Friday, August 17, 2012

Shakespeare's Sonnets.

In the early noughties, television producer and writer Daisy Goodwin presented Essential Poems (To Fall in Love With), a series of programmes to coincide with Valentine's Day in which various verses were presented in the form of mini-dramas with a true galaxy of stars (from Christopher Lee to Julie Delpy with Amanda Holden between) characterising them within a cityscape. Shakespeare’s two contributions were Sonnet 129, in which Greg Wise sighed his way through “the expense of spirit in a waste of shame” slumped on a couch and the outcast state of Sonnet 29 becoming Matthew Macfadyen’s musician’s inability to get solid work from a demo he’s passing around.

Framed by Goodwin popping up in some biographical locations sometimes with family members, the idea was to make the poems accessible to audience brought up on television who might find their existence on the page somewhat intimidating. While it was entertaining in its own way, the obvious set back was that the scenes were often at odds with the poet's original meaning and the readers and actors themselves had various levels of comfort in relation to how they should be speaking the words, contemporary poetry fairing better than most. The best interpretations were undoubtedly when the actor simply broke the forth wall and addressed the viewer forcing us to interpret the words ourselves.

That’s precisely the methodology at play in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the more linear reproduction of the sonnet recordings created for the iPad app produced by Touch Press in association with Illuminations, Arden and Faber. Select “play all” from the menu screen and after Patrick Stewart reads the original title page and acknowledgements, each of the ensuing sonnets is read in turn directly to the viewer by a similar group of actors as the Goodwin project (from Jemma Redgrave to Dominic West with Stephen Fry between). Sonnet after sonnet, face after face appears and the sheer variety of the text and approaches to interpretation even within these limits becomes obvious, especially when Ben Crystal pops up for his original pronunciation of 141.

Shorn of gimmickry, an intimacy is created between actors and viewer which replicates the brief moments in televised plays when a soliloquy has to be addressed to camera. Some performers have a more actorly approach than others, with the younger players often favouring a straight reading over Fiona Shaw or Noma Dumezweni's attempts at providing an emotional context. RSC director John Barton classically utilised sonnets as exercises to help structure the text within performance and it’s certainly the case that actors who’ve been through Stratford provide the clearest readings. But some of the non-professionals are equally impressive, James Shapiro’s Sonnet 138 underpinned by an academic understanding.

Each of the readings is relatively fascinating in and of itself. They beed filmed in a variety of places, in contributors homes and offices, back and on stage at theatres. I imagine director John Wyver and his crew travelling the length and breadth of the country dropping in on the actors depending on their availability and it’d be interesting to know how they were selected. In the main they’re perfectly chosen, some having even appeared in similar sonnet related projects on audio, David Tennant for Naxos’s From Shakespeare With Love (in which he also read “Shall I compare thee …”), Sian Phillips and Fiona Shaw on EMI’s When Love Speaks (different choices).

Watching these sonnets in a three hour block isn’t the best way to consume them and admittedly I didn’t. They were created as part of the app and outside that context they become “just” Shakespeare’s words well read. Perhaps it’s possible for those of us without an iPad to create a low-fi version with this dvd as the cornerstone. The app includes Katherine Duncan-Jones’s notes from the Arden Shakespeare edition which you might have to hand. Fellow contributor Don Patterson has also produced a book on sonnets (and this lengthy article for The Guardian). There are various facsimiles of the 1609 edition of the sonnets at

Apart from added interactivity, about the only element unavailable are the additional interviews with experts and given the dvd is more expensive than the app, it’s a shame room couldn’t have been found for those here. That’s not the only niggle. Each of the actors is given their own biography screen which also lists the sonnets their reading, but there’s no play all for these and after watching one of them the viewer’s kicked back to a list of actors rather than the screen they were working from which means they have to go off and find the actor again to see another of their contributions. There’s a similar problem with the numerical list too, which makes the process of wanting to see a sonnet again quickly less efficient. A subtitle option would have been a useful addition.

Otherwise, the presentation is clear and nicely replicates the design of the app judging by screenshots in the accompany booklet (which also includes the actor profiles from the dvd itself). Once you’re used to navigating the menus there’s a definitely an addictive quality to it, wanting to watch one more sonnet, or the same sonnet again. If nothing else, it’s a way of exploring the less well known poems, most of which are generally ignored the face of the mighty 116, 18, 2 and indeed Goodwin’s choices 129 and 29. Few writers can say that 103, read beautifully here by Kim Cattrall, doesn’t capture the desperation of facing something with near flawless qualities and being infected with an inability to write about it.

Shakespeare's Sonnets is out now.  Review copy supplied.

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