Thursday, July 31, 2008

Funny Shakespeare ?

Geek is asking hard questions again – basically, “What is funny about the Shakespeare Comedies?”

Well, having just ‘done’ his first two plays – both of which (if Wells is right) were comedies, I suppose I ought to have something to say about it.

The first thing I notice when thinking about both Two Gentlemen and The Shrew is that they are marriage linked – and so too are all of the ‘comedies’ (hesitant, just a little, about that statement).

The comedies seem to be about union, about coming together and communal success – they ‘celebrate’ successful unions which are expected to be fruitful and, if not uneventful, at least lasting.

This pairing is more than an individual event – it is public and accepted as important for the common-weal – for the good of the community.

This in itself is not belly laugh material – but it is celebratory – it is inductive of happiness.

[This fits in with what is thought to have been the origin of the word comedy – which translates to something like song of the village – as opposed to tragedy which is goat song (don’t ask).]

The happy ending is rarely presented in Shakespeare as an ending though – After Two Gentlemen we feel a rough ride coming up … but don’t doubt an eventual satisfaction; The Shrew ends with a more conclusive union for the primary protagonists – but only a fool would imagine that these two madcaps have burnt out – that is going to be a hot marriage (and goodness knows what fun the children will bring!).

You do sometimes read that the comedy title given by the Elizabethans really just meant happy ending – which is basically a way of saying it isn’t a tragedy or a history.

There might be a reason for this – earlier than Shakespeare and into his career as a writer, the professional theatre was new, and only just defining itself. The idea of genre itself was not a comfortable thing for the actors – a play was something to be adapted to fit the audience – if it was one type of scholastic audience, pump up the poetic; lower-life pub crowds would need less poetry and more prat-fall.

With Two Gentlemen we have more of the former, The Shrew, more of the later … but both plays are sometimes regarded as ‘incomplete’ – the first has been called a touring script; the second has the irritating A Shrew rumbling away in the background – could that be the pub version?

Interesting at this point is the Hamlet instruction to actors – there are two points relevant here:

1. Hamlet and the actors both expect to be able to mess around with the story – to adapt it to suit a particular audience and to fit in contemporary material and thus make the play more relevant;

2. Hamlet specifies a type of acting – he wants this ‘aristocratic’ type of acting for this play with this audience – and he specifies, cut the comedy.

Too often this speech is assumed to be Shakespeare’s thoughts on how to act – it isn’t – it, like everything else in the plays, is from the mouth of a character and indicative of that character: But it is very revealing about the adaptability of all types of plays and also the way comedy and tragedy were more techniques than genres.

(Thanks also to The Bard Blog for reminding me to have a rant about the Hamlet instructions.)

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

One Step back - and then Two Steps forward:

The Arkangel on Earth!

I’m fairly new and na├»ve in the world of mp3 and the like – I think I’ve said it before, I actually pay for my downloads: Rewards however, are earthly – The Arkangel Complete Works of Shakespeare is buyable for download, one play at a time, and I’ve been able to indulge.

On Sunday I ‘Shrewed’’ – and a fine performance it was too.

We use the word audience too lightly. Shakespeare’s, and his contemporaries’, plays were appreciated primarily through the ear. With a different play every day there was no time or need for elaborate staging and people went to hear a play anyway.

I suppose performances were more like staged readings than anything else; the sort of thing that gets done nowadays on the radio in front of a live audience.

One of the ‘insights’ gained from the touring Globe’s fast Romeo and Juliet (which visited Timisoara earlier this month) was the difference in what you pick up through the ear when things are taken at speed – and I’ll add to that now, what you pick up through the ear when it is unsupported by the visual.

Recently I’ve read a couple of editions of The Taming of the Shrew (The Oxford School edition and The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, Second Edition, edition) and I’ve seen two performances on DVD – the BBC Shakespeare and the Zeffirelli; additionally I watched the Shakespeare, The Animated Tales version.

I gained something from all of these experiences (not the least being how essential it is to see the comedies – how the characters don’t read well, how the humour is essentially human and social).

