Review: As You Like It and Henry V at the Pop Up Globe

Our Christmas present to each other this year was a day at the Pop Up Globe in Melbourne. Originally, the plan had been to see Around the Globe in 60 Minutes at 11, As You Like It at 2:00 and Henry V at 7:30 – which is a lot of plays, but how often does one get the opportunity to see that much Shakespeare and Shakespeare-adjacent theatre in one sitting? Alas, the Around the Globe show was cancelled at the last minute – but this may have been for the best, because our seats (in the Lower Gallery) were *exceedingly* hard and uncomfortable, and in fact the twinges in my buttocks and lower back kept me awake for quite a bit of last night.

The seating, however, was really my only complaint.

As You Like It was great fun. It was very lively and raunchy, full of music, and they did not miss any opportunities for humour, the naughtier the better. They also did not miss any opportunity to involve the groundlings in the story – in Touchstone’s early speech about the knight who swore by his honour that the pancakes were good and the vegemite was nought, he pointed at said ‘knight’ in the audience, and from then on, he had a constant rivalry with the dishonorable Sir Jarrod. He also had a romance going on with Lady Jane. A woman in the audience became the missing maidservant who had found the girls’ beds un-slept in, and had to answer for their absence, other audience members were singled out to represent other characters or character traits, to be hidden behind, or appealed to, to be the flock of goats, or to illustrate the Jaques’ seven ages of man speech. Any time people of low estate were mentioned, there was a gesture to the groundlings (we in the galleries were the nobility, of course).

Of course, the groundlings also got water squirted at them and paper torn up and thrown at them, and learned to back away FAST whenever the clown was on stage, as he had a tendency to spit ‘teeth’ or to ‘vomit’ water into the audience at every opportunity.

But what was really interesting about this performance was that they made the decision to have all the parts played by men, as they would have been in Shakespeare’s time.

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Theatre review: Twelfth Night in the Botanical Gardens

Last night, we went to Shakespeare in the Gardens, where they were doing Twelfth Night.  They are doing this all season, but naturally, we had to go on Twelfth Night itself.  It was a good production – very strong on clowning, as this company always is, though Sebastian was a little weak, I thought.  He was having trouble with his lines, which is unfortunate, given how few of them he has.

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Theatre review: Henry IV Part 1

We went to see the local Shakespeare Company’s production of Henry IV Part 1 today.

It was… interesting.  I mean, for one thing, that is a really strange play to choose in isolation; it kind of needs Richard II to help it make sense, or Part II (and ideally Henry V) to finish the arc or something.   I spent most of the interval giving a crash course in who everyone was and what had happened in Richard II and generally how the Wars of the Roses worked to my companion and a random audience member who was shamelessly eavesdropping because she said she was there because her friends were in it and didn’t know what was going on either…

Which is not to say the actors did a bad job of getting this across (though a lot of the plainer explanations occur quite late in the play), just that it was an odd choice for this season’s main Shakespeare production.  Apparently the actors are agitating to do part 2 later in the year – I hope they will, because while I don’t think this was a perfect production, it deserves to be a *finished* one, if you know what I mean.

The production was in modern dress, with Prince Hal bearing a rather distressing resemblance to John Travolta’s character in Grease (he does, however, wear tight leather trousers quite well, so I will forgive him the hair), and the Lancaster faction in blue bow ties and cummerbunds while the Percies wore red.  Hal was a bit disappointing, aside from the leather trousers, though this might have been the fault of the director.  He played a drunk, dissolute and thoroughly unlikeable Hal to the hilt early in the play, and the competent, chivalrous soldier in the late scenes, but the two didn’t really connect.  To my mind, even Dissolute!Hal should have moments when others are not looking at him where you can see that he is watching and playing a role, and this Hal didn’t give that impression, even in that speech about how he is in fact acting the part of the wastrel.  He also missed an opportunity, I think, when he and Falstaff reverse roles in their playacting about Henry IV.  While he delivered the “I do… I shall” line beautifully, it really came from nowhere, and in the next scene with his father he is still slouching and drinking and looking like a sulky teenager.  I could believe that this Hal was the sort of person who needs a battle to fight or a challenge to rise to, but failing that just sort of falls into whatever will keep him from being bored; I couldn’t see him as the consummate politician that I believe Shakespeare wanted him to be.

