Saturday, February 18, 2006

An interesting thought came to mind on the way to work this morning:

What about a production of the Merchant of Venice, set in Jerusalem, with Shylock as a Muslim and the Christians as Jews? This I hope would play to a mixed audience, and preferably tour and play in several 'hot spots'.

Certainly that would give a perspective on the play which could be closer to the original than many more recent productuions which attempt to excuse rather than understand the play.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Public Performances

So much of the debate about Shakespeare (who he was, what he thought, what he meant) would disappear in a cloud of smelly smoke if people would only remember he was writing plays for Public Performance in Elizabethan/Jacobean England.

The words would have been said in front of a live audience – so what do we think the audience was like?

Well, it was mixed: socially, gender, and almost certainly, religiously: Shakespeare knew he had some Catholics in the audience – he quite possibly had Jews too. Race? Recent research suggests there was a black community in London – some of whom were free servants – the sort of people quite likely to be seen amongst the groundlings. But their being in the audience is pushing what we know a little. Foreigners – we know they were there –a number of pieces of evidence for the theatre’s very existence is from documents provided by foreigners.

His plays were performed at court – in front of the Queen/King – the Protestant King/Queen of England – and an audience of courtiers, ambassadors and servants – who undoubtedly were mixed to varying degrees (for goodness sake, politics is a lot more pragmatic than we like to believe).

In the audience, both at court and in public, would have been the ’thought police’ of the time – Walsingham’s spies in Elizabeth’s reign – looking for evidence of subversion and attempts to undermine the state.

There would have been ’serious’ Protestants – very sensitive (and knowledgeable) to the inclusion of Catholic doctrine. Some of these would have been converts from Catholicism – so knew Catholic doctrine inside out.

It was an audience that was used to listening to serious issues debated – to the rhetoric of the Protestant pulpit, to the debates, for those who went to school, over the meanings of words and actions, of the application of thoughts from the Latin and Greek masters: Above all else, to plays which presented issues and ideas for thought and contemplation – and arguement – and which expected an actively thinking audience.

This is in stark contrast to what we find today in the usual audiences in cinemas and theatres, or in front of the television.

So, how the (beep, beep, beep) could Shakespeare have hoped to ’hide’ in the plays anything like secret Catholic – or any other - sentiments?

The unsaintly Greer (bbke): The propoganda possibilities of the theatre were enormous, as both secular and religious authorities were aware. (pg. 26, SHAKESPEARE A Very Short Introduction).

There had been a long line of anti-catholic propoganda plays – which, of course, contain Catholic doctrine and elements: This does not make them secret supports of the Catholic church – they are included to ’put down’ the very things they show.

By Shakespeare’s time, the more blatent use of the theatre for propoganda purposes had shifted – partly because the plays had done their job, partly because the threat of a Spanish/Catholic invasion had faded.

Now, let us think about the ghost in Hamlet.

I have seen, several times, the arguement that this proves Shakespeare and his audience believed in purgatory: Therefore he was a Catholic.

No, Shakespeare expects most of his audience to think – this is a ghost – it says it has come from purgatory – there is no purgatory – therefore it is not telling the truth about itself.

Ah, I hear, but it does tell the truth, Hamlet’s father was killed by his uncle – the witches in Macbeth also tell the truth – for evil purposes. The truth is told by the ghost to lead Hamlet into damnation.

Modern audiences are doubtful about the ghost and it’s meaning: Greer (bbke) again: We no longer feel, as Shakespeare’s contemporaries did, the ubiquity of Satan, . . . (pg 56).

I am not a Christian and so have no personal ’axe to grind’ in this – but I do think an awful lot of hot air and wasted ink is generated, (and twisted meanings) by people trying to claim Shakespeare as supporters of their frequently limited views.

Monday, February 06, 2006

On being in the audience.

Bardseye did it again - dropped an aside which set my mind going - woke up at 2am this time with 'thoughts'.

In the far distant past, when I pretended to be a teacher, I used to try to get the idea of Shakespeare's audience across by comparing it to the average football crowd in the UK.
Just like the football crowd, most people stood. They could get unruly (or bloody riotus in fact) and were quite likely to throw things on the pitch, sorry, stage if they didn't like what they saw. Beer bottles and fruit.

All of this is sort of true - and certainly has become an orthodoxy amongst secondary school teachers.

Then, the New Globe opened.

I was very lucky to be amongst the first paying, public audience to stand and watch a performance in the almost completed theatre.

Yes, we stood - but it wasn't like watchig a football match. In the football game you are just watching - and at a distance too. The communication is physical gesture (like watching Ballet at the Bolshoi more than theatre). Your mind and emotions are engaged - but I am certain it is a different part of the brain from that used when listening to and watching a play.

The football is distinctly tribal - pack communication. In the theatre there is more a sense of variety - still of community but not the monolithic focus on one objective.

You don't sense the passing of time in the theatre, whereas, in football, time is essential - two halves, and 45min to 'kill' the enemy.

