Theater Review: Henry IV Part 1, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

It’s been a while since I saw a Shakespeare play; the last one was Richard II at the RSC, with David Tennant. I was somewhat disappointed in that production: Shakespeare’s history plays aren’t always the most interesting, and the cast, to me, seemed overshadowed by Tennant.

Last night, however, another history play blew me away. Henry IV Part 1, the first of two Henry IV plays, has recently started running at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, with Antony Sher as Falstaff.

The Henry IV plays are odd. They are the only history plays that contain so much comedy, and the most important character in them is not the named character. In fact, King Henry IV is almost a minor character in part 1. He has the fourth longest part in the play, with 341 lines, after Falstaff (616 lines), Henry Percy, or Hotspur (562 lines), and Henry Prince of Wales, or Hal (551 lines).

Falstaff is clearly at the center of this play, not only in the tavern in Eastcheap, where he is in his element, but also on the battlefield, where he shows his true colors. And he’s the star element in this play: he’s the actor who gets chosen as a draw, and he gets on the poster. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), Harold Bloom focuses almost entirely on Falstaff. “The two parts of Henry IV do not belong to Hal, but to Falstaff, and even Hotspur, in the first part, is dimmed by Falstaff’s splendor.”

The RSC’s current production, directed by Gregory Doran, shines a light on Falstaff, and highlights the humor of the play, but does not neglect the rivalry between Prince Hal and Hotspur. This rivalry, both between the two and in the mind of Henry IV, is set out in a statement that the king says to the Earl of Westmoreland in the first scene:

O that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call’d mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.

Prince Hal is under the influence of Falstaff, and the first time Hal appears onstage – waking up with two young women – Falstaff comes out from under the covers at the foot of the bed. They drink and carouse together, much to the chagrin of the king.

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The tie between them is strong, and clear, though one never learns how they met, and why they became so close. Falstaff can be seen as a surrogate father to Prince Harry, and his warmth and affection are apparent. Falstaff is a bumbling, old, fat drunk, but he’s the drunk you want to have by your side. His loyalty is obvious, and he’s a riot to be with. Sher gives Falstaff a voice and character that shines brilliantly from the stage. The set pieces with Falstaff brought the house down: the long scene where he recounts the bungled robbery of some pilgrims, then pretends to be the king, is a delight. The comic timing of the cast is wonderful, and I, like most of the audience, was in stitches.

Contrasted to Falstaff, Alex Hassell’s Prince Hal is stately and upright, yet perfectly conveys the insouciance of youth; at least until later in the play, where he has to take up arms against Harry Percy. He then shows that he has what it takes to become king.

Trevor White, as Harry Percy, or Hotspur, is a seething cauldron of anger and hatred. White walks a fine line; he’s just shy of overdoing his portrayal of this character. But his attitude felt realistic, even his gesticulations of pleasure at being able to fight King Henry’s men. He is loud and boisterous, but his overzealousness works well.

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While the scenes with Falstaff are full of laughs, the rest of the play does not lack energy. There are some slow scenes – particularly the first scene with King Henry and Westmoreland, and some of the later scenes that discuss the disputes between the king and Mortimer, Hotspur’s uncle. But the action picks up in the climax, which occurs at Shrewsbury, where a vast battle will decide the fate of the kingdom.

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The battle scene is breathtaking: the actors are running back and forth, swinging swords and clashing shields. Sitting right next to the stage, I had to lean back, to keep my distance, as all that metal was flying so close to me. Amidst all this, of course, is Falstaff, who first plays dead, then pretends that it was he who killed Hotspur, not Prince Hal. There is one moment in this scene where Antony Sher shows Falstaff in a nutshell: the rotund man, lying on the ground, has great difficulty getting up, rocking back and forth like a turtle on its shell, much to the delight of the audience.

The staging was inventive, with quick changes from an empty stage to the tavern in Eastcheap, and with a powerful use of lights and music. The pacing of the play was rapid and full of movement, with the exception of a couple of scenes where characters were static.