Hotspur, on the other hand, was fabulous – he really owned the stage whenever he was on it, and had the charisma and bravado and pure, beautiful stupidity required of his character (and Worcester was fabulous in his manipulation).  He was also rather gorgeous, which didn’t hurt.  Lady Percy was also excellent – you could see all the things she was not saying, and all the ways in which she was, on the one hand, aware that there was nothing she could do, but wasn’t going to make it any easier on Hotspur for all that.  A major disappointment of this production was that they cut her role significantly – she was only in one scene – and also cut all the other female roles; Doll Tearsheet and Lady Mortimer disappeared entirely (and if Lady Northumberland was in this play originally, they cut her, too), and Mistress Quickly lost most of her lines.  Instead, they had three scantily clad tavern dancers who had no lines except for a burlesque number at the start (nothing says Shakespeare like electric guitar and burlesque dancing) and spent all the tavern scenes lounging around and snuggling up to the men in the play.  This was fairly annoying.

Falstaff was really first-class.  I actually had moments of liking him, which usually doesn’t happen.  His wit really shone through, and even his worse characterstics were occasionally endearing.  And Henry IV was also excellent.   I liked the way they showed his first speech as a press release from the palace which Hal and the rest were watching from the seedy pub with the dancers.

A nice bit of staging was the way the court scenes were all held on a platform above the main stage, and the rabble were literally an underclass, below them on the stage.  The battle was fun, too, with a semitransparent screen across the stage and much use of paintball, though Hotspur naturally threw away his gun, the better to face off with Hal knife to knife.  This was totally in character.  There were also parts of the battle being broadcast on the video screen above the stage, which gave a sense of chaos in multiple locations – very effective.

Also, the accents were lovely; Northumberland had a nice, fairly subtle Northern accent; Douglas had a not at all subtle, but pretty convincing, Scottish accent, and Owen Glendower chewed the scenery in a suitably over-the-top Welsh accent.  And John of Lancaster was Orlando from the youth production of As You Like It that we saw last month, which was rather nice (and he looked so appropriately young, too).  The musicians had a lot of fun with sound effects, too, though I’m still bemused at all the electric guitar.  And it was very loud.

Altogether, I think it was quite a good production, and quite an interesting one, let down, a little, by Hal and by the infuriating cutting of all the female parts (and it’s not like there was much there in the first place, after all).  But having said that, I’d definitely see the rest of the tetralogy if they did it.  I’d be curious to know where they’d go with Hal, for one thing.

Sonnet: Quadrivium (or, Horatio’s Studies)

This poem was written in response to Orson Scott Card’s decidedly homophobic retelling of Hamlet. It had not previously occurred to me that Horatio had this intense, unrequited love for Hamlet, but for some reason, I woke up the morning after reading the above article with the first quartet of this sonnet in my head, and had to write the rest.  And now, in my mind, I can’t read their relationship any other way.

I’m afraid I got a bit carried away with the whole Trivium / Quadrivium thing. Just in case there is anyone reading this who doesn’t know much more about this than me, students in medieval time were expected to learn the Trivium (Logic, Grammar, Rhetoric) before going to University, where they studied the Quadrivium (Geometry, Astronomy, Music, Arithmetic). And after that, you could study Philosophy. If you were good. 

Also, I got a bit carried away with my own cleverness, which you probably noticed.  But, actually, I do think it’s one of my better poetic efforts, which goes to show that even Orson Scott Card’s most horrifying statements have their uses…

No, scratch that.  Let’s blame this on Shakespeare.  He is a far superior source of inspiration.

Quadrivium

Ah, Hamlet, Wittenberg seems far away,
For us the dons have rung their final bell.
I was your Trivium, when we did play;
You my Quadrivium, and I studied well:

I found in you geometry applied,
I knew each point and angle of your span.
I studied heavenly bodies at your side –
And learned well what a piece of work is man.

The sound of your slow breathing in the night
Was melody that only I could hear.
I counted as the sum of my delight
Each heartbeat, strong, iambic, by my ear.

Though heaven and earth hold greater things for thee
Thou’rt all my dreams, all my philosophy.

Film review: Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (BBC production)

Preliminary thoughts:

We’ve just watched the first Act of the BBC Henry VIII. This is a play to which I come with no preconceptions, as it is I think the only play that I have never read or seen and that I have not even encountered as Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare.

Of course, one can never be entirely without preconceptions in a history play – I’ve successfully picked a number of characters so far based on a combination of lines and costume, though Henry’s reign is one I know relatively little about (aside from the obvious). In fact, they have dressed everyone to resemble their Holbein portraits as far as possible, at least for their first scenes. This amuses me, because the romance novel I read yesterday featured a troupe of players, and one of them commented that it was easy to pick out Henry VIII’s costume from a wardrobe, as ‘they always make him look like the Holbein portrait’.

