Wednesday, December 31, 2008

HENRY V: 9.5--Excellently done and David Gwillim, who was sometimes a little frenetic during the two parts of Henry IV, here makes the part of King Henry his own. Sometimes he seemed too kingly playing Prince Hal, but here something of the young Prince's freshness is allowed to temper the royal authority. The production is restrained and compelling. To tell the truth, as long as the actors and staging are right, it's difficult to get this play wrong. Certainly, it's one of Shakespeare's most direct and immediate.

JULIUS CAESAR: 9.75--Notwithstanding Ben Jonson's criticisms, Shakespeare seemed to get inside the bodies and minds of Ancient Romans in a most dramatically accurate way. It is often said that this is really the tragedy of Brutus, as Caesar's scenes are, relatively speaking, so few. The point is debatable as Caesar, or the presence of Caesar, directs the action of the whole play. On the other hand, it's true that Brutus is the flawed hero, destroyed by a single fault (his capacity to overlook his personal friendship with Caesar for, what he believed, was the good of the Roman state). Richard Pascoe makes a brooding Brutus, and Keith Michell an athletic and rhetorically able Anthony. For me, the one stain on this excellent production is the casting of Charles Gray as Caesar. First, he is far too old. Secondly, though he definitely comes across in all his roles as an aristocratic patrician, he seems to have nothing of Caesar's energy and intelligence. Gray is a lounge lizard, able--in Eliot's words--"to start a scene or two". Other than this one point, it's an excellent production.

OTHELLO: 8--Wildly uneven. Bob Hoskins is superb as Iago--an inspired choice. Conversely, Anthony Hopkins makes an inappropriate Othello. Hopkins is a fine actor, but imagine him with boot polish on his face, a curly black wig, pot belly and an undisguised Welsh accent, and you may understand why he was not a perfect choice for this simple soldier's part. Almost equally miscast is Penelope Wilton as Desdemona. First of all, she could be Desdemona's mother and it's embarrassing watching her trying to simper like a young girl. Secondly, she has a certain carping tone which may be good for comedy and "lady of the manor" roles, but is completely wrong for Desdemona. In spite of these major problems, the final scenes are played with energy and emotional power: the denoument is shattering and cathartic.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

ROMEO AND JULIET: 6.5--The mark is given more for the play itself than the uneven and miscast BBC production. Romeo is most clearly miscast with Patrick Ryecart's acting reminiscent of a particularly otiose block of wood. Christopher Strauli as Benvolio isn't much better and Rebecca Saire as Juliet is by no means memorable. Anthony Andrews' Mercutio is handsome and athletic, but he sometimes chops up his lines to the point of near incomprehension. There is often too much emphasis on staged sword fights--presumably in a doomed attempt to up the tempo. The final act remains effective, as even this slow and stony production cannot completely undermine its emotional power.

THE WINTER'S TALE: 7--As one might infer from the title, this is a somewhat chilly play of Shakespeare's. I think there is a problem with psychological realism here. First, Leontes decides he wishes to kill his childhood friend, Polixenes, merely because Leontes' wife, Hermione,succeeds in convincing Polixenes to extend his visit to Sicily for a few days longer--exactly the thing which Leontes wanted himself. After the "death" of his wife and son, Leontes devotes himself to 16 years of prayerful remorse, refusing to remarry. Perhaps he was a schizophrenic? In any case, the acting and direction is good enough but, predictably, cannot compensate for a tired and world-weary text.

HENRY IV, PARTS 1 & 2: 9.65--These were the plays that first alerted me to Shakespeare's remarkable genius, with their juxtaposition of light and darkness, comedy and tragedy. Falstaff is a remarkable creation and Anthony Quayle here plays him with a crafty gusto. Shakespeare loved punning, but perhaps there are more puns in these 2 plays than in any of Shakespeare's other works. Interestingly, when Falstaff replies to Prince Hal that he will not give reasons on compunction--not even if reasons were as plentiful as blackberries--there is yet another hidden pun present. In Shakespeare's day, "reason" was pronounced the same as "raisin"--and so the pun becomes apparent! Acting and direction is of a high standard in this production with the only blemish being an occasionally over-the-top performance by David Gwillim as Prince Hal.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

