Monday, May 30, 2011

Cardenio. Edited by Gregory Doran, Antonio Alamo.

Right up front I should admit I have not read the play. Given that a new text for Cardenio distributes itself through over eighty percent of this publication for most of you my usefulness as a reviewer is at an end and the next few paragraph simple prose landfill. Sorry, and especially sorry to the publisher who was nice enough to send me a review copy. Luckily, the erudite textual analysis you probably require is available elsewhere, not least in this Illuminations blog post which aggregates a range of opinion, mainly about the theatrical performance at the RSC’s Swan Theatre.

There’s a long term academic discussion about the extent to which Shakespeare wrote his plays to be read as well as presented on the stage (particular in relation to Troilus and Cressida which didn’t have a recorded performance during his lifetime and Hamlet’s Second Quarto) and for many people this edition of Cardenio is part of a long tradition of reader’s editions that stretches right back to Heminges and Condell (though the copyright page does contain details for obtaining Amateur Performing Rights). If only they’d seen fit to include the original in the First Folio.

But as a fan of theatre, of Shakespeare and his contemporaries in particular, I want to experience Cardenio in its native environment, in performance. If I’m lucky it could be at the Swan, or if we’re all lucky through broadcast (does anyone have the telephone number for the commissioning editor at the BBC’s Drama on Radio 3?). For all the excitement of seeing how a company tackles a play you're familiar with, there’s still nothing to replace the thrill of experiencing the words for the first time as I discovered whilst gripped by ArkAngel’s recording of The Two Noble Kinsmen the other week.

Here, then is a toothless glance at the supporting text. The title page is entertaining, containing as many names as the credit role for a 90s Hollywood blockbuster. If this was a 90s Hollywood blockbuster, the credit role would surely read “Story by Miguel de Cerantes and Thomas Shelton. Screenplay by John Fletcher & William Shakespeare and Lewis Theobald and Sir William Davenant and Gregory Doran, Antonio Alamo & Duncan Wheeler”. There are more names, but this is all of the hands which physically wrote some of the words.

Director Doran seems to be in the defensive in the introduction, justifying his decision to adapt Double Falsehood, rather than simply present Theobald’s text (which is now a part of the canon as far as Arden is concerned). Just as Garrick in the 1740s when he tried to break over a century of theatrical tradition by returning as much of Shakespeare's own verse to various popular adaptations, Doran’s motive is to resurrect some of the show's psychological complexity by interpolating from Cervantes the scenes which Shakespeare’s narrative interests suggest would have been included but Theobald cut.

In  an epilogue, framed as a letter to Theobald, Doran is pretty forgiving of his predecessor for all that but sits on the fence in relation to whether the text he’s been working from really was based on the play performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime or a fabrication. The Arden edition suggests he's on pretty firm ground, that it’s at least Shakespearean if not completely Shakespeare. Perhaps this version is good enough to supplant the Theobald as the standard text. Part of me wants to dive in and see. But I have to wait, I must wait. It would be a pity to do otherwise.

Cardenio. Edited by Gregory Doran, Antonio Alamo is published by Nick Hern Books. RRP: £9.99. ISBN: 9781848421806. Review copy supplied.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Much Ado About Nothing. Edited by Robert Hastie, Josie Rourke.

When David Tennant and Catherine Tate appeared on BBC Breakfast in early January to announce their participation in a production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Wyndham's Theatre as Beatrice and Benedick, the obvious reaction was "of course they are". Anyone who saw their chemistry and quick fire screwball verbal sparring on Doctor Who could see that they were ripe for this challenge, especially late into their season together as they essentially became facets of the same character, (the Doctor Donna) leading to some almost instinctual comic timing. Although the ensuing production is still in previews and professional critics have yet to give their verdict, anecdotal evidence suggests that they’ve managed to transfer this alchemy to the stage.

