Sunday, January 30, 2011

Jack Cade and the Butcher

Dick the Butcher. The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.
(Henry VI Part 2, 4.2.2379)

I couldn't get away without referencing this, which is without doubt the most famous line in all the Henry VI plays. There's something very funny about the punchy brevity of the declaration, and we can all to some degree sympathize with the idea - there is a certain gleeful appeal to the idea of taking down this group of educated people whose mysterious and labyrinthine knowledge somehow holds such sway over all of our lives.

^a lawyer^
Kill them all, says the Butcher

Dick the Butcher, as a representative of the discontent of the common people with the power structure in England, channels his frustration and hostility through a revolt led by the rabble-rousing revolutionary populist Jack Cade. Cade, a leader who is in every way the antithesis of the weak ruler Henry VI, is an extraordinary character - Shakespeare paints him as a charismatic and compelling orator who is able to sweep crowds into a frenzy.

In a play cycle dominated by the concerns of the nobility, Jack Cade and his men, as commoners with homely speech and down-to-earth references, come across at first as somewhat comic characters. The editors of the Norton Shakespeare speculate that Cade might have been played by the actor Will Kempe, the "clown" who usually played the funny characters in Shakespeare's earlier plays - this theory is bolstered by the sort of silliness surrounding him that is seen in this exchange:

Dick the Butcher. I have a suit unto your lordship....
Only that the laws of England may come out of your mouth.
Smith the Weaver. [Aside] Nay, John, it will be stinking law for his
breath stinks with eating toasted cheese.
(4.7.2625, 2632).

This positioning of the revolutionaries as buffoons reminds me of some of the stories by the hilarious 20th century comic novelist P.G. Wodehouse, whose tales of incompetent English aristocratsoften include equally inept closet Communists who secretly long for the overthrow of the government - the day when the blood of their employers will run in rivers down London's Park Lane.

Bertie Wooster, P.G. Wodehouse's daffy aristocrat, and manservant Jeeves (as played by Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry in the B.B.C. Jeeves and Wooster series). Bertie vaguely fears a coming Revolution.

Like Wodehouse, however, Shakespeare's sometime light treatment of the revolutionaries is based on very real social anxieties about class conflict and the consequences of bloody uprisings. Thus, when we see Cade  as more than a ridiculous pretender to power, but as a serious contender for the leadership of England, the joke doesn't seem quite so appealing any more. We thought that uppity lawyers interpreting statutes were bad? How about no law at all?

Jack Cade. I have thought upon it, it shall be so. Away, burn
all the records of the realm: my mouth shall be
the parliament of England.

We're outraged over the haughty attitudes of the corrupt nobles towards the concerns of the commoners, ripping up their written petitions (1.2.427-431)  - but under Cade, we find out that there could be no written petions because no one would be permitted to learn to read and write! This is shown by Cade's "trial" of an educated man, the Clerk of Chatham:

Smith the Weaver. The clerk of Chatham: he can write and read ...
Jack Cade. O monstrous!
Jack Cade.  ... Dost thou use to write thy name? or
hast thou a mark to thyself, like an honest
plain-dealing man?
Clerk of Chatham. Sir, I thank God, I have been so well brought up
that I can write my name.
All. He hath confessed: away with him! he's a villain
and a traitor.
Jack Cade. Away with him, I say! hang him with his pen and
ink-horn about his neck.

Again, Cade's antagonism against the educated comes out:

Cade. ...and more than that, he can speak French; and
therefore he is a traitor.

What is astounding to me - and what I believe changes the modern audience's reaction to Jack Cade, making the play more painful and difficult to read - is how exactly the demands and rhetoric of Shakespeare's Jack Cade match the real life goals, policies, and actions of two of the biggest butchers of the 20th century, responsible for literally countless millions of deaths, Stalin and Mao.

(The baddest Bad Guys)

It's uncanny how it's all the same.
Class warfare, pitting the demonized rich against the poor? Check.
Promises of price-fixing, manipulating food production and supply? Check.
Reprisals against and persecution of the educated? Check.
Effective populist demagoguery masking the leader's intentions to seize absolute and brutal power? Check.

I guess people - and politics - just don't change, and that Shakespeare very clearly understood the power and danger of an unscrupulous leader with the power of a mob behind him. In the 20th century, the world got to see what would happen if Jack Cade got his way. Kill the lawyers? Not quite so funny any more.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Getting into Shakespeare: Part 3

Editors and English Professors are our Friends

Hey everyone, welcome back to the Getting Into Shakespeare Series! This week, it’s time for what we’ve all been waiting for - how do I actually READ Shakespeare? You might be thinking: I already know I can understand what’s going on if it’s acted out in front of me by professionals (as discussed in Part 1 and Part 2), but I want to read through Shakespeare in a year! Or, at least, read some Shakespeare, sometime. Maybe.

Well, you're in luck. Here’s the What Shall Shakespeare Say Today patented method for reading Shakespeare.

Step 1: Pick one of the Shakespeare movies I suggested in Part 1 of this series. Watch the movie at least once. This will not only help you understand the story, it will also help get the rhythm and grammatical style of Shakespearean English into your ear, and thence, into your brain. It's even better to watch it more than once, if you've got time (and if you love it, watch it as many times as you want! Let’s not talk about how many times Shakespeare girl and I have seen the movie of Twelfth Night...).

I concede that you can skip Step 1 if you want, and dive right into reading, but I find that method to be more difficult. An alternative to watching movies was suggested to me by my co-worker, Connor, who said to "get" Shakespeare, he downloads audio versions of Shakespeare plays from itunes and listens to them while he reads the plays. Apparently hearing it gives you some help in understanding the language, and allows you more leeway to imagine the scene than you would get from a movie. This might be a good thing to try and see if it works for you.

Step 2: Head to the library or the bookstore, and look for a book edition of the play you just watched (or downloaded from itunes).

Your friendly neighborhood library.

When you see all the Shakespeare editions on the shelves, examine them carefully before you take one home. The objective is to find a full-text version with some good footnotes and helpful explanations. These editions are usually edited by clever English professors who can help us a lot. I’ve had good success with both Yale and Norton versions of Shakespeare - they usually have a lot of word definitions and notes to explain obscure phrases or references. Shakespeare girl also recommends the Arden, Riverside, and Oxford editions.

These are the kinds of books that English professors themselves use when reading Shakespeare, so again, NO SHAME!!! The editors and professors have already put a lot of time into figuring out what the tricky words mean, so you don’t have to. Instead, you can concentrate on your new and dazzling insights.

Step 3: With your helpful edition in hand, and Shakespearean language in your ear, now try reading the play.

Don’t worry if you don’t move as fast as you normally do while reading the complete works of John Grisham or even Charles Dickens. Don’t even worry if you don’t understand everything. You will understand a lot. If you’ve done Step 1, and watched the movie, you will automatically know what’s going on much of the time (trust me, the lines make a lot more sense if you’ve got some context, and you’ve already heard Denzel Washington or Helena Bonham-Carter saying it!).