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This production of Henry IV Part 1 is riveting, hilarious, spectacular and a true delight. It’s one of the best I’ve seen at the RSC, and the rousing applause after the performance reflected three wonderful hours of theater. I want to see it again.

Don’t miss this production. It’s playing in Stratford-upon-Avon through September, then in London, and a number of other cities in the UK. It’s also going to be broadcast in cinemas on May 14.

Photos: RSC, Kwame Lestrade.

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Book Review: Zona by Geoff Dyer

Zona ukOne of the most fascinating films I’ve ever seen is Stalker, which I wrote about here, calling it the Great Existentialist Science Fiction Film. Not many people have seen this movie, but Geoff Dyer not only has seen it many times, but has written an entire book about it. Entitled Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), this book is the most fascinating critical approach to a work of art that I’ve ever read.

On the surface, this book is simply a commentary to the film. Dyer says, at one point in the book, that he had “intended breaking this little book into 142 sections [...] corresponding to the 142 shots of the film,” but it works better with his beer-in-a-pub approach, discussing the film as it goes on without any formal structure. I had the feeling, reading this book, that Dyer was sitting next to me, riffing on this movie that obsesses him so, and which I, too, have loved since I first saw it 30 years ago.

Zona us Dyer is, at times, very serious, quoting people like Žižek and Wenders, but is also very funny, as he shares his feelings about the movie. Stalker is – to sum up very briefly – the story of one man (the Stalker) leading two others (Professor and Writer) to a Room, where one’s innermost wish may be granted. The Zone was created either after a meteorite struck somewhere in “our small country,” or after an alien visit (which was the case in the original novel, Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky).

Remember that number, 142? That’s the number of shots in the movie. At 156 minutes, that’s more than one minute per shot. Stalker is the movie of slowness, where the journey is far more important than the goal. And the journey through Dyer’s book is so entertaining, it’s nothing like one would expect from a tome discussing a classic art film.

Dyer brings this movie down to earth, if I can use that expression, sharing both his insights after seeing the movie many times, and his own personal experiences, such as doing LSD, wishing he could have a threesome, and traveling in many different countries (including one where he lost his knapsack).

This may sound self-indulgent, but with Dyer’s captivating voice, and his sardonic comments and footnotes, this book is hugely entertaining. You may not appreciate it if you haven’t seen Stalker, but, hey, this is a good chance to see one of the best science fiction films ever made. (And one that really doesn’t have much science fiction in it.)

Learn more about Stalker.

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Book Review: Where the Heart Beats; John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists

wheretheheartbeats-2.jpgJohn Cage was arguably one of the most fascinating and enigmatic composers of experimental music of the 20th century. In this book, Where the Heart Beats; John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), Kay Larson, art critic and Zen Buddhist, looks at Cage’s life and the relationship between his work and Zen Buddhism.

The book is a sort-of-biography, covering Cage’s early life, his student years, and his first forays into composition. A curious man, Cage had begun delving into the works of the Orient, and the turning point in his life, and in his approach to art, came in 1950, when he met D. T. Suzuki, a Japanese author and lecturer who settled in New York City. His earliest book, which had been published in the United States in 1927, came out in a new edition at that time. Suzuki was to start teaching Zen to all and sundry, and Cage absorbed all that he could.

Cage had been involved in many experimental works, including “happenings” and works with what was considered to be non-musical sounds. In the 1940s, he developed the idea of the prepared piano, where he inserted objects and and between the strings of the instrument to give it a more percussive sound. His Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) was his first major work using this technique.

Wherever we are, what he hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.

But the discovery of Zen, along with the I Ching – the Chinese oracle book – which was given to him in 1951 by Christian Wolff, led him to embrace indeterminacy and chance. He was later to use chance operations in all of his compositions.

