“Shakespeare More Exciting than a TV Series” – Henry VI at the Avignon Festival

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Henry VI – Shakespeare’s three-part history play – in one of the Bard’s earliest works, and my only experience seeing it performed was not very positive. I spotted an article about a production at the Avignon Festival in France, that claims that the play is “more exciting than a TV series.” Performing all three plays in one day, from 10 am to 4 am, the production is “18 hours long,” though that’s the total running time of the plays (13 hours) including intermissions.

I’ve never seen a Shakespeare play in French (I lived in France for nearly three decades), and I’m not that interested in hearing these plays in translation, but I’m curious to see how the Henry VI plays can be this interesting. I admit to being a bit skeptical, because the plays are long, and the writing isn’t great, but perhaps this French director has done something with them to make them more interesting.

Just last night, after seeing the wonderful RSC production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, I was wondering if the RSC would be able to make the Henry VI plays interesting. They’ve done well with the two “weak” plays I’ve seen: Two Gentlemen of Verona and Titus Andronicus; perhaps they can do well with Henry VI. As part of their project of performing all of Shakespeare’s plays over the next five years, the Henrys will certainly be coming up soon.

To be honest, I wouldn’t want to see all three of them in one day. 13 hours, without intermission, sounds like a lot; the Globe Theatre productions I saw were around 3 hours each, so the French version is either longer because of the language – French takes about 10% more words than English – or the director has chosen to play them slowly.

The Henry VI plays will be broadcast on French TV, and available on the Culturebox website. I’m not sure if I can get access to them, but I’m curious to see what all the fuss is about. If you’re in France, you might want to check them out.

The iTunes Store is Big Business

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Apple had an earnings call yesterday, and, as often, they’ve been printing money. $7.7 billion in profit in the last quarter; the iTunes Store generated $4.5 billion in revenue. As MacRumors says:

For the first fiscal nine months of the year, Apple CEO Tim Cook said iTunes software and services were the fastest growing part of Apple’s business. iTunes billings grew 25 percent year over year to an all time quarterly high, largely due to the App Store.

In the third quarter, iTunes generated $4.5 billion in revenue, an increase of 12 percent year over year.

The iTunes Store, which was once a break-even service, is now big business. Many tech companies would love to have that kind of revenue for their entire business, and for Apple, it’s just a small part of their total numbers. Amazing.

Note that the lion’s share of the increase is coming from the App Store, not from music or videos. What started as a music store has morphed into a powerful digital content storefront.

Theater Review: The Two Gentlemen of Verona, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

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If you know a few Shakespeare plays, you certainly know Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, and maybe a few of the history plays. Some of the comedies are well known: Much Ado about Nothing, As You Like It, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And everyone knows Romeo and Juliet.

But in the canon, there are a number of plays that are rarely performed, and that most people are unfamiliar with. The Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of these. The Royal Shakespeare Company has not performed this play on its main stage in 45 years, and I attended the opening night of the current production in Stratford-upon-Avon.

I admit going to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre last night with a bit of trepidation. I only know this play from the BBC’s forgettable television production of the 1980s. The Guardian recently ran an article discussing Why Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona is as flawed as it is fascinating, and the play certainly has its weaknesses.

The Two Gents has one of those convoluted love stories that show up in some of Shakespeare’s comedies: two friends fall in love with the same woman but one has already sworn his love to another woman, and the second is not considered good enough for her. There is love, betrayal, banishment, and cross-dressing.

Valentine travels to Milan to see more of the world. He wants his friend Proteus to travel with him, but Proteus is in love with Julia and doesn’t want to leave. Proteus’ father finally convinces him to travel to Milan, and he departs from Julia tearfully.

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(Photos: Simon Annand, for The RSC.)

When Proteus arrives in Milan, he finds that Valentine is in love with Silvia, the daughter of the Duke, but she is promised to Turio. Proteus instantly falls in love with Julia, and this sets up the plot of the two friends vying for the same woman. Valentine is eventually banished from Milan, and Proteus declares his love to Sylvia.

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Julia decides to go to Milan to seek out Proteus, but does so disguised as a young man, Sebastian. He eventually takes her into his service as a page, and sends her to Sylvia to present her with a ring; the same ring that Julia had given Proteus when they parted company.

Proteus had told Silvia that Valentine was dead, but she was not convinced, and set off to find him. Valentine had actually been captured by some outlaws, and became their leader. The outlaws capture Sylvia, then encounter Proteus and Julia — still in the disguise of a young man — and take them to Valentine. After a bit of confusion and some fighting, they sort things out, and the two couples end up together, planning to be married.