Of course, the written style of plays is pretty different from novels. But most of the differences are pretty self-apparent, so this is not something to fret over. The main thing to remember is that it's all written in dialogue with stage directions.

Here's an example of some dialogue:
Why then, the mustard without the beef.

Go, get thee gone, thou false deluding slave,

Beats him

That feed'st me with the
very name of meat:
Sorrow on thee and all the pack of you,
That triumph
thus upon my misery!
Go, get thee gone, I say.

Enter PETRUCHIO and HORTENSIO with meat

PETRUCHIO: How fares my Kate? What, sweeting, all amort?
A couple of things to note:

  • The character’s name is just before what he or she says (you can't see it here, but sometimes the character's name is abbreviated).
  • The stage directions are given in a very brief format, so you have to figure out who is doing the action based on the context - it doesn’t say “Katherine beats Grumio," it says “beats him.” The actual original Shakespeare texts contained very few stage directions (one of the only original ones is the famous "Exit pursued by a bear"), so these instructions can vary among editions.
  • Words like “Enter” and “Exit” are put in front of the name of whoever is doing the entering or exiting. They are rarely correctly conjugated. They're just indications of movement.
  • There are some tricky words. If you've followed Step 2, and are reading from a great edition, this should be okay. If you happened to read this page in the Norton edition, for example, the editor would have some definitions right on the page for you: "only the name" for "the very name," "sweetheart" for "sweeting," and "dejected" for "amort."
    As an aside: lately I’ve been struck by the fact that when you read plays, you often have to imagine *how* all of the scenes happen. Comments on the character’s emotions or manner are very brief, if they’re noted at all. If the scene above were written in prose, it would probably go something like this:
    Grumio slyly quipped, “Why then, the mustard without the beef.”
    Katherine fixed him with a cold stare. Her disheveled appearance belied her status as lady of the house, but she would not be thus thwarted forever. “Go, get thee gone, thou false deluding slave,” was all she could spit out at first. Then, having lost her temper - and dignity - completely, she began to beat the hapless servant, shouting at the top of her lungs “That feed'st me with the very name of meat: Sorrow on thee and all the pack of you, that triumph thus upon my misery! Go, get thee gone, I say.”

    At that very moment, Petruchio and Hortensio sauntered in placidly. There sat a large dish of delicious meat in Petruchio's hardened masculine hands, generally more apt to clench the sword than carry dainties. He viewed the scene with a concerned frown. His glance lingered on the lady he hoped would soon love him with her heart as well as hand. “How fares my Kate?” he inquired. “What, sweeting, all amort?”

    Luckily, there is just no room for all of those adjectives in drama - adding emotion and style is often the actor’s rather than the writer’s job. So you get to use your imagination!

    Ready? Have fun, and watch the movie again if necessary!

    Thursday, January 27, 2011

    Henry VI - Learn to Govern Better!

    Henry VI. Was never subject long'd to be a king
    As I do long and wish to be a subject.

    Come, wife, let's in, and learn to govern better;
    For yet may England curse my wretched reign.

    (Henry VI part 2, Act 4.9.2834-5, 2883-4)

    These rather pathetic quotes from Shakespeare's poor King Henry VI would be hilarious if the consequences in this play resulting from the king's incompentence - serious loss of English blood and treasure - were not so devastating. It's ridiculous really - Henry is surrounded by crowds of kinsmen, all of whom want a piece of his power. Some give their loyalty to him, others (York, anyone?) crave the power of the kingship for themselves. And York longs to be king so badly! What an irony that the one man who has the prize doesn't really want it; unlike his politically-minded great-uncle the Bishop of Winchester, Henry VI actually seems genuinely interested in the church and his Christian faith, preferring to spend his time puttering around at home rather than prosecuting wars like his father Henry V. Unfortunately for him, he lives in a world where the expectation for kings is closer to the sentiment expressed by Richard Plantagenent the Younger:

    Sword, hold thy temper; heart, be wrathful still:
    Priests pray for enemies, but princes kill.

    Wednesday, January 26, 2011

    Great Petruchios, Part 2

    Petruchio the Great II

    Pop quiz time! Which legendary Hollywood star said the following?

    "The great roles are always Shakespearean."

    Kenneth Branagh? Leslie Howard? Laurence Olivier? Derek Jacobi? Ian McKellen?

    Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.


    Surprise! At least, I was surprised.

    After such an introduction, it is perhaps not quite as much of a surprise for me to say that it is Charlton Heston who is the second great Petruchio I'd like to talk about (I can't be surprising all the time). His interpretation of Petruchio can only be seen, as far as I know, in the Studio One TV Version of the Taming of the Shrew (1950).

    Now, before I watched this video, I already had an inkling that Heston was a great Shakespearean actor, simply because his speech as the Player King is a great moment, one might say the *only* great moment, in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (if you'd like to see it, click here -but if you do watch it, please pay no heed to the silly flashbacks - as Mark Steyn pointed out, the Player King may be old, but probably not quite old enough to literally *remember* the fall of Troy. This sort of thing is not what Shakespeare meant when he called it "senseless Ilium").

    The Studio One made-for-TV version of The Taming of the Shrew is considerably less well-known -and almost incalculably less expensive -than Branagh's Hamlet, but Heston again exceeded my expectations. He brings a wonderful, charismatic performance, along with a lot of youthful energy (he was about 27 at the time it was filmed). Like John Cleese, he somehow makes you believe that he really is thinking of each line in the moment - it all does seem to be "extempore, from [his] mother-wit." Cleese and Heston are rare in their ability to do this with Shakespeare, and it has a tremendous impact.

    This photograph of Heston is not actually from The Taming of the Shrew, but he looks a lot the same.

    I have to admit that Heston overshadows everyone else in the cast, but the other actors are generally pretty lively and entertaining. I liked that by the end of the movie, Petruchio and Kate (Lisa Kirk) seem to see all of his oddities as a shared private joke - definitely makes the story more palatable. The production is set in "modern times" (1950), something which makes the costuming pretty delightful: Grumio wears a propeller hat! Petruchio wears a trench coat and sunglasses!

    Lest we get too excited... there are a few big problems. The first is that the film is interspersed with commercials for Westinghouse Radios, Fans, and Floodlights. But this could easily be fixed with a little digital video editing, or even a nice big pair of scissors and some scotch tape (we watched it on VHS). The commercials are sort of entertaining, honestly, so it's not too bad.

    "You can be sure, if it's Westinghouse" (I learned that by watching this production).

    A much more serious flaw is that it portrays Petruchio's servants as stuttering half-wits. A charitable interpretation would say this is in poor taste, others - like me - might find it a downright offensive portrayal of mental disability. Mercifully, this section is quite short.

    Overall, Heston's thoughtful, laughing interpretation of the part made me genuinely like Petruchio, and that, I think is key to making the story successful. Although this film was too short and too TV-oriented to be to be the Taming of the Shrew for the ages, I found it to be worth watching.

