Saturday, February 21, 2009

PERICLES PRINCE OF TYRE: 6--It's difficult to believe that Shakespeare had much to do with this farrago. The play begins with Pericles challenging for the hand of the King of Antioch's daughter. Only the suitor who can answer the King's riddle can become his daughter's husband. Pericles correctly sees that the answer to the riddle is that Antiochus is in an incestuous relationship with his daughter--and to flee the King's wrath Pericles escapes from Antioch and then leaves Tyre itself. This is effectively the start of the real play as this early theme dies during Pericles' travels, and he later marries, becomes father to a daughter, and loses both wife and daughter in a storm at sea. Neither, however, dies and Pericles is later reunited with both. The plot simply doesn't hang together and there is little poetry of any real merit in the play. I feel fairly certain that Shakespeare had either nothing or very little to do with the writing of this drama.

I give it 6 only because of a strong performance as Pericles by Mike Gwilym--who earlier starred as Berowne in the BBC's "Love's Labour's Lost".

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


What is it with Mozart? His symphonic music and concertos are charming but, after so many years, do rather show their age. Yes, everything is wonderful and the notes are all in the right place, but somehow it's all a little too formal, formulaic even. It's nice music to dance a waltz to or introduce a tone deaf friend to the riches of classical music with, but...sometimes you feel if you've heard one piano concerto you've heard them all.

Now this is definitely not the case when we examine Mozart's operas--and particularly the three almost perfect operas he wrote with the Italian librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte. These three works are as alive today in the operatic repertoire as they were in Mozart's day: or even more famous now really as, at the time of composition, Mozart was in a largely losing battle with Salieri and Martin Y Soler for courtly recognition. The Duke of Vienna famously remarked to the composer on hearing Figaro: "A beautiful work maestro, but too many notes", to which Mozart (equally famously) replied: "Just as many as necessary my lord". It seems amazing to us now that the ears of the listeners of the time didn't immediately inform them that this was the work of a majestic genius and that the tinkling tunes of Salieri and Co. were no more than workaday stuff. Yet as Ezra Pound informs us in his poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, "no one knows at sight a masterpiece".

With Figaro, probably for the first time, Mozart fully realised the intricate complexity of his musical art. This is exciting music. This is character driven music. This is music where the intertwining vocal lines express cynicism, hope, love, hate, ambition and sly craftiness. Each individual vocal and instrumental line perfectly unfolds the inner drama of a character, yet at the same time adds something to the contrapuntal and emotional whole. Duets and trios abound and slowly but surely Mozart builds up to his overwhelming sestets and octets that usually close an act with sublime confusion, joy or fear. The orchestra in Mozart's operas is never merely present to give an "oom-pa-pa" accompaniment, but interacts in a symbiotic way with the vocal lines: gurgling woodwind underscores the irony of Musetto's claim that he knows Don Giovanni to be a "cavaliere" or gentleman and flashing, firework-like strokes of the violins bring Figaro to its joyful conclusion.

So what about this 1973 Glyndebourne production? As a teenager, it was this televised production that fully stirred my interest in Mozart and opera in general. Yes, I fell a little bit in love with the Countess, Susanna and Frederica Von Stade's stunning Cherubino; yet looking back after all these years I can only commend myself for my good taste. The leading singers--Kiri Te Kanawa, Ileana Cotrubas, Von Stade, and Benjamin Luxon--really are superb. Knut Skram is very good as Figaro and the fact that he subsequently decided to spend most of his time in Norway should not blind us to the fact that he is an extremely good singer. The secondary roles are also exceptionally well sung. Nucci Condo as Marcellina comes in for a special mention because she brings this somewhat dull part to multi-faceted life with her protestations and sly exclamations. John Pritchard conducts the orchestra with a keen ear for sonic effect within a small auditorium, and the costumes and direction (the latter by Peter Hall) are both quite superb.