Listening to the Arkangel ‘straight’ audio version gave an extra dimension (which is odd if you think about it – take away the images and gain something). I’ll have to use the word ‘connectivity’ – a nasty word; a technician’s stringy, sticky-old-cobweb of a word; a soulless word.

Nevertheless, use it I must, for it is the only one I can think of that describes the nexus created by the physical experience of certain sound repartitions.
Listening gave you connectivity – an awareness of links across the scenes and across the plays. I must have heard and seen and read, but never noticed the word ‘pink’ in ‘The Shrew’ several times – it took the audio version to make it register – and connect it to Romeo and Juliet – and shoes: It brought with it a degree of contempt for fashion and a memory of big loud Mercutio: Which is the wrong way round – it is Petruccio who is in Mercutio.

Sly, talking of dreams, echoed all the way to Bottom’s dream – for surely Sly is a proto-Bottom. And Petruccio also sent an echo to The Dream bouncing off the walls – his ‘poorest service is repaid with thanks’ is surely Theseus on taking kindly what is kindly meant. Biondello (why does that sound like bordello?) went back to Speed – now sidelined as we are dealing with a mature marriage as opposed to playful courtship.

Part of the reason is, unsurprisingly, the Arkangel version used the full text – both the BBC and the Film cut. The criminality of wrongful cutting shone out.
But it is something else too – an Elizabethan audience was more aural – when they went to church and listened to the sermon or the Homily for the day sound patterns were set down – Shakespeare and his kin exploit these patterns. I’ve argued before about the word wealth and the strange use of it made by Petruccio – what I’d not noticed ‘til I listened was his,

tis the mind that makes the body rich

– and

honour peereth in the meanest habit.

These are keys that open the vaults to a deeper concept of the play and tie it to a much wider and wealthier world of human bond-ship and bondage. It is the wealth of the homilies and Protestantism of his time. Looking at these words on the page doesn’t make them penetrate the way hearing them spoken does – even now, as I look back at this paragraph.

Another aural shift came with Katherina – she is as violent as Petruccio (if not more so) – and by taking away the stage business, you become aware of this. What is tied up in laughter and slapstick unravels to reveal not an innocent victim of male aggression, but a female aggressor equal to any man. She is remarkably nasty – and ‘deserves all she gets’ at the hands of Petruccio. Her treatment of her sister is far worse than anything Petruccio does to her. And she assaults at least two men in the play.

I’ve downloaded the next play – The First Part of the Contention (2 Henry VI) and will be listening to it soon. I’ll watch the BBC version first, and possibly read it.

But before that I’ll be going back a step – to The Two Gentlemen of Verona. I’m going to listen to that tonight – but I don’t intend blogging on it – it’s mine, and I’m gong to just enjoy the performance.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Oxford School Shakespeare (3)


The Text

With most of Shakespeare’s plays the basic text is not a problem – you can fiddle around with words and punctuation but in reality it makes very little difference, especially in performance.

With ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, there are difficulties – serious difficulties that affect the performance of the piece: The choices made can also seriously alter the meaning.

Key choice is about the ‘Induction’ and Sly additions: In the Folio, produced after Shakespeare’s death, Sly disappears never to return – in A Shrew (which is thought to be an ‘illegal’ copy done around the time of The Shrew’s first production) there are more Sly scenes – providing a constant reminder that this is a play you are watching, and forcing serious questioning of the reality of what you are watching.

The Oxford School Shakespeare edition has chosen to use (perversely, if you know the rivalry between the two universities) the New Cambridge Shakespeare: A safe choice.

The text basically follows the folio – with the extra Sly scenes printed in Appendix A. For the school classroom this is a sensible decision – at this stage in a student’s study of Shakespeare it is more important for him/her to get the accepted canonical view – whilst suggesting the idea of contention and endless academic bickering – than to engage fully in the ‘debate’ her/him-self.

Each page is split into two columns – on the right the play text split into the conventional Act and Scenes and with the lines numbered every 5 lines. Character names are given in full and bold at the head of the dialogue making it very easy to follow who is speaking. Stage directions are in italic. Half lines are indented when appropriate.

The overall effect is to produce a very easy-to-read text – an essential for classroom use. It is quick and simple to find specified points in the play and the layout and print size makes it a good text for reading out loud or acting with.