This is the book of the production of the play. Behind a cover which reproduces the lobby poster is an introduction and interview with Josie Rourke the director, chats with designer Robert Jones, Tennant and Tate and the composer Michael Bruce as well as a rehearsal diary from associate director Robert Hastie and a copy of the text being used in this production. Demonstrating the speed within which such publications can be produced now, all of this was completed in April and signed off before the completion of even a run through and as Rourke admits, there may well be a few variances from what ultimately appears on stage: “with the printer’s deadline looming, this was as close as we could get.”

That’s important because this is not simply yet another reprint of some scholarly edition but a brand new version of the play prepared by Rourke and Hastie after interrogating both the quarto and folio texts as well as a few modernised editions. Scenes are shifted around or expanded and other characters are changed out of recognition. To say more presumably has the potential to spoil part of the usual anticipation in seeing a new Shakespeare production – discovering how the director has interpreted the play – but suffice to say that at least one change opens up some interesting thematic avenues. My advice if you’ve managed to snag a ticket for the show is to buy this later as a souvenir.

All of the interview are understandably tentative. In describing the decision to set the play on a military island in the 1980s, all are very much in the realm of talking about what they hope will happen. There are design sketches and a reproduction of the new score for Hey Nonny, Nonny and the actors base their comments on previous experience (Tennant has played his part before on radio) but it obviously lacks the sense of perspective that three months in production can offer. But what is here, especially the diary in capturing the earliest moments between the new ensemble, will be a useful record for future scholars investigating the state of Shakespearean theatre in 2010s, perhaps in filling out their own editions with a theatrical history.

Much Ado About Nothing. Edited by Robert Hastie, Josie Rourke is published by Nick Hern Books. RRP: £6.99. ISBN: 9781848422001. Review copy supplied.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

My Favorite Words

My Favorite Words by alyssakai
My Favorite Words, a photo by alyssakai on Flickr.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Arden Shakespeare Miscellany by Jane Armstrong.

Lazing on the banks of the Avon a couple of years ago, the shadow of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre protecting my lily white skin from the early evening sun, I had two books for company: Jonathan Bate’s Soul of the Age and Penguin’s The Shakespeare Miscellany. Both had been invaluable as I travelled about the various historic buildings-cum-tourist attractions, but both were also bewilderingly complex, the Bate because of its sheer level of academic detail, the Penguin because its couple of hundred pages, modelled on the similar volumes from Ben Schott, pack its information in a seemingly random order. Fine for dipping into but its staccato style obscuring its treasures.

The Arden Shakespeare Miscellany sandwiches itself neatly in-between, bringing the academic authority of a series which isn’t afraid to describe itself as “the critical edition of Shakespeare” to a kind of deconstructed biography of the bard that manages to contain the Penguin’s wit and knowledge whilst simultaneously placing it within a readable structure. There are seven sections: his life, Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, authorship, style, facts and figures, use of language and afterlife, with short single paged synopses of all the plays in the canon (which in keeping with Arden’s general mood include Sir Thomas More, Double Falsehood and Edward III) and box-outs on related elements like “rhetoric” or “stage directions”.

At first glance, there’s not much material in Jane Armstrong’s volume that can’t be found in other similar guides. But the devil (as he surprisingly didn’t say first) is in the detail, because each section digs deeper than most. The passages on authorship manage to introduce then convincingly dismiss most of the potential theories within a few paragraphs. This is the first time I’ve seen the ways in which he employed language, “hendiadys” or “anaphora” explained lucidly enough for me to understand. I can now tell when Hamlet says “To Be Or Not To Be” if he’s doing so from a Quarto or Folio text. Most extraordinarily the sorry tale of Charles and Mary Lamb is explained, full of the kind of madness and murder that powers the plays they would successfully adapt.