TROILUS AND CRESSIDA: 9.75--A so-called "problem play"--but wherein lies the problem? Yes, there is a continuous juxtaposition made between the story of Troilus and Cressida and the fate of Troy--but what of it? The one mirrors the other: Troilus' failure to keep Cressida from the clutches and hot beds of the Greeks reflects Priam and Hector's inability to prevent the fall of Troy. An earthy humour is mixed in with both stories. Ajax is the butt of Ulysses' wit and apparently in Shakespeare's time "Ajax" was pronounced "A-jacks" (which was another name for a toilet!). Some will insist the play is problematic because the hero, Troilus, doesn't die. But is Troilus the hero? Hector would seem to be the noblest of the Greeks and Trojans--and he does die at the hands of a treacherous Achilles. All the characters, except perhaps Hector, have an earthy quality that seems to mock at their fabled greatness. An example of Ben Jonson's strictures on Shakespeare for his inhistoricity occurs during the council of war at Troy. Hector upbraids his brothers for moralising too much and informs them that Aristotle had stated the opinion that young men should not study moral philosophy. Needless to say, the fall of Troy took place around a thousand years before Aristotle lived! Nevertheless, this is a fine production, well-acted and directed. It emerges not as a problem play, but as one of the better examples of Shakespeare's genius. Charles Grey deserves a special mention in the part of Pandarus.

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE: 8--A good solid mark for a good solid play and production. Of course, it is racist by our contemporary standards, and for this reason it is far more of a "problem" play than "Troilus and Cressida" ever was. Shylock, the money-lender, is a Jew and Shakespeare weighs him down with all the so-called defects of his race. Finally, after being completely humiliated by the laws of Venice, he has his wealth confiscated and is forced to become a Christian. Warren Mitchell (of "Till Death Us Do Part" fame) makes a fine Shylock and John Nettles ( "Bergerac"), a surprisingly good Bassanio.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM: 7--Never one of my favourites with its fairies, woods and phantasmogorical themes. Helen Mirren is more at home playing TItania, Queen of the Fairies, than she ever was as Rosalind in "As You Like It" (no doubt due to her having been given the authority of a Queen in this play). All in all, this is an average performance of a lesser play.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Henry VIII, As You Like It, Coriolanus

Henry VIII: 7--A problem appeared with the assessment of this play. If I am marking only the production, then I could give it 9.75: and indeed, an American organisation has graded it as the first of all the BBC productions. Certainly, it is beautifully rendered and wisely acted. However, as a play it is very undramatic and I find it hard to believe that Shakespeare had a lot to do with it. Apparently a computer programme recently analysed this drama and concluded it was almost wholly Shakespeare's. My own ear tells me otherwise. If it is, indeed, almost entirely by Shakespeare then one can only marvel at the extent to which his powers declined in his final years. I give it 7 for the poor quality of the text itself. If the performance had also been bad, then I might have given it only 3 or 4.

As You Like It: 6--Yes, even less than my mark for Henry VIII. This is a fine play which is here undone by some half-hearted acting and directing. Angharad Rees as Celia and Richard Pasco as Jacques are the only actors to rise to the occasion. Helen Mirren is too overbearing for the part of "sweet" Rosalind and her attempts to sound winsome utterly fail. Perhaps more cruelly, she is also too old for the part. The rest of the acting is, in a word, poor. Furthermore, the direction and costuming are both over the top.

Coriolanus: 9--A fine play, well-acted and directed. I saw Alan Howard perform the part of Coriolanus at Stratford in the mid-seventies and, over the years, he has come to be identified with this role more than any other. Of course, this is a hard drama full of pride, anger, war, and betrayal. The plot construction is tight, but there is little high-flying poetry in it. Perhaps the most telling defect is the difficulty the text faces an audience with in feeling any sympathy for the violent passing of the so-called Coriolanus, Caius Marcius.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Complete Works of Shakespeare on DVD

I haven't added to this blog for some time--mostly because I've been extremely busy. Now, however, I have come up with a topic which can be added to regularly for several months without too much effort on my part: namely, the BBC's issuing of their late seventies and early eighties complete cycle of Shakespeare plays on DVD. A few days ago, I bought this complete collection for about $250 and have already watched 3 plays. I remember seeing some of the plays at the time they were first shown, but I was at university then and didn't pay too much attention. Some of the first thoughts that occur to me are:

1) Such a collection reminds us that Shakespeare was a superb user of language. This might seem an obvious point, but too often the "bard" is viewed as some kind of phenomenon of nature that transcended both time and place. Rather, he was the right person in the right place at the right time, able to fully word and express that lush flowering of the English tongue during the English renaissance.