The left hand column is jam-packed full of ‘glosses’, pictures and helpful snippets. Printed slightly smaller, these are not obtrusive and don’t get in the way of the main text.

Each scene starts with a brief, but helpful summary of what is to follow – and sometimes an indication of what to look for: The second scene of the Induction, for example, we are informed, ‘Two lifestyles are contrasted …’.

Most of the notes are printed next to the lines they refer to – all are numbered. Some of the notes are accompanied by generally helpful line drawings. In Act 2, Scene 1, when Petruchio and Katherina are engaged in their quick fire ‘word-play’ fight, three sketches help explain the text – one of a coat of arms, one of a fools ‘coxcomb’ hat and a third of two cocks fighting (to go with line 224, ‘craven’ – the defeated cock in a cock fight). As this is potentially the first time students could have encountered not only the words but the implied images, these pictures are very useful. The third sketch of the birds fighting also acts as an indicator of what is happening on stage – Katherina and Petruchio are ‘cock fighting’.

The notes are not purely explanatory – they have the delightful habit of being opinionated – at line 205 of the same scene, we are informed that Petruchio makes a feeble pun; and at 204 Katherina is insisting she is honest. The sex is not ignored either (which is a good thing) – in line 200, when Katherina uses the word ‘jade’ we are informed it implies Petruchio lacks sexual stamina !

The notes demonstrate clearly an awareness of the needs of a modern reader in several places. My favourite is in Act 3 scene 2, when Biondello is delivering his all too easy to ignore speech about what Petruchio looks like on the way to his wedding and is going through a list of diseases of horses – we are asked to remember they would be as familiar to the Elizabethan audience as a list of mechanical failings of an old car would be to the ‘modern’ – and the tediousness of many a pub visit leaps into view!

Scattered throughout the text are additional, larger drawings and photographs of the play in stage performance. Not only do these illustrate particular points in the play they also help keep the theatrical context – another essential requirement not only for this play but for all Shakespeare in general, particularly when being given to teenage readers.

There is nothing so instinctively conservative as a teenager.

Asked to ‘image’ a part of the text they will go straight for ‘old’ costumes of the perceived time Shakespeare set the play and with naturalistic backgrounds.

Using the RSC 1995 production photographs, with ‘Italian’ scooters, commedia beards, and clearly mixed-date costumes set in a strongly theatrical space, the students can be introduced to a freer perception and induced to break open their fertile reserves of imagination.

I think it is the adaptability of the material presented in this edition which is its biggest selling point – I could easily use this in the classroom – and it would make my work a lot easier. There is plenty for me to work on, and I could be very flexible with my approach – the notes give all the explanations needed but can be ignored if not needed or wanted – there are images to support and stretch, there’s an introduction to ignore or use and stimulate.

Students could pick this up on their own and have a good chance of not only following the events but starting to interrogate and respond.

Stuck on the end, in addition to the Appendix A extra Sly scenes, there is an Appendix B with an extract from ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ – explaining in a delightfully modern way just what ‘manning a hawk’ means (and with a teenage protagonist to boot); there is a very boring ‘what to do with the play’ if you really want to answer examination questions section; and a final extra background section – which is useful. To end this strange eventful comedy, is my second major niggle – a summary of Shakespeare’s life and work I don’t subscribe to – I’d go through it and then ‘rubbish it’ in class, so it isn’t going to stop me from using the book in the classroom.

The final point I think I need to make is that, although I have judged the text by its intentions – I hope I’ve also shown this is good general text too. If you are not an English School Child, don’t be put off by the ‘School Shakespeare’ title – if you want a clear, easy to read and follow edition – this should certainly be considered.

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Oxford School Shakespeare (2)

Introduction to:


The Introduction starts with a couple of paragraphs, ‘About the Play’.

The first point made, and it is one well worth making, is that this is one of Shakespeare’s most successful and popular plays – in performance. What is dull and complicated on the page becomes lively and clear on the stage.