There are few weaknesses. Dotting the synopses through the volume printed on grey-hewed pages tends to break up the flow of the text and because they’re in alphabetical order are rarely relevant to the accompanying section (Macbeth is a rare example). The considerations of adaptations and the afterlife of Shakespeare lack passion and is a subject better dealt with in the Penguin which offers a greater sense of the theatrical history of the plays, through anecdotes and quotes from participants. Some of the lists feel like filler; although there’s a useful box containing all the words Shakespeare originally did or didn’t coin (such a shame that "kickie-wickie" didn’t enter the vocabulary) the role call of “Eminent Shakespeareans” has little substance beyond names and dates and lists of roles (Helen Mirren played Diana, but where not told when or for whom).

Yet despite that, of all volumes I’ve seen so far, this is the one I’d recommend to students and as a gift because it isn’t embarrassed to become technical when its required, because it’s inquisitive and causes the reader to become inquisitive and a genuine sense of being spoken to as an equal, of wanting to lead us through someone else fascination with the subject (it includes a list of the plants which would be perfect if one wanted to set up a Shakespearean garden). When you’ve read as many books about Shakespeare as I’d obsessed through this year, it’s easy to become jaded after hearing the same anecdotes over and again. What the Arden Shakespeare Miscellany demonstrates is that it just depends who’s writing.

The Arden Shakespeare Miscellany by Jane Armstrong is published by Methuen Drama. RRP: £9.99. ISBN: 9781408129104. Review copy supplied.

Shakespeare's irresistible comedy Much Ado About Nothing at Glasgow City Halls on Saturday 28 May

Music BBC Music is bringing us some more Shakespeare:
"Daniela Nardini heads a quintet of Scottish actors joining the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in an abridged performance of Shakespeare's irresistible comedy Much Ado About Nothing at Glasgow City Halls on Saturday 28 May. A story about unwilling lovers Benedick and Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare's most popular comic plays, and features incidental music written by one of Hollywood's most celebrated composers, Erich Korngold, performed by the BBC SSO.
It's being recorded for broadcast later on BBC Radio 3. Hopefully, like the previous Mendelssohn A Midsummer Night's Dream experiment, it'll also appear on television.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

32 Richard Burton

Hamlet played by Richard Burton.
Directed by John Gielgud.

It’s 1995, I’m in my first flush of college in Leeds and I’m standing in HMV considering a VHS boxset of this Richard Burton’s Hamlet just as I have on a few previous Saturdays. Once again I turn it over and look at the price, £19.99 and consider whether it is the worth my weekly food budget and once again I put it back with a sigh. Then it’s 1997 and I’ve been paid some wages and visit the HMV in Liverpool specially in order to buy it only to discover that it’s been deleted already and I’ve missed my chance. Now in 2011, I’ve bought a VHS copy on eBay for about a tenner and as with so many purchases from the website, an itch has been scratched.

In the meantime I found a copy of Argo’s audio release but knew, because of the number of texts that referred to it, that it was best seen first, rather than just heard especially after the rigmarole which led to the show being recorded. As Richard Burton (who married Liz Taylor during the Canadian tour of Hamlet) reveals in a trailer and the entertaining interview (see below) which act as an introduction to the performance, using a process called “electronovision” and cameras set up throughout the Lunt-Fontaine Theatre on Broadway, a thousand prints were struck so that over four simultaneous performances audiences across the US could enjoy the production.

Anyone attending the NT Live events will agree with Burton (or his script writer), that those witnessing the experiment would see “the theatre of the future taking shape before [their] eyes.” Like the NT Live events, these were supposed to be limited showings; Sheriden Morley reveals in the booklet accompanying the audio cassettes, prints were contractually ordered to be destroyed and that it’s only thanks to Burton keeping a copy for himself and submitted one to the BFI that this was able to resurrected for the home market in 1995. Hopefully, with a safe enough gap, the NT will also allow their recordings to go to shiny disc. I missed Rory Kinnear.

John Gielgud’s production is at least famous enough to have gained a nickname, the “rehearsal room Hamlet” or some derivative thereof. Again in the booklet, Gielgud explains that by acting in rehearsal clothes with minimal props, he hoped that “the beauty of the language and imagery may shine through unencumbered by an elaborate reconstruction of any particular historical period” and to capture the magic of the final read-through when the play cracks on through without interruption from the director and before "the “final adjuncts” cramp the player’s imagination and detract from the poetic imagery” of the text.