2) Point one itself gives us food for thought. All the progress made by the human race has been through the use of differing linguistic codes, and it is sobering to realise that someone who lived around 400 years ago was able to use language better than we can ourselves. By association we assume that the England of that time was highly literate and happy and willing to listen to endless quips, puns on language, conceits and metaphors--as well as poetry of the highest order. I fear that today England has no such writers and no such audience. So much for the liberal argument of continuous progress! Perhaps we are in the process of using our languages to invest the future in advanced technological codes. However interesting and satisfying a process this may be, it can only include Shakespeare and other poets in the most oblique way: those of us who still cling to the old signs will never find, through all the ages, a finer exponent of more traditional codes than Shakespeare.

3) Anyone, in our world of a ten-minute attention span, who conscientiously listens to Shakespeare's dramas, will find them still eminently comprehensible: the idea of a modern English "translation" is both absurd and insulting. Absurd because anyone with half an ear to listen, who calls English his/her first language, will have no trouble in understanding. Insulting because it is offensive to believe that the words of one who used language so excellently could ever be the same if changed into a more "comprehensible" version.

4) Perhaps we are in danger of becoming too sophisticated for Shakespeare. Today there are just too many distractions around us for our young people to delight in the words of Shakespeare as previous generations once did. No doubt these densely worded dramas don't work too well on an iPod: better to divide the attention with an inoffensive 3 minute song. However, if Shakespeare is falling out of fashion, then that says more about the present level of culture amongst our young people than anything interesting or insightful about Shakespeare himself.

As other thoughts occur to me during this series of brief reviews I will state them. To the reviews then! Each play is scored out of 10 on the basis of personal whim (impressionistic marking they call it). The order is merely the order in which I watch the plays. Finally, it will be no part of my remit to give synopses of the individual plays--these can easily enough be found elsewhere.

MEASURE FOR MEASURE: 9.85 out of 10. It's hard to see how this late "dark" comedy could have been performed better. The acting is wonderful throughout. In particular Kenneth Folley as the Duke is quite superb in his multi-faceted ubiquitousness. However, all the cast seems to have been expertly chosen. A special mention is due to John McEnery's Lucio--that tainted and deceitful gentleman. His scurrilous comments against the Duke, to the Duke's own face, (while the latter is dressed in the guise of a friar) are really quite hilarious! Tim Piggott-Smith, Kate Nelligan, Christopher Strauli and Jacqueline Pearce all contribute to the setting of a standard of excellence that all future productions in the series will be judged against.

TWELTH NIGHT: 9.75. Maintaining the high standard set by M for M. This was one of the few plays in the series that I saw when it was first shown. Felicity Kendall, although starting slowly, suddenly runs into a streak of classy form and makes the part of Viola/Cesario her own. All future Viola's--at least in our generation--will be judged against Kendall's setting of a standard of excellence in the role. The production is lusciously extravagant which is very much in tune with the mood of the play itself--and isn't Felicity Kendall beautiful in that blue feathered hat? The other actors have also been expertly chosen and a special mention must go to Robert Hardy, who as Sir Toby Belch, is the epitome of crafty drunkenness. Annette Crosby surprised me as Olivia's maid. I remembered her mostly as Queen Victoria in the series "Edward VII", but here she is light and winsome--even sexy. Sinead Cussack makes a suitably beautiful Olivia and minor parts are all excellently realised.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING: 8.75. Still very good. A nuanced and well directed production. All the supporting cast is wonderful: the problem lies in the choice of the two central characters. Both Robert Lindsay (of Citizen Smith fame) and Cherie Lunghi (beautiful in "The Manageress" and all those coffee adverts) are, perhaps, a little light-weight for these difficult roles. Both are fine actors, but for me Benedick should be rather more sardonic and supercillious, and Beatrice less of a highly strung girl. Still, while the production may not be perfect, it is undoubtedly genial and likeable.