The second point tries to nail that complicated plot down – it describes the play as … ‘an-action-within-a-plot-within-a-deception’. This phrase is to form the backbone of what follows and, although I have doubts about some of the consequences of the phrase, it is quite a clever way of describing the play and I think it would work well with the teenage readership. I especially like the hyphens.
By restricting this section to two points Ms Gill (the editor) gives the readership every chance of forming a strong foundation of understanding, not only of this play, but of any other Shakespeare texts they will encounter: This is a play, it should be judged in the theatre and its reputation is based on theatre performance. In addition, this play has a theatrical dynamic – a play within a play which constitutes a part of the meaning and is not just a device … the words deception, plot and action resonate.
A final point I’d make here is the publishers have given a whole page to the text – which is remarkably sensitive to the needs of the students. You don’t ‘rush on’, you do stop and think – and there is time to absorb. There are no distractions so the teacher
can focus and give full attention to these fundamental points safe in the knowledge that many of the class will be with him/her.

Next we are given the ‘Leading Characters in the Play’. These are split according to the three-part-phrase introduced on the previous page.

Again, the layout is significant – it reinforces the earlier idea of three levels, but also groups characters in a way which helps point to their interactions.
Part 1 and Part 3 both have two ‘principle’ characters – and you end up asking the question, are they in some way linked – why two? The first is a deception, the last an action – is there action in the first and deception in the last?
Part 2 and Part 3 have some characters in common – why? This list of characters is not a straight ‘shopping list’ – it is designed to introduce the main roles, the play components and the ‘chemistry’ between them. So Katherina is listed twice – first, in ‘The Plot’, with an emphasis on her temper; then, in ‘The Action’, with the addition of intelligence and independence. Again, you ask the question – why the addition, is it character development or something else – do we have a reflection of the insight Petruccio has in this addition?

As a teacher I could make a lot of use of this page – it allows me not only to point to a couple of upcoming themes but also gives me the opportunity to explore in embryo wider issues and ideas with the students – raising questions which can only be answered by reading the text and watching the play.

We move on to a ‘Synopsis’- this is organised by scene and is relatively straight forward.

But here we come to my first niggle – someone (if I am lucky) is going to ask me what the word synopsis means, and I am going to say, “It’s a fancy way to say ‘the plot’ – the events of the play, what happens, the story.”

“Do you mean it’s the story of the second part – ‘The Plot’?”

“No, Roma Gill, the editor is using the word ‘plot’ there to mean a plan, - they are plotting like criminals or terrorists to do something; here the word means the storyline.”

You, I am sure, get my point – by calling the second part, The Plot, confusion is going to be created … I’d, at this point, go back and get the kids to cross out the word ‘plot’ in the previous pages and replace it with some agreed term, like plan or trick …

The rest of the Synopsis is about as easy to read as any – although I think the vocabulary is a little rich in places and some of the sentences could have been simplified. However, I am not likely to use it in class – not until reading through the play text where each scene has a mini synopsis in the notes at the side anyway.

After the Synopsis comes, The Taming of the Shrew: commentary.

Firmly 1-2-3.d with the foundation phrase, each part is given a good scrubbing making it clean and shiny and easy to follow. We are given helpful (and essential) information – and pointed to obvious things which are far from obvious to the Shakespeare initiate.

For example, Part 1 is clearly stated to be in Shakespeare’s Warwickshire, and the comment is made that there could be reference to real people in the text (Marian Hacket): Great points for question raising in the classroom – why make this part so realistic?
Basic information about social stratification, its reflection in the language use of the play, theatre practise (such as touring productions and boy acting) and even an indication of a sexual innuendo all make great hooks for the student to attach their own thoughts and ideas to and compare what they see with what they read.

Part 2 points to the origins of the plot (and the Plot plan/trick) - the sort of thing that takes Shakespeare away from the ivory-tower isolation of the Bardolators; gives more indication of the need to ‘listen’ to how people are speaking, not just what they are saying; emphasises these are now actors acting being actors; and indicates the interpretation of Baptista’s given in Elizabethan England would possibly be significantly different from ‘modern’ western interpretations.

Twice as much space is given to Part 3 (as expected) and it combines much of the same sort of information as the previous two – social, historical and theatrical context – but going deeper. It also gives a clear line on the development of the wooing – highlighting the 3 kisses and the way they signal different things.