It’s a laudable but paradoxical idea because even in attempting to find the moment “before costumes, scenery and lighting are added” such things have still been applied. These are not the clothes the actors turned up for work in – particularly noticeable in the case of Burton’s black habit – and this is still a set which has been designed to look like a rehearsal space, with a costume rack as the arras and large doors opening backwards into a void to accommodate the entre and exeunt of the actors. There are still many lighting effects denoting night and day and spookily blasting the crowned silhouette of the Ghost across the scenery, dwarfing the actors.

Nevertheless, Gielgud is correct when he suggests that Shakespeare’s words are powerful enough to stand alone especially when employed by the deep Welsh tones of Richard Burton, whose magnetic stage presence is so strong it could almost be the reason why the signal the VHS tape its housed on is clearly degrading, the tracking all over the place. He’s applauded by the theatre audience even before he’s spoken, and that applause continues throughout the show, after every soliloquy, after every emotional plea. But they’re not simply being polite; he is extraordinary, absolutely justifying the praise in the reviews at the back of the booklet.

Howard Taubman of The New York Times says that Burton “dominates the drama” and actually if I have a criticism, it’s that he burns so bright the rest of the cast lose visibility, the energy dimming considerably whenever he’s not on stage. Hume Cronyn as Polonius is able to match him and their scenes in which the son of the late king takes full advantage of the Lord Chamberlain’s misguided attempts at diagnosis are amongst the strongest interpretations I’ve seen, their comic time perfect. But elsewhere, the play does suffer. But by contrast, the relationship with Horatio, often the beating heart at the centre of the play, is entirely empty.

Few actors are able to make an impression. Alfred Drake’s Claudius is an unusually sympathetic figure and both he and Gielgud take full advantage of the critical suggestion that the new king took power in order prevent Denmark from being re-taken too easily by Fortinbras due to having a monarch who's gone soft since originally annexing the land, Drake presenting a man who now finds himself repentant and fully aware that he’s going to hell. John Cullum nicely taps into how Laertes’s fate mirrors Hamlet by assuming many of Burton’s physical mannerisms (years later Cullum would spend five years on Northern Exposure as Holling, owner of the local bar).

Despite my reservations, Gielgud’s production fully deserves its reputation, even if on other nights, not everything went completely to plan. Commenting in LIFE Magazine on a book that was later published about the rehearsal process, Burton recollects that he wasn’t always competent when it came to remembering lines. One evening he even began speaking “To Be Or Not To Be” in German, and although as he observes, there was little recognition from the audience beyond a slight murmur, all hell broke out at the back of the stage where Drake and Cronyn were hidden observing. Looks like I’ll be hunting down that book now too.

[Updated 10/7/2011 -- this whole production is now available from Global Shakespeares -- thanks to John for the link]

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Hamlet (Classic Radio Theatre).

Fans of radio history will love the opening moments of this welcome release of John Tydeman’s long deleted Hamlet, as an RP voice from a man you can tell just from the tone of his voice is wearing DG announces that what we're about to hear is “a new stereophonic production” and that “the play will be presented in two parts with an intermission after approximately an hour and forty-minutes”. The listener is sent right back to the cold Halloween night in 1971 when this first broadcast just before seven o’clock, perhaps tucked up in front of the gas fire, the single source of heat in the house, ears glued to the radiogram as the ghostly tragedy unfolded.

The highlight is quite rightly Ronald Pickup as the Dane. The BBC’s publicity of the time suggested he was that generation’s Hamlet (source), and although that’s perhaps overstating things (there were a lot of them about in the early seventies) gives us a prince that flip-flap-flops between controlled sanity in public and genuine madness – sparked by the news of his father’s death – in private. He’s as pleasant as Cary Grant in North By Northwest and it’s this geniality, inconsistent with his usual personality, which attracts the curiosity of the other palace inhabitants, Pickup able to communicate in audio the mask which never slips in public.

