Friday, March 31, 2006

and One woMan Plays Many Parts

I was watching 'As Time Goes By' on the Beeb last night and dear old Dame Judy set me thinking about the connection between Actors (notice the big A) and their roles.

I've been in the audience for a number of Judy Dench's live performances and seen countless filmed performances both on the big and small screens. I can't think of a single one I have not enjoyed. The fact that she is in something is enough of a recommendation for me to watch it. I am not the only one: She is perhaps the biggest draw on the West End stage.

Last week I got my hands on Henry V, where she plays Mistress Quickly (stunningly well, by the way). Her Lady Macbeth was definitive. There were other great Shakespeare performances and a magnificent Lady Bracknell (on stage).

What do we experience when we see her perform?

How much is her, and how much the script?

I suspect her justifiable fame is due to an ability to be 'Everywoman'. There is something within her which allows her to access those elements of personality and character which are constants and then to communicate these elements to an audience. She manages to make us social creatures - to care for another human, to think about their actions and to respond to the situation s/he finds him/herself in.

But there is a division to be found in these characters.

We talk of Judy Dench's Lady Macbeth or of her Sally Bowles (Yes, long before Lisa made the role hers, Judy did it on stage). There are alternative interpretations, not from the same actress, but from other people. It gives a certain flexibility to our view of the character - it allows us to seperate the character out from the human being in a way.

When we watch her in something like As Time Goes By, she is the character, Jane - our image is of the character as a part of the human, as in some way a part of her, Judy Dench. There is no alternative. If we watch it again, it is still the same person.

Not only that, the character, Jane, becomes a part of her which is in contrast with other parts which are her: Like in A Fine Romance where she plays another character in a situation comedy.

Which brings me to an interesting point.

One of the great shifts in audience perceptions must have happened shortly after Shakespeare left the King's Men and his death. Up 'til then, all the great roles had been written for a single actor to play - and a great many of the minor roles for specific actors too.

When you saw Macbeth on stage, he was always played by the actor who played Macbeth: Lady Macbeth would be the same boy, Banquo, the same, etc. These characters were aspects of a real man.

Not only that, Macbeth would be played by the same actor as Hamlet. And possibly the same actor as Shylock. These characters were aspects of one man - not alternative possible interpretations - but actual elements of a real human.

Lady Macbeth was Ophelia, was Cleopatra. These characters are elements of Everywoman.

We lost something when other actors started to take on the roles - something I think is key to understanding Shakespeare's scripts:

Each man in his time plays many parts.

Friday, March 24, 2006

It is the lark . . .

. . . or, "Those bloody birds are singing again."

Few people who have not lived in the wilder parts of a country (possibly Temperate zones only) can have experienced a true Morning Chorus.

It is starting to get Spring here (Hungary) and I was woken a couple of days ago by a rather weak effort on behalf of the local bird population - I suppose it has the excuse of being more or less urbanised and so deplete of the true masters of song that it was a little shy of giving it full throttle. The slothful 'cooing-doves' did there usual late entry and continued long into the morning.

I lay in bed thinking - Now, if this were back in the village, the noise would be so loud that I would be fully awake and not half and half.

And, off went the thoughts on walkabout to Shakespeare, morning chorus and dawn.

First to mind for me is always A Midsummer Nights Dream.

Puck warns Oberon of the approach of daylight with, "Fairy King, attend and mark, I do hear the morning lark."

Which I find strange, as it is rarely the lark I hear first: But I don't live in England.

Certainly the chorus starts with a few tentative voices - quite high (and very unlike the Nightingale - so yar-boo-sucks to Juliet). Then builds to a most impressive mix and volume.

This happens in darkness (which most townies don't know because they are still asleep) several minutes before the first light creeps into the sky. And that gives the lie, by the way, to the idea that Oberon and his Kingdom can play in the sunlight: Earlier, Puck has mentioned the rise into the sky of Venus, the morning (and evening) star. This happens a good time before the sky gets light, and it is the signal for the Dark Spirits to disappear into their graves - the remaining Spirits can still hang around, but not face full sunlight. As soon as the grey sky shows sign of the sun rising, off they jolly well go.

Which brings me to the idea of dawn.

There are distinct stages to the morning awaking of the Sun and arrival of the day.

The first sign is Venus. The star appears as the Sun approches (it is a planet close to the sun so is always associated with it). It is a very bright star and has a mixed reputation in a number of cultures - the Romanians call it Lucaferul (bit of a strong sex drive with him) and of course the planet is the goddess of love, Venus in other western cultures. It disappears last from the lightening sky as the other 'candles' burn down a little more quickly.

