Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Romeo and Juliet (Arden Shakespeare. Third Series). Edited by Rene Weis.

Finding new critical approaches to many of Shakespeare’s plays continues to be a challenge, perhaps even more so for academic editions which usually strive for a tone beyond a basic introduction that regurgitate the essentials.  Rene Weis’s interest in this new Arden edition of Romeo and Juliet is to investigate the balance between its main protagonists and suggest that for all the masculine prominence in the billing, the play’s really about the feminine side or rather that the title should more fittingly echo the final line of the play, “For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”

Weis argues that Juliet has a more thorough back story, that more time is spent setting up her extended family even to the point of paralleling her with a child born to the Nurse at the same time as the young Capulet who didn’t live.  Shakespeare investigates far more deeply into the girl’s passage into womanhood and she receives the greater number of speeches capturing the aggressive passion of teenage love.  Romeo’s parents are near ciphers and when Romeo does have narrative agency it’s usually in service of rounding out Juliet’s character rather than the Montague, his only real character development in shifting from platitudes to poetry with his infatuation moves away from Rosalind.

The evidence continues into the section about  how Shakespeare’s utilises time, the play structuring itself carefully across four days.  Glance at the included chronology and we can see just how many of the scenes, especially in the latter half of the play are about Juliet dealing with this secret love, outside the gaze of her parents, of Paris being foisted upon her.  The parallels with A Midsummer Night’s Dream are worthwhile in comparing how a similar situation, which also includes the application of potions is resolved in a resolutely comedic fashion rather than the realistic, chaotic worlds of Verona which ends in tragedy.

From here Weis delves into the dating of the play which, thanks to the play's rich contemporary allusion, the editor puts at late summer to the early autumn 1596, within thirty years of the play’s primary source Brooke’s poem, The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet.  Shakespeare’s genius is often brought into question because of these borrowings, but as Weis explains, Shakespeare’s genius was in taking these sometimes mundane works and transforming them into plays which stand the test of time; how many similar poems and stories remain obscure because the playwright wasn’t interested?

With so much to cram in, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the production history isn’t as detailed as in some Ardens, but expresses its worth in concentrating on adaptation over more traditional productions, from Garrick’s interpolations to Berlioz’s symphonie dramatique through Prokofiev’s ballet and Tchaikovsky.  The closest analysis is of the modern film versions, of West Side Story, of Zeferelli’s 1968 film and of Baz Lurhmann’s in 1996 which Weis bravely brands, “the greatest Shakespeare film ever”.  My personal taste would still put Branagh’s Hamlet above it, but it’s difficult to argue with that assessment in terms of popular appeal.

At page ninety-four, such criticism gives way to the text and textual analysis.  Like Hamlet, R+J exists primarily in an oddball first Quarto, more authoritative Q2 and of course F1 and like Hamlet the relationship between them is hotly contested.  R+J’s Q1 is about eight hundred lines shorter than its later sister work, with some sections omitted and others rewritten and the argument has generally shifted away from memorial reconstruction to a players edition produced either by a printer or Shakespeare himself for playing in the sticks.  It was certainly considered useful enough to be glanced at during the type setting of Q2 for textual confirmations.

Arden published Hamlet’s Q1 in a separate volume with F1, properly edited.  For Romeo & Juliet a facsimile of the British Library’s copy has been included as an appendix, some of the margin notes included, slightly abbreviated.  Part of me wishes that this too had instead been a properly edited version, but given the academic timescales and that its already been thirty years since the last Arden edition, it's understandable that Weis should concentrate on the play as it's best known with a few interpolations.  Plus facsimiles allow us to glimpse the text as it was originally seen by the Elizabethan public, without four hundred years of further editorial intervention.

Romeo and Juliet (Arden Shakespeare. Third Series). Edited by Rene Weis. Methuen Drama. 2012. RRP: £8.99. ISBN: 9781903436912. Review copy supplied.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Shakespeare's Restless World released on cd and download.

AudioGo have just sent out a press release with details for a cd and download release of Shakespeare's Restless World, which completed its radio broadcast last week:
"‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’, especially for William Shakespeare in the reign of Elizabeth I. Hot on the heels of the hugely successful A History of the World in 100 Objects comes Shakespeare’s Restless World in which Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, looks at the world through the eyes of Shakespeare's audience by exploring objects from that turbulent period. Examining different artefacts, Neil discusses how Shakespeare's audiences understood and made sense of the unstable and rapidly changing world in which they lived. With old certainties shifting around them, in a time of political and religious unrest and economic expansion, Neil asks what the plays would have meant to the public when they were first performed.

