Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fun Shakespeare Timewaster

Ever wondered exactly what percentage of words in your prose match up with the vocabulary used in Shakespeare's plays? Well, fear not - the indispensable Oxford Dictionary people have created a way to help you answer this burning question! Go to this link - - paste your text into the little box - and wait anxiously for your Shakespearean percentage verdict to come up. I'm still not sure exactly how this is relevant to anything in my life or writing, but it's oddly fascinating - plus the program gives you cute little notes of encouragement that liken you to Shakespeare when you get a high percentage. Come on, you know you want to try!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Production Review: RSC Macbeth, part 2 of 3; In Which Shakespeare Girl Takes Her Seat For the Show

(Thrilling story continued from Part 1!)
So, we got tickets to Macbeth (at the last minute, of course – keep your options open, it’s the only way to travel), and ventured in to view the RSC’s brand spankin’ new remodel of their theater.

In theory, the remodel is a nice idea – it replaces a 1930s era proscenium stage with a thrust stage that brings the actors out closer to the audience. I like thrust stages, but I'm also an instinctive conservative who would feel sad if practically anything built anywhere in the whole world were to be demolished. However, I always try to quash these unreasonable feelings, and despite reading about some rumblings of controversy about the remodel, I went to the show prepared to be pleased with everything. My first inkling, however, that there might be some rough edges with this here remodel, that it might need a little fine tuning, came when I visited the ladies' restroom. Now, I’m not going to list every little thing that was wrong (I have some sense of propriety!), but suffice it to say that the design of the room had some things wrong with it. It didn’t have that coherence and attention to detail that well-designed spaces have. And anyone who has ever seen the lines outside the ladies’ restroom at any concert, play or performance knows that the ladies’ restroom is IMPORTANT.
Well, but what about the even more important room – the actual theater? Some signs of trouble there too, I’m afraid, starting with MY SEAT. The ticket seller lady had shown me a fancy book with pictures of the view of the stage from every seat in the theater – but the only reason that this was necessary is because many of the seats are “restricted view” of the stage, ie there’s a great big pillar right in front of your face. Seems like a bit of a problem to me, especially once I actually sat there (in the back row of one of the balconies, I forget which one) and there was not only a pillar, but also a weird roof sloping down very low so that I could not see most of the tall set. AND there were stage lights mounted on the little sloping roof that drooped down even farther so that at times I couldn’t see even the PEOPLE acting on or in front of the tall set. I haven’t mentioned yet that my seat was this rather tall stool that you had to sort of launch yourself up into by a running leap (only a slight exaggeration).
Now, all this did not bother me too much, because as previously mentioned, I had bought my ticket at close to the last minute for not that many pounds; being somewhat impecunious, I humbly accepted that to actually be able to see the stage would be too much to hope for. And as I am young and lissome, minor athletics in the theatre, such as jumping up to perch on a high stool, there to bounce for the duration of the show, are no great burden for me. NOT SO for the couple sitting to my left. Older, British, and somewhat stout, they had no sooner entered the theatre and stared and look'd (like Cortez) upon their seats with a wild surmise, that they began unceasingly to breathe imprecations against the RSC, the theatre designer, and all and sundry who might have had a hand in remodeling the theatre in such a way that they had to clamber up and sit in high chairs in order to watch their beloved Shakespeare shows in Stratford. A snatch of their conversation, overheard and surreptitiously copied down by yours truly:
Older British Fellow (indignantly) “They’ve simply destroyed it! An absolute b----y mess.”
American Student in Next Seat (timidly): “I heard that they’ve only just finished renovating it –“
Old. Brit. Fellow (interrupting): “They haven’t renovated it, they’ve destroyed it. It really used to be a comfortable, beautiful theatre!”
His Wife (plaintively): “ It’s hard for people our age…”
Old. Brit. Fellow: “Well, they just want you to be uncomfortable whilst watching Shakespeare!”
I take no sides as to the truth of this latter statement, dear reader. I simply report what I see and hear.
OK, so perhaps none of this seems as though it has much bearing on the quality of the RSC production of Macbeth…but in a way it really does. Find out in the next and final installment of our series!!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Production Review: RSC Macbeth, part 1 of 3; In Which Shakespeare Girl Decides Not to See the RSC Merchant of Venice

First off – I shall be reviewing the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Macbeth that I saw while in England. However, no such matter will appear in this post - this will be a three-part series, and everyone will just have to wait until part three for the scoop on Macbeth. Happy day! You won't just get a play review, but a lot of pontificating about the RSC will also be included for no additional charge! But to my tale.

To set the stage. You are in Stratford-upon-Avon, which you find not to be, as travel books have warned, a miserable tourist trap, but a very nice little town, with perhaps its most notable feature being a much higher number of bed-and-breakfasts per capita than is perhaps quite usual. (Note – open a good bed-and-breakfast in Stratford and make your fortune.) There are dozens of gleaming white swans in the river; the half-timbered houses with their gorgeous gardens have the added attraction that Shakespeare himself might have spent time within their walls; and you are looking forward to an evening of Shakespeare at the Royal Shakespeare Company theater. The prospect!! Who among the readers of this blog has not heard of the RSC? I myself have done a fair bit of gushing over some of their work! My summer has turned me into a firm fan of the Rick Steves travel books (seriously very good. Don’t travel with anything but these and the Michelin Green Guides), and Rick gravely assures his readers that the RSC puts on the best Shakespeare ANYWHERE in the WORLD! And yet, and yet…
Having followed Emma’s excellent advice in her article about watching live Shakespeare, I had not only looked up WHAT plays the RSC was doing while I was in their neck of the woods, but I had also carefully read several reviews of the productions. I initially was interested in seeing both Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice, which latter play was starring the great Patrick Stewart (!!!) as Shylock!!!! Yet, after reading what the critics had to say, I was not thrilled. As my readers will possibly remember, I have extremely strong opinions about Merchant, and I could tell that the vision for this show - a re-imagining of the story as set in the midst of all the most well-known cliches of behavior in Las Vegas - was not really in line with my vision. Fear of what the director might be up to with his or her beloved concept, wreak what havoc it may on the play (cry, havoc! And let slip the dogs of war), has caused me again and again to enter theaters hopeful, yet guarded and somewhat suspicious. No director is going to pull a fast one on ME!

