12/17/14

Martin Freeman Describes the Challenges of Playing Richard III

Martin Freeman as Richard III.
Image from The Telegraph.
In the Philadelphia Daily News, Martin Freeman describes the challenges of playing Richard III, the role he took on after he finished playing Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's Hobbit:
"Just the physical toll of speaking those many words, that many lines, is hard. Then there's the [disfigured] body, and the limp, and the using one arm, and killing your wife and all that - just punching out that many lines is a challenge, and doing that eight times a week . . ." Freeman paused to consider the tone of his remarks, then laughed. "It's all well worth it, of course."
Freeman said he marvels that his older "Hobbit" co-star and Shakespearean specialist Ian McKellen was able to play Richard at a later stage in life. Freeman played Richard at 43, McKellen at 53.

12/15/14

Radical Tempest Revision in New York

In today's New York Times, Ben Brantley raves about a radical revision of The Tempest by "the most truly revolutionary troupe in town," the Italian Motus Theater Company:
Motus is . . . channeling the pent-up lifeblood of two slaves out of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” chafing at their bondage to an imperial magician named Prospero. 
Ariel and Caliban, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.  
“Nella Tempesta,” which runs through Sunday at the Ellen Stewart Theater at La MaMa, is a full-throated cry to the young and disaffected to get off their collective duffs, shake off their shackles and do something. Conceived and directed by Daniela Nicolò and Enrico Casagrande, this production turns a cast of six and an assortment of blankets into an 80-minute youthquake that seems likely to leave even cynical audience members shaken and stirred.

12/11/14

Globe's Gory Titus Andronicus Headed for Movie Theaters

Tamora (Indira Varma) pleads for her son's life in
the Globe's production of Titus Andronicus
Image from The Independent.
The Telegraph reports that the Globe's Titus Andronicus will be shown in movie theaters in the UK, Europe, Australia, and the US as part of the Globe on Screen program. Hannah Furness writes that the original production was "so bloody it caused more than 100 audience members to faint or leave during its theatre run."

12/10/14

Shakespeare and the Senate Intelligence Committee's Torture Report

Gloucester's enhanced interrogation.
Image from Shakespeare's Staging.
Shakespeare would have agreed with the Senate Intelligence Committee's conclusion that torture didn't produce useful information about Osama bin Laden. At the end of Othello, Gratiano says that "torments" will make Iago explain his villainy (5.2.312), but we don't see this, and Ludovico orders Cassio to torture Iago (5.2.377-79) for the same reason that Lucius orders that Aaron be tortured in Titus Andronicus (5.3.178-82) and Benedick proposes torturing Don John in Much Ado About Nothing (5.4.121-22)—as a punishment. In the only play in which we see torture used in an attempt at gaining intelligence, it gains nothing. King Lear's Cornwall, Regan, and Goneril tie Gloucester to a chair and pull his beard to get him to tell them why he sent the king to Dover. But Gloucester doesn't reveal that Cordelia and French army are there, and even if he had, the villains knew this already. Having learned nothing, they blind Gloucester in a frenzy of sadism.

In The Merchant of Venice, Portia alludes to the main reason torture doesn't result in reliable intelligence: torture victims will say what they think their torturers want to hear. Portia tells Bassanio she doesn't trust his protestations of love because "I fear you speak upon the rack, / Where men enforced do speak anything" (3.2.32-33).

12/8/14

Tales of the First Folio

The First Folio discovered in the 
Saint-Omer public library, near Calais.
Image from the New York Times.
The recent discovery of a First Folio in France made many of us wonder how many copies lie neglected in libraries or buried at the bottom of trunks. On The Conversation, one of world's foremost Folio experts, Eric Rasmussen, says that a new copy seems to turn up around every six years. He goes on to tell some amusing tales about copies that have been lost and recovered:
During the Great Depression, a copy was filched from Williams College by a New York shoe salesman (who ultimately returned it in a drunken stupor because he was worried that it might fall into the hands of Adolf Hitler). 
In 2008, an unemployed, self-described ‘fantasist’ named Raymond Scott walked into Washington, D.C.’s Folger Shakespeare Library with a copy that he claimed to have acquired from one of Fidel Castro’s bodyguards. The First Folio in question turned out to have been stolen from Durham University, and the flamboyant Scott – who arrived at his trial in a horse-drawn carriage, dressed in all white, holding a cigar in one hand and a cup of instant noodles in the other, while reciting lines from Shakespeare’s Richard III – was convicted of the theft and imprisoned). 
Rasmussen also relates some intriguing—but depressing—stories about copies that have disappeared.

