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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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Texting Shakespeare Plays to Get Revenge

Edd Joseph has trolling skills. After he got ripped off by someone when trying to buy a PS3 controller on Gumtree, he decided to get revenge. To do this, he started sending Shakespeare plays to the errant seller by text message.

You see, you can paste all of the text of a Shakespeare play – Hamlet, depending on the edition, has over 30,000 words – in a single text message. When you send that message, it gets split into 160 character chunks. So the recipient gets 1,143 text messages. That’s quite annoying.

So far, Edd has texted 22 of Shakespeare’s 37 plays, and plans to continue, until he gets his money back, or until he gets that PS3 controller he paid for. I guess that, after that, he’ll fall back on some other public domain texts. I recommend Henry James; his novel The Ambassadors is over 922,000 characters, or 5,765 texts.

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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.”

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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.”

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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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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.

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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.

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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).

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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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DVD Review: Twelfth Night by Shakespeare’s Globe

51Aaud8H+OL.jpg Buy from Amazon UK

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will, which dates from the fecund year of 1601, just after Hamlet, is one of the bard’s plays about confusion. A pair of twins is separated in a shipwreck. One, a woman, dresses as a man, and the two are reunited at the end of the play. But between the separation and reunion, much happens, all having to do with wooing and love.

The idea of separated twins is something Shakespeare used in the early Comedy of Errors. In that play, the twins were separated at birth. And the woman dressing as a man was essential in As You Like It, which Shakespeare wrote just a year or two earlier, where Rosalind had to hide her femininity during her travels in the Forest of Arden.

The Elizabethan stage did not allow women on stage, so any time there was cross-dressing, it created double ambiguity: a man playing a woman dressed as a man; the audience certainly understood that two-pronged change. In this production – described as an Original Practices performance – the Globe Theatre company performs Twelfth Night with all men, bringing back the way gender was treated in the early 17th century. Johnny Flynn plays Viola (also known as Cesario, creating yet another layer of dissimulation), Mark Rylance is Olivia, and Paul Chahidi plays Maria, Olivia’s maid.

The play begins with Viola’s explanation for why she dresses as a man. She hear’s of Orsino’s love for Olivia, and realizes that, if she were disguised as a man, she might serve as matchmaker, and “might not be delivered to the world.”

The rest of the play revolves around the confusion that arises when Viola falls in love with Orsino, and when, as courier to Olivia sending messages of Orsino’s love for the latter, Olivia becomes smitten with Viola. A side plot involves Malvolio, who has the beguine for Olivia. Maria, Olivia’s maid, together with two comic characters, Sir Toby Belch (a Falstaff-like character) and Sir Andrew, are involved in a ploy to trick Malvolio and make him think he is loved.

In the end, Viola’s brother Sebastian returns, and there is confusion with Olivia who marries Sebastian, Viola’s twin brother, then sees Viola who knows nothing of the marriage. But all ends well, as the two loving couples unite.

This is a lively production, with wonderful comic timing, with entrances and exits making scenes segue with no interruption. The Globe’s approach to have almost no sets – other than the occasional table or bench – makes the stage very fluid, and the actors all bubble with humor throughout.

The performance revolves around Mark Rylance’s Olivia, who has a strong stage presence throughout. Rylance plays a role that is subtle and powerful, yet I had a bit of difficulty suspending belief. Olivia should be fairly young, yet Rylance is in his 50s. The voice he uses – a slight falsetto – makes him sound like an elderly woman. While his acting is nearly perfect from a textbook point of view, I just didn’t find his characterization believable enough.

Nevertheless, there are certain points in the play when Rylance’s Olivia achieves perfection. Certain gestures, glances, and stuttering words give the character a life that no soliloquy could equal. The look on Olivia’s face when he suggests that Malvolio – clearly a trifle mad – go to bed, and the latter replies, “To bed! ay, sweet-heart, and I’ll come to thee,” is memorable.

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Steven Fry (Malvolio) and Mark Rylance (Olivia).

As for Malvolio, Steven Fry gives a powerful performance of this somewhat gauche man who is full of himself, then thinks himself loved by Olivia. The scene in the garden where Malvolio reads the forged letter from Olivia – really written by Maria – is a masterpiece, as Fry falls into the character with ease and grace.

The rest of the cast is very good, if not excellent. While I found Johnny Flynn unconvincing as Viola, I thought Colin Hurley, as Sir Toby Belch, and Roger Lloyd Pack, as Sir Andrew Aguecheck were a wonderful comic duo.