    A side note to the review: Although both Petruchio's and Katherine's behavior would have been considered strange by their contemporaries, to us nowadays it all seems pretty long ago and far away. But in this film, the modern setting and Heston's unstudied delivery doesn't allow us to distance ourselves like that. Instead, it (perhaps unintentionally) poses the question: how would we feel about the story of Petruchio and Katherine if it had happened in 1950's America? If it were the courtship story of our parents or our grandparents?

    "I am he am born to tame you, Kate"

    Looking at it this way brings out one of the most uncomfortable aspects of this story - namely, that both Katherine and Petruchio could easily be categorized as abusers.

    I think Shakespeare asks us with Taming to consider: what do you do if there are adults in your society who, like Katherine, have never learned self-discipline? She is obviously angry, out-of-control and dangerously violent. Her father seems to be unable or unwilling to deal with the problem, and she is already an grown-up, with adult rights. Can we help people like this? Can discipline be imposed from another person, like Petruchio? He has to get into some pretty harsh behavior patterns himself in order to "help" Katherine, and remember that he's also married to her. Is there any way at all this would ever, ever really work?

    Great Petruchios, Part 1

    Well, I finished Henry VI part 1, but I haven't started part 2 yet. Pretty exciting stuff! I'm still chewing on what to say about it, so in the meantime, I wanted to offer what may be my last Taming of the Shrew movie review for now (but no promises - The Taming of the Shrew is such a popular and famous play that there are many, many movie versions ; we ordered some from the library that only just arrived! Don't know if I'll have time to watch them - silly me for not placing holds on them until the last minute).

    Anyway, so far there are two Taming of the Shrew movies that I think are really only notable for their great Petruchios. Here's my review of one of them - my review of the other is to follow shortly!

    Petruchio the Great I
    : The Complete Shakespeare BBC Version (1980)

    This video is very, very slow. The production quality is not great. Some of the lines are almost incomprehensible, because many of the actors' diction is rather poor. Katherine is too old. Why am I recommending it to you? Because John Cleese, aka Basil Fawlty, aka various Monty Python characters, plays Petruchio. And he plays him splendidly.

    Petruchio meets Katherine (Sarah Badel) and breaks the news of their engagement

    It is worth slogging through the slow bits of this movie just to see John Cleese attend his wedding in a hat with an unbelievably enormous feather, and an equally enormous yellow daisy in his button hole. His Petruchio is incredibly natural, amusingly hurt when crossed (Cleese fans will know exactly what I'm talking about), and surprisingly reflective. He also has just the right tinge of the obnoxious, and when he rails on his servants, it is in a manner reminiscent of the finer moments of Fawlty Towers. Best of all, he is somehow able to give us the sense that he is doing Monty Python-style ad-libbing, all while reciting complicated Shakespearean lines.

    Sometimes the greatest Shakespearean actors are just great actors, and not Shakespearean in their careers at all.

    Could this man really be a great Shakespearean actor? Really?

    In my opinion, the only other standout performance was David Kincaid, whose Grumio provides a nonchalant foil to Cleese. Now, if the the BBC had snagged the other Monty Python guys to play Hortensio, Gremio, etc - I believe this production would have been incredible (and please don't take that as an endorsement of the entire Monty Python body of work, but they SHOULD have done Shakespeare!). Alas, the moment is past.
    These guys could have livened things up a bit for the BBC Shakespeare Department.

    Tuesday, January 25, 2011

    Dangerous Days

    York. ...I am not your king
    Till I be crowned, and that my sword be stained
    With heart-blood of the house of Lancaster -
    And that's not suddenly to be performed,
    But with advice and silent secrecy.
    Do you, as I do, in these dangerous days...
    (Henry VI, part 2, 2.3.64-68)

    Gloucester. Ah, gracious lord, these days are dangerous.
    Virtue is choked with foul ambition,
    And charity chased hence by rancour's hand.

    I was struck, reading Henry VI part 2 (this week's play!), how both York and Gloucester - English noblemen who are most emphatically NOT FRIENDS - describe their era in the same words: Dangerous days.

    The word "Dangerous" could have a few different meanings at this point in history, according to the Oxford English Dictionary - it had its modern meaning of "Fraught with danger or risk," which seems to be the primary meaning in today's passages, but the word could also mean, among other things, "haughty, arrogant; severe," as well as possibly suggesting a sense of being stand-offish and aloof. I think that all these meanings resonate with the situation in Henry VI - a group of proud, suspicious nobles, unable to trust each other for the very good reason that they are all wishing they could cut each other's throats. Dangerous days indeed.

    York is plotting murder and revolt; Gloucester is surrounded with enemies; Henry VI seems without a clue and unable to act even if he had one. The question arises - are the days dangerous because of the nobles fighting over legitimate questions about the right of the usurping Lancastrian Kings - Henry IV, V, and VI - to the throne, OR does the weakness in leadership create these dangerous days by allowing an environment where the natural greed and violence of the powerful and ambitious can flourish?

    Monday, January 24, 2011

    Petruchio to the Rescue?!

    At last - the eagerly awaited post that I promised on Petruchio coming to the rescue! Probably my last post for a while on The Taming of the Shrew, as I'm deep in the Henrys by now - but I wanted to tie up a few loose ends about that most controversial character, Petruchio. Why he worthy of discussion? Because Petruchio's relationship with Kate is so wild! Should we as the audience hate him? Should we love him? Do we watch this play - in horrified fascination - only to be shocked ? Although Katherine hits and verbally assaults people on a regular basis, Petruchio uses some techniques in his "taming" of this woman that seem unjustifiable. He starves her; he isolates her from friends and family; he prevents her from sleeping. Sounds more like a KGB interrogation session than a honeymoon, right?

    Petruchio as a "patriarchal oppressor" is a pretty popular interpretation of the character among some critical schools right now; for proof of this I offer this link to The Taming of the Shrew wikipedia page. The man comes across as a black-hearted villain!

    (Petruchio, with a fearsome scowl, on the left)

    Maybe not. For evidence of this, I'm going to point to some contrasts between Petruchio and Katherine's father, Baptista Minola. I've already exposed this guy's infamous behavior - not going to sing that song again. However, Petruchio, unlike dear old dad, helps Kate in one specific way: for the first time in her life, someone makes her look good in front of other people.

    This favorable re-positioning and re-interpretation of Kate's behavior starts right away with Petruchio's first meeting with her. He comes up with a story (that, granted, helps him out) but also makes her look good in front of her friends and family:

    Petruchio. Father, 'tis thus: yourself and all the world
    That talk'd of her have talk'd amiss of her.
    If she be curst, it is for policy,
    For, she's not froward, but modest as the dove;
    She is not hot, but temperate as the morn...


     Petruchio, in his one meeting with Kate, is perhaps savvy enough to figure out that WHATEVER happens, she will complain and kick about it. (Even when it's something she wants -  Katherine tries to send Petruchio about his business DIRECTLY AFTER she's been crying about her chances of being an old maid.) SO - could be that Petruchio's pretty sure she'll make a scene at the wedding and reception. What does he do? Through his outrageous behavior, he gives her something to complain about! If her complaining is not unreasonable, she won't be judged so harshly by her peers.