I disagree with the ‘weak ending’ Ms Gill claims, but then, the text I’d use is more complete than the one she has opted for.

Overall, this commentary does its job, and does it well – the attentive student will get a lot from it and will have started to develop a way of looking at the texts of the plays which recognises the theatrical nature of the material and the need to give thought to questions raised rather than look for answers.

The final two parts of the introduction are on Shakespeare’s Verse and Source, Date and Text.

Both can be considered necessary, but dull. I’ve yet to find the writing on Shakespeare’s verse that gives anywhere near the understanding listening to the lines said will – this is no different. What is given is a great chunk of text which is readable ‘out loud’ and will then quickly give all you do need to understand about blank verse.

Source date and Text does make a neat summary – and raises, ever so slightly, the issue of The Shrew vs A Shrew.

Both these sections I am likely to refer back to later on, during an exploration of the text itself … which is what I now need to move on to …

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Oxford School Shakespeare




Let’s nail the first point well and truly down – this is an edition of the play that is intended to be used in the classroom situation in an educational institution in the UK: It would be totally unfair to treat it as anything else.

That is not to say it is not usable (or indeed preferable) in other situations, but with the title ‘School Shakespeare’, the colours are firmly attached to the flagpole. Maybe I should clarify the use of the word ‘school’ for our transatlantic language speakers – a school is a place children go to learn – it is not a higher education institution – school children attend schools.

When you pick it up – and that is the first experience many people will have of the full text of any Shakespeare (this is, after all, mistakenly considered one of the easier and safer plays to do with young people) … as I was saying … when you pick it up, it feels good: Not too heavy; clear flexible binding (which state school in England could afford the hardback?); good colourful picture with suitably dramatic facial expressions; clean white paper – which falls open to give a tantalizing glimpse of lots of space and not too intimidating amounts of print. You also notice the pictures – black and white.

The blurb on the back is unhelpful in the classroom – just advertising promoting the series – although it does claim to deliver the full text and student notes. A missed educational opportunity based on a commercial decision?

On the title page we get two Oxfords, one Oxon, a Cantab., and an OBE – an M.A. and a B.Litt.: We also get the name of the woman many of these letters attach to: – oh, and a Title.

None of this will interest the schoolchildren – none of it really interests the teachers – the editors are giving as much ‘clout’ as they dare to support a supposed need for academic excellence attached to The National Poet’s works.

Most students at this point will be flicking through the book looking at the pictures and picking out bits of text and the notes.

Oxford have done a good job at this point – there are quite a few illustrations – some photographs taken from RSC productions – principally 1995; others line drawings illustrating and supporting particular points in the text or the notes.

You notice pictures of cards, cannons and puppets; men in silly trousers on a scooter, a woman in an off the shoulder dress, and one in a wedding dress – two women fighting and several young men … all will stimulate the interest in the majority of classrooms … and raise the first hooks for understanding the play. They also help reduce the ‘intimidation’ factor – this is not going to be as difficult as people say.

Most teachers will have introduced the play their own way – and would initially ignore the Introduction – “Turn to the characters on page xix,” is a very likely start to the lesson. However, I will go through the book in book order – just to make things easier ...

(To be continued)

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Animated Shrew

I like ‘Shakespeare: The Animated Tales’ as a concept and, of the ones I’ve seen so far, (most of the time) in execution: The texts, superbly sliced by Leon Garfield, abridgements rather than rewrites; the animations various in style, all of the highest quality, filmed in the studios of Russia; the voices of actors from the ‘British tradition’ many of whom have performed Shakespeare on stage with organizations like the RSC and The National Theatre.

The idea is to provide short introductions to the plays which are accessible to a young audience but which don’t make sacrifices to the gods of patronization or oversimplification and which not only inform but entertain.

The Taming of the Shrew is not an exception – it is an intelligent romp through the basic story with some witty stop-gap animations and a perception of the original play worth thinking about.