I believe that by eliminating purpose, what I call awareness increases. Therefore my purpose is to remove purpose.

His first major work using the I Ching was Music of Changes (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), a four-part work for piano where Cage used chance operations to determine the score.

They proceed thus, by chance, by no will of their own passing safely through many perilous situations.

Cage was to develop this procedure over the years, and it became his main method of composition. But he was also a lecturer and author, and some of his writings are more profound than his music. (See, for example, his 1961 collection Silence (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).) In his Lecture on Nothing, he made the very Zen-like statement:

It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else.

But Cage was just an intellectual Buddhist. Suzuki didn’t teach meditation, and there is no suggestion that Cage practiced meditation at all. He clearly internalized many Buddhist concepts, but he was not a Buddhist.

It’s hard to pin down John Cage, and this book offers more questions than answers. It ends more or less in the 1960s, and doesn’t discuss much of Cage’s work after that period. One could say that Cage had done all he had to do by then; he had made his statements and developed his technique, and the rest – the next three decades – were merely more of the same.

I have very mixed feelings about John Cage. To me, he was a brilliant man, but he was also a charlatan. In writing, for example, 4’33″, a piece where a pianist sits in front of his instrument for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, playing nothing, Cage showed us that the sounds around us can be music. But at the same time, this piece was just a joke. Cage defends it, likening it to the white paintings of of Robert Rauschenberg from 1951, but those – just like Richard Stella’s later black paintings – say nothing. Cage made an interesting statement with 4’33″, but it was an empty statement. To me, his work stagnated once he settled into his aleatoric process.

1333127842-ln1uth25edxiht5n-1.jpegI met John Cage in late December, 1986. At the time, I was living in Paris, and was editing a journal about the I Ching called Hexagrammes. I was very interested in the idea behind the I Ching at the time (something that is no longer important to me), and together with sinologist Cyrille Javary, who directs the Centre Djohi in Paris, I translated several books on the subject, and edited this journal. I had contacted Cage to ask if I could interview him the next time I was in New York, and he graciously accepted.

Cage was one of the most charming people I’ve ever met, and the smile on his face that you see in the photo on the left, was his default expression. He gave me the feeling of being a true bodhisattva, and everything he said was carefully weighed and to the point.

HexagrammesHe explained his process, which turned out to have little to do with the I Ching itself. He had simply adopted a method of using random numbers to fit into preset conditions for his music. His assistant would run a simulation on a computer that was the equivalent of throwing coins (a method used when consulting the I Ching). He would use these numbers to determine notes, durations, rests, etc., all based on decisions he made for each piece. While I was there, he composed a few notes of one of his number pieces, Music For…. It is described as follows:

This work consists of 17 parts for voice and instruments without overall score. Its title is to be completed by adding the number of performers, i.e. Music for Five, Music for Twelve, and so forth. Each part consists of “pieces” and “interludes,” notated on two systems and using flexible time-brackets. Some of the “pieces” are made up of single held tones, preceded and followed by silence, and should be played softly; they can be also be repeated. Others consist of sequences of tones with various pitches, notated proportionally. Tones in these parts are not to be repeated and have varying dynamics, timbres, and durations. The “Interludes”, lasting 5, 10, or 15 seconds, are to be played freely with respect to dynamics and durations of single notes, and normally with respect to timbre. The work uses microtonal pitches. The piano is played by bowing the strings with fishing line or horse hair. The percussionists have 50 instruments each, chosen by the performer with the caveat that selected instruments are able to produce held tones. The string parts follow the notation of Freeman Etudes. The players may decide on the number of “pieces” and “interludes” to be performed, resulting in a maximum duration of thirty minutes.

Cage recounted, in detail, how he proceeded, telling me that he had just begun writing the fourth part of the piece. The process seemed sterile to me, but Cage’s goal was to get out of the way of the music, and let the process do everything, without him making any value judgements. (I have a detailed description of the process, in French, in issue number 3 of Hexagrammes. One day, perhaps, I’ll translate it; I’ve lost the original English tapes and transcriptions.)

