father’s coach-building business. It’s also interesting that his authorship of the plays isn’t questioned even though he arguably received a less distinguished education than Shakespeare in a school run by his father’s firm. But as editor for this volume Leah S. Marcus demonstrates, he was not a man intellectually punching above himself, it was simply that his priorities were differently weighted in comparison to his colleagues.

Marcus offers a few conclusions as to why the play was so popular then, and continues to be so now. She talks at length about the nostalgic element, of Malfi as a reminder of Elizabeth I during the Jacobian period, her more unsavoury personality traits all but forgotten. There’s also the darkness of the plot, the clandestine marriage eventually destroyed by the lycanthropic Ferdinand and the details of the murders, not least the poisoned bible. More recently it is it’s capacity, like the best plays, to feed into contemporary allusion, even evoking the Holocaust in the 1940s.

But mostly it’s simply that it’s a damn good play. It’s based on historical sources, developed heavily from the life of a Duchess of Amalfi, an Italian Renaissance figure who also married and had children in secret, only to be captured and disappear as they attempted to flee to Siena once they’d been found out. Though Webster embellished the story somewhat (see above), there’s something very seductive about witnessing such an unbelievable story within a theatrical setting. This is a Hollywood narrative at its finest, but in the early 1600s.

The main documentary texts referred to are included as appendices, though like Shakespeare, Webster had a magpie approach to his writing and the text is filled with allusion and laced with elements of Delio and Donne (post conversion) Unlike many Arden editors, Marcus has decided to leave much of this discussion to the textual notes which makes for a much more focused and readable approach both there and in the introduction (which have sometimes, in other volumes, become bogged down with such things).

As ever, one of the more interesting passages concerns the text. For very tangible reasons, Malfi has two first quartos, an A and B. Printer Nicholas Oakes had quite happily prepared the text and was merrily knocking out editions when Webster happened to pop in to his shop to see how things were going. The firstly the playwright noticed a “Hymne” not by him had been added and there were a range of textual errors. Once the work began again, the “Hymne” had become a “ditty” with a disclaimer pointing to it not being by Webster and a range of other corrections applied.

That printing and the further three are also inextricably linked to the production history, since each contains information about the locations of the various shows and actors involved. These also mirror theatre history as boy casting gives way to actresses with Q3 showing Mary Betterton as (perhaps) the first time a female played Malfi (opposite her husband as Bosola, Ferdinand’s spy). As was the fashion, Q4 was heavily truncated close to the Restoration, and three other adaptations followed, with only the full text returning to rotation in the last century.

Sadly, not as much room is dedicated to the more contemporary productions though there are some useful the photographs of Judi Dench and Helen Mirren at the RSC in 1971 and Royal Exchange Manchester 1980 respectively, the costume of the latter heavily influenced by Elizabeth I. Nevertheless, this is another well turned out edition from Arden and for once we’re able to easily experience the play for ourselves. This useful 1972 BBC production has been uploaded to YouTube and I can also recommend this previously review Stage on Screen version.

The Duchess of Malfi (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Leah S. Marcus. Methuen Drama. 2009. RRP: £10.99. ISBN: 978-1904271512. Review copy supplied.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Philaster (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Suzanne Gossett.

Here is the story of Philaster. Look away now if you don’t want to know the result. The titular young Sicilian prince has usurped from the throne by “the king of Calabria” but continues to abide in court where he resists the urge to retake the crown. Arethusa is in love with him, and a page acts as a go-between, but Philaster through misunderstanding and distrust decides she’s being unfaithful with the page and stabs the both of them. But this being a tragicomedy, they both live and it’s revealed that the page was a girl all along and marriage and geographical recovery ensue.

I can’t believe it’s not Shakespeare, which it isn’t. It’s John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont, writing at the same time as the Bard and it’s suspected giving the crowd what they want in the Jacobian period when the master’s work flow had slowed to a couple of plays a year. The blurb on the back of this Arden Early Modern Drama suggests this is a “Hamlet rewrite” but as its editor Suzanne Gossett identified, “the play is built from plot elements familiar from Hamlet, Othello, Twelfth Night, Two Gentlemen of Verona and Pericles” as well as a number of plays by the same authors.

A modern comparison would be Miami Rhapsody or Far From Heaven which attempt to mimic the film-making styles of Woody Allen and Douglas Sirk respectively. But the approach is also positively post-modern even at the level of speeches, some of which are so suggestive of Cymbeline that there’s been some chatter over the years of which play influenced which, a chicken and egg scenario which can never be entirely resolved. Nevertheless it’s another work which ignorance has left sorely neglected, despite the participation of a Shakespeare collaborator.

Gossett employs a four pronged attack in attempting to rescue the play from obscurity. First there’s the usual contextual business and this case parallels with the politics of King James’s court. James’s rule over England and Scotland is paralleled in the Calbrian King and though the writers are generally thought of as royalists, it’s impossible not to see them suggesting that their new king was something of the usurper. Another strand of Philaster shows the king attempting to find strategic marriages for his children and that also reflects James seeking a union and so alliance in Spain.

Next there’s a short investigation into the form and style of the play. Fletcher claimed that tragicomedy “wants deaths, which is inough to make it no tragedie, yet brings some neere it, which is inough to make it no comedie”, which is a fair description of some of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays, especially Measure for Measure, which should also demonstrate the difficult of keeping within that tone. In Philaster, that’s communicated through pathos and melancholy, that life’s too short (even shorter then) and that happiness is relative.

This (too) soon this gives way to the usual production history, the transformation of Philaster into a ladies play during the restoration period due to the unusual number of female roles (making the page’s role a twist in plain sight), its three adaptations undertook at a time when these authors were better thought of than Shakespeare and most interestingly its single broadcast performance in the US as part of a public radio series created by directors and writers blacklisted by UnAmerican Activities Committee of the House of Representatives.

The final sections deal with the play's wayward textual history. Ironically, like Hamlet, the play has a substantially corrupted Q1 and more substantial Q2 (which forms the basis of this edition) and a Folio (although that was printed fifty years after the play was written) and debate rages about how the first printed quite got into that state (censors? rewrites?) and yet why it contains better stage directions than Q2 (readers copy?). Side by side passages of both are included in the appendices so we can to make up our own minds. Or at least have a go.

Philaster (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Suzanne Gossett. Methuen Drama. 2010. RRP: £11.99. ISBN: 978-1904271734. Review copy supplied.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Writing The Lion King.

Animated Views has an interview with the directors of The Lion King, Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, on the occasion of the film's 3D rerelease and has this titbit on the subject of its Hamlet similarities:
"RI: Many people have noticed similarities to Hamlet in the story of The Lion King. Was that something you were conscious of when making the movie?