In the theatre you react with the actors - and in the Globe this is a very strong reaction - I stood at the front of the stage and caught the eyes of the actors many times - there is no darkness, it is played in daylight. The actors play to the audience, 'timing' is audience dependent. In football, the team can be lifted by cheers and supported by chants - but this is a very marked distance from what is happening in the globe.

Having been in that audience I fee lI know the importance of it to Shakespeare.

It is an equal partner in creating the meaning of the play. Shakespeare wrote to his audience - not in the way some modern soap opera writer would indulge them - but being very aware of what they knew, what they thought, of their diversity, rather than their uniformity.

Were there Jews in the audience for, The Merchant? Quite possibly. And black people amongst the groundlings for Othello? Modern historical research has located a number of black residents of Elizabethan London - so again, possible.

When a character 'addresses' the audience - what reaction is the actor expecting? The football crowd would not respond the same way, despite what I used to say, as the Globe audience.

This is not an issue of class, or even education - it is expectations and, I suggest, a different part of the brain in operation and focus.

I think differently when I look at a picture in an art gallery from looking at a stage set:

Have a look at this

A piece of dance constructs its meaning differently - I don't think of the dancer as a character, I focus on the movement/gesture. I am always aware of the falseness in the job of the actor - yes disbelief is sort of suspended - or rather, immitation is accepted.

Hamlet constantly breaks down the falseness - he reminds you of the theatre, he tells you he is only an actor. He talks to ME when I am in the audience.

Which links back to bardseye's blog:

Errrr tea time, and a strong one coming up.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

bardseyeview: Shakespeare and Judaism

bardseyeview: Shakespeare and Judaism

Another view on Shylock well worth taking into consideration.

Shakespeare Incites

(On watching the Al Pacino, Shylock)
I don't know the script as well as I should, so, when I bought the new(ish) film, and saved it to watch on my birthday, I was quite excited.
Well, the morning after I am not exactly disappointed, but there is a strange sense of something missing - unsatisfied, as after one of those Chineese Takeways.
Let's start with the Acting. Pacino gave a very worthy performance - obviously he had gone 'into' the character, and he was quite believable. Strong method acting in fact: Old Mr Irons, in contrast, seemed to have a certain distance from the character - and was, to mind mind, much more effective.
Why the paradox?
Shakespeare didn't write films, didn't know about 'the method' and isn't writing real human beings (this last point is important). Modern films are frequently focused on very 'truthful' (i.e. psychological truth) performances which dig deep into character and motivation.
Shylock isn't meant to be a real human being - he is meant to be a 'type' - he is deliberately over the top in places, and only sketched in in others. Very much like a portrait by Rembrandt.
Does this mean the play can't be filmed? Certainly not. The film was not bad and there have been some very good films of Shakespeare (usually when the director accepts the total change of media and produces a film instead of trying to do the play).
And it is worth remembering, Shakepeare frequently shifted his plots from one media, the printed word, into another, the theatre.
It is also possible to make film records of stage performances (which are worth watching, even when simply filmed). But these I don't classify as 'film'.
When you film there is a strong shift in point of view. Things which are easy to ignore, or are superficial, or just plain unimportant on stage, attain a significance on film.
Does it matter the play is set in Venice? Not really: Shakespeare is writing about his own society: London, Urban, International, English, 16th century.
On film, Venice becomes one of the characters. And the writer/director needed to give a sense of place visually: For Shakespeare's audience, it was very much a conceptual image.
There is a lot of business in the film - getting in and out of boats, breasts, crowds, spitting, camera movements. On the stage, with a very limited number of cast, next to no scenery and boys (young men) playing females, there is a tremendous sense of unreality and simplicity.
Which brings me to Shylock and his Jewishness.
Shylock isn't a jew. Shylock is a creation from the pen of an author who created a character to represent something - what?
From the film I got a sense of two very important things - Shylock is meant to represent something in every human being (the famous and frequently not grasped with both hands, Do I not bleed? speech). This is important and goes some way to explain why the character is important and why the play should still be performed, despite the undoubted anti-semitic elements in it.
The second element for me is that Shylock is a puritan! He is a religious zealot who is taking the Old Testiment view, an eye for an eye: Modern day evangelists and the Bible as literal truth; The extreme Islamists; Political extremists. I am certain Shakespeare's audience would have recognised this straight away. Perhaps he would even have been costumed in a way that suggested the puritan Malvolio (and could the same actor have played him?).
And what was the essential difference between a Jew and a Christian to Shakespeare and his contemporaries?
Here I think it can be reduced to the Old and the New Testaments. The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. Strict Law vs Love.
This is a fight not only between Christians and Jews, but within the Christian community and the Christian him/herself.
I am certain the play could be given an interpretation where Shylock as everyman would work - and certainly the use of an actor like Al Pacino brought home something of this.
Emmm.... Time for a cup of tea I think.