    Note that after Petruchio returns to Padua for the wedding (dressed in his super special suit) and starts in on his "taming" by behaving much more socially strange than Kate, suddenly all her acquaintances who previously jeered at her start sounding a lot more conciliatory. Petruchio is taking a lot of the criticism that Katherine was previously getting.

    Tranio. Curster than she? Why, 'tis impossible....
    Gremio. Why, he's a devil, a devil, a very fiend.
     Tranio. Why, she's a devil, a devil, the devil's dam.
    Gremio. Tut, she's a lamb, a dove, a fool, to him!

    (Of course, the very fact that after the wedding all these "friends" laugh as their sister/daughter/friend goes off with this guy who they think is "a devil" kind of shows you what kind of environment Kate is coming out of.)

    Likewise, Petruchio's servants get their first taste of Kate in comparison with him at his worst, and they come out with better feelings about Kate than they otherwise would have:

    Curtis....By this reck'ning he is more shrew than she.
    Grumio. Ay, and that thou and the proudest of you all shall find
    when he comes home.

    In a way, Petruchio's willingness to be obnoxious in front of everyone - to be more offensive in public than Katherine - to give up his "reputation" to make Katherine appear better - could be interpreted as self-sacrificial love.

    On the other hand, it's really bonkers to think that Petruchio has to be meaner than Katherine to show her how unpleasant mean people really are. That's not the way grown-ups work things out! Also, although Petruchio makes himself appear ridiculous in public to benefit Kate, he also does it so he can get what he wants: "peace... and love, and quiet life" (5.2.1614). But that's what Katherine wants too - and that's why Petruchio really is a rescuer.

    It's clear that Kate is very unhappy with the status quo, living with her father and sister, and longs for change. Why else does she weep when she is faced with the prospect of remaining single while Bianca is married? "Nay, now I see/She is your treasure, she must have a husband;/I must dance bare-foot on her wedding-day" (2.1.871-873).  She doesn't want to stay at home for the rest of her life! A husband is her one way out.

    Petruchio, though domineering and sometimes mean, is able to take her away from her horrible family, rehabilitate her reputation, and give her a respectable position where once she had been an object of scorn. And that's why we manage to smile and give a thumbs up at the end of this crazy ride of a comedy. I'm not  ready to sign onto this (joking) slogan one of my brothers came up with, for thought, eh?

    Sunday, January 23, 2011

    Two Halfway Decent Versions of the Taming of the Shrew

    Although the Monsterpiece Theater version of the Taming of the Shrew is pretty great, it is in fact not the "better versions" that I was referring to in my earlier post. It's true that as far as I've seen, the great Taming of the Shrew film has yet to be made. But take heart! There are a few movies that are worth noting before we enter the gory world of Henry VI movies. So, if you're still in the mood for Christopher Sly and the Players, I'd recommend you check out one of the following productions (both of which actually do include Christopher Sly, incidentally)...

    1. The BBC Animated Tales version (1994)
    This short (26 minutes), sweet version can only be described thusly: adorbs. I especially loved Katherine - not only does she have cute red curls, which bounce up and down with her emotions, her voice is done by the wonderful Amanda Root (whom you might remember as Anne in Persuasion).

    This is Amanda Root. If you watch the puppet production, you won't actually get to see her, so I'm putting her picture here.

    All of the puppets are quite well done - judging by the credits they seem to have been put together by a whole host of clever Russian puppeteers, led by director Aida Zyablikova. Of course, the length means that much of the text is cut, but I was impressed that the adapter, Leon Garfield, was able to tell the story with mostly Shakespearean lines in the time given.
    Puppet Petruchio woos Puppet Katherine. She remains hard-hearted.

    Of course, because this is basically a mini-version of the play - both in length and the size of the players - it can't be a comprehensive or definitive version. Also, I would have liked to have seen a little more rapport between Katherine and Petruchio by the end - puppet Katherine seemed a little too dejected in the final scenes - but you can't have everything in 26 minutes of puppetry, I suppose. Overall, these animators do a great job of capturing some of the fire and fascination of this play, all in a delightful format. BTW, I actually found and watched this entire production on youtube (here). Or, buy the set on amazon (and support What Shall Shakespeare Say Today):

    2.Stratford Ontario Shakespeare Festival Version (1986)

    Hands-down the best version if you want to see an entertaining, straightforward production of the play. The comic elements and rhyming couplets are brought out. Gremio (Rod Beattie) and Hortensio (Patrick Christopher) find their places as comedic, rather than tragic or serious, characters. What's going on is always clear. Every scene is light, quickly paced and full of -mostly- amusing gags.

    Hortensio has disguised himself, apparently as a chipmunk, by carrying a lute and filling his mouth with marbles. Thus he hopes to win Bianca's love.

    One reason that this enjoyable production has not taken its place as THE movie version of The Taming of the Shrew is that it is a TV recording of a play on a stage, without the film quality or visual interest of an actual multi-set movie.

    Another reason is that although all the actors are competent and funny, there just is not an extremely compelling star here. Petruchio, played by Len Cariou, is highly energetic and engaging, but is also somewhat one-dimensional. Kate (Sharry Flett) is great in that she is pretty, yet thoroughly unpleasant, yet thrilled to have a suitor; however, she's also a little screechy (screaming probably worked better on stage than it does on film). Lynne Griffin does stand out from the rest of the cast with her hilarious, bratty, and totally text-supported portrayal of Bianca, but generally, the strength of this production is not in star performances, but in the excellent ensemble work, great pacing, and the whole cast's beautiful, understandable diction.
    Lucentio (Peter Hunt) and Bianca. Everyone likes Bianca!

    Overall, both Shakespeare girl and I really enjoyed this funny, traditional version - so far, it is our top recommended production of this play. I only wish I could zip over to Ontario and see it live, but alas, it closed about 25 years ago! This one's available on amazon too:

    Saturday, January 22, 2011

    Jarring Discord of Nobility

    And here I prophesy: this brawl to-day,
    Grown to this faction in the Temple-garden,
    Shall send between the red rose and the white
    A thousand souls to death and deadly night.

    (Henry VI part 1, 2.4.1601-1604)

    This speech, spoken by the Earl of Warwick about the quarrel between the supporters of the house of York (represented by the symbol of a white rose) and the house of Lancaster (represented by a red rose), underscores the central conflict in Henry VI, part 1. While at first it seems that the play will concentrate upon the war that England is waging in France, we soon see that there is much more going on behind the scenes. Although heroes such as Talbot are fighting for their lives in France, struggling and spilling blood for the glory of England against the foreign enemy, back home there is risk of blood being shed in quite another cause - the nobles are at each others' throats. Pride and jealousy among a group of powerful men, combined with a lack of leadership from a young and weak King, allows the seeds of conflict to grow that will lead to the Wars of the Roses - a conflict that will rip the country apart.