RM: Because The Lion King was considered an original story there was always the need to anchor it with something familiar. When we first pitched the revised outline of the movie to Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Peter Schneider and Tom Schumacher, someone in the room announced that Hamlet was similar in its themes and relationships. Everyone responded favorably to the idea that we were doing something Shakespearean and so we continued to look for ways to model our film on that all time classic. Shakespeare is the greatest dramatist in history. His works have stood the test of time like no other. But it takes time to learn to appreciate Shakespeare and I was fortunate enough to grow up in Palo Alto California, in a time and place where arts education was supported."
So the film wasn't originally pitched as a Hamlet remix but those elements were brought in later [previously].

Monday, October 03, 2011

The Taming of the Shrew (Arden Shakespeare. Third Series). Edited by Barbara Hodgdon.

The Arden Shakespeare third series edition of The Taming of the Shrew offers two plays for the price of one. As well as the text printed in the First Folio edited to Arden’s usual standards, Appendix 3 features an unedited facsimile of The Taming of a Shrew, the anonymous play, often mentioned in critical studies but rarely published. It’s the ur-Hamlet or Hamlet Q1 of Shrew, a work which simultaneously aids and infuriates our understanding of the Folio text, and a prop which has recently helped the play’s feminist credentials as it eases into the modern world.

Perhaps recognising the weight of feminist criticism which already exists in relation to the play, Hodgson instead spends much the pagination investigating both plays as part of a tradition of Shrew narratives. Jan Harold Brunvand recently carried out a study of these tales (similar to Vladimir Propp’s classification of fairy tales) listing a wide range of “motif complexes” and “free floating narrative elements” of which The Shrew matches at least eleven, suggesting Shakespeare was calcifying a story which already had a strong oral tradition.

Like the Hamlet texts, critics have become very exercised over the years as to whether one is a rewrite of the other, the extent of Shakespeare’s involvement in A Shrew and the implications that in terms of attribution in contemporary written records. The mention in Henslow’s diary could relate to either play, which has implications when dating The Shrew whose writing has variously been put somewhere across over two decades, only recently having settled somewhere in the late 1880s thanks to textual similarities with the earlier histories.

As is often the case in this Arden third series, editor Barbara Hodgdon is reluctant to make sweeping decisions simply there isn’t enough evidence either way. The easy option is that it’s an earlier play, which a young Shakespeare still learning the ropes as a kind of script doctor gutted, improved and readied for his new company. There’s certainly enough textual similarities to suggest that. Another suggestion is that it’s an early play by Shakespeare which he later extensively rewrote. The rather more murkier idea is that it’s a memorial reconstruction.

But like the various iterations of Hamlet, the theatrical history of The Shrew is intertwined with A Shrew, because of the implications it has on the famous final scene in which the shrew, Katherina, apparently does an unheralded about face and falls in line withthe tamer, Petruccio. For some feminists that makes the play as misogynistic as The Merchant of Venice is anti-semetic and for decades has created fundamental issues for some directors and actors on how to portray that speech as part of the character’s logical trajectory.

Which is where A Shrew comes in. The Shrew’s folio edition already includes an “induction” in which a drunk, Christopher Sly is tricked into believing himself nobility and The Shrew becomes a theatrical fantasy being performed for him after his indiscretions with a hostess. A Shrew extends Sly’s contribution across the play, the drunk and attendant lords commenting on the action, the final scene giving way to a coda that concludes this parallel narrative, the Pyramus and Thisbe conceit from A Midsummer Night’s Dream spread across a whole play.

These framing scenes are now often included in modern productions, in effect of nullifying Katherina’s about face as the fantasies of Sly or at least the slightly nefarious writer of this play within a play. This has the effect of, as Guardian critic Michael Billington suggests, transforming “(a brutally sexist polemic) totally offensive to our age and society” into “just a play”. You could also argue that it ruins the verisimilitude of the characters but since Shakespeare’s characters perennially address the audience, that’s less of a concern than it might be.

But in illuminating these issues, Hodgdon underlines that Shakespeare’s plays, far from being static entities, become transformed through interpretation and that even The Shrew which has received acres of negative criticism across the years, can become a feminist symbol and even critical of the male psyche depending on the staging. What Shakespeare himself was implying we’ll never know, but considering his facility with writing strong female roles (including Katherina for the most part), thanks to the induction, it seems to be men who are the butt of this joke.

The Taming of the Shrew (Arden Shakespeare. Third Series). Edited by Barbara Hodgdon. Methuen Drama. 2010. RRP: £9.99. ISBN: 978-1903436936. Review copy supplied.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Renegado (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Michael Neill.

Another act of publication charity, the Arden Early Modern Drama’s edition of Philip Massinger’s The Renegado sees the play housed alone for the first time since 1939 (according to the publication history at the back), the previous two most recent appearances a collected works in 1976 and as part of anthology of “Three Turk Plays” in 2000. It’s also a play which lacks a performance history without any revivals since the English Civil War apart from a Read Not Dead reading at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2003. If ever there was an example of why Arden’s work is so important it’s this.

As editor Michael Neill indicates, the play's obscurity is surprising considering the resonance it would have to contemporary audiences. In Tunisia, Vitalli a Venetian gentleman disguised a merchant is searching for his lost sister Paulina, whom he believes has been captured by the pirate Grimaldi, the renegade of the title, and then sold on to a local harem. While the harem owner wrestles with his lust for Paulina, a local princess falls for Vitelli and after their forbidden love is discovered (he's a Christian, she's a Muslim), they’re imprisoned and only the harem owner can save them all.

That’s an over simplification of what is a complex mediation not just on the nature of belief but also how Jacobian Britain was viewing the Muslim world, Massinger commenting on the orientalism of his contemporaries by adding to a list of what would later be termed “Turk” plays set in Turkey and the surrounding area, but tweaking expectations slightly by injecting the kind of tragicomic elements inspired by the work of his sometime collaborator John Fletcher (who also worked with Shakespeare latterly in his career).

As illustrated by the engravings taken from some of the books that may have been Massinger’s sources of the play interspersed throughout the introduction, this is very much the period when contemporary understanding of the Muslim world was of “them” being “bonded”, and “us” being “free”. But the playwright tellingly includes a Jesuit character, and in a positive manner, which would have been provocative at a time when anti-Catholicism was clouding King James’s decision to secure a Spanish match for his son, indicating that religious oppression took many forms.

In explaining all of this (and much more), Neill shows what can happen when an editor feels less tethered to what’s previously been written and unlike so many Shakespeare editors who sometimes become apologists for their new theory. After about five years of research (according to his preface) you can see the words bursting from him like John Peel or Lester Bangs unearthing a lost musical classic. This is as much advocacy as criticism as he demonstrates that in this case obscurity and mediocrity are not interchangeable.