12/1/14

The Killer Rocks One of Iago's Drinking Songs

A few weeks ago, I posted Jerry Lee Lewis's rendering of Iago's first and second soliloquies from the rock musical Catch My Soul. Bill Walthall asked if there were more such tunes on the web. Alas, there's very little. We have Lance LeGault singing as Iago in Patrick McGoohan's 1974 film version and Lewis singing the first of Iago's drinking songs:
And let me the canakin clink, clink,
And let me the canakin clink.
A soldier's a man,
O, man's life's but a span.
Why then, let a soldier drink.
(2.3.60-64)
Lewis includes a couple of Iago's earlier, bawdy remarks to Desdemona: e.g., "If she be black [haired], and thereto have a wit, / She'll find a white [a "wight" or person] that shall her blackness fit [sexually]" (2.1.135-36). When he's done singing we hear some of his dialogue with William Jordan's Cassio.

 

11/30/14

The Epilogue in Julie Taymor's Tempest


Music is central to Shakespeare's romances. In Pericles, Gower calls the story a "song," and Marina "sings like one immortal." Cymbeline has the beautiful songs "Hark, hark! the lark " and " Fear no more the heat o'th' sun," and The Winter's Tale has Autolycus's songs and a pastoral dance. 

The Tempest was turned into an opera less than a hundred years after it was first performed; composers who have written for it include Purcell, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, and Vaughan Williams.
Beth Gibbons of Portishead

Eliot Goldenthal's music is one of the highlights of Julie Taymor's 2010 film of the play, which ends with the epilogue being sung rather than spoken. During a question-and-answer period at the New York Film Festival, Taymor explained that she thought a spoken epilogue wouldn't work in film as it does in the theater, where the actor sheds his character as he bids the audience farewell.

Bryce Dallas Howard does just this in Kenneth Branagh's As You Like It (2006), and it's an effective strategy. But Taymor didn't want to break the illusion of the world of her film and so didn't film Helen Mirren speaking the epilogue. Instead she had Goldenthal write music to be sung by Beth Gibbons of the trip-hop band Portishead. The music plays as we watch Prospero's sinking books and the credits roll.

11/24/14

Jennifer Lawrence in a High-School Production of Othello

CNN recently broadcast some short clips of Jennifer Lawrence playing Desdemona in a high-school production of Othello. She describes Othello's command that she dismiss Emilia (4.3.11-13) and sings a bit of the "Willow" song (4.3.38-51).

 

11/18/14

Right-Wing Radio Host Argues Against Teaching Shakespeare

Puritan book burning (1643).
In Wonkette, "Doktor Zoom" describes the right-wing radio host Kevin Swanson's Apostate: The Men Who Destroyed the Christian West. Swanson believes that
[y]oung, impressionable minds can “cut themselves” on the “great books,” and sometimes the wounds get infected. This is usually how we lose our best and brightest young students to the other side, generation after generation. 
According to Swanson, one of those books is Shakespeare's Complete Works. He worries that the sonnets' homoeroticism "introduces dangerous gender confusion into the minds of men" and that Shakespeare's "fundamental worldview was not openly and obviously Christian." Swanson finds Macbeth particularly distressing since
[i]n the familiar scene, Lady Macbeth attempts to wash away the bloodguilt with water, but to no avail. No mention is made of the blood of Christ. Not surprisingly, the central position of Jesus ... is completely ignored. 

11/10/14

Introduction to Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood


Many directors of Shakespeare films have not been great film innovators and stylists—they've been stage directors with a deep understanding of the plays. That combination is enough to produce a great Shakespeare movie. But there's another group of directors who have both a deep understanding of the plays and who are also great film stylists and innovators.

At the summit of that group are two directors: Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa. Welles had directed most of Shakespeare's history plays by the time he was fifteen, and he reread the plays throughout his life. His three feature-length Shakespeare films may be the best things he ever did. He thought, and I agree, that his greatest film wasn't Citizen Kane but The Chimes at Midnight, his mash-up of the Henry plays.

Similarly, Kurosawa's appreciation of Shakespeare began early, when he was an art student, and continued throughout his life. Three of his best films are versions of Shakespeare plays. The Bad Sleep Well loosely follows Hamlet, resetting it in postwar Japan. Ran ("Chaos") is an adaptation of King Lear set in sixteenth-century Japan. And Throne of Blood is a Macbeth adaptation, also set in feudal Japan, that follows Shakespeare more closely than either of the other two films.