    We see this theme of treachery and jealousy leading to downfall again and again throughout the play. The whole tone of the play is very unsettled; all throughout, even to the very end of the story, we have the threat of unresolved grudges that will lead to violence. (That's why we have to be sure and catch Henry VI part 2!) We see the proud Winchester plotting violence and civil war for England:

    I'll either make thee stoop and bend thy knee,
    Or sack this country with a mutiny.


    The atmosphere in England, as seen by this speech as well through such incidents as the death of Mortimer, a political prisoner who rotted away his life in a cell, is poisonous. Thus, although the English that die in the wars in France breathe their last far from their homes, away from friends, family and the place where they were born, their very distance from the political turmoil in England allows them the confidence that they feel in their duty, and their hope for the future:

    Come, side by side together live and die.
    And soul with soul from France to heaven fly.


    Friday, January 21, 2011

    Taming of the Shrew RADIO!

    Re: Emma's post on not-so-great movies of The Taming of the Shrew, something I've noticed that is so important for a Shakespeare production (film or live performance) is pacing - good speed, good tempo. If the lines come too slowly, I personally start to feel very tired and restless. But happily, in our adventures poking around the deep recesses of youtube, Emma and I found this cool clip from an audio version of The Taming of the Shrew with Peter O'Toole and Sian Phillips. Now here's some good pacing!

    (Note that this clip goes straight from Act 2 scene 1 into Act 4 scene 1 with no break.)

    Also, as can be clearly seen from our continued enthusiasm for The Taming of the Shrew into what officially is Henry VI's week, Emma and I won't be confining ourselves to commenting on the plays only in the week in which we read them - as long as we're still excited about the work, we'll continue to share and think about the plays for a few weeks after their official time the spotlight.

    Unhand Me, Grovero

    Finally, a great movie version of the Taming of the, Shoe.

    H/t The Bard Blog.

    Thursday, January 20, 2011


    Jeanne d'Arc
    A far more glorious star thy soul will make
    Than Julius Caesar or bright
    (Henry VI, 1.1.60)

    Glory is like a circle in the water,
    Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself
    Till by broad spreading it disperse to nought.
    With Henry's death the English circle ends;
    Dispersed are the glories it included.
    Now am I like that proud insulting ship
    Which Caesar and his fortune bare at once.


    Although keeping track of the characters in this play might strike you as a noble exploit worthy of glory, these Medieval English monarchs and their kinsmen were made of sterner stuff. They were after some serious power and glory, with the chief aim being to KEEP FRANCE under English rule! Unfortunately for all those Dukes, Joan of Arc is working towards exactly the opposite goal, so we are headed for a showdown....

    However, though on different sides of the battlefield, Joan and the English both highly value glory. The first quote above -  A far more glorious star thy soul will make/Than Julius Caesar or bright - is spoken about the late Henry V, and is striking for its comparison of Henry with Caesar, one of the most famous military conquerors the world has known (like Henry, he subdued France). We also have a gorgeous image of Henry's soul somehow transforming into a blazing beacon light in a high firmament, to be seen forever as a reflection his greatness.

    The second quote, spoken again about Henry V, but from an enemy of England -  Joan of Arc - also references Caesar, but this time the French are favored - she's comparing Caesar to herself! However, rather than looking at fame as a fixed and burning star, Joan talks about the transitory nature of glory - like trying to write on water, the impression even great individuals make during their lives will not last.

    Glory is like a circle in the water,
    Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself
    Till by broad spreading it disperse to nought.

    Despite the ravages of time and tide, despite the current of life that runs on and out of sight, in the world of Henry VI, glory in this life and in this time is worth fighting for. Even if blood flows like water and glory fades as fast away, "This quarrel will drink blood another day."

    History Help for Henry

    Henry VI
     How's Henry VI part 1 coming? I'm glad I have 3 weeks to dedicate to the three plays about the reign of this King Henry, because so far the reading has been a little challenging! I usually have no problems grasping the plot and identifying the major characters when reading a script for the first time, but I'll have to fight this one in order to avoid my Waterloo (or shall I say Battle of Orleans?). There are FIFTY-FIVE characters to keep track of, NINE whom have character names beginning with "Duke."

    I'm working on some tools to help keep track of everything a little more easily, but for anyone reading the play right now, I recommend getting a good annotated edition of the text to help identify each character more fully when they come on the scene. I've been haunting the Henry VI part 1 wikipedia page, which not only has a useful synopsis, but also has a links to biography pages (some of which have portraits) for most of the major characters, who were for the most part real people. It's a lot easier to remember the difference between, say, the Duke of Gloucester and the Duke of Bedford if you can link a medieval face with the name.

    Have fun, and whatever means you use to help you through the text, bless this happy stratagem!

    Wednesday, January 19, 2011

    Four Reasons We Need a New Taming of the Shrew Movie

    Have you ever started watching a movie, and turned it off before the show was even halfway through? I must confess that when I watch TV or movies I have a tendency to watch everything - yes, even Random Reality Shows Set In Malibu - all the way to the end. This is (part of) why I really should never, never, never have a TV in the house.
    Yet, among the few times that I have not finished a movie, I must number four, yes count them, FOUR versions of The Taming of the Shrew!!! Weird, right? Clearly, someone needs to make a good one. Any filmmakers reading this, your task is before you...

    Although I hate to post any negativity on this generally groovin' blog, in the interest of helping you avoid these videos like the plague, I have decided to post my top four partially-watched reasons we need a new Taming of the Shrew movie:

    1. The ShakespeareRe-Told, New BBC Version (2005)
    Within the first few minutes, I was disappointed to find that they had written their own - not clever, and utterly crude - dialogue. It's cheating to try to pass such stuff off as Shakespeare! Time to move on.

    2. The Comedia dell'arte Version (1976)
    The lines are delivered stiffly - seemingly in an effort to keep the dialogue from distracting us from the equally stiff pantomimes. A lot of visual monotony, which was occasionally and startlingly broken by some rather embarrassing spandex.

    3. The Zeffirelli Version (1967)
    Just gorgeous visually, but very slo-o-w - and it doesn't help that the lucky few Shakespearean lines that were chosen to appear in this movie are often repeated over and over (why?).
    Also, literally every single time - every time! - Petruchio (played by Richard Burton) speaks, his dialogue is punctuated by this: *evil cackle*, while Katherine (Elizabeth Taylor) generally runs about breaking furniture in the background. Honestly, the characterization work in this film would only be pleasing to those whose vision of Petruchio is of a mean, possibly insane, dipsomaniac, resembling no one so much as King Henry VIII in his later years (note that half of Henry VIII's wives were named Katherine. Coincidence? I think not.).
    Thankfully, Zeffirelli made some other - quite excellent, movies - so we can enjoy his work elsewhere.

    Franco Zeffirelli, looking worried about his production of The Taming of the Shrew. However, note that his Romeo and Juliet is not bad, and his Hamlet is totally awesome. Unrelated: he also designed some extremely cool opera productions.