The Renegado (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Michael Neill. Methuen Drama. 2010. RRP: £10.99. ISBN: 978-1904271611. Review copy supplied.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Winter's Tale (Arden Shakespeare: Third Series). Edited by John Pitcher.

The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s most innovative of plays, both in structure and content. Unusually for a play of this period, the story is structured into two distinct sections, with the tragic action of the first three acts giving way to romance in the final two fitting perfectly into the two halves required in modern theatre presentation. The other is the inherent ambiguity of Hermione’s mortality with Shakespeare leaving it up to the reader or theatre company to decide whether Leontes’s wife dies, returns as a ghostly apparition and is then magically recreated via a statue Pygmalian-style at the end or if she lives, is squirrelled away only to return at the end and given the aspect of a statue so as to draw out Leontes understanding of what he lost.

As John Pitcher explains in his introduction to Arden third edition, as is typical with pre-contemporary critical reactions to such things, the general impression was that both of these elements were “failures” on the part of Shakespeare rather than artistic choices. Theories developed suggesting that he rewrote parts of it leading to inconsistencies of tone or mistakes (see also Bohemia having coast), or that someone else had a hand in it, actors or impresarios before its first publication in the Folio or that the great man just didn’t know what he was doing. In reality he was experimenting with form testing classical genre rules in his contemporary drama and leaving the motivations of his characters and explanations for parts of the action deliberately empty to increase audience interest.

The appearance of a bear at mid-point is an especially bizarre inclusion, even if as Pitcher notes it does introduce some much needed panto at one of the play’s darkest moments. It’s not inconceivable a real bear appeared at that point, but the editor suggests that this isn't simply the kind of act of frippery classical playwright Horace grumbled about when his work was disrupted in the middle by the unheralded inclusion of some boxers or bears to keep the less high-brow audience members happy. Shakespeare actually uses the word “bear” plus its derivations, rhymes and synonyms throughout the play to underscore the themes of birth, rebirth and endurance so the appearance of the animal also becomes an on stage visual reference to that.

All of which indicates The Winter’s Tale deserves to be produced more than it is. There are difficulties. The change of setting in the middle brings a whole new collection of characters and set requirements and although some doubling up can be done, it’s rarely done satisfactorily with such unlikely scenarios as the actress playing Hermione doubling up as her daughter Pardita messing up the mechanics of the final scene in which both characters are required on stage. There are plenty of songs, all printed in the appendices here with sheet music, and although they’re easily cuttable (deliberately so according to some critics) the tone of the Bohemian section loses some of its whimsy. There’s a lengthy scene in the middle of the play, Act 4 / Sc 4, which can become rather drawn out if not treated properly.

But as I saw in a rousing production at the RSC in 2009 and as Pitcher convincingly demonstrates with other exmples it can be done and was, even a few years after Shakespeare’s death. Then it was a very commercial play, pastorals being all the rage, which is one of the reasons the playwright challenged himself to write one. It’s only later that it fell out of fashion for many of the reasons already discussed (that bear!) only really finding favour again early in the last century. What the play could do with is an excellent new celluloid version (something Pitcher suggests he’ll discuss the medium then doesn’t – a rare error). Modern film is used to mixing genres, contrasting distant locales, showing lost children growing in an instant and would finally have magical the capacity to bring Hermione’s statue to life.

The Winter's Tale (Arden Shakespeare.Third Series). Edited by John Pitcher. Methuen Drama. 2010. RRP: £9.99. ISBN: 978-1903436356. Review copy supplied.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Everyman and Mankind (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Douglas Bruster and Eric Rasmussen.

Arden’s Early Modern Drama series applies the scholarly approach they’ve brought so successfully to Shakespeare to a collection of plays published between the late fifteenth to the late seventeenth century, plays which may have influenced and been influenced by him. They recognise that an emphasis on Shakespeare in recent times has somewhat eclipsed other great works from that period and offer a chance to approach these texts in a form which has been analysed with Arden’s usual editorial zeal.

Everyman and Mankind, two anonymous miracle plays from the late 1400s, are perfect examples of that ethic. Neither plays has gone unpublished before but in each case the editors Douglas Bruster and Eric Rasmussen (the latter co-author on the recent RSC Complete Works) have returned to the available copies of the texts only glancing at later interpretations when absolutely necessary. Though the spellings and punctuation have been modernised as per Arden’s usually editorial standards, both have the atmosphere of looking backwards into a forgotten time.

Both offer their only challenges. The only existing historic copy of Mankind is an incomplete manuscript held by the Folger Shakespeare Library. Pages are reproduced and to my untrained eye they’re in gobbledygook and to make matters worse the first of the two transcribers wrote in very tight lines so as to save paper. There are four quarto editions of The Summoning of Everyman (to give its full title) in existence but only two are relatively complete and of the others only fragments exist and all differ wildly in content, sometimes words, sometimes whole lines.

Given this is my first experience of either play, I can’t intelligently analyse the editorial choices though it's interesting to read that thanks to one of those fragments of Everyman, the Q2, having only recently having been discovered, they’ve used it in conjunction with Q1, to produce a brand new variant of the play, somewhat different to that seen in other editions which rely almost exclusively on Q3. That fits in well with the rest of Arden’s recent mission to fight against orthodoxy and offer an alternative.

But what of the plays? As was usually the case in pre-Reformation drama, they feature an archetypal figure experiencing some kind of symbolic trial explaining the ways of God to man. Mankind is tempted by the vices of New-Guise (the fashion), Nought (nothingness) and Nowadays (living for the moment) and ultimately seeks mercy from a character called Mercy for succumbing to their charms. Everyman is visited by Death (yes, the Death) and we witness their earthly belongings deserting them as they're ultimately tested for their worth and face the grave.

Mankind was as far as can be ascertained from the text, written and performed by the monks at the abbey of St Edmund in Bury (yes, as in the modern Bury St Edmunds) and toured within the South East region between King’s Lynn and Cambridge and may have been bankrolled by the ten nobles very specifically named in the text. Perhaps more interestingly, since it shows that English-language remakes are not a new phenomena, Everyman is a translation of a Dutch play, Elckerlijc, its satire blunted slightly to remove material critical of the Catholic faith.

Neither sounds particularly entertaining and in truth it’s impossible not to look at either of them without a certain detachment, especially if you’re the kind of person whose unlikely to draw solace from a story developed from the Book of Job just as Mankind is. We’re also used to symbolism, themes and allegory being buried deep within our dramedy, a characters we can somewhat identify with emotionally wrestling with the implications (thank to the reformation). Morality plays turn that notion inside and symbolism, themes and allegory are given character names.