But in spite of this, Cage was a fascinating man. We shared two favorite authors: James Joyce and Henry David Thoreau. It turned out that Cage was to be the first reader in a marathon reading of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake a few days later in a gallery in Soho, and invited me to attend. Cage read this work – the opening section of the novel – with grace and style, which is no mean feat:

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs…

No matter what, John Cage was a fascinating man. This book, Where the Heart Beats, tells the story about how Cage discovered the tools he would use for his compositions, and for some of his writing. Like his music or not, he was one of the most important people in experimental music in the 20th century. I grew up listening to some of his music: his earliest string quartet, his Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, and Music of Changes. While there’s a lot of his music that I find uninteresting, it’s fair to say that Cage was unique.


Watch an interesting video of John Cage on the TV quiz show I’ve Got a Secret in 1960, here he performs his percussion work Water Walk. Many laughed, but Cage took this very seriously, and so did the host of the show. It’s quite surprising that someone playing this sort of music was on national television in the United States.



You can also listen to an interesting conversation with John Cage and Morton Feldman.

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Was William Shakespeare a Sockpuppet?

I’m sitting in a hotel lounge in a town in the West Midlands of England, and I’ve just done one of my favorite things: seen a play written by William Shakespeare. It was a hot ticket; David Tennant, famous for having incarnated Doctor Who on TV for 6 years, played the venal Richard II, who pays for his conceit and falls from his throne.[1]

While the audience for Shakespeare’s plays is generally diverse, tonight’s crowd has a bit more tattoos and brightly-colored hair than usual. As my girlfriend and I eat a late dessert, people at the tables around us are discussing the play. Some of the younger spectators – mostly female – are delighted that they got David Tennant to sign their programs at the stage door. Some older people discuss the staging. And, in the corner, someone says, “But you know, Shakespeare didn’t write this play.”

David tennant
David Tennant as Richard II. Photo by Kwame Lestrade

I’m in Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare was born, and the hotel is across the street from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). Ask any of the actors in this play, and they’ll most likely shrug off the suggestion that Shakespeare didn’t write this play, or any of the 37 others attributed to him. But for nearly 200 years, people have been trying to prove otherwise.

“He was the author, thou the instrument.” Henry VI Part III

Scholars have long known that Shakespeare didn’t write all of the plays himself; he collaborated with other authors on some of them. John Fletcher, for example, probably co-wrote Henry VII and The Two Noble Kinsmen with Will. Other authors contributed to different plays, such as Titus Andronicus, Measure for Measure, Timon of Athens, and even Macbeth. And there are others: a volume just published under the auspices of the RSC (Amazon.com) collects “collaborative plays,” ones that Shakespeare co-authored with fellow playwrights, which are not currently part of the canon, increasing the list of plays that bear Shakespeare’s name.

But the “Shakespeare authorship question” is not about plays where the bard of Stratford co-authored, contributed a scene or two, or performed the task of the script doctor. It’s about trying to prove that Shakespeare could not have written any of the plays or poems that have been published under his name. That some average guy from a sleepy little town, three days’ ride from London, could not have transcended the art of the theater.

What is it about Shakespeare that makes his works so well-loved, yet his identity doubted? Why does an actor of David Tennant’s stature return to the RSC to play the role of a forgotten English king in one of Shakespeare’s lesser dramas? For some people, there comes a time when you get Shakespeare, when you appreciate the subtlety of the stories and the beauty of his language. For others, his plays are just hard-to-understand 400-year old bores. But Shakespeare managed to wed story and text in a way that no other playwright of his time was able to, and the greatness of these works ensured that his reputation would live on.