Unlike many ‘full text’ productions, which cut the framing device, the film starts with the drunken Sly bouncing out of the ale house, and being picked up by the ‘lord’ and his retinue: Sly literally replaces the wild boar on the huntsmen’s pole. Although the words are cut, this makes clearer than the spoken words the line:

‘O monstrous beast, how like a swine he lies’

and illustrates nicely the subtlety this animated version attains – it is an image which fixes the metaphor, fixes it fast, and amuses.

The Sly scenes are kept, I think, to highlight the ‘play-within’ device – throughout the film there are curtains and stages, applause and a character crossing through the invisible wall. Leon Garfield (with the advice of Stanley Wells – who is credited?) has been true to his source and seems to be maintaining the necessity of remembering this is not real – this is only a tale – which, when added to the alienating effect of the characters being animated, really drives home the question of how ‘real’ the plot is meant to be taken.

Does the ‘Taming’ present a piece of advice (which Sly mistakenly takes it for at the end and ends up bouncing again) or is it an exploration of extremes?

Is this a cathartic experience – like Tom and Jerry?

These are not questions for the children who form the principle intended audience of the tale – but they do illustrate the way that the animations have been ‘intelligently’ constructed – they are planting seeds for later revisitings, providing strong images to connect to when you see the play live on stage.

And, because the audience is meant to be young, there is a strong narrative line given to the story which is, after all, a ‘Tale’. This has meant a degree of reorganisation – the Bianca story is separated out and tagged on to the end; after the initial Sly story, we move straight to Kate and Petruccio – and stay focused on the interchange between them.

This works remarkably well. I can imagine young people being able to follow the twists and turns of Shakespeare’s plotting much more easily after seeing this – more so than after reading the text: Inventive teaching would have to work pretty hard to do as good a job.

Katherine and Petruccio also illustrate nicely the clarity animated figures can bring to a production – both characters here are handsome – and young; both are lively and spirited – there is one point where the dialogue is supported by a ‘dance’ competition; both ‘express’ through pose - which would strike one as odd in the theatre. Facial expression is there – and unambiguous.

To go with the excellent animation the voices are clear, the dialogue paired down to essentials, and meaning consequently not difficult to follow. As indicated above, there are directorial insertions which support the words when necessary, sometimes obviously, sometimes less so: I could not tell you why, but I was very aware the morning after watching that there were three kisses.

The Director (Aida Ziablikova) and Designer (Olga Titova) are Russian – and demonstrate what I’ve known for some time, not only the English have the ability to turn out fantastic Shakespeare.

‘High Production Values’ is a term you sometimes here connected with expensive ‘artistic’ films, and less artistic blockbusters – well, it is also a term you can apply to smaller scale (if half-an-hour of animation is smaller scale) work – and I don’t think you’ll find higher production values than in this series of Animated Tales!

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Link link link ...

Funny old world -

The Shakespeare Post (Have I mentioned how GOOD that site is?) have an article on 'King Charles the Headless' - and his postheadless reputation as portrayed at the National Portrait Gallery.

One pops along to the site and discover lots of lovely new things - several linking to Shakey and his times ... Not least a John Donne who I'd sware was doing a pre-Hamlet pose ...

There was a recent 'In Our Time' talk on Donne and friends (well, linked by later generations).

It was supposed to be about sex and death ... good material for anyone interested in Shakespeare.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Stolen Fire

Thanks to the Geek for the connection.

A lesson in not responding soon enough to blog ideas - a politician will come along and steal your fire! Johnson - odd looking Mayor of London - has connected a connection which is obvious to make. The Gruniad reports on his appearance before a House of Commons committee on Knife crime and he makes the Romeo and Juliet connection.

Unlike Mr Johnson, who had to explain his link (so much for the education of Members of Parliament - I'd love to know the political colour of the questioner) I'm sure readers of this blog will realise the 'gang' connection in the Capulet and Montague households, and get the poignancy of young life cut short.

Interestingly Mr Johnson then made the point my thoughts had been silently pointing to - the text is worth studying as illustrative of what is happening in places like London where there seems to be an increase in the knife carrying and fighting (although whether there is an actual increase or the media has just decided to bring it to the attention of the public is debatable).