But in parts they are incredibly funny. Mankind in particular was kept out of production for many years because of the lewdness of its language, one song in particular as scatological as a gross out film comedy, indeed more so because the participating audience is dragged into the mess. The writers understood, even at this early stage, that the best way to carry a message is through a mix of humour and drama and you can see the roots of how Shakespeare also would later include comedic scenes even in his blackest of tragedies.

The introduction is relatively short but that just reflects not only the brevity of the plays themselves – neither is much more than nine hundred lines each and feature continuous action – but also the relatively negligible critical and performance histories. Brusher and Rasmussen make light work of revealing how the medieval mind would approach both plays and what they might draw from the text. There are no deep psychological discussions of the characters since their characterisation is less important than the effects they might have on the audience.

Just as useful in production terms are the staging discussions in the back which attempt to define just how large a cast both plays would require. Anyone who’s seen the underrated film about a troop of medieval actors The Reckoning (starring Paul Bettany) might have some idea of the conditions in which these plays were produced but it’s fun to see the mechanics of how certain characters must have been doubled up simply because it means a performer would have to sit out much of the show which is hardly cost-effective.

Perhaps that’s one of the only frustrations of finally greeting these plays. The Shakespeare effect means that neither is readily available in a modern professional recording. I like to hear these words performed and I’m not sure I did Mankind justice reading it out to myself (I certainly lost much of the sense). There is a copy of the 1955 recording of Everyman featuring Burgess Meredith (as mentioned in the Arden introduction) available on Spotify (link) but the treatment of the text is ponderous with only a couple of the actors properly catching its satirical tone.

Either way, Arden Early Modern Drama’s Everyman and Mankind is an illuminating read and a reminder of just how much drama developed even in the hundred years leading up to Shakespeare’s birth. Plus its impossible, just now and then, not to wonder if he read these words himself. When in Everyman, Fellowship says “In faith, Everyman, farewell now at the end. / For you I will remember that parting is mourning”, it’s impossible not to hear Juliet’s line to her Romeo: “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

Everyman and Mankind (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Douglas Bruster and Eric Rasmussen. Methuen Drama. 2009. RRP: £10.99. ISBN: 978-1904271628. Review copy supplied.

Ophelia by Christine Hand.

I've received the following letter/email/press release:
"Singer/Songwriter Christine Hand Jones has now written and recorded her lovely song "Ophelia", inspired by the character in Hamlet, which is included on her new six song EP, "Girl on a String". This EP is available for purchase, download, or free download (by recommending to online friends). "Girl on a String", including "Ophelia" is now available through I believe you will appreciate the authenticity and music style of "Ophelia", which Christine performs solo (without the other band members).

FYI - I am Ed Hand, musician in Christine's band, and am also her Dad.

Thank you for your support and for your wonderful blog.

Ed Hand"
Sure enough it as as Mr. Hand describes, an acoustic concoction based on Ophelia's story and quoting directly from her descent into madness.  Well done you.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Shakespeare's Poems (Arden Shakespeare: Third Edition). Edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones & H.R. Woudhuysen.

As the editors of this third Arden edition of his poems explain in their introduction although Shakespeare is generally thought of a playwright first, poet second, during his lifetime, the situation was very much reversed. Venus and Adonis was his first authorised edition to go into print and it was that, along with the follow up The Rape of Lucrece which made is fortune, both entering multiple editions.  Only later with the publication of the First Folio and the start-stop Bardolitary which followed did the plays become the more prominent expression of his genius, largely because they were omitted from that collection of plays because at the time those perfectly useful editions were already in circulation.

Katherine Duncan Jones and H.R. Woudhuysen say they're fighting against a situation in which the poems are now so frequently overlooked or regarded as a footnote that they're added only apologetically to lists of topics under consideration at conferences. Their method is to produce about as comprehensive collection of the works as possible and with my amateur eyes, I’d say they’ve succeeded. Along with Venus and Lucrece, the whole of The Passionate Pilgrim is reproduced, The Phoenix and the Turtle portion of Love’s Martyr (along with a photographic facsimile of the rest) as well as a range of attributed short verses, mainly from tombs of aristocrats and nobles connected with the family and friends of friends.

F.T. Prince’s second series edition from 1960 was two hundred pages. This edition is nearly six hundred and the kind of baroque volume whose maze like text leaves you staggered once again by Shakespeare’s flexibility and the variety of his thought. There’s no conclusive proof that he wrote the epigram which accompanied a set of gloves to one Alexander Aspinall, but if as a working poet we have to believe that he wasn’t simply hoarding his talent for limited application but like many contemporary writers spreading it across a range of disciplines turning his words even to gift cards when necessary.

Both of the epic poems, written during a period when the theatres of London were closed due to plague, are entirely accessible and steeped in emotion. Venus and Adonis (in which the latter fights off the predatory advances of the former) is positively pornographic, surprisingly so considering it was signed off for publication by the then Archbishop of Canterbury. For reasons inherent in the title, The Rape of Lucrece is more ambiguous but no less absorbing in its ability to draw the reader into the pain of the protagonist. On stage, Shakespeare was constrained by the ability of the boys to communicate the emotional complexity of his female characters. No such constraints exist for him on the page.

There are perhaps a couple of unusual choices in relation to the presentation of the text. As with Prince's earlier edition, The Passionate Pilgrim is printed across the pages so that sometimes the flow of the verse is broken up with the first line of a poem marooned on one side of a sheet from the others. Perhaps a clearer approach would have been to dedicate a single page to each with the “footnotes” printed on the opposite page, as happens with the attributed poems at the back and in the separate edition of sonnets. Also, teasingly, although explanations against authorship are included for poems of modern attribution, the texts themselves are not, unlike the complete Pilgrim section.

With such a diverse range of material, the introduction and appendices are surprisingly comprehensive, covering everything from production history, authorship to thematic resonance. The key word, as is so often the case with Shakespeare is “perhaps”. Most of the poems only exist in unique copies and the available contextual material is of the kind which sends most academics down a rabbit hole, especially in relation to The Phoenix and the Turtle, which is as enigmatic as a clue from old gameshow 321. That section does offer some way into understanding at least a couple of the passages though as the editors freely admit there are others for which we will never have a satisfactory explanation.

Shakespeare's Poems (Arden Shakespeare: Third Edition) edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones & H.R. Woudhuysen. Methuen Drama. 2007. RRP: £9.99. ISBN: 978-1903436875. Review copy supplied.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Doing Shakespeare by Simon Palfrey.