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Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

Conspiracy theories about Shakespeare’s identity have been around for a long time. The main crux of the anti-Stratfordian argument, as it is called, is this: Shakespeare was not educated enough to have written the plays. He was not an aristocrat, and only those at the pinnacle of society could have known the inner workings of the court. He never traveled to the places that figure in the plays, wasn’t a lawyer (some of the plays mention legal issues), had no experience with falconry or tennis (both mentioned in the plays), and, basically, was a commoner. The thought is that Shakespeare was a sockpuppet; his name was used to obscure the hand behind the plays, that of a man who couldn’t admit his authorship for political reasons.

“I will fight with him upon this theme, Until my eyelids will no longer wag.” Hamlet

I met with the doyen of Shakespeare scholars, Stanley Wells, to discuss this question.[2] Professor Wells, together with Paul Edmondson, his collaborator at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, recently published a free ebook, called Shakespeare Bites Back[3], to counter these arguments. He was moved to do this for two main reasons:

“Because the conspiracy theorists are vocal and getting a lot of publicity, partly through the film Anonymous… [and] because it’s spread to the academy. There are two universities now – one in America, one in England – where you can do courses in authorship.”

Stanley wells
Professor Stanley Wells. Photo Shakespere Birthplace Trust.

Anonymous (IMDB) tells the story of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, one of some 77 candidates for Shakespeare’s ghost writer. (“It’s a bad film, very complicated, a silly story,” said Wells.) Others include Sir Francis Bacon, the playwright Christopher Marlowe, or even a group of writers, the Elizabethan equivalent of the writers’ room, where today’s TV series are scripted. Even Queen Elizabeth I has been suggested as a potential author of the plays. The names have changed over the centuries, but there has been a long-standing tradition of trying to find possible authors for Shakespeare.

Professor Wells questions why people get involved in these theories. “What is it in their psychology that makes them question received truth?” he asks. “It’s an interesting psychological phenomenon. It’s not one to which I have any easy answer.”

But much of the explanation is based on an elitist attitude that a commoner couldn’t have written such great works of art. Anti-Stratfordians claim that Shakespeare wasn’t educated enough to write anything, let alone Hamlet, and that, coming from the “backwater” of Stratford-Upon-Avon, he couldn’t have had the knowledge required to create such intricate works.

“In some cases it’s snobbery,” Professor Wells said, “which is often based on ignorance of the sort of education that you would get in a grammar school in England. Of course we can’t prove that Shakespeare went to the grammar school, because we can’t prove that anybody went to the grammar school… Snobbery, then, is partly behind it, [the idea] that it must have been an aristocrat.”

The lack of records and documentary evidence is one of the main arguments used to bolster the idea that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays. Only a handful of documents in his hand exist, and naysayers point to the fact that he spelled his name differently at different times, though English spelling was not normalized at the time. But there are more than enough contemporary mentions of Shakespeare as the author of specific plays and poems, to show that he was well known; that “Shakespeare” as a brand was familiar.

“Do you doubt that?” Hamlet

Questions about Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays go back to the early 19th century. This was a time when the status of the author was rising, and when textual criticism had shown that Homer didn’t write The Iliad and The Odyssey, and that the Bible was written not by a single hand, but by a diverse group of people over several centuries. The Romantic concept of the author also led to the idea that an author’s works must reflect his life and experience. William Wordsworth said, regarding the sonnets, that “Shakespeare expresses his own feelings in his own person.”

An 1805 lecture by Joseph Corton Cowell sums this up. Cowell said, “there is nothing in the writings of Shakespeare that does not argue the long and early training of the schoolman, the traveller, and the associate of the great and learned.” Later skeptics would repeat this idea, choosing a specific favorite as candidate for authorship of the plays, riffing on the idea that, as James Shapiro says in his book Contested Will[4], “Shakespeare could only write about what he had felt or done rather than heard about, read about, borrowed from other writers or imagined.”

Shapiro points out that, “We’ve inherited many ideas about writing that emerged in the eighteenth century, especially an interest in literature as both an expression and an exploration of the self” As we are more interested in artists’ lives, we try and fit their work into their experience.

