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