Above my desk is a postcard which reads: “A library may be very large; but if it is in disorder, it is not so useful as one that is small but well arranged.” It’s from Schopenhauer in an essay on thinking for onesself. He continues: “In the same way, a man may have a great mass of knowledge, but if he has not worked it up by thinking it over for himself, it has much less value than a far smaller amount which he has thoroughly pondered.” The Eggheads might have a thing or two to say in contradiction to that, but it’s quite possible to think of Shakespeare’s writing in those terms.

As well as a collection of forty-something dramas, these are also texts filled with poetry and a depth of meaning few brains can totally comprehend. The work of critics and historians mirrors that of archivists and librarians attempting to apply some order to the chaos through interpretation. Like the man in the second quote most of them can only become experts in one small part, but collectively they have managed to create a certain agreement as to how the texts were assembled, from word to word, verse to verse, character to character, story to story. Which makes Simon Palfrey’s Doing Shakespeare, the literary criticism equivalent of a classification system.

Generally ignoring an appreciation of the plays in performance, Palfrey seeks to strip the text down to its essentials and confront, oscillating between simple explanations and deep investigation, the various elements of Shakespeare’s writing, answering a series of why questions. Why metaphors? Why hendiadys? Repetition? “High style”? Rhyme? Prose? Puns? Characters? Soliloquies? This the academic equivalent of Arden’s other far lighter Miscellany with far less interest in trivia and focusing on the construction of the writing, grasping towards the reason why the plays went from the playhouse to the printed book.

As Palfrey explains in his introduction, the book's structure demands a reader dips in and out, reads the chapters in any order. Doing Shakespeare can’t be usefully ploughed through from cover to cover. Each chapter is set out in a very particular way, with a basic introduction to the topic, an explanation, then contextual discussion, a dense ransacking of often just a few words, revealed to be packed with meaning. Through this method, the author hopes that we’ll then be able to look at similar usages elsewhere in the canon and have a greater understanding of what Shakespeare is trying to achieve.

Of the chapters I have had a chance to dip into, the overall message is that there are few words or speeches in Shakespeare that haven’t been carefully thought through and which don’t have some implication for our understand of not just the story but the speaker. Even during his lifetime, Shakespeare was criticised for overwriting, in some cases offering pages of lines when a few world communicate the same information. What Palfrey demonstrates is if a character like Canterbury in Henry V does offer what looks like great oratory over a relatively small matter, it’s Shakespeare very specifically giving that character that mode of speech.

If you’re prepared to attack it with a fresh brain, the book can be highly rewarding. Palfrey dedicates four pages to Macbeth’s oft quoted and usually in the wrong context “If it were done, when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well / It were done quickly.” As he indicates there are two ways to interpret the central clause. This could be Macbeth stuttering over his words, replacing the inherent element of doubt within “if” with “when”. But this could also be Macbeth simply repeating the same phrase for emphasis. Indeed the phrase is pregnant with the predestination at the centre of the play, that when Macbeth meets the witches nothing he could do would change matters. He is a broken human the instant they hail him.

As you would expect, Hamlet is covered in some detail, the best section considering Ophelia’s sexuality. As Jonathan Bate describes in The Genius of Shakespeare, the genius of Shakespeare is the apparently deliberate ambiguity within the text and characters but within very specific options. In this case, have they or haven’t they? This is one of the few occasions when Palfrey holds his hands up and suggests that it is something which can’t be developed from the text, that the answer hovers somewhere between the page, interpretation and performance. Even in a library, it’s impossible to satisfactorily classify every book. All the cataloguer can do is make an educated guess.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Dating Hamlet (2002)

Far from being an academic study considering which side of 1600 Shakespeare’s play was written, Lisa Fiedler’s Dating Hamlet is another rewriting of the action putting Ophelia front and centre. But unlike Lisa Klein's academic or Bergmanesque approach (which I reviewed on Monday), Fiedler (as the cover suggests) turns the character into a kind of Disney princess, albeit of the kind seen in more recent films, more Giselle from Enchanted or Tangled’s Rapunzal than Snow White or Cinders. I’ve had problems in the past with Shakespeare being interpreted as panto, but there’s something about Fielder’s attempt that really engages.

Partly it’s because Fiedler has no truck with Hamlet as a sacred text. She’s clearly a fan of the play and although their aren’t as many literary allusions as the Klein book, Fiedler obviously has the same sense that Ophelia has become displaced in time, has had a "raw deal" and deserves a new destiny. Comparing Dating Hamlet with Klein’s book is probably a tad unfair. They’re tonally chalk and cheese, one tragic, the other comic. But they’re also both written for teenagers and many of the choices of how Ophelia threads through the story are similar.

The main difference is in the treatment of Ophelia herself. Klein very carefully keeps fidelity with whatever’s in Shakespeare’s text, seeking to underpin the characters based on the evidence in their speech, and in that case Polonius’s daughter is washed along by events. In Fiedler’s version, Ophelia drives events and steals the protagonist doublets from her love, putting the indecisive Hamlet very much in the supporting position with the besting of Claudius resting on her slender rather more motivated shoulders. In other words it’s the Maid Marian and her Merry Men approach.

It also keeps within the time scheme of the play but creates a few extra characters. She is friends with Anna, a kitchen maid who it’s quickly apparent is her Horatio, a useful expositional thinking board but there are also plenty of girly chats about boys. It’s that kind of novel. Other characters, like the Gravedigger have their parts built up in surprising ways largely to help the mechanism of the plot. All of Shakespeare’s scenes appear but not every deed done or word said is necessarily in the spirit the playwright intended.

With just a couple of hundred pages, Fiedler hasn’t much time to conjure a very detailed version of Elsinore but what’s sketched in does point towards a Hollywood fairy tale world rather than a realistic geographical place, albeit with more bawdy attitudes. Ophelia’s seen as something of a prize amongst the men in court and spends much of the novel fending off their advances her heart focused on Denmark’s prince. Some of the best scenes are those in which she gives the men folk a piece of her mind or her knee in their groin. It’s that kind of novel too.

Dating Hamlet by Lisa Fiedler was published by Collins in 2002. RRP: £4.99. ISBN: 0007161867

The BBC's Drama on 3 does A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The BBC's Drama on 3 radio slot has returned after its Proms enforced hiatus and next Sunday (September 11th) they're offering a new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream recorded on location in Sussex woodland with a brilliant cast that includes Lesley Sharp, Toby Stephens, Emma Fielding and Nicholas Farrell.

Pier Productions has a short documentary with footage of the recording though it might demystify the experience if you watch it beforehand, especially after they've gone to trouble of capturing the natural sounds of the forest. Roger Allam as Bottom does not act in a donkey head.