Young people do 'gang' - young people do fight - carrying a weapon when you fight is going to cause more damage and death. Most fights are more about honour and macho-ness than any other lip-serviced reason, and there is great glamour in 'the kill'.

There is terrible social element to this too - the adults in Romeo and Juliet do nothing serious about the issue until the death of loved ones hits home - paralleled in some ways to the present media frenzy inspired by the death, not of any young person, but by the 'tragic' death (as if the others were not a tragedy) of 'respectable' youth.

There is a danger here of ghettoising the stabbers and innocent victimising the stabbed: If only it were that simple.
And, to his credit, I think this is partly what Mr Johnson was getting at -

It is worth studying the text because it does teach you something about the bogus atmosphere of glamour that can surround these gangs and the sort of romantic, sentimental feelings that can start to occur with knife crime and gang culture generally.
(As quoted in the Gruniad)

Emotional reaction is totally understandable (even Lady Capulet's) but not helpful (especially Lady Capulet's).

Where I do differ from Mr Johnson is his claim that Mercutio is actually a glamorous character ... but that will have to wait 'til I get on to Romeo and Juliet proper.

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Global Satisfaction

I am not easily pleased in the theatre – especially with regard to Shakespeare and productions thereof. We’ve suffered (the text and I) more bad than good over the years, and few productions have left me either totally convinced or newly informed.

You will understand my hesitancy then about entering the open-to-the-elements courtyard of a local school to see a production of one of the more popular Shakespeare texts – on a night when the weather threatened and with an audience very few of whom were native speakers of English.

That night I went home more than satisfied: For the first time I’d seen a stimulating ‘Romeo and Juliet’ which I would unreservedly recommend to both novice and expert. I was both entertained (continuously) and learnt new things about the text, about Shakespeare production and the resourcefulness limited resources can impose.

The Globe Theatre, London sent out its touring team on a short European tour and landed up here in Timisoara, Romania – in the middle of what is turning out to be a hot summer: They brought the storm clouds with them (but thankfully not the rain).

As befits a company who aim to deliver Shakespeare productions for modern audiences informed by Elizabethan staging and practices, this touring company is reduced in numbers (a cast of 7: 3 females, 4 males) reduced in set (one battered van and two metal pillars) and great in energy.

Lines are taken at a ‘fiery footed’ pace – there is a serious attempt to make this a ‘two hours traffic’ of a performance, which has some pretty interesting consequences for both actors and audience. Principle amongst them is the reduction in what I can only call ‘emotiveness’ – no time in this production for dwelling on the luxury of romantic moments or the beautiful rolling of sounds.

Paradoxically, this doesn’t reduce the power of the words or the strength of feeling of the characters, or the demands placed on the actors: I’ve never before experienced the heady mixture of an awareness of character emotion, the separation of that emotion from the intelligence of the writing and an admiration for the verbal dexterity brought to the lines by the performer all at the same time. What was a shock was a realisation of this early on in the performance, Romeo’s first dialogue with Benvolio, as it happened. Many times I have been able to reflect back on a performance and separate out the fusion of these elements; this is the first time I’ve been made so aware of the elements and how well they have been fitted together, in real time. Multi-tasking!

Throughout the rest of the performance I never lost sight of this ‘keeping faith’ with the text. It is a keeping faith – surely this is the speed Shakespeare intended when writing, and the text benefits from performance at the speed.

A second consequence of the treatment of the lines in this way was the actors speaking for meaning before feeling – and a consequent clarity of text. I actually understood the ‘Friar’ talking about herbs, and believed the actor understood too! In the interval I spoke with a student whose English I’d describe as adequate-business and asked if he was following –

“Easily,” came the reply.

That is as strong a testament as I can give to the production.

By sticking to the ‘Elizabethan’, the company also had to deal with the issue of doubling.

I’ve long suspected Shakespeare’s plays need parts to be doubled to give a dimension of theatricality and an inter-textual frame of references which one person per part causes to evaporate. Here, with only seven actors, there was a need for extreme doubling and the potential for confusion.

Apart from the very end (where one actor shifts from the Friar to old Capulet and then to old Montague), there was no confusion - it was easy to follow which character the actors were playing.