The star is though, silent. No one can hear it - so you only know about it if you are awake in the night - it is a sign to lovers and shepherds (it is always so cold in the morning that the Shepherd wakes early). Romeo is familiar with it.

Around the same time, the temperature drops (if it is a clear sky - and if you are seeing the stars, it is). The dew drops with it. Everything gets wet (I'll go on about this another time).

Then the birds join in - the chickens (and village dogs) are regular noise makers throughtout the night and their use as a clock is quite inexplicable to me. Maybe it is their regularity of their noise that has them marking the hours rather than signals of change.

It is still dark but the length of time left in darkness is now marked- barely half an hour and the sky will have lightened enough for people to get up and start work.

“And merry larks are ploughmen’s clocks.” [Love’s Labour’s Lost – V, 2]

Too damn right - get out of bed, get some breakfast and get to work.

The human country side starts with the light, and ends with it too.

By the time the lazy sun heaves itself over the horizon, a good period of light has gone by. When I am back in the village, it is a time to work - not too hot and the flies haven't got up yet. I will see the local cowherd go by with all the village cows, and many of the foresters will be up and on their way long before the Sun rises.

Ever must it have been, until Industrialisation.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Shylock and Shakespeare's Dad

When Shakespeare was a child, his father (John) was taken to court and had to pay a fine for money lending. (He had leant 100 pounds at 20 percent interest - and made a whopping 20 pounds profit: Remember, you could buy a good house for 50 pounds in those days. The fine was only 40 shillings - that still left Mr John S. with 18 pounds profit. That is usury to the uniformed.)

Shylock is a money lender.

The arguement is frequently made that, because Shylock lends money, he is un-Christian and bad: The reality of the times was frequent (if not essential) use of money lenders: Is Shakespeare's play really condemning Shylock for money lending?

In the London of his day, Shakespeare must have been in daily contact with merchants and money lenders (most would have been English and Christian, like his father - some could have been Jewish) - what were they saying?

Because something is offically 'illegal' it doesn't mean people don't do it - one only had to leave the door of The Globe to bump into a prostitute (in fact, you didn't even need to leave the theatre but there might be delicate minds reading this and I don't want to upset them).

Shakespeare's father was also an elected member of his town council - an alderman - and this made him a Magistrate - someone handing out justice. (I'll return to this in another post.)

And a further law case against John Shakespeare involves him buying and selling wool illegaly. So he was a Merchant too. (And made an awful lot of money at it.)

Makes me think how positive a character Antonio really is - and how negative is Shylock?

Could there be a lot of Shakespeare's dad in the old Jew?

Thursday, March 02, 2006

He Plays A Good Part . . .

My mother used to say that about people she'd seen on the television (early days when they had real live plays in wonderful black and white on one or other of the only two English t.v. channels).

Being a sophisticated young individual, I, of course, dismissed the idea of her ability to have a valid point of view as nonsense and out of the window went the comment. The play, after all, is the thing.

To reduce the art of acting to 'playing' and the serious work and effort that goes into the creation of a character - a believable, living entity - as a 'good part' revealed much more about my mother's limited education and sensibilites than critical insight.

Mistake, it came to haunt me latter on - and is still echoing.

Some years later, and rather a lot of years ago, I went to watch the film version of Hamlet, the one with Mel Gibson in it, in Manchester shortly after it was released. It was not the greatest of cinemas, but there was a bit of a queue: All young women there to watch Mel in HIS new film.

Women just like my mother - Mel plays a good part so we will go and watch him in his new film.

My intellectual arrogance bristled. Shakespeare's character, Hamlet, his great play, Hamlet, were all more to the forefront of my mature world view than a mere Australian/American actor.

It turned out that they were a much better audience than most I have been in for Hamlet.

First, they didn't know the story (believe me, they did not know the ending). As the rapid sequence of deaths at the end of the play occured - there were gasps of shock, and squeals. All the way through the audience had been very attentive - following events for the first time. (Incidentally, a complement to the film - the language was not a barrier.)

Second, they had no respect for Shakespeare (if anything, the opposite had been ingrained by years of enduring the poor bugger's 'easier' texts thrust down their throats in not too good schools). No preconceptions about great art; no need to sit in respectful silence as the immortal words washed over them.

In effect, they actually 'enjoyed' the film. Mel, of course, played a good part!

Few members of the audience in modern Britain can come out of a production of Hamlet and say they enjoyed it - that they didn't find parts of it boring, if not the whole of it. For the most part they will be students studying the text, or older people who have studied it. The freshness has staled.

I suspect we go to the theatre (serious theatre that is) far too often with the idea of cutting another notch in our cultural record - it is good, so we are good.

It is a pity there aren't a lot more Mel Gibson fans out there.