Naturally they do – that’s what Henry looks like to everyone from the 17th century onward, I’m sure, and it’s easy to forget that in his youth he was supposedly the handsomest man in Europe (though I imagine the bar is set a little lower for kings). Continue reading

Film review: The BBC Romeo and Juliet

And after dinner, we watched the BBC version of Romeo and Juliet. I still haven’t decided what I think of it overall.

Let’s see… well, to start with, in this production Tybalt is played by a terribly young-looking Alan Rickman. He’s very good, as one might expect, but I do find it hilarious to note that he already has that sinister Alan Rickman voice even with the rather chubby young face and unfortunate costuming.

Juliet is played by Rebecca Saire in this production, and she was 14 at the time it was filmed. For me, she was the stand-out character – I’ve never seen Juliet played by a 14-year-old who could still make Juliet convincing, and Saire did a lovely job. Her Juliet had innocence, wit, passionate emotion and self-possession, she went from childlike to frighteningly adult and back again very convincingly, and the expression on her face when the Nurse advises her to marry Paris (and her delivery of that line about how she is much comforted) was excellent – you could see her just closing off and deciding that clearly she was going to have to act on her own, then, without her needing to say a word. I loved her relationships with her family and her household, and especially liked the way Lady Capulet played her role – she and Juliet had a really warm and affectionate relationship, which is not something I’ve seen before (Lady Capulet usually seems to be a bit of a Lady Macbeth in training). I was interested to see that in the big confrontation between Juliet and her parents, Lady Capulet’s ‘You are too hot’ is aimed at her husband, not to Juliet – and her final line “Talk not to me, for I’ll not speak a word: Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee” was delivered in a hurried, frazzled sort of way – it sounded more like “fine, do what you like, I can’t stop you”, as she hurried out of the room to try to calm down her husband. Juliet’s nurse was also good, though she annoyed me by being far too ladylike – the Nurse is meant to be vulgar, and she really wasn’t!

And then we have Romeo, whom I did not like one bit. Firstly, he was 28, and it showed. He looked about twice Juliet’s age (because he was) and he and Juliet had absolutely no chemistry. Actually, I would say they had anti-chemistry, and in trying to create chemistry their scenes together he came across as somewhat sleazy. I couldn’t watch them together, actually. The age thing didn’t help, but clearly wasn’t all of it, because Paris also appeared to be in his mid-twenties, and his interactions with Juliet seemed more natural and far less skin-crawly (in fact, he’s the first non-sleazy Paris that I have seen in a production of this play). Really, you don’t want Paris to be more appealing than Romeo. Oddly enough, when Juliet and Romeo were talking to other people about their love for each other, they were entirely convincing (especially Juliet). But I was not at all convinced when they fell in love in the dancing scene, and the rest does sort of need to follow from that or there is no plot.

Incidentally, have you noticed that if only Romeo or Juliet had even a little bit of patience, this play would be a comedy? If Romeo had waited for Tybalt to be arrested for Mercutio’s death… if Juliet had actually followed the Friar’s advice and waited that extra day before taking the potion, thus allowing time for the message to arrive… if Romeo had waited for a message from the Friar before going off half-cocked…

But I digress. The Friar, incidentally, was very good, and I did like his relationship with Romeo.

Then there was Mercutio, played by Anthony Andrews. Andrew really liked him. I was in two minds… I did like a lot of things about his acting, but I did think his Mercutio was a little more unstable than he needed to be. However, I am completely incapable of being impartial on this subject, because the first Shakespeare I ever saw or read was the school production of Romeo and Juliet, in which the actress playing Mercutio was really exceptional and I imprinted both on the role and on her interpretation of it. So nobody else ever does it quite right… He did make it nicely bawdy, though, which was a relief – I was worried they were all going to be as well-behaved as the Nurse, and that would have been a crime.

The ending – particularly Lady Capulet’s reaction to Juliet’s second death – did make me cry. It doesn’t always. I even felt bad for Romeo, though not as bad as I did for Paris, who really did not deserve to die, poor boy.

So yes – I’d say it was definitely worth a look, if you haven’t seen it, even if Romeo does have 70s hair and an annoyingly sleazy nature. Juliet makes it all worthwhile.