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Even this engraving of Shakespeare, included in the First Folio edition of his plays, has fueled conspiracy theories. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Droeshout_portrait

If you take this idea at face value, you could say that Shakespeare could only have written about murder – as he did in many plays, such as Hamlet, Macbeth and Richard II – if he had committed the foul deed himself. And that he could only have written about Titus Andronicus killing and cooking two of Tamora’s sons in meat pies if he, himself, had such culinary experience.

Over time, leading candidates for Shakespeare’s place in history have changed, as some have been sufficiently debunked, and others have fallen out of fashion. Elaborate theories have been constructed based on secret codes, acrostics, and even forgeries, and, more recently, the internet has renewed the ability for anyone to argue this issue. Self-published books abound, championing one potential replacement or another.

In Shakespeare Bites Back, Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson point out that, “At the last count 77 individuals had been named. The fact that there are so many of them should be enough in itself to topple the whole house of cards. Every additional name added to the list only serves to demonstrate the absurdity of the entire enterprise. All of these nominations are equally invalid; none has a greater claim than any of the others.”

“Tell truth, and shame the devil.” Henry IV, Part I

But in the end, why does it matter who wrote the plays if they are great works of art? If you go to the theater and enjoy a play, does it matter who wrote it? Professor Wells told me, "It matters a great deal who wrote the plays. Partly because the plays are inevitably the product of the community in which their author was born, similar to the way in which Dickens’s are rooted in London, perhaps not to that extent. It matters because young people shouldn’t be subjected to conspiracy theories as if they were truth.

“It matters because history matters, because truth matters.”

Originally published in issue 15 of The Loop Magazine.

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Amazon Instant Video Comes to the UK; Amazon Inflates the Numbers

Amazon Instant Video is (finally) now available in the UK, and is free with an Amazon Prime membership. Initially £49 a year, this has just increased to £79 a year. I got a Prime membership in January, so I benefit from “free” streaming, and if I renew next year, I’ll pay the new price.

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Amazon has been promoting this for the past week, saying that one can “Enjoy unlimited streaming of more than 15,000 movies and TV episodes.”

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But when you look at the full catalog, the numbers are very different. There are currently only 2,269 movies, and 938 TV series. Granted, they’re counting every TV episode in the 15,000, but that number makes you think there’s a lot more content than there really is.

Also, if you don’t have kids, then your available content dwindles. About one-third of the TV series are for children, and one-fourth of the movies.

It looks like there’s some interesting content, but there’s far less than Netflix, and there’s much less variety. (Granted, most of what’s on Netflix is crap…) There’s also much less HD content; only 258 HD items are listed.

As long as it’s free with my Amazon Prime subscription, I’ll check it out. But given the limited content, I’ll need to see a lot of new movies and TV series there to get me to renew my Prime subscription next year. I got the Prime subscription because I wanted quick delivery of purchases; I’m happy to pay the £49 a year, but I doubt I’d want to pay £79 for that service. If they can’t split the two, then I’m unlikely to want to continue.

Update: As I’ve been browsing through the selection, I did find one classic movie that’s a must see: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, with Paul Muni. This 1932 film shows how a man is wrongly convicted for a robbery and ends up in a chain gang. It was a very important film in its time, having exposed the way prisoners were treated. Also, it has one of the best last lines in the history of cinema.

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The Committed Podcast Talks to Robyn Miller, Creator of Myst and Riven, and Director of The Immortal Augustus Gladstone

The Committed Podcast Icon 1400x1400 01In the latest episode of The Committed podcast, we meet Robyn Miller.

Robyn has been creating stories for decades. After the wildly successful Myst and its sequel Riven, he set out to become a filmmaker. His first feature film, The Immortal Augustus Gladstone, has been released digitally.

Join me with Ian Schray and Rob Griffiths as we chat with Robyn about his experiences in the video game and film worlds in this week’s episode.