    4. Kiss Me Kate (1953)
    Writers always write about writers, Broadway people love making musicals about the stage. It just doesn't have much to do with Shakespeare. If you adore 1950's musical technicolor dance sequences, this might be a great film for you. I regret to have to warn you, though, that I personally found them ghastly (and this is coming from someone that deeply appreciates the Broadway musical genre). My advice: watch Singin' in the Rain instead (a musical about show business from around the same time, but a lot more fun!).

    Singin' in the Rain

    I hope to report back on some better versions of the Taming of the Shrew in the next blog post!

    Tuesday, January 18, 2011

    Getting Into Shakespeare: Part 2

    Reviewers are our Friends

    Time for part 2 of our series on Getting into Shakespeare! Last week we looked at how Shakespearean Movies are our Friends. But let's face it, just about everyone who wants to get into Shakespeare doesn't just want to watch movies. We all want to go to the theatre and see it happen live, before our very eyes!

    Problem: it is sadly true that sometimes a director will get an attack of the Bizarre-Interpretations and thus occasionally Shakespeare plays are not fun. On the other hand, a good play can be a memorable and wonderful experience. You would love it! So I’m going to try to help you find a good one.

    First: I’d very much recommend attending a live production, if there’s one in your town that has gotten good reviews.

    If everyone else hates or loves a production, you probably will too, so before you plunk down your money, just go to google and type in the name of the play, your town and the word “review.” Helpful stuff will tend to pop up.

    Read pretty carefully through what the reviewer says. Watch out for terms like “highly innovative,” “risque,” or “a new interpretation.” These usually mean that this production is designed for those who are already very familiar with the play, and that it will likely be a sort of spoof, or have a lot of atypical interpretations in the delivery of the lines. In other words, the production will probably be confusing.

    I also think "confusing," when I read reviews telling me that the play is a “gender-bending” or "gender-blind casting" version. Given that Shakespeare often has women dressed up as men as a plot point, this can really add mental trauma to an otherwise lovely evening: “Wait - that’s a girl dressed up as a guy, who is really supposed to be just a guy. And that’s a girl dressed up as a guy who is now supposed to be a girl dressed up as a guy. And that’s a guy dressed up as a girl, who is supposed to be a girl. And that...” Honestly, I think Shakespeare already deals with gender issues a lot in his stories, so adding more can dilute the strength of some of those plot points, but I digress...

    If the reviewer uses words like “traditional” or “classic,” that is a very good sign that it will be a pretty straight-shooting, comprehensible version. Try to go to such a show.

    One tip: with a few exceptions, I’ve had fairly good luck with the Shakespeare in the Park productions in my locale. They’re usually fun shows designed to be understandable. And, because they're free productions at parks, the risk is low - if you don’t like it, have a picnic instead!

    When you’ve found a promising show, if it's not Shakespeare in the Park, it may be expensive. So check the theatre's website or call to see if they have cheaper rush tickets. There are also often matinee or weeknight deals. Call the box office and ask what the cheapest tickets are.

    Once you're safely at the theatre, remember that It’s normal to not understand what’s going on at the beginning of the play, so relax, and see how things unfold.

    Read the program to check what characters are listed and where the scenes are supposed to be set. This helps keep track of who is who and where we are (I would not advise reading all of the actor bios in the back of the program during the show, like I tend to do).

    You can also check the program for a plot synopsis. This can be a great way to be sure you will not be totally confused. If you want the end to be a surprise, you could try reading just the first half of the synopsis before the play starts, or even ignore it altogether (!).

    Enjoy the show!

    Next Time... Getting Into Shakespeare: Editors are our Friends

    Monday, January 17, 2011

    More Useful Insults, Courtesy of Petruchio

    Thou flea, thou nit, thou winter-cricket thou

    These insults, directed by Petruchio at the hapless tailor, are so amazing in and of themselves that I confess I know not what to say. What exactly is so bad about a winter-cricket anyway? Coupled with these other creepy-crawlies it certainly sounds rather horrible.

    Baptista Minola - "What a Cruel Father's He"

    Petruchio. And you, good sir! Pray, have you not a daughter
    Call'd Katherina, fair and virtuous?

    Baptista Minola. I have a daughter, sir, call'd Katherina.
    Petruchio. I am a gentleman of Verona, sir,
    That, hearing of her beauty and her wit,
    Her affability and bashful modesty,
    Her wondrous qualities and mild behaviour,
    Am bold to show myself a forward guest
    Within your house, to make mine eye the witness
    Of that report which I so oft have heard.

    Baptista Minola. Y'are welcome, sir, and he for your good sake;
    But for my daughter Katherine, this I know,
    She is not for your turn, the more my grief.

    Petruchio. I see you do not mean to part with her;
    Or else you like not of my company.

     (2.1.883-885, 889-894, 903-905)

    Have you been keeping up with reading The Taming of the Shrew?  One of Shakespeare's most famous comedies, this rough-and tumble battle of the sexes, where the determined and bossy Petruchio marries the crabby and quick-tempered Kate, always gets an audience to sit up and take notice. But in this post, I'm going to concentrate on someone that I feel is kind of an overlooked character - Katherine's father, Baptista.

    As I mentioned previously, Katherine has a really bad reputation among the gallants of Padua. Tough for her that she's way smarter and more witty than any of the guys in her hometown. From what we see and hear of her behavior, it seems clear that she's a young woman with a flash-quick temper and a razor wit who does not suffer fools - or mistreatment - gladly.

     But what does Katherine have to be so angry aboutI think most of the guys in the play - with the exception of Petruchio - completely miss the point of Katherine's anger and point at her as the problem. But I believe that if you've got dead fish in a river, you'll be wasting your time trying to perform CPR on the fish. Look upstream for the problem and find out what is poisoning them! Which leads us directly to the villain of the piece -


    (Baptista Minola is the grumpy, mean-looking guy in the middle)

    Baptista, from the productions that I have seen, is usually portrayed as an ill-used, bewildered father who simply can't understand why he has such a bad-tempered daughter. He's so put upon! He'd be so grateful to anyone who would take her off his hands! "Was ever gentleman thus griev'd as I? "(2.1.877). Boo hoo!! Well, I for one do not feel sorry for him. Let's take a look at what Baptista actually says and does, shall we?

    We first meet him parading Katherine and Bianca around in the public square, loudly proclaiming his determination that no one will be allowed to wed his daughter Bianca until Katherine, the older sister, is married. Although many directors seem to have interpreted this as Baptista offering an incentive for Bianca's lovers to help him find a husband for Katherine - which is in fact what Hortensio ends up doing - I believe that Baptista had a very different motivation. He thought that he was insuring that neither daughter would ever marry.

    This certainly seems to be the way both Hortensio and Gremio interpret the news - Hortensio tells his friend Petruchio that, essentially, Baptista has both the girls locked up in a "keep" and that Baptista doesn't think anyone will ever want to marry Katherine. Katherine doesn't marry, then Bianca doesn't marry. Game, set and match to Baptista! Here's the relevant passage:

    Hortensio. Tarry, Petruchio, I must go with thee,
    For in Baptista's keep my treasure is.
    He hath the jewel of my life in hold,
    His youngest daughter, beautiful Bianca;
    And her withholds from me, and other more,
    Suitors to her and rivals in my love;
    Supposing it a thing impossible-
    For those defects I have before rehears'd-
    That ever Katherina will be woo'd.