One of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, the Two Gentlemen of Verona does not feature the exquisite language we know in Shakespeare’s later plays, and is, at times, a bit clunky. Considered to be one of his weakest plays, it is often ignored, and the long hiatus in productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company has only been interrupted because they are in the process of performing all of Shakespeare’s plays from the First Folio. If you look at the main page of the RSC’s website, this play is barely mentioned; there is a very small graphic talking about a broadcast to schools, but unless you click the “What’s On” link you might not even know that it’s being performed. It’s almost as if they’re embarrassed to be putting on this play.

Well, they certainly shouldn’t be. From beginning to end, the performance I saw last night was scintillating. Sure, this is not Shakespeare’s finest play, the language is not as good as his best works, but this was a delightful night of theater performed by a cast that was clearly enjoying themselves.

The play began before it started; upon entering the theater, spectators saw a set like an outdoor café in Italy with the actors milling around, sitting at the tables, talking to each other. Panthino – played by Simon Yadoo – went out into the audience and fetched people, singly and in pairs, to bring them up on stage and walk them to the back to get some ice cream. This was a nice touch; it made me feel as a spectator — sitting in the first row on the side of the stage — as though the audience was part of the experience.

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The first few minutes felt a bit strained; it was opening night, what the English call “press night.” It seems that here in the UK critics all come on the same evening, rather than showing up when they want to review a play. This probably causes a fair amount of stress among the performers, knowing that this night is the one by which their production will be judged.

But once things got moving, they didn’t stop. The play was fast-paced, and the comic timing among the cast was impeccable. The laughter in the audience showed that the comedy worked very well. Sure, there were some jokes that didn’t work, because of the old language, but I could tell that the cast truly believed in this play, and their earnestness was infectious.

One set piece that literally brought the house down was when Turio, accompanied by a gaggle of musicians — including Proteus — went to serenade Sylvia. Nicholas Gerard-Martin who played this character as a bumbling yokel sang a song a bit like a Barry Manilow wannabe at the Eurovision song contest. The applause he received after singing this song was recognition of how good his campy performance as a singer was, but also how enjoyable to play was up to that point.

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Another enjoyable part of the play that was the scenes when Launce came on stage with Crab, a dog, played by Mossup. Launce’s witty words were accompanied by Crab’s surprisingly appropriate expressions, and the audience was heard to say “Awww…” as the dog nearly stole the first scene he appeared in. (It’s too bad that Shakespeare didn’t write any plays with kitties; my cat Titus would be great on stage.)

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In the more dramatic moments, the audience hung on the actors’ every word. The soliloquies gave several of the young actors to show off their individual talents. The final scene, which takes place in a dark forest, contains a great deal of violence and tension, but none of it felt contrived. Slightly at odds with the rest of the play, this long scene resolves the play through a contrast in the violence between Proteus and Valentine, and Proteus’ threat of raping Sylvia.

There are no weak actors in the young cast of this play. Mark Arends as Proteus and Michael Marcus as Valentine are a fine pair of friends. Roger Morlidge as Launce was nearly Falstaffian in his wit. And the women – Pearl Chanda as Julia and Sarah MacRae as Silvia – were delightful. Leigh Quinn as Lucetta shone, with her slightly hammy attitude, though I had a bit of difficulty understanding her fast-spoken Northern accent. And Martin Bassindale as Speed was witty and exuberant, notably in a scene with Launce. Since this is a play without a star, the company shone as a company, with a cohesion that was evident throughout.

The direction and staging of this play were excellent. There were a number of sets, from the Italian café to the Duke’s house in Milan; from a disco to the dark, camouflaged forest, providing a great deal of variety in the settings. The lights were a bit annoying, however. Sitting on the side of the stage, I was blinded during some scenes by three bright banks of lights on the other side, one at each level of the theater. I’ve sat in that location for several plays in the theater, and never noticed the lights to be a bother.

The play clocks in at about 2:20, plus a 20-minute intermission. I was starting to get antsy near the end of the first part, and, when I checked the time, I saw that it had lasted 1:25. The second part was therefore quite short, and the time flew by.

As I said earlier, the RSC seems to be a bit embarrassed about putting on this play. The play’s short run — only seven weeks, followed by a week in Newcastle — suggests that they didn’t think that this play would sell very well. Fortunately, it will be filmed and broadcast to cinemas on September 3, and subsequently released on DVD and Blu-ray.