The rest of the cast is filled out with a range of experienced stage and radio actors. Martin Jarvis’s Horatio has an unusual independence, loyal to Hamlet but leading his own life. The most disconcerting performance is from Robert Lang, the timbre of whose voice sounds almost but not exactly like Jacobi. Angela Pleasance (Donald’s daughter best known at the time for playing Catherine Howard in The Six Wives of Henry VIII) is an initially extremely aristocratic Ophelia whose tip into psychosis is chilling, her voice skipping restlessly through the listener's ears, breaking through indiscriminate emotions by the second.

Spreading a full length production of the second quarto across three cds, the crisp sound quality, a brilliant contrast from the earlier cassette version released in 1998, highlights the experimental nature of this early stereo which attempts to mimic the experience of being in a theatre rather than the more intimate atmosphere of later radio production in which the actor’s voice is pressed close to the speaker. The music is provided by Malcolm Clarke of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, best known amongst some of us for his experimental scoring of Doctor Who episodes, and his electronic twang is well utilised to mimic the pipes of Fortinbras’s army.

Hamlet (Classic Radio Theatre) is published by AudioGo. RRP: £16.34 ISBN: 978-1408467251. Review copy supplied.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Macbeth (Classic Radio Theatre).

How do you create a sense of place in Shakespearean audio productions? A recent Radio 3 production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona became The Two Gentlemen of Valasna and was recorded on location in Maharashtra, with an all-Indian cast, the sounds of the landscape gifting much colonial atmosphere even if something of the story was lost in the abbreviated text. Studio bound, director Richard Eyre’s approach in this millennial recording of Macbeth (also available with the title actors on the cover) is to thread a sound of bitter wind across much of the duration and allow every breath of his actors to assault the microphones punctuating each line and clause, underscoring the emotional resonance of each comma or semi-colon.

His other trump card is to deliver the play in strong Edinburgh accents drawing the audience right back to the turn of the previous millennium and the bloody time of the original monarch, and though Shakespeare has blurred the history (historical Duncan was a much younger man and killed in battle against Macbeth’s forces rather than in his bed chamber), this production does much to underscore the plausibility of his alternative account. Eyre increases the brutality by emphasising the hard consonants in “murder” reversing the trend in some texts (notably the Arden Second Series) to soften the central sound to "murther".

In cutting the horrible deeds of the witches in act one, scene three and diving straight into their meeting with Macbeth, Eyre gives the impression that this will be a less supernatural reading. But the spot music is filled with deathly chords and when Ken Stott’s Macbeth returns to the terrible women who prophesise his doom, the soundtrack fractures and we absolutely understand the mental drift the new king undergoes. Dual casting also offers the possibility that the witches are inhabiting the action themselves, Phyllis Logan and Tracy Wiles playing Ladies Macbeth and Macduff respectively as well as gruffing up their voices to become these weird sisters.

Stott seems initially uncertain in the role, his breaths falling in the wrong places in the verse, apparently making a meal of the iambic pentameter. But beyond the bloody execution, counter to most interpretations, his Macbeth gains an initial startling sense of purpose, his uncertainty only properly returning beyond the death of his wife, his broken sense of the verse returns making his initial hesitancy a feature rather than a failure. Like Ophelia, Lady M is one of Shakespeare’s few roles that never quite works on audio; we need to see her hypnotic mental dance with her husband, the persuasive moment when she fixes him in the eye and all is lost. But Logan cheekily takes advantage of the character's most erotic moment when she calls upon the spirits to embolden her.

Graham Crowdon makes a brief but touching appearance as the Old Man, Rosse’s father though in truth few of the supporting cast really make much of a particular impression, but again that’s as a result of Eyre’s presumed requirement for crisp, clean, lucid diction and interpreting in audio one of Shakespeare’s shortest tragedies in which plot and structure overwhelm character beyond the title role. Nevertheless Tracy Wiles impresses as Lady Macduff, her guttural deathly screams upon the murder of her and her family piercing the ears and Tom Mannion’s Macduff’s reaction on hearing the news of same is one of the production’s highlights.