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Theater Review: Coriolanus, by the Donmar Warehouse

Last night, I saw Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, as part of the NT Live series of plays broadcast to cinemas. Playing at the tiny Donmar Warehouse in London – a mere 251 seats – this was the only way to get to see this production. The main draw was the lead actor, Tom Hiddleston; while he was excellent, the rest of the cast was also up to his level.

The Company of Coriolanus Photo by Johan Persson.jpg

Coriolanus is set in a time of strife. Romans are demonstrating because they lack food, and the leaders have been withholding stores of grain. They blame Caius Martius, a Roman general, for this. Caius Martius critizes them, but when he hears that a Volscian army is approaching Rome, he leaves to fight the Volscians in their city of Corioles. He returns, after defeating the Volscians, and his deeds earn him respect. He is given the agnomen of Coriolanus, and is encouraged to run for consul.

He wins, but the people doubt his honesty in attracting their votes. He eventually gets banished from Rome by the same people who want him to be consul. Leaving Rome, he heads to the Volscian capital of Antium, where he seeks out their leader, Aufidius, and plots to attack Rome. This being more or less a tragedy, there is a tragic ending.

Director Josie Rourke manages to take this play about war and dissension and squeeze it into a small space. The stage of the Donmar is tiny, and the set was sparse. There was a wall behind the stage, where people wrote graffiti, and a ladder leading up from the stage, as you can see above. Other than that, the only elements of staging were the occasional chairs and lecterns that the cast brought out. During parts of the play, the cast sat against the wall in silence, as other actors were “on stage.”

Hiddleston is a riveting Coriolanus. He is cold and calculating, violent and bloody. But he nevertheless remains a flawed human. He goes through many changes, some self-imposed, others the result of a manipulating mother. He never manages to free himself from his mother, however, which leads to his tragic end. The only area I felt he was weak was in showing his disdain for the people of Rome. He chose a snickering disdain, which didn’t feel totally sincere; it didn’t feel like the type of disdain we see from politicians, where contempt is hidden behind a veneer of caring.

Tom Hiddleston Caius Martius Coriolanus Photo by Johan Persson 4

While some plays with stars tend to be imbalanced (see my recent article Do We Need Shakespeare Productions Without Stars?), this Coriolanus has a cast that doesn’t let Hiddleston steal the show. Mark Gatiss is excellent as the “humorous patrician” Menenius, and Deborah Findlay was a strong and powerful Volumnia (Coriolanus’ mother). I felt that Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia was a bit wishy-washy; at times she was absent, and at others she overacted. But the rest of the cast was excellent and there were few weak moments.

The NT Live production, however, had some problems. During the first part of the play – up until the intermission – the sound was iffy. At times, it was hard to hear what was being said; when people were talking softly, or when they were very loud. It didn’t seem as though the actors were wearing microphones, and the miking was not excellent. Hiddleston seemed to be acting for the cinema, not the stage; he didn’t project his voice well enough. This improved in the second half, though I could not make out Aufidius’ final growling words at all. And the music which was used to punctuate scenes was annoying. I’ve heard this sort of banal, generic electro-pop in several theatrical productions, and it adds nothing to the play; it just seems out of character. I also found a bit disturbing the fight sequence between Caius Martius and Aufidus early in the play. There was a handheld camera very close to the actors, that seemed to break the “invisible wall” between the stage and the audience. I felt that I was too close to the action; zooming one of the cameras off-stage would have been fine. And the handheld was very shaky; this could have been avoided with a steadicam. I wonder how the spectators in the theater felt about that intrusive camera.

(We could also do without some of the interstitial chatter, that just wastes time, and takes audience out of the atmosphere of the play. I’m glad that The Guardian finally reacted to the bogus “bonus” features in NT Live productions.)