"He also analyses the great issues of the day that preoccupied the public and helped shape Shakespeare’s works and considers what they can reveal about the concerns and beliefs of Shakespearean England. With contributions from Shakespeare scholars, historians and experts on witchcraft and warfare, fencing and food, luxury trade and many other topics, these programmes are both diverting and enlightening. They discuss the issues these objects raise - everything from exploration and discovery to violence, entertainment and the plague."

Monday, May 14, 2012

My Own Shakespeare.

The BBC's Radio 4 blog as a post about the making of My Own Shakespeare which has now begun on that channel and Radio 3.  Interestingly the same recording session also yielded the play excerpts for Shakespeare's Restless World, including this rendition of To Be or Not To Be from Rory Kinnear:

Helen Mirren's Ophelias.

Philip Ward writes an excellent blog cataloguing and analysing the performances of Helen Mirren and in today's post, as well as nodding towards the bizarre Celestino Coronada film of 1976 mentions her appearance as Ophelia in the 1970 RSC production with Alan Howard as Hamlet:
"Ophelia is so often seen as an absence. She appears in only five of the play’s twenty scenes. We know little of what passed between her and Hamlet before the play opens. She doesn’t struggle with moral choices, as he does. ‘I think nothing, my lord,’ she tells him – a line that he chooses to interpret in the bawdy sense – but which the Gentleman echoes without irony when faced with the mad Ophelia, commenting that ‘her speech is nothing’, mere ‘unshaped use’. Mirren’s Ophelia was no shrinking violet. She was not prepared to go quietly."
Sounds enchanting.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The BBC's My Own Shakespeare project released as podcast.

My Own Shakespeare will be a series of short pieces of two or three minutes broadcast across BBC Radios 3 and 4 across the rest of May.

 "What does Shakespeare mean to us today ? Public figures from all walks of life talk about the piece of Shakespeare that inspires them most.The pieces are read by well known actors."

Catching all of these seemed like it was going to be an impossibility, but true to BBC form of late, they're releasing them all as podcasts and with indefinite availability.

The subscription page is here.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Shakespeare at the British Council.

A small archive of short films from the British Council's archive have been posted online including two excepts from Shakespeare plays recorded back in the 1940s "in order to enable those who have no opportunity of attending performances of Shakespearean plays in a theatre to see how the various parts are played by leading English actors and actresses".

"Famous Scenes from Shakespeare No. 1" is Julius Caesar - Act III, Scene 2 - The Forum Scene.  Felix Aylmer as um, Marcus Brutus and Leo Genn as Marcus Antonius, address a multitude of extras in a piece of high production values, filmed with a certain epic quality despite the obviously small shooting space thanks to some excellent production design from Compton Bennet and spacious direction from Henry Cass.

The accompanying trivia notes that Genn and Cass were previously involved in mid-thirties production of Caesar at the Old Vic, and this short piece retains stage theatricality.  It's also filled with the kinds of memorable faces Fellini loved to include in his films, not least of the main actors both of whom are very unlike the kinds of younger performers usually assigned these roles, but both of whom have loads of authority.

"Famous Scenes from Shakespeare No. 2" or Macbeth - Act II, Scene 2, and Act V, Scene 1 - Murder and sleep-walking scenes offer further evidence that these were prestige productions with the casting of Wilfred Lawson (Macbeth), Cathleen Nesbitt (Lady Macbeth) who were the leads in 1944's second biggest film, Fanny By Gaslight. On the evidence, it's a shame they were only given these two short scenes to work with.  A feature film would have been magic.

The lighting is moody.  Noirish.  Lawson and Nesbitt, even with their RP accents are exactly as one might imagine these ancient figures to be.  The starkest image is in the sleep-walking scene as Lady M appears silloetted against the archway before slowly stepping forward in the light, her concentration in holding her lantern despite her blank expression telling us everything we need to know about her state of mind.

Twenty years later, the British Council undertook to record the whole of Shakespeare's canon (as it was then) in conjunction with the Marlowe Society at Cambridge University along with professional actors.  They were released by Argo records.  Here's a review of their Twelfth Night at Gramaphone.  They're fairly orthodox stuff, but still well worth listening to if you're interested in theatrical history.

They're also still very accessible.  I've bought many of them through ebay and in charity shops, but most of them are also available as downloads through Amazon and iTunes and even more impressively to stream through Spotify.  Here is the Twelfth Night production reviewed above featuring Prunella Scales:

Spotify Classical Playlists has prepared a complete playlist, which also includes some other of the service's Shakespearean gems.