9/15/14

Advice for Reading Richard III and a Summary of the First Two Scenes

Richard III seems complicated because, as the last of a group of four plays, its characters share a bloody past that is unfamiliar to most readers.

But the play isn't as complicated as it seems. In the first half, Richard does everything he can to get the crown. In the second, he does everything he can to keep it. Stay focused on Richard and you won't get lost.

Here's a detailed summary of the first two scenes to help get you started.

The First Soliloquy in Ian McKellen's Richard III

Ian McKellen begins his 1995 film of Richard III with the Lancasters' defeat and the murder of Prince Edward and his father Henry VI. After an opening title, we see the Yorks celebrating their victory: talking, laughing, dancing, and listening to Stacey Kent singing Christopher Marlowe's "Passionate Shepherd to His Love." As Kent finishes the song, we hear a squawk from another microphone as Richard prepares to speak. He delivers the first couplet—"Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York"—and looks at his brother Edward. The crowd laughs at his wit and applauds his subsequent, triumphant lines.

The mood changes when he says, "Grim-visaged war hath smoothed his wrinkled front" (9). The camera moves closer to his own visage, focusing on his teeth as he talks of frightening his adversaries' souls.

9/9/14

Balcony Scene Smackdown

Who does it best?
Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in Baz Luhrmann's 1997 Romeo + Juliet:


Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in Franco Zefirelli's 1968 film:


Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer in George Cukor's 1936 version:


Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in a 1966 performance of the balcony scene from Sergei Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet (1935-36):

8/21/14

Summary of A Midsummer Night's Dream

1.1
In battle, Theseus, duke of Athens, has won Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. Theseus is impatient for the wedding, and Hippolyta assures him that the four days until then will pass quickly. Egeus enters with his daughter Hermia and two young men: Demetrius, who has Egeus's permission to marry Hermia, and Lysander, who has won her heart. The law dictates that Hermia must marry her father's choice or be executed. Theseus provides a third option—she may enter a nunnery—and says she must make her decision by his wedding day.

The First Shakespeare Movie in Context, with Random Fun Facts about Dracula and a Poison-Rat-Infested Skull

This may sound like something from a steampunk novel, in which technology exists ahead of its time, like the nineteenth-century computers in William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's Difference Engine, but the earliest Shakespeare movie was made in 1899, while Queen Victoria was still on her throne.

The First Midsummer Night's Dream Movie: "So Awake When I Am Gone / For I Must Now to . . . Penelope?"

In 1909 the Vitagraph Company shot the first Midsummer Night's Dream movie in the wilds of Brooklyn, using a forest and the architecture at a waterworks and park entrance (Halio 85). The actor Charles Kent may have directed the film alone or with Vitagraph's cofounder, J. Stuart Blackton. Like many of Blackton's films, the Vitagraph Midsummer is filled with stop-action effects, but Kent, who didn't use ordinarily use these effects, may have adopted them to make the film's fairy scenes more magical.

Reflections on the Trailer for the New Cymbeline Movie Starring Penn Badgley, Dakota Johnson, Ethan Hawke, Ed Harris, and Milla Jovovich

For years I've said we need more films of Shakespeare's romances, which are perfect for this era of fantasy spectacles. Those films often look great because of CGI, a technology that works well for Shakespearean romance, as Julie Taymor proved with her 2010 Tempest. We could use similar treatments of Pericles and The Winter's Tale.

Cymbeline, with its evil queen, pagan god, clash of armies, decapitation, and far-flung settings in the first-century British court, corrupt Rome, and misty Wales would make an excellent Game-of-Thrones-style epic. Instead, Michael Almeyreda is giving us a contemporary crime thriller, with the Britons as bikers and the Romans as cops. We lose the original setting's sweep but gain a gritty immediacy that should work well for the play's jealousy and war stories.

Unlike the trailer for 2013 Romeo and Juliet—which brought high hopes crashing to the ground with Julian Fellowes's ridiculous, spell-it-all-out dialogue—the Cymbeline trailer promises a movie even better than Almeyreda's excellent 2000 Hamlet with Ethan Hawke. Almeyreda seems to be using Shakespeare's language, though he's cutting and tweaking. The tweaking may be irritating, but the cutting is fine—many of Shakespeare's words are meant to conjure images in our heads, something the movies do for us, and the Cymbeline trailer promises us a film of exciting images.


The Jealousy Plot

Bass and twangy surf guitar from the Black Angels' "Young Men Dead" give the trailer's opening a Pulp-Fiction feel. We watch a man making a woodcut of a woman standing by a death figure who holds a banner reading "Fear No More!," the first words of one of Shakespeare's most beautiful songs (which is saying a lot). People who know the play might think the artist is one of Cymbeline's lost sons, who sing the song in the original. We'll see a flash of them later (0:48), carrying the headless body of one of the play's villains, the queen's son Cloten. The artist in the opening is our hero Posthumus, played by Gossip Girl's Penn Badgley. 
"Fear no more . . ."

He's making a gift for his distant wife, Imogen (Dakota Johnson), whom we see next. She looks at his handiwork and rubs her thumb along its lower edge before we cut to the villainous Iachimo, played by Ethan Hawke. We've been hearing him in voiceover, speaking lines from Cymbeline's creepiest moment: act two, scene two, when Iachimo slinks around Imogen's bedroom, gathering "proof" that he seduced her. 

We're in the midst of one of Cymbeline's many stories. Let me describe what happens before then; in parentheses, I'll point to where these earlier moments show up in the trailer. 

8/13/14

Puppets Upstage Human Actors in a New Titus Andronicus

Mindy Leanse and Ross Hamman with
Lavinia in the Puppet Shakespeare
Players' Titus Andronicus.
In today's New York Times, Andy Webster reviews the Puppet Shakespeare Players' Titus Andronicus. The production mixes human actors and puppets, and Webster writes that the human actors are 
upstaged by the . . . puppets, designed by A. J. Coté, who plays Tamora’s lover, Aaron (here a boar).

These beings include a green, eye-patched Lucius (son of Titus), voiced by Drew Torkelson; Chiron, a garrulous creature with a New York accent inhabited by Shane Snider; and Demetrius, an impressively hulking blue beast with tusks, floor-length arms and a white Mohawk, operated by Tom Foran. 
Webster especially praises Mindy Leanse's Lavinia:
Lavinia may lose her hands and tongue, but Ms. Leanse turns her puppet, an innocent red countenance surrounded by curly blond locks, into a marvel of movement and guttural utterances who sticks up for herself. 

7/30/14

Seven Hamlet Actors Duke It Out in a Theater Critic's Imagination

In today's New York Times, theater critic Ben Brantley writes that Benedict Cumberbatch, who next August begins playing Hamlet in the Barbican, must be thinking of the many great actors who have preceded him in playing the part on stage. Brantley goes on to imagine a "Battle of the Hamlets" between seven of these actors: John Barrymore, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, David Warner, Mark Rylance, and Simon Russell Beale. (For a similar battle between four movie actors, click here.)

7/11/14

Trailer for Vishal Bhardwaj’s Hamlet Adaptation

YouTube now has a trailer for Haider, Vishal Bhardwaj’s loose Hamlet adaptation, which looks like a worthy successor to his Maqbool (Macbeth) and Omkara (Othello).

Turn on your English subtitles (unless you speak Hindi) and check it out.