Macbeth (Classic Radio Theatre) is published by AudioGo. RRP: £13.25 ISBN: 978-1408469781. Review copy supplied.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Off By Heart Shakespeare

Off By Heart Shakespeare is a joint operation between the RSC and the BBC attempting to inspire secondary school students with Shakespeare's language through a recital contest. "At regional heats in autumn 2011 students will take part in actor-led workshops to get an exciting experience of performing Shakespeare." The accompanying website is rich in useful content, with RSC produced guides to reading and memorising the language and interviews with actors offering hints and tips.

There is a very focused set list of speeches which in the case of Hamlet are "O, that this too too solid flesh would melt", "Now might I do it pat, now he is praying" and of course "To be, or not to be" which seem to carefully selected to reflect the play's fundamental themes of life and death and revenge and also provide the opportunity for the participating child to reflect a range of emotion.  When I took part in a similar competition at school, we were given "Once more unto the breach..." from Henry V and this sixteen year old simply didn't have the skill set.

All of the speeches are accompanied by examples and this is where things get more exciting for those of us too old to participate.  The primary source for the Hamlet clips is understandably the RSC with Tennant but perhaps since his isn't the most trad of interpretations, the producers have cleverly included some alternatives.  So we have Christopher Plummer from Hamlet at Elsinore in 1964, Lawrence Olivier from his film, Derek Jacobi from the BBC's 1980 and Alex Jennings in a really intriguing Open University production.

Arguably, however, it's outside of Hamlet that the project is at its most interesting since with the exception of Julius Caesar instead of falling back on archive material, new films have been commissioned with contemporary television actors offering their interpretations of the speeches.  Amongst others, there's Katy Brand as TitaniaJames Sutton (Emmerdale) playing Orsino, Lauren Socha from Misfits playing Juliet, Lenora Crichlow (Being Human) makes for rather a good Portia and Michelle Ryan offers a bit of her Helena.

They're produced with something of the spirit of complete BBC Shakespeare from the 70s and 80s, the spirit which led to John Cleese playing Mercutio; familiar casting attracting audiences that wouldn't otherwise necessarily consider Shakespeare and as in that case it is a mixed bag but always entertaining.  It's also pretty frustrating because some of them are so well realised you could almost imagine that they're clips from full productions employing the contemporary urban landscape as a backdrop [via].

Shakespeare at the The Royal Opera House and beyond.

The Royal Opera House have been in touch about two new Shakespeare related shows, "two vibrant and energetic productions of Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet". They say they're "very interested in attracting both old and new audiences, and particularly interesting is the wonderfully inventive and atmospheric interpretation of familiar Shakespeare’s stories in opera and ballet, which we would love audiences to experience."

Verdi's Macbeth appears in their own House, while R&J is taking up residence at The 02. See below for the relevant press releases:

Monday, May 02, 2011

Letters: "Still Dreaming"

Dear Stuart:

I wanted to let you know about a new Shakespeare documentary we are developing called "Still Dreaming". The film follows a group of entertainment retirees as they bravely mount A Midsummer Night's Dream. Set at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, New Jersey, this troupe has decided to act on their collective love of Shakespeare and take a huge leap of faith into what was once known, but is now so seemingly treacherous. And we can't wait to see what happens.

If you'd like to view some scenes from the film, please go to, or click on the widget below. We also have a Facebook page at

The film is a follow-up to our award-winning film "Shakespeare Behind Bars", about Shakespeare being done in a Kentucky prison. For more background info on that film, you can check out, but to view the trailer, click here:

And for bios for me and my partner Jilann Spitzmiller, go to

Best regards,

Hank Rogerson
"Still Dreaming"

Still Dreaming IndieGoGo Trailer from Hank Rogerson on Vimeo.