Near the end of the play, when Coriolanus stands at the corner of the stage as his mother, wife and son beg him to spare Rome, Hiddleston manages to visibly tear up. This is no mean feat, and this tearful remorse says a lot about this violent man who has decided that peace is the better choice.

“Ladies, you deserve
To have a temple built you: all the swords
In Italy, and her confederate arms,
Could not have made this peace.”

Rourke makes a lot of cuts at this point, moving directly to the final scene, where Coriolanus tells Aufidius of his agreement to save Rome, and then to the denouement of the play, and of Coriolanus’ fate. For those unfamiliar with the play, this transition might have been a bit jarring and confusing, since it suggests that Coriolanus met his mother, wife and child in Antium, but that it was indeed just outside of Rome where he had the long conversation with them. Here and elsewhere, the spatial element of the production made it hard to know where events were taking place. Some more visual cues might have helped.

Nevertheless, this was a powerful, raw production of a play that should be better known. Coriolanus as a character presents many traits that we can relate to, and the protest at the beginning of the play is, unfortunately, a familiar element in today’s society. The cast earned a standing ovation from the theater’s audience, deservedly so. I would very much like to have seen this live.

Note: For a different take on Coriolanus, see this excellent film with Gerard Butler and Ralph Fiennes. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store)

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Do We Need Shakespeare Productions Without Stars?

The Guardian today proclaims that British Shakespeare productions need more than scene-stealing stars. The article cites recent productions with Big Names, such as David Tennant’s Richard II in Stratford-Upon-Avon (see my review), Simon Russell Beale as King Lear at the National Theater, Jude Law’s Henry V in London, and Coriolanus, with Tom Hiddleston at the Donmar Warehouse (which I’m seeing tonight in a cinema as part of the NT Live series of broadcasts).

Tom-Hiddleston-as-Coriola-011.jpg

In my short tenure here in the UK, I’ve seen a half-dozen live Shakespeare performances. The Richard II with David Tennant showed that the “star,” the former Doctor Who, imbalanced the production. Tennant was excellent, but it was hard for other actors to play against someone of his stature, and the overall play lacked direction. Compare that to two of the brilliant RSC productions I saw this year without A-list stars: Hamlet, with the brilliant Jonathan Slinger, and Stephen Boxer as an astounding Titus Andronicus. Both of those plays felt like they were “company” productions, where no one actor, even the lead, stood head and shoulders above the others.

The big problem with A-list stars in theater is that the play becomes inaccessible. I very much wanted to see King Lear with Simon Russell Beale, but the day the tickets went on sale – the minute they went on sale – there were no more. They had all been sold to “members” before the official public sale date. (Which made me wonder why the National Theatre bothered to send out emails telling people that the tickets were going on sale.) Apparently, they are going for up to £2,000, which is patently ridiculous for a theater ticket.

To be fair, many plays are broadcast to cinemas in the UK. This year, I saw several plays from the National Theatre’s NT Live series, including Kenneth Branagh’s impossible-to-get-tickets-for Macbeth in Manchester. It’s a good way to see plays, but it’s nothing like the actual live experience of being in a theater. But it makes me wonder if many of these plays are being staged with big stars as much for the cinema broadcasts as they are for their performances. Branagh’s Macbeth played in a church with some 280 seats; it had a run of just a couple of weeks, so only a few thousand people could see it. (Compare that to one night in the RSC’s main theater, which has 1,000 seats.) With broadcasts to cinemas – not just live, but “repeat” broadcasts as well – in the UK and around the world, there’s probably a decent return on investment.

I think we need more “company” performances of Shakespeare. The RSC is leaning toward stars now for some of its plays, but not all. The Richard II sold out very quickly because of Tennant’s participation, but the coming season does not have any stars of his caliber. The London stage is different; they don’t have a Shakespearean company – other than at the Globe – and any plays put on in individual theaters need A-list actors to sell tickets, making them harder to see. It’s a complex paradox, and one that clearly does not favor average theatergoers.

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