It should be on the iPlayer too for the following week.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

33 Innokenty Smoktunovsky

Hamlet played by Innokenty Smoktunovsky.
Directed by Grigori Kozintsev.

When I began counting Hamlets, I took the decision that a production only counted, as per the about page, if “I've seen or heard it from start to finish through a whole production”. The other more secret rule was that it had to be based on Shakespeare’s text and follow the same plot, which led to the offshoot list “Almost Hamlet” as a place to put The Lion King or The Banquet and also films that followed translations of Shakespeare’s text, which didn’t matter much with Aki Kaurismaki’s Hamlet liikemaailmassa (Hamlet Goes Business) or Akira Kurosawa’s Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru (The Bad Sleep Well) since both deviate quite considerably from Shakespeare’s version of the story.

Not so, Grigori Kozintsev’s 1964 film which offers a direct, albeit heavily truncated Russian translation by Boris “Zhivago” Pasternak of the text that goes from “ghost to jest to death” and is probably “more” Hamlet than some of the other versions which I’ve nodded through without controversy (the Meyer twins). It even has the whole of Fortinbras tucked within. So without much consideration I’m nodding Innokenty Smoktunovsky through too as my thirty-third Hamlet. If Peter Brooks says it’s of special interest and “it has one gigantic merit - everything in it is related to the director's search for the sense of the play - his structure is inseparable from his meaning”, that’s good enough for me.

Perhaps the film's most famous element is the score by Shostakovich which has developed something of an afterlife through orchestral suite versions. Having heard the pieces in isolation (notably during the BBC Proms in 2007 which themed themselves around music inspired by Shakespeare), I’m quite surprised by how brazenly they particularly underscore the expected “moments of charm” (for want of a better phrase), bursting in from apparent silence during a soliloquy or Yorrick, booming and bombast and melodramatic sometimes working against the on-screen action.  It's most effective in the appearance of Hamlet Snr on the battlements who’s dark moonlight silhouette is greeted by a maelstrom.

From the opening shots, Kozintsev bases his letterbox imagery on Hamlet’s line that Denmark’s a prison. We see first the crashing waves surrounding Elsinore, then shots of Hamlet riding back to into the palace before a drawbridge is pulled, portcullis drop and windows shut. Throughout the film, characters are shown behind wooden slats and balastrades, Hamlet especially shown speaking from behind bars which only disappear from view when he’s taking action rather than brooding. During “To Be Or Not To Be” which like all the other soliloquy’s is given as voice-overed internal monologue, he broods on the rocks looking out towards sea, suggesting that he’s contemplating two forms of escape from this Alcatraz.

The director is clearly influenced by the Olivier version though as the usefully thorough Wikipedia article notes that influence was negative, Kozintsev going out of his way to do the opposite of Sir Larry not least in emphasising the political over the domestic.  He portrays Laertes as a kind of revolutionary seeking to overthrow Claudius even though as I’ve finally noticed after watching this production, even if he’d succeeded he’s still have Fortinbras to contend with. You could almost imagine that in agreeing to carry out Claudius’s plan (a decision made off screen here) he’s still eyeing the crown and once Hamlet is gone he’ll still have the king in his sights.

Not that this Hamlet is easily killed. Kozintsev works hard to make him less of a procrastinator. This prince has few reservations about following his father’s spirit, is cut from Claudius’s confessional so he doesn’t lose his single easy chance of killing his enemy and most remarkably a whole new scene is inserted showing him taking action against Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on board ship, something I’ve only ever seen before in Tom Stoppard’s play.  He even dies mutely, simply, with "the rest is silence".   Arguably Smoktunovsky carries all of this rather too subtly and because he’s rarely shown in close-up, it’s sometimes difficult to gauge the extent of his inner turmoil, only now and then given to outbursts of emotional energy which quickly dissipate.

Strengthening Hamlet’s protagonist credentials does have the effect of weakening the rest of the cast. You could argue that Kozintsev is trying to reflect Hamlet’s own slackening awareness of his family, but it’s almost impossible for me to say anything illuminating about any of the rest of the characters, other than that Gertrude’s attitude does definitively change once Hamlet has exposed her husband’s murderous actions and that Claudius seems to be modelled after Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII (or Charles Laughton for that matter). Anastasiya Vertinskaya’s Ophelia is especially wan though she does have one of the best introductory scenes I’ve seen, practicing her ballet moves like a doll in a music box.

Grigori Kozintsev's Hamlet is out now from Mr Bongo Films. Review copy supplied.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Ophelia (2006)

Of all Shakespeare’s female roles, Ophelia is one the most misunderstood. Too often a director and actress portray her as something of a wet blanket, torn by the machinations of the men in her life, her father, brother, Claudius and Hamlet, no more than the forerunner of the kinds of later female roles in both theatre and film that just exist to reflect the masculine uncertainties of the male lead. It’s true that the brevity of her role does lend itself to that reading, and she does spend the bottom half of the play out her wits.

But a careful scrutiny of Shakespeare’s text reveals her to be much more subtly intelligent figure, well read and educated, assuming you take the more contemporary view that the content of a character’s speech reflects their intellect as well as the playwrights. I've only rarely seen this reflected in performance. It’s there in both of the Branagh productions in Winslet and Thomson and most pronounced in the Naxos audio starring Lesser with Emma Fielding as a very modern Ophelia. It’s also the Ophelia who tells her story in Lisa Klein’s fictional autobiographical interpretation of the play.

Klein’s book opens with a ten-year-old Ophelia joining Hamlet Snr’s court and becoming a maid in Gertrude’s household, moving up the ranks as a lady in waiting. From a young age she’s desperate to read Ovid and though she’s informed that she won’t get anywhere with men if they think she’s more intelligent than they are, it’s precisely her wit which leads to her gaining Hamlet’s attraction, the one thing which sets her apart from her bitchy court rival Cristina. Slowly events edge towards the action of Shakespeare’s play but it's quickly apparent that not everything will be as it seems.

There’s a danger in these first person retellings that a Mary-Sue element will encroach on proper storytelling and though the book (as the cover might suggest) does employ some of the idioms of the bodice-ripper, hearts beating in chests and an undercurrent of emotional desolation, Klein works hard to make Ophelia a credible figure. Written for teens but at no point lacking in sophistication, the language is of cod-poetic style which in the wrong hands could have come across as parodic but much of the time has such commitment it's easy to imagine that this is exactly how the character would have communicated her adventures.

The world of Elsinore, Klein through Ophelia conjures is very much in the mood, thanks to the thorough descriptions of fashions and furnishings of the late-Victorian or early Edwardian painters and the author has even included an image from W.G. Simmonds's The Drowning of Ophelia on her website. But time captions sets the play in and around the turn of the 17th century and it's possible to recognise the machinations of the court of that period following the hints in Shakespeare's text that he's writing as much about the English monarchy in his own lifetime as a far off place he's reputedly never visited.