     Therefore this order hath Baptista ta'en,
    That none shall have access unto Bianca
    Till Katherine the curst have got a husband.

    (1.2.663-674, emphasis added)

    Gremio compares the idea that anyone would be able to handle being married to Katherine to the "impossible tasks" that we might be familiar with from fairy tales, myths and legends - only a hero, half-god, like Hercules could possibly have a chance!

    Gremio.  Yea, leave that labour to great Hercules,
    And let it be more than Alcides' twelve.


    (Hercules and the Hydra)

    SO - Baptista thinks he's got a sure thing that no one will ever court Katherine. No one ever has wanted to. Hortensio and Gremio rack their brains and can't think of any single guy they know who would be interested. No one wants to marry Katherine because of her awful reputation: as Hortensio observes, she is "Renown'd in Padua for her scolding tongue" (1.2.648).

    Question is - why does Katherine have such a terrible reputation? Sure, her behavior is out there - she hits people, which is certainly no way to solve your problems,  and her angry speech is unattractive. However, if we remember that in the Renaissance women's arena was the home and that they did not necessarily participate much in public life, Katherine's noteriety becomes more surprising. Could it be that Baptista (purposely?) puts Katherine into in humiliating situations where, if she lashes out, it will be seen and spoken of by everyone? This kind of treatment is shown at the beginning, where Baptista deliberately leaves Katherine in the company of men that he - and she - both know don't like her and, in fact, are in love with her sister. Baptista's part in tearing down Katherine's reputation is touched on by Petruchio, who says to him that "Father, 'tis thus: yourself and all the world/ That talk'd of her have talk'd amiss of her" (2.1.1141-42).

    Another indication that Baptista is not really serious about wanting to get Kate married is his reaction to Petruchio when the young man presents himself as a suitor. This is the exchange quoted at the top of this post. Petruchio says he wants to marry Katherine - what is Baptista's response? "But for my daughter Katherine, this I know,/She is not for your turn, the more my grief." SERIOUSLY? Woah, woah, woah. Stop it right there. This guy has just made a huge production out of the fact that he wants Katherine to get married - but when an actual, flesh and blood, interested MAN shows up, Baptista is all like, " wouldn't like her....I'm pretty sure..." LAME.

    Petruchio's response to this is often interpreted by actors as sort of a satirical joke. However, let's look at what Petruchio actually SAYS. If we take his answer at face value, then Petruchio has put his finger on exactly what is going on: "I see you do not mean to part with her."

    This accusation by Petruchio is backed up by Baptista's next action - he welcomes all the gentlemen, and vaguely talks of taking a walk: "We will go walk a little in the orchard, /And then to dinner." (2.1.954). He's not even going to let Petruchio talk to Kate! Petruchio, however, is pushy and challenges the old man on this: "Signior Baptista, my business asketh haste,/ And every day I cannot come to woo" (2.1.957-8).

    As everyone knows, Baptista gives in and lets Petruchio court - and marry - Kate. Why does he allow this if goes against his agenda to keep both girls single at home? Well, Baptista made one rather stupid mistake - he announced in front of witnesses that he was willing to have Kate married off. He committed himself publicly in front of his peers - wealthy gentlemen of Padua - and he couldn't go back without serious shame (not to mention that he might be afraid to disappoint strong young Italian men who are intent upon winning both women AND money).

    (thou know'st not gold's effect!)
      Next question - WHY would Baptista want to keep both his daughters unmarried at home? Well, the first obvious motive is money. He has to give them healthy dowries if they get married - that much less loose cash in the old coffers. One possible support for this theory is that Baptista arguably gives a pretty lame bid for a dowry when he offers Petruchio 20,000 crowns. Perhaps he didn't think that Petruchio would immediately accept this, because Baptista could obviously have offered a lot more - this is shown when he is able to double this dowry at the end of the play. If Baptista had really been intent on simply getting rid of Katherine, one would think he would have offered as much as he could afford to sweeten the deal with cash.

    However, I think that Baptista was more likely just a creepy, mean dad, rather like the notorious Mr. Barrett, father of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. This guy was famous for flying into apoplectic rages whenever any of his children hinted they might like to get married (those brave enough to defy his wrath and marry were disinherited).

    Plus, Baptista clearly has a very doting relationship with Bianca, his pretty younger daughter. Observe his lovey-dovey talk to her: Katherina, you may stay; /For I have more to commune with Bianca (1.1.399); And let it not displease thee, good Bianca,/ For I will love thee ne'er the less, my girl (1.1.372). So, if Baptista is so besotted with his charming younger daughter that he never can bear to let her go, what better way to deflect blame away from himself than to create a useful scapegoat? When Bianca and her suitors start to ask questions about why Baptista will never give his consent, all the father has to do is point to Katherine and come up with some phony baloney story about how she must be married first. This way, Baptista has no incentive to help Kate get over her anger-management problems; he drives a wedge between the sisters, transferring Bianca's affection from Kate to himself; and he feeds Kate's feelings of bitterness and unhappiness because she is a major target for resentment, both from Bianca and all her thwarted suitors. Ick, ick, ick. Bad, bad, bad.

    Well, now that I've established the facts on what a crumb-bum Baptista is, stay tuned for my next post - in which I'll look at how Petruchio comes to the rescue! Don't miss it!


    Sunday, January 16, 2011

    I woo not like a babe

    Petruchio: Though little fire grows great with little wind,
    Yet extreme gusts will blow out fire and all:
    So I to her and so she yields to me;
    For I am rough and woo not like a babe.

    Speaking of babies, here's one that's being raised right (click to enlarge - really, you need to see this):

    Reading Shakespeare

    But how about that Petruchio, anyway? He gets a bad rap, pretty often - and he's self-confessedly rough. But is he *too* rough? By the end of the play, Katherine doesn't seem to think so.

    John Drew
    as Petruchio

    Petruchio has grown on me. In reading the play right after Two Gentlemen, I was struck by how different Petruchio is from guys like Valentine and Proteus. He's no slave of passion (except having strong feelings about how a sleeve should be cut, and other such important issues). But then again, he doesn't drop a girl at the drop of a hat. Instead of always being in thrall to the most charming person in the room at the time, he's willing to take a chance on a an intelligent, but spoiled, neglected girl that's despised by her society. He believes that she CAN have a happy, respectable life. Not so bad, really!

    Next question: how do you pronounce "Petruchio"? "Petruchee-o" or "Petrukee-o"? I've heard it both ways from those who ought to know...

    Saturday, January 15, 2011

    Beef and Mustard

    Grumio. What say you to a piece of beef and mustard?

    Katherina. A dish that I do love to feed upon.

    Grumio. Ay, but the mustard is too hot a little.

    Katherina. Why then the beef, and let the mustard rest.

    Grumio. Nay, then I will not; you shall have the mustard,
    Or else you get no beef of Grumio.