Each role was clearly defined by the cast, who made apparently light work of what could have been a serious difficulty. The result was a series of significant connections usually lost in reading (and in most productions).

Romeo kills twice – both times here it was the same actor he ‘killed’ – the doubling of Paris and Tybalt begs the question of Romeo’s innocence and youth – OK, the first death is possibly excusable, but the second?

The Prince and Mercutio are the same actor – when the Prince talks of loosing family, you get an extra point when you have just seen him die on stage!

Old Montague, Old Capulet and the Friar are all the same actor – setting up a resonance which unites these characters – they are of equal dignity, could they also be equally tired of the dispute, be equally desirous of some means for settling and have been equally receptive to Romeo and Juliet uniting?

Old Capulet battles with Tybalt at the party, the Friar with Romeo later – a perennial theme of age versus youth; different youth, same age.

What was brilliant here was the actors’ and the production’s ability to suggest ‘type’ whilst differentiating individuals. A token cross and coat turned character – but the actor had to shift personality too: No doubt that the be-sandaled, trendy, socially aware, Anglican vicar was different from the ‘used to getting my own way’, businessman Capulet.

There was even room for a doubling joke – the servant Peter was played by all 5 of the cast who doubled parts. Which left Romeo and Juliet un-doubled (if I ignore the opening, ritualised, fight).

Around these two ‘pure’ characters an ensemble performed – Romeo and Juliet became the centre in a remarkable way, much as a piano might in a concerto, surrounded by orchestra.

The amount of work each and every actor had to do also neutralised the tendency to look for stars – this was real ensemble work. No person stood out –either above or below the others. Celebrity was subverted to the text, the production benefited.

The production also benefited from some serious directorial input.

There was a reassessment of several of the characters. Romeo, instead of the usual moony eyed wet, got a bit of guts (helped, I have to say, by the Mancunian accent). The scene with the Nurse and the Friar after Romeo’s banishment was turned on its head - this was an angry despair, this was a testosterone driven lament which overpowered both the Friar and the Nurse. Another first – I didn’t want to slap Romeo at this point, I actually felt he was being driven by forces outside his power to control.

There was also a remarkable attention to detail. In another Romeo scene, the one where he buys the poison, the Apothecary is usually played as something of an aside. Here, the director took the ‘need’ of the character and gave us a bit of stage business which really brought home the desperation of this character but also the import of Romeo’s lines – Romeo takes the drug and withholds the money – sheer desperation drives the Apothecary to scramble and fight and moan, frightened she’d been tricked. When Romeo finally passes over the money, his lines concerning the corruptible power of money had a significance.

The fact that the Apothecary was played by the actor who played Lady Capulet also left another hint of resonance – Lady Capulet seeks unadulterated revenge, slaughter, death, but is impotent to deliver it despite all her wealth and influence; the economically impotent Apothecary, desperate to help and sustain life, is forced to deliver the means for Romeo’s death. Theatrical (rather than dramatic) Irony at its most potent.

And theatrical was a watchword for the production..

Shakespeare uses the theatrical as a metaphor throughout all his stage works – at no point does he want you to forget these are actors playing the part, that this is a stage, not the real world, that these are ideas given flesh and, as human constructs, pale reflections of whatever truth is.

At the most serious moment, a joke can slip in – alienating the emotion. Towards the end, Peter pops up, played by yet another actor. The actors include elements of the real world into the false world of the play. Here in Timisoara, Romeo points at the real school building in whose courtyard the play is being performed, when he talks of love going to school; Capulet points to the church next to the school when he talks of Juliet going to church; Juliet’s talk of the lark in the morning is serendipitously accompanied by the evening chorus of local birds, all singing their hearts out; and, in the background, as the deaths are played out, a real bat flits above the stage catching the moths attracted by the stage lights.

There are many more things I could say of the production – the use of the van, the really great balcony scene, the humour – but I think the most important thing is I feel changed, just a little, by the production. I have been forced to reassess a play I thought I knew and to find in it a dignity which it had lost.

Thank You to the performers, the backstage crew and all who were responsible for giving me the chance to revive – it was a real ‘Shakespeareance’.

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