Klein steers a steady course between adapting that play and as she suggests in the acknowledgements making sure that “Ophelia now has her due”. Unlike Stoppard who worked with the irony of two peripheral characters with little idea of the events they’ve tumbled into, Klein sometimes does have to strain to keep Ophelia aware of the darkness in court which is shaping her life. She’ll be hiding behind furniture and doors snatching glimpses and phrases, wedging them with rumours and gossip in an attempt to piece together how safe she remains in court, even resorting to some of Hamlet’s tactics in order to survive.

That means that Klein rarely simply novelises the play by-rote and even when we are in the midst of one of Ophelia's big scenes, we're more pre-occupied by Ophelia's thought processes than the action. Similarly, the author uses our hindsight knowledge of the plot to create a Hitchcockian tension even in those moments of high explostion as we await Ophelia's reaction. But the book is at its best when it's making its own course, as in those moments when Ophelia finds herself in some fairly deep philosophical discussions that seek to extrapolate the themes of the play in another form.

Ophelia also isn't the only character to gain weight in Klein's treatment. Horatio becomes her confident as much as Hamlets and Gertrude too is given a mountain of rational for her actions, of the kind which an actress would usually employ to underscore her performance in the hopes that the audience will see behind the her general silence in places. That's probably the best way to view the novel; like any theatre production Klein isn't attempting to piece together a definitive version of the story, just her interpretation of what's there already.

What also makes this a richer read than some Shakespeare prose adaptations is that it refuses to treat the his text in isolation. There are veiled references to plenty of other plays, most specifically Romeo & Juliet. As well as Ovid, Ophelia’s knowledge of botany is from the same sources Shakespeare is presumed to have read and it’s clear that this was much a scholarly exercise as an act of fiction. But it’s also a very imaginative reading especially in the surprising final third which sends Ophelia on an even greater emotional journey than the play allows.

Ophelia by Lisa Klein was published by Bloomsbury in 2006. RRP: £5.99. ISBN: 978-0747587330

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Liverpool Shakespeare Festival begins ...

Since I fear other things could conspire against me attending the Liverpool Shakespeare Festival, I at least promised to run some publicity on here so find below the relevant information in the form of press releases.

Romeo and Juliet

Shakespeare’s most famous love story, Romeo and Juliet will be retold in stunning fashion as the centrepiece to the Liverpool Shakespeare Festival. The festival which runs from the 25th August to 11th September is back and will take place in one of Liverpool most iconic venues, St George’s Hall.

Romeo and Juliet, Sunday 25th August 2011 – Saturday 10th September 2011, St. George’s Hall.

The festival is the brainchild of Lodestar Theatre Company and was launched 2006. After a short hiatus in 2010 the Liverpool Shakespeare festival has returned for 2011 bigger and better than ever.

The festival’s central performance of Romeo and Juliet takes on the tagline of ‘Have you ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn't have fallen in love with?’ It is a story for everyone about sex and death and falling in love. LIPA graduate Rachel Rae, best known for her television performances in C4’s Misfits and BBC 3’s Lunch Monkeys, takes on the role of Juliet in what is sure to be a truly magical performance from the very start.

Max Rubin, Director and founder of Lodestar Theatre Company said;

“Romeo & Juliet is the world’s greatest love story, told against the amazing backdrop of St George’s Hall. You can be assured that we will use every secret corner of this unique performance space to create a truly unforgettable production. Expect stunning performances, breathtaking design and a haunting original score from award-winning composer David Ben Shannon.”

Simon Hedger, Producer added, “Romeo & Juliet is the central production and is meant to celebrate the extraordinary talent in Liverpool and the North West by producing truly beautiful classical theatre of the highest quality, whilst recruiting strictly from within the region.”

Tickets are from £10. Tickets are available from the Echo Arena Box office. Call them on 0844 800 0400 or book securely online at

Richard III

On the last night of the festival, Lodestar will present a unique Shakespearian experiment.

25 theatre companies will each prepare a randomly selected scene from Richard III in the style of their choice. They will then be all brought together for a single performance of Richard III unlike any other. One hundred performers, three judges and not a single rehearsal!

Richard III, 11th September 2011 7.30pm, St. Georges Hall

Richard III will follow suit with the rest of the Liverpool Shakespeare Festival and take place in the beautiful St George’s Hall. The performance goes by the tagline of ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re BARD enough’ working fittingly with the type of performance that will take place –this is Shakespeare with ‘No Holds Bard.’

This unique performance will bring a variety of different styles and techniques together; giving each of the theatre companies involved a chance to celebrate Shakespeare’s work in an entirely new way.

Max Rubin, Director and founder of Lodestar Theatre Company said, ‘Through this world-first event, we want to show how Shakespeare can sit comfortably at the heart of risky, contemporary performance practice, and to celebrate the diversity of approach both here in the North-west, and nationally. Although nothing like it has ever been attempted before, we hope to make it a regular feature of the festival’.

Simon Hedger, Producer also said, ‘What we like most about ‘Come and have a go . . .’ is that it will only happen once, and no-one – ourselves included – has any idea what will happen. Our audience will have exclusive access to a truly original theatrical experiment. It embodies everything that we at Lodestar aspire to provide: ‘Shakespeare for the 21st century’.

Tickets are £10. Tickets are available from the Echo Arena Box office. Call them on 0844 800 0400 or book securely online at

Breathe, Wake and Belong

The Liverpool Shakespeare Festival 2011 will include three heritage-inspired youth projects called Breathe, Wake and Belong. Young people from all over the City have come together to tell this incredible story through three exciting new performance projects which have been created in partnership with Widening Participation and St George's Hall.

Breathe, 26th August 2011 2pm, 27th 10am & 2pm, St. George’s Hall
Wake, 2nd September 2011 10am, 3rd 12pm & 2pm, St. George’s Hall

Belong, 2nd September 2011 12pm, 3rd 10am & 4pm, St. George’s Hall

The High Rip, The Cornermen and The Dead Rabbits (which were immortalised in the film of The Gangs of New York), were just a few of the criminal gangs who terrorised Victorian Liverpool. Hundreds of poor young people, many who were no more than children, were sentenced at St George's Hall.

Some endured years of back-breaking labour; others faced the dreaded 'Cat o' Nine Tails' or paid for their crimes with their lives. This story will be brought to life in three original pieces of performance art which have threaded within the tales original court transcripts and newspaper reporting of the cases heard in St George’s Hall.