    I love finding these homely passages in Shakespeare that show that the world has just not changed that much in the 400 years since this play was written. As any of Shakespeare girl's friends and family could tell you, I LOVE beef and mustard - they go so well together! Give me bread, beef and mustard, and I'm good.

    This is also a great Shakespeare quote for everyday household use. Next time anyone asks if you want mustard on your sandwich, just reply airily that it is "a dish that I do love to feed upon."

    I also think Grumio's concern is totally hilarious that the mustard, being "hot," would by its spicy properties encourage Kate's feisty temper. This theory is put forward by Petruchio, in a classic scene - his proficiency with insults suggests that he doesn't need any anger-inducing food to get him going:

    Petruchio. What's this? Mutton? ...
    'Tis burnt; and so is all the meat.
    What dogs are these? Where is the rascal cook?
    How durst you villains bring it from the dresser

    And serve it thus to me that love it not?
    There, take it to you, trenchers, cups, and all;
    [Throws the meat, etc., at them]
    You heedless joltheads and unmanner'd slaves!
    What, do you grumble? I'll be with you straight.

     I tell thee, Kate, 'twas burnt and dried away,
    And I expressly am forbid to touch it;
    For it engenders choler, planteth anger;
    And better 'twere that both of us did fast,
    Since, of ourselves, ourselves are choleric,
    Than feed it with such over-roasted flesh.
     (4.1.1764, 1768-1775, 1779-1785)

    Another useful phrase: next time you don't like your dinner, call out "where is the rascal cook?" Might want to watch out with this one if the founder of the feast is perhaps your mom or your spouse - but on the other hand, Petruchio seems to make it work for him...

    Excuse me, off to eat some beef and mustard.

    Friday, January 14, 2011

    Two Gentlemen: Play Performance Review

    This last Sunday, Emma and I were able to go with some friends to see the Northwest Classical Theater Company’s production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. I thought it was pretty cool that I got to begin the year by seeing a live production of the first play I read in my brand-new Shakespeare project - serendipity indeed. And, happily, it was a good production. Let me tell you about it!
    The company’s home theater is named the Shoebox, and aptly named it is - it’s a very small, intimate theater that seats no more than 40.

     This production was performed in the round with no set pieces. This worked quite well and allowed for rapid and interesting exits and entrances, and though the playing area is limited, the confident staging of this production let me forget that the forest, for example, was bounded in a space no larger than an average size living room. The closeness between the audience and the performers also allowed the players to address and interact with the spectators.Though there was no suggestion of place or time through set pieces, the very effective Elizabethan costuming provided a strong Renaissance setting.

    One of the major strengths of the production was the rapid-fire pacing of the show - nothing dragged or seemed too slow. The cast was strong across the board and communicated the story well through their use of the language as well as physical humor, including a gag where the petite actress playing Julia struggled to unsheath a sword nearly as tall as she was. Especially delightful were the scenes with Launce and his dog Crab. Crab was played by a bulldog type - so ugly that he was adorable - and was one phlegmatic pooch. Ensconced in a cosily cushioned chariot and wheeled in for each of his appearances, he was the perfect foil for his weepy master’s angst and devotion.

    (Poster boy for the production - Crab in his little wagon)

    One mark of any good play is whether or not it makes you think, and this production hit that mark. Director Butch Flowers chose to highlight the ambiguity and unsettling aspects of the conclusion, which created a sense that the story was somewhat incomplete. However, this refusal to tidily wrap up all the loose ends into a conventional “happily ever after" certainly fostered conversation after the play about the possible implications of the ending.

    (Conversation between Shakespeare girl and friends was fostered)

    In all, good afternoon at the theater, and I’ll plan on going back to the Shoebox for Shakespeare's Cymbeline in the spring.

    Thursday, January 13, 2011

    Two Gentlemen: Movie Review

    If you’ve ever wandered among the shelves at your local library in search of a video of one of Shakespeare's plays, you may have noticed that there are a lot of Shakespearean BBC productions from the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Why is that? Well, it turns out that right about then the BBC was gripped with an urgent desire to make TV productions of virtually every British classic play or book. This is why you will also find BBC video adaptations of the works of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and other Authors of Note tucked between the innumerable BBC murder mysteries and episodes of something called The Forsyte Saga (which you’d expect would be about Vikings, but is in fact a story about upper class British people).

    Needless to say, adaptation frenzy led to a BBC telly series with productions of every single Shakespeare play (The Brits are thorough like that. Shakespeare didn't skip writing any of his plays, and the BBC didn't skip producing any of them). And this series' production of Two Gentlemen of Verona was in fact the only video of the play I could get my hands on other than ‘A Spray of Plum Blossoms.’

    So, would you like to know how Shakespeare girl and I liked this video? Of course! So here is my review!

    The Bad...

    First and worst, the beginning of this production is slow. The actors seemed to me to still be finding their characters (over-rehearsing was not a problem that characterized these BBC productions). It also took me a few minutes to get used to the budget sets and 1980’s TV film quality.

    If you happened to read the cast list for this production on IMDB, you might have noticed that it includes several actors listed to play “Cupids.” This is just as worrisome as it sounds - the presence of oddly-dressed, awkward children with gold-painted faces in several of the scenes in Milan is not only unexplained, it is also quite bizarre, to say the least. I read here that this was meant to be a “garden of courtly love” motif, but I merely found it unnerving.

    The unabashedly modern “forest” set, which appears to have been created largely from steel and green pipe cleaners, is also not a strong point. Neither are the Bee-Gees-style “doublets” and longish hair sported by Valentine (John Hudson) and Proteus’ (Tyler Butterworth), style choices which I’m pretty sure were not based on careful historical research of clothing in Renaissance Verona.

    The Good..

    The play really does pick up steam as it goes along. I found myself surprised and touched by the latter scenes, especially Tessa Peake-Jones’ performance as the jilted Julia. She emphasized Julia’s softer side, and I thought it was heartbreakingly effective.

    This is Julia - doesn't she look sweet?

    This production captured Proteus’ descent into villainy quite well. Butterworth does some good interpreting, and he's well set up by the other actors. Peake-Jones as Julia was already mentioned, but Silvia (Joanne Pearce) and the Duke (Paul Daneman) also helped in their very believable, but non-script-required, reactions to Proteus. And I have to say that Proteus’ disco-cool/Renaissance fashion sense actually seemed oddly appropriate for a man getting wickeder and wickeder.

    Proteus (left) and Valentine

    Great Renaissance tunes from the “Consort of Musick” were featured throughout - my brother thought that the lead singer in the opening song was the prominent British early music singer Emma Kirkby, and it does look like her. However, I have not been able to verify this (if anyone knows one way or another, feel free to message me!). I also loved the melody of their song to Silvia - beauteous.

    The End of the Matter...

    This is perhaps not where I would start if looking for a first movie introduction to Shakespeare. And there are some stylistic issues. But I found it to be a solid - and even moving - interpretation of the play, with a lot of great storytelling. Kudos to the BBC for putting together an enjoyable production of this rarely seen play!