Reluctantly, I realized that not even the chance to be in the same room as Patrick Stewart and listen to that deep voice intone some of my favorite Shakespeare lines could reconcile me to a production where my beloved Portia is portrayed as a Las Vegas showgirl; here’s the Telegraph review that convinced me to give this one a pass (money quote: “poor Patrick Stewart seems to inhabit an entirely different production from the rest of the cast, giving us a sombre and increasingly frail Jew which is intermittently impressive in its own right but seems to have little to do with the gaudy excesses of the rest of the show.”) So, since “Merchant” is one of my favorites, I didn’t want to go see this production only to have to leave muttering (in a confused sort of combined identification with myself, Shakespeare and J. Alfred Prufrock) “That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all."
I was further bolstered in my resolution not to see the show by a most enlightening conversation that I overheard in the tiny café at the Stratford railway station. Participants: Myself (not really a participant as I was listening not talking, innocently drinking my tea and sneakily trying to charge my laptop whilst waiting for a train); a lady of the lower classes running the shop; a man (later revealed to be an actor); and a most genteel older widow lady, later revealed to be a former professional ballerina (!).
The conversation between the Genteel Lady and the Shop Lady rambled on in desultory fashion about the relative merits and pricing of coach travel around the UK as opposed to trains (watch out trains, you are about to lose the Genteel Lady’s business because the coaches are cheaper), until the entrance of the Actor.
Somehow it came out that the Actor had a very small role in the RSC production of Merchant.
The Genteel Lady, who volunteers in some capacity with the RSC, tried to say something pleasant about the show: “I do try to tell people what it’s like before they go – they’ve had quite a few people STORM OUT! But I really think it’s great fun – just so you know what you’re IN for.”
(Follows more discussion about the show and the Actor’s prospects - he, being an actor, is naturally hoping that his current engagement will lead to bigger and better things. Somehow the conversation turns to the poor uptight creatures who have STORMED OUT, and all join in condemning their poor artistic vision in scorning the production.)
Shop Lady: “It’s all these people who want Shakespeare “Shakespeare” Shakespeare!”
(All nod sagely at this wisdom; after some more pleasantries the Actor slips out, leaving the two Ladies to regard one another in silence.)
Genteel Lady (quietly to Shop Lady): “have you seen it?”
Shop Lady (just as quietly): “No.”
Genteel Lady: “Well, you just have to know what you’re IN for, what with Elvis Presley popping up everywhere & girls in feathers. (pause) I think it’s good fun."
Well, my dear genteel lady, it doesn’t sound like good fun to me, so it’s a jolly good thing I knew what I would have been IN for!
We decided to see Macbeth instead.

Stay tuned for part 2, in which Shakespeare girl tells all about the newly remodeled Royal Shakespeare Company building! It's more interesting than it sounds!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Your Foreign Correspondent Reporting….

I’m Back!
This is Shakespeare girl, returned from my Shakespeare Fact Finding Mission overseas!
OK, so it wasn’t exactly a Shakespeare business trip and more just a super fun Europe tourist vacation. Aside from our myriad tours of palaces and cathedrals (highly recommended – we like palaces and cathedrals), Emma and I made it a priority to seek Shakespeare where he might be found – to wit, we:
-           saw three Shakespeare productions (yay!)
-          went to Stratford-Upon-Avon
-          Saw the Shakespeare birthplace house
-          Saw Shakespeare’s grave at Holy Trinity Church
-          Saw Shakespeare First Folios at the British Library and at Trinity College, Cambridge (adding to my previous First Folio sighting at the Folger!)
I gained a new understanding of English geography and regional differences, and thrilled at all the Shakespeare connections everywhere  – Kent and the White Cliffs of Dover? King Lear! Northumbria? The House of Percy from the Henry IVs! We were happy to just miss the re-appearance of forces similar to those of our old friend Jack Cade by cleverly fleeing the British Isles for the Continent before the looting broke out; we then explored the vasty fields of France. And as a non-Francophone, I relied heavily on Emma’s superior French-speaking skills and gained a new appreciation for the dismay of Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, in Richard II when he is banished:
The language I have learn'd these forty years,
My native English, now I must forego:
And now my tongue's use is to me no more
Than an unstringed viol or a harp,
Or like a cunning instrument cased up…
I also want to report my excitement upon visiting Warwick Castle, home of our old friend the Earl of Warwick! The castle was very fun, but Emma and I kind of suspected that we were part of a relatively small percentage of tourists that come there solely because of Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays. (We rejected with scorn an advertised tour purporting that Shakespeare WAS the Earl of Warwick. Or vice versa.) Well, well, Shakespeare has something for everyone, and my case proves that a love of Shakespeare can lead to standing on the battlements of a medieval castle in the heart of England. Hurrah!

On a Tower at Warwick Castle
Coming soon – reviews of Shakespeare performances in England!