This is a boisterous performance, and, aside from my reservations about Rylance, is delightful and effective. This production is currently on Broadway; the DVD here is a film of a production at the Globe Theatre in London from September, 2012. If you can’t see it live, then this DVD – with a slightly different cast from the Broadway production – is the next best thing. The DVD is not yet available in the US, but if you order it from Amazon UK, it is in NTSC format, and has no region code, and is therefore compatible with US DVD players.

Read a review of the current Broadway production in the New York Review of Books.

Here’s an excerpt from the DVD:


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Theater Review: Richard II, by the Royal Shakespeare Company, with David Tennant

You generally enter a theater with certain expectations. You may be familiar with the play, or you may know one or more of the actors. Last night’s production of Richard II, at the Royal Shakespeare Theater in Stratford-Upon-Avon, checked both of those boxes. I’ve read Richard II, and seen film adaptations, and I’ve seen David Tennant perform, most notably in the RSC’s filmed adaption of Hamlet (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store).

David Tennant is quite a well-known actor here in the UK, notably for having been Doctor Who for several years. While I’ve never seen him in Doctor Who, I have seen him in other television series. (Just last week, another short series with Tennant, The Escape Artist, started broadcasting.)

Many of the people attending this sold-out performance of Richard II were coming to see David Tennant, not to see Shakespeare. Tennant is no Shakespeare newbie; in addition to the Hamlet I mentioned above, he’s appeared in four other RSC Shakespeare productions, as well as several other non-Shakespeare plays put on by the RSC. Tennant is a brilliant Hamlet, and Richard II seemed like a perfect role for him.

Curiously, much of the British press, when reviewing the play, stressed Tennant’s long hair, such as a review in The Telegraph, which says, “His hair takes some getting used to.” Or the Daily Mail, which said, “But there is no getting away from the fact that in the centre of the show is that astonishing hairdo worn by David Tennant’s nail-varnished Richard.”

Frankly, the hair, being nothing more than a costume, was not worth focusing on. It’s better to just look at the role, and the way he performed it. Tennant does inhabit the role of Richard II, but, unfortunately, the rest of the cast is not up to his level.


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Last night’s production was a bit disappointing. The company seemed tired, perhaps because they had played a matinee in the afternoon, or maybe because the play has now been running for a month, making it harder to keep up the energy.

The play opened with a coffin at the center of the stage, and the Duchess of Gloucester, played by Jane Lapotiere, leaning on the coffin in sorrow. During the entire first scene, where Thomas Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke accuse each other of treason, she lays her head on the coffin. After the king attempts to make peace between them, he orders Mowbray and Bolingbroke to fight.

The Duchess, alone now with John of Gaunt, laments the murder of her husband by Thomas Mowbray, while John of Gaunt, feels that Richard was responsible. Lapotaire is a venerable Shakespearean actor, but I felt her speeches here – her only part in the play is in this scene – wavered between being over-acted and too hard to hear.

Both Bolingbroke and Mowbray were well cast, with Nigel Lindsay playing the former, the man who would become king. His rough and coarse manner and speech were an interesting counterpoint to Tennant’s Richard, whose haughty and somewhat effeminate nature showed the two of them to be opposites in many ways.

Much of the first part of the play, which sets up Bolingbroke’s coup d’état, and Richard’s deposition, was sluggish. While there was some fine acting – notably Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt and Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York – the entire company seemed hesitant. Richard II is only present in a couple of scenes during this period, and the play only really came alive for me in Act III, Scene 2, when Richard has returned from Ireland, and learns that Bolingbroke has claimed his late father’s (John of Gaunt) estate, that Ricard annexed when the latter died, and has raised an army. Tennant showed Richard II’s humanity in the speech that begins:

“No matter where; of comfort no man speak:
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?”


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The long deposition scene, in Act IV, Scene 1, was excellently played, with Tennant playing perfectly the fallen king:

“Now mark me, how I will undo myself;
I give this heavy weight from off my head
And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;”

For most of the play, the set was minimalist, with the coffin on stage in the beginning, and nary a bit of furniture, with one or two exceptions. However, there was an interesting sort of scaffolding that held the throne, which descended from above the stage at times, suggesting the link between the king and heaven. This throne worked in some scenes, but in Act III, Scene 3, Bolingbroke, the Duke of York and Northumberland were speaking to Richard II who was standing atop the walls of a castle, but were facing away from him, toward the audience.

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And during the scene when Richard is in prison, the top of much of the stage pivoted up, showing Tennant in a dark hole. In that scene, Aumerle kills Richard II – which is not in the original play. Perhaps director Gregory Doran thought the scene where Aumerle asks the now king Henry IV to pardon him for his treasonous plans, prior to the prison scene, doesn’t fit very well unless Aumerle has some other role in the play.