Thinking back after the performance was over, I compared it in my mind to the other two plays currently at the Royal Shakespeare Theater. I very much enjoyed Henry IV part 1 and Henry IV part 2, but each of those plays had their good moments and some longeurs. Last night, after seeing The Two Gentlemen of Verona, I realized that there was nothing boring about this play, and I enjoyed it from start to finish. It’s interesting that, of the eight plays I’ve seen in the past year and a half at the RSC, the two that are considered to be “weak” plays – this one and Titus Andronicus – have turned out to be among the best productions. Which makes me wonder; are they weak plays, or have they just been weakly produced?

Kudos to director Simon Godwin, and to the entire cast, for making The Two Gentlement of Verona a delightful evening of theater.

Get the Right Grocery App to Make Your Shopping Smoother

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In my latest TechHive article, I look at grocery apps that can save you time shopping. From basic list managers to more sophisticated recipe managers, I cover the gamut of the types of apps available for iOS, and even for Android (as well as for the web, and for Mac, for some of them). If you need a good app to keep track of your shopping lists, check out the article.

Hear All of Bach’s Works for Free, if You’re Patient

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The Netherlands Bach Society is running an interesting project: All of Bach. Their goal is to record, and make available, all of Bach’s 1080 works. Each Friday a new work is available, so, if you want to hear them all, you’ll have to wait about 20 years.

So far, they have 17 works on the site: cantatas, works for keyboard, and organ works. There doesn’t seem to be any special order, but the first works they’ve presented are excellent. Take, for example, the wonderfully beautiful cantata BWV 82, Ich habe genung, sung by bass Thomas Bauer, and conducted by Lars Ulrik Mortensen. This is a fine introduction to Bach’s cantatas. (Read more about Bach’s cantatas.)

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(I can’t embed the videos, so I’m including screenshots here.)

Or the Prelude and Fugue in D minor, BWV 851, from the Well-Tempered Clavier, played on a Ruckers copy harpsichord with lute stop by Tineke Steenbrink; this is a great example of Bach’s keyboard works.

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Naturally, waiting 20 years for this project to complete is a very long time. I hope they increase their frequency. In the meantime, if you need a complete collection of Bach’s works, read this article.

I Just Broke the Law: I Ripped a CD

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Updated, from an article originally posted in November, 2013, because it’s still not legal.

I ripped a CD this morning; I violated copyright laws. In the UK, where I live, it is illegal to rip a CD. No one gets prosecuted, but the law is still on the books.

There is actually no law that expressly permits this in the US either, but case law and jurisprudence have allowed this act.

Copyright law is complex, in particular those parts of the body of copyright law that allow such things as time-shifting (recording something for later playback), and the ability to copy content to different devices or formats. Fair use allows much of this, but the laws are still strongly on the side of the content distributors, who would love it if we all bought multiple versions of content we want to use on different devices.

It’s clearly illegal to crack the content protection on DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, as well as certain other formats.

Keep this in mind the next time the movie or music industry go on a crusade. They try very hard to limit your choice of what you do with content you own.

Elegy for the iPod, the device that transformed Apple

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413440_g1-100358886-large.jpgIn my latest Macworld article, I look back at the history of the iPod, but also the history of the portable music player. As the iPod’s sales are decreasing, new devices are replacing it: iPhones, iPads, and even, perhaps, the mythical iWatch.

I hold a small metal device in my hands and twirl my finger on a circular controller, navigating the menus on my iPod classic. I haven’t done this in a long time. I have a full range of iPod models, and this one, bought back in 2008, doesn’t get much use any more. That click-wheel controller was never a great idea—it’s clunky and inefficient—but it’s emblematic of the early iPod line, before tapping on a tactile screen became the norm.

In a way, there’s something nostalgic about listening to music on a device that does little more than play music. (Yes, it can play videos and display photos, but with its tiny display, I’ve never used it for either of those things.) It reminds me of the early days of the iPod, when music listeners marveled at the ability to store so much music on a pocket-sized device, to listen to any of it with a few spins of the click-wheel, to play music in shuffle mode instead of one CD at a time.

The story of the iPod is, in many ways, the story of Apple’s comeback.

Read the rest of the article on the Macworld website.

App Review: Overcast, a New Podcast Player for iOS

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As a podcaster, and a podcast listener, it’s important that I have an easy-to-use app for managing, downloading and listening to podcasts. iTunes used to work for me, but with the changes that Apple made to iTunes 11, and the quirky Podcasts app for iOS, I’ve pretty much given up on using that solution. The two didn’t sync reliably, lost podcast episodes I wanted to keep, and was simply confusing. (What I’d been doing until recently was download podcast episodes to iTunes, and sync them to the Podcasts app, with no syncing of subscriptions or listening position. This is essentially the way it used to work pre-iTunes 11.)