Film review: Laurence Olivier’s Henry V

I watched the Olivier Henry V for the first time on Sunday. I intended to follow this immediately with the Branagh version for comparison’s sake, but it was getting late, and it didn’t happen. I’ll be watching it this week though. In any case, I first saw the Branagh Henry V when I was 17, and saw it more recently last year. For me, therefore, it was the definitive version, so what I primarily noticed about Olivier’s version was the bits that were missing. Well, and the radically different style of filming and acting, and the awful French accents, but that’s another matter. I had been told that Olivier’s version, being filmed in 1944, was very pro-war, whereas Branagh’s was very anti-war. Perhaps Branagh was more subtle, or perhaps his view resembles my own too strongly, but it still seems to me that his version is closer to Shakespeare’s original.

Olivier presents a very unified vision, and to this end, he takes out a lot of the ambiguities in Henry V’s character, and in the war itself. The hanging of Bardolph is lost; the threats to Harfleur omitted; the three treasonous nobles never appear, and Williams never finds out who he spoke to and challenged on the night before Agincourt. There were other omissions, I’m sure, but these were the ones that I particularly noticed. (He also omitted the lines where Harry tells Kate that he is so ugly that he’ll only improve with age – a rather endearing instance of vanity, I thought). In terms of things that Branagh didn’t show, we had the slaughter of the boys and the destruction of the campsite (though not Henry’s reciprocal slaughter, now I think about it, though Branagh didn’t show that one either. Maybe I imagined it?); we also got a much more distant and triumphal view of the battle – the glory of war, rather than the gritty reality. I don’t think Branagh showed the scene with all the French nobles expounding on their own shame after the battle, either. Olivier’s actors played that with rather a lot of enjoyment, I felt…

I also noticed that Henry did not admit to Montjoy that he still didn’t know who had won the battle – but after what we had seen, it would have been an unconvincing denial. Branagh’s Henry V, surrounded by the noise of the battle and the bodies of his soldiers could deliver that line with conviction, and did.

I should add that I have not read Henry V recently, so I’m working from memory here. Still, it seems to me that Branagh omitted less from the text, which one would think would bring him closer to Shakespeare’s original conception; and in terms of Henry’s characterisation, I think it does. On the other hand, his vision of Agincourt as completely chaotic and close fighting, and his apparent uncertainty over who had won are probably further from Shakespeare’s view – that whole tally of how many thousands of French have been killed versus the tiny number of Englishmen suggests a Glorious and Overwhelming Victory, which was certainly what Olivier portrayed; it seems to me that Shakespeare, while enjoying the not-always-noble nuances of Henry’s character, saw Agincourt as a Glorious English Victory over the Arrogant and Perfidious French (the characterisation of the French lends credence to this view), and that’s what Olivier showed. Branagh gave Agincourt a much greater ambiguity, I think more than Shakespeare intended. That said, I still prefer his version.

There were some interesting choices of characterisation and setting in Olivier’s Henry V; I loved the interactions with the audience in the early part of the play, and I rather wish he had continued doing the film that way. His characterisation of the French King as rather senile and doddering was also interesting, and has the advantage of explaining why the Dauphin seems to be running things as much as he does. I was less convinced by the Katherine, and of course the chemistry between her and Henry did not compare well to that of Branagh and Thompson (but how could it?). I rather liked the Dauphin, too – he was utterly arrogant and irritating, but a rather convincing character.

Altogether very interesting – I think this is the first time I’ve really understood just how much a director’s vision of a play can change it’s meaning. I’m really looking forward to watching the Branagh version again, and to our reading of the play itself, to see what other angles I’ve missed.

Sonnet: His Mistress Replies to Sonnet 130

In fact, I wrote this back in 1995 or thereabouts, inspired by Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin and the character who wrote a sonnet a day ‘to keep his hand in’.  I tried taking psychology lecture notes in sonnet form for a while, but it didn’t help.  Anyway, this was one of my better efforts.  It’s a reply to this sonnet by Shakespeare.

 

My poet’s pen is sharper than nine swords;
I thought true love should muzzle unkind truth.
What right have you to mock me with these words?
For nor are you some godly-handsome youth!
It’s true I find your closing lines are sweet;
What woman would not wish to be called rare?
But wilful Will, admit that ’tis not meet
To slight the colour of your lady’s hair!
Your style of loving sonnet is unique;
A compliment, you tell me, to my wit.
Still, it’s not pleasant to be told I reek;
Good Will, will you not flatter me a bit?
Yet my goodwill you have, for this is true:
Imperfect like meets like when I meet you.