In the final scene, Henry hears of those conspirators who were killed, and Aumerle brings the body, in a coffin, to Henry. This scene, with its many deaths, lacked gravitas; it was over too quickly, and there was little more than words. Here was a newly crowned king looking at the king he had replaced, perhaps thinking what Richard II said in Act III:

“How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d”

Richard II is an exploration of tyranny and the violence it engenders, and each new king must understand, as Richard II did, that his days are numbered. (The word “death” appears 45 times in the play.) That new king should have shown, in some way, that he was aware what might await him, but the play ended too quickly. The recent filmed version of Richard II, which was part of The Hollow Crown television series (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store), showed this much better, with a long, slow ending where Henry seems to see his future in the face of dead Richard.

Paul Englishby’s original music was excellent; it was a slightly atonal medieval-style vocal music, with three sopranos perched high up to the right of the stage, and a group of instrumental musicians in the same spot to the left. It gave the play an interesting feel, especially as the women started singing before the play began – and before the house lights went down – and after the curtain calls. There is a CD available of this music, which also contains some speeches from the play; curiously, while it’s sold on CD at the RSC, it only seems to be available by download from the iTunes Store outside of Stratford-Upon-Avon.

There was much to like in this production, and much that could have been better. David Tennant was brilliant in the two main sections of the play when Richard II becomes aware of his own mortality and when he gives up his crown. Some of the acting was excellent; some was middling. I felt that the set was too stark for much of the play, and this gave the actors little to do. But Tennant did shine in this role, and if you can’t get a ticket to see it in Stratford-Upon-Avon, or later in London, the RSC is broadcasting it live to cinemas in the UK and around the world on November 13.

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Theater Review: Hamlet, by the Royal Shakespeare Company (Newcastle)

As part of my Shaksespeare Week in September, I saw all four current Shakespeare plays that the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) was producing in Stratford-upon-Avon. I had previously seen As You Like It and Titus Andronicus, and enjoyed the Hamlet so much that I wanted to see it again, so I took advantage of the fact that the RSC shows some of their plays for a short time in Newcastle, about an hour and a half from York, where I live, to see it again last night.

I won’t give a full review of the play; you can read the review I wrote in September. But I will discuss some elements of the play that were different, or that seemed different.

First, I had great seats. In the front row, just to the right of center. I had booked seats in row B, and was happy to be in the second row, but it looked as though the first row of seats had been removed as the stage hung over the actual stage a bit. Here’s what I saw:

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The main difference between the Newcastle performance and the Stratford version was the stage. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford has a thrust stage, which juts out into the audience, and the actors play to spectators on three sides. The Newcastle Theatre Royal is a standard proscenium arch stage, so the actors were only playing to the front of the stage. This seemed to change quite a bit. There was less movement; the actors were less fluid, as they didn’t need to turn to play to all the angles. Especially for the many soliloquies; Hamlet – and Claudius, in his speech before praying – stood for the most part at the front of the stage.

I was sitting in the fifth row on the side at Stratford, and I saw As You Like It from the first row on the side as well. For other plays at Stratford, I was sitting a few rows back, more or less to the front of the stage. One thing I noticed at Stratford was that the actors didn’t make much eye contact with the audience, or, if they did, they were constantly looking at different people all around them. But here, on a standard stage, they shifted their eyes between the front row and the mezzanines. This was the case for Jonathan Slinger, who played Hamlet, but also Claudius, and some of the other actors. Hamlet’s many soliloquies felt very personal, as Slinger often looked at me, or my girlfriend, sitting next to me. In fact, he fixed his eyes on her when he said, “Frailty, thy name is woman.”

After the play, discussing it with my girlfriend, we both agreed that the actors seemed more relaxed than the first time. It could be that they’re at the end of their run, and are less stressed by the performances, or it could simply be that, over time, they’ve fully internalized their roles. While I thought that Jonathan Slinger, as Hamlet, overshadowed the other actors when I saw the play in Stratford, the rest of the cast seemed much more present at the Newcastle performance. Pippa Nixon was notably excellent as Ophelia, even more so than the first time I saw her in that role. She truly owned Ophelia last night.

Another thing I noticed – both with last night’s Hamlet, and with the other plays that I saw twice this season – is that it really pays to see a good production twice. You notice things you might not have spotted the first time, and you can better appreciate the choices made by the actors or the director. I left the theater with a much better appreciation of Jonathan Slinger, and his Hamlet, and the entire RSC company.

Unfortunately, this is the last performance I’ll see of this season’s productions, but I have another RSC date to look forward to in a week: Richard II, with David Tenant, in Stratford. This is the first RSC play that will be filmed and broadcast to cinemas in the UK and around the world, and I hope all of these plays will also be released on DVD (or sold on the iTunes Store), so I can see them again whenever I want to.

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