Marco Arment, the creator of Instapaper, has just released a new podcast app for iOS called Overcast. This free app – with a $5 in-app purchased to unlock extra features, is an excellent choice for listening to podcasts on an iPhone or iPod touch. However, if you still want to listen on your Mac, and save episodes of podcasts, you might not want to use this. I’ve used Instacast in the past, which has the advantage of having a Mac version as well, and which syncs with the iOS app, but there are a couple of features in Overcast that have won me over. This said, I’ll still be downloading some podcasts to iTunes, and listening to them with the Podcasts app on iOS, because I do want to save episodes of some of my favorite podcasts. So Overcast works well for me as an app to listen to many of the podcasts I like, but it’s not a perfect solution.

When you start using Overcast, you have to set up an account with the app’s server. This lets you sync your podcast subscriptions, and even access them on a website, via a rudimentary player. But you don’t get podcasts directly, and you depend on that server working. This is good and bad; if the server’s down, you won’t get access to any new episodes.

2014-07-21 10.52.59.pngOvercast’s main screen presents all your podcasts, and playlists, in a scrolling window. The first section is Playlists. You can create one playlist with the free version, and multiple playlists with the upgrade. Playlists are good if you want to simply show all the episodes on your iOS device, or group specific playlists.

You cannot, however, create a new, empty playlist and add episodes to it. (Well, you can, by excluding all podcasts in the playlist’s settings, then adding individual episodes; this is an annoying hack, because each time you subscribe to a new podcast, you have to exclude it from this playlist.) I’d like to see a sort of Up Next playlist, so I can pick a few episodes I want to listen to during the day without messing around too much. You can re-order podcasts in a playlist, if you wish.

Podcasts are those podcasts with unplayed episodes, and a third section, further down, is Played Podcasts; this is a bit confusing, and the terminology could be better, but that groups podcast where there are no unplayed episodes. Note that Overcast does not support video podcasts. I don’t subscribe to any, but if you do, Overcast may not be for you.

2014-07-21 10.55.49.pngTap a podcast to view it, and you’ll see its episodes. There is Unplayed, All and Settings. In the latter tab, you choose to subscribe or not (which means that episodes download automatically), and you can choose how many episodes to save. In the All tab, you can scroll through the podcast’s episodes and tap any you want to download. An Unplayed is, as you’d expect, those episodes you haven’t yet listened to. When you finish listening to a podcast, Overcast deletes it automatically. In general, this is a good idea, but if you do want to listen to one again, you’ll have to re-download it; you can set the app to save any played episodes.

Downloads are only available on Wi-Fi, unless you check a setting to download over cellular data; this is a feature only available in the upgraded version. And you can’t stream episodes; Marco Arment has said he might be adding that in the future. This isn’t a big deal for me; I prefer downloading the ones I want, then being able to see a list of the episodes I have, rather than picking from a list to stream. But for many people, this could be a deal-breaker.

Some comments on the interface. I find the design a bit sketchy. It’s clean and matches a certain style, but it’s not high on the usability scale. The fonts for non-downloaded episodes are gray and hard to read, so if you want to check out an episode to see if you want to download it, this can be hard to do if you’re outdoors. There’s a lot of wasted space: the gray bars separating the sections could be slimmer, and there’s no reason to have the name of each playlist take up the same vertical space as each podcast. When you view a playlist, the episode names are truncated, making it hard to see what they are. This is particularly troublesome if you have a podcast whose episodes start with the title of the podcast itself. And the animated “audio wave” thingy that displays on the play screen is just useless. (You can see it above the play controls in the first screenshot below.)

Below, two screenshots show what you see when playing an episode. To the left, I’ve scrolled up on the podcast’s icon; it shrinks and displays show notes, with clickable links. To the right, you can see the Effects screen, which is the feature that has won me over. This lets you speed up podcasts, without the sort of Alvin and the Chipmunks sound that most podcast apps give you. The Smart Speed setting cuts out bits of silence, helping you save a bit more time when listening to podcasts, and Voice Boost equalizes the podcasts for vocal frequencies, making them clearer. Altogether, I find this the best playback of any podcast app I’ve used.


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Overcast has become my daily podcast app, but the lack of a Mac version means that I’ll still download some podcasts in iTunes. As I said above, you can use something like Instacast, but for episodes I want to keep, I find it more practical to have them in my iTunes library. However, if Overcast could play podcasts that I’ve synced to Apple’s Podcasts app, that would solve the problem of playback. Since third-party music player apps can do this, podcast apps should be able to as well. I’d also like to see an iPad version, but I understand that one is in the works.

If you want a podcast app for your iPhone or iPod touch, check out Overcast. You can try it for free, which is great, and the $5 in-app purchase is worth it for the effects alone.