Breathe is a music and song performance inspired by life, love and Liverpool. Wake is an original contemporary dance piece whilst Belong is a play based on the gangs of ‘Savage Liverpool’. Each performance takes place in St. George’s Hall where many of the young people characterised stood trial for their part in gang culture.

Max Rubin, Director and founder of Lodestar Theatre Company said, “We wanted a play that could tie several elements of the festival together and when we researched the history of gang culture in Liverpool, and realised the role that St George’s Hall had played when it operated as a courtroom it seemed like an opportunity to make some multi-layered stories with real resonance to the venue and the audience. This is when Breathe, Wake and Belong were born.”

Simon Hedger, Producer said about working with young people from around the city,“The ‘Breathe Wake Belong’ project will dramatically increase the number of young people we work with which is great for our cause in finding and showcasing the best talent the North West has to offer.”

Tickets to Breathe, Wake, Belong are free so please do go along and show some support and witness one of Liverpool’s most fascinating stories brought to life! Tickets are available from the ECHO Arena Box Office.

Call them on 0844 800 0400 to book or online at

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Tempest (Arden Shakespeare). Edited by Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan.

Even if, because I’m yet to see a convincing production, The Tempest isn’t my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, it does contain my favourite line: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.” As well as encapsulating human existence in eighteen lines, it’s always seemed to me to be a moment when Prospero breaks from the suspended disbelief of his fictional world and considers his own existence as a construct and in a way that slots in the space in reality between the actor portraying him and the audience.

Such woolly mysticism is probably nonsense but as Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T Vaughan (henceforth known as the Vaughans) demonstrate in their superb introduction to the newly revised third series Arden Shakespeare edition, of all Shakespeare’s plays The Tempest, because so much of it's world and characterisation have apparently been left deliberately vague, critics and creatives across the centuries have fallen over themselves to pour into the precipice all kinds of what some might describe as analytical construction and others dated prejudices. Imagine the six years the internet spent talking about tv's Lost (itself heavily influenced by the play) stretched across four centuries.

That’s true of much of the canon, but in The Tempest’s case the depth of investigation is particularly rigorous and resolves about twin, linked subjects: the location of the island and the nationality of Caliban. Unable to accept this receptacle of Propero’s Arts as a fantastical construct, writers have sought to position it geographically and metaphorically as anywhere from the North Atlantic coast of Africa to Ireland to encompassing both North and South America, with Caliban revealed to be a cannibalistic expression of any number of their inhabitants.

This makes for uncomfortable reading. By the early twentieth century The Tempest was actively being described as Shakespeare’s American play, with Prospero symbolic of White colonial powers and Caliban as the savage, subjugated native Americans even though as American Scholar Elmer Edgar Still noted “there is not a word in The Tempest about America or Virginia, colonies or colonizing, Indians or tomahawks, maize, mocking-birds, or tobacco. Nothing but the Bermudas, once barely mentioned as a faraway place like Tokio or Mandalay.”

Such diversions consume a high proportion of the Vaughan’s work though much is spoken of sources which are numerous but inconclusive. The Tempest lacks an ur-text, though it’s thematically informed by Ovid and Virgil and tales of exploration by Willam Strachey and Montaigne, both reproduced in the appendix, the product of Shakespeare’s magpie mind which makes for one of the shorter literary antecedent sections seen in an Arden. There’s still some room to consider the Freudian readings of the play though as you’d expect they're rather less baroque than for Hamlet.

All of this is cleanly presented and because the Vaughans are steeped in The Tempest having both produced separate volumes about the play, their attempts to cram in as much detail as possible into the introduction makes for a very dense read. But refreshingly their work lacks an agenda; probably because they’ve worked through their own opinions elsewhere they’re more relaxed about simply presenting the arguments of others and letting the reader decide as to their merits, pleasingly giving due prominence to contemporary thinkers like Bate, Wells and Kermode.

The Tempest (Arden Shakespeare) edited by Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan is published by Methuen Drama. RRP £8.99 paperback. ISBN: 978-1408133477.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Past Pass Notes in The Guardian.

Celebrating the three thousandth of their Pass Notes column, The Guardian have reproduced No.51 which was about Hamlet:
"What does it all mean? That Shakespeare was a cuckold, betrayed by Anne Hathaway and his brother (James Joyce); an expression of sexual disgust, caused by the arrival of syphilis from the New World (DH Lawrence); premature male menopause – "he is at a crossroads in his life and Shakespeare dramatises that very human situation" (Kenneth Branagh)."

RSC @ Park View Armory

Royal Shakespeare Company is touring the US and when it pitches up at the Park Avenue Armoury, it will be appearing on a nearly exact replica of the theatre in Stratford. ArtInfo has statistics, but look at this:

This American Life

Next week on This American Life is an updated repeat of this episode which originally aired in 2002 and is available to stream now:

Monday, June 13, 2011

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Friday Night is Music Night at the RSC on Radio 2.

Last week's Friday Night is Music Night on Radio 2 was a celebration of music and words to mark the 50th anniversary of the Royal Shakespeare Company.  Presented by Samantha Bond, the ...
"... concert features members of the RSC performing some of Shakespeare's most famous soliloquies. The BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Roderick Dunk, plays music ranging from Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream, Verdi's Macbeth, William Walton's Henry V and Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet.

There's also music from Patrick Doyle's score for the Kenneth Branagh film versions of Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet, Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate, Rodgers and Hart's Boys from Syracuse, West Side Story and the film Shakespeare in Love."
Still available on the iPlayer for the next few days, it features Rupert Evans (previously Romeo) reading/acting To Be Or Not To Be and as well as the Doyle scores mentioned above (the track "My thoughts be bloody" to be exact).

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Musicians of Shakespeare's Globe

The Guardian has an excellent piece on the musicians from Shakespeare's Globe. Artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole, offers some insight into the compositions for the touring production of Hamlet
"In Dromgoole's touring production of Hamlet, Laura Forrest-Hay's deliberately anachronistic score features a rustic mix of medieval crusade songs, ghostly sound effects and 16th- and 17th-century Scandinavian folksongs, arranged for a ragtag bunch of instruments: modern saxophone and acoustic guitar, accordion, fiddle and percussion. Says Dromgoole: "That sort of free-play with anachronism, where you're simultaneously in your own age and you're in a bit of the past and a long way back, is what we base a lot of our work on at the Globe." Not that the days of Jacobean music on the South Bank are over, he says. "Filling in those gaps in people's musical knowledge is such an important part of understanding how we can move forward. If we don't really know our own culture, and our own traditions and our own history as it was, then it's very hard to reinvent the future in interesting ways."
Sadly, the closest the production will be to me is Buxton which is a pity because we have an open air theatre going spare on Renshaw Street in Liverpool.