If you don't have any other performance of Figaro on DVD, then this is the one you should get.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

KING LEAR: 9.85--I have seen Laurence Olivier, Anthony Quayle and Michael Hordern in this part and, for me, Hordern is the best. He posseses an ability to project his sufferings outwards in a way that is beyond Olivier and Quayle, who present softer and more interior Lears. Needless to say, then, I rate this BBC production very highly. Lear in its uncompromising concentration on man in the "nude", "naked" man, brings us face to face with everyman's beginning and end. Probably, it is Shakespeare's greatest tragedy. If I had to carp, I would ask why none of Lear's 100 retainers possessed a castle where the old man could stay after being kicked out by Goneril and Regan! (but perhaps such a question would be churlish?).

KING JOHN: 8.75--Leonard Rossiter was made for this role, precisely capturing John's sly craftiness. The play was apparently one of Shakespeare's most frequently performed in the 19th century, due to its visual emphasis on pomp and ceremony. It tells a good story, and deserves more than the present neglect (into which it has fallen).

THE TEMPEST: 9--Another vehicle for Hordern, this time as Prospero. A somewhat fantastic play, but filled with great poetry (the latter, much used and adapted by T.S. Eliot in "The Wasteland").

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Merry Wives of Windsor:

9.5--I like this play a lot and always have done. It is generally considered one of Shakespeare's lesser comedies and it certainly lacks the verbal and moral complexity of "Measure for Measure" and "Twelfth Night". However, if what one craves is a deliciously humorous farce then TMWOW is just the thing. Poor Falstaff decides to woo two respectable wives of Windsor, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. They are incensed that the old man should think them women of little virtue, and decide to punish him in a series of sight gags that are still funny more than 400 years later. First, Falstaff has to hide in a stinking linen basket in order to escape an irate husband before, later, being unceremoniously tossed into the Thames (still inside the basket). After that, at a second tryst, he is made to dress as an old woman hated for witchcraft in order to escape his pursuers. This time he receives a good pummeling and is beaten black and blue. Finally, the play ends in a masque-like ceremony in the nearby wood where Falstaff, dressed as Herne the Hunter, with horns on his head (an ironic put-down for the would-be cuckolder) is pinched a thousand times by the children of the townspeople dressed as fairies. At last, all is revealed and, as would be expected of the old man, Falstaff doesn't turn a hair at his general humiliation, but is even able to jest about it.

It is said that the writing of this play was commanded directly by Elizabeth I herself because she wished to "see Falstaff in love". This seems likely enough as Shakespeare did present many of his plays for the Queen at court during his lifetime, and the first performance of this play was indeed at Whitehall. TMWOW does show some signs of being written in haste, and there is little poetry of any real quality in it. However, if the Queen wanted to see the old fat man making a series of blunders in love, then she would not have been disappointed. It is often said that this is Shakespeare's only contemporary play set, as it is, in Elizabethan times. I'm not sure if this is true. Firstly, we know Falstaff had appeared in the Henry IV plays--which were set hundreds of years before. There is also a reference in the play to Master Fenton, the young wooer, having been a friend of the Prince and Poins in his youth. Perhaps the truth is that in order to satisfy the Queen's request, Shakespeare set the action in a kind of historical limbo which, like the majority of limbos, most resembled the present.

The Taming of the Shrew:

8.25--A good solid presentation of a difficult play by the BBC. The difficulty lies in the fact that the Shrew, Katherine, is tamed by Petruchio through the use of what we would probably call today "psychological torture". It goes without saying that this play is not a favourite with feminist critics and the problem for today's audiences is akin to the difficulties associated with Shakespeare's presentation of Jews in "The Merchant of Venice". In the end one just has to accept that Shakespeare mostly gives a representation of reality that is consonant with his time. John Cleese as Petruchio does a pretty good job, though it's clear that the director has got him to play up the absurdity at times (what on earth is the reason for those persistent clucking noises he makes?)

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

"1599" by James Shapiro

This is a thoughtful book about an important year in Shakespeare's life, and Shapiro clearly gets it right about many things: for example, the ways in which the Irish rebellion, Essex's fate, and the threat of a second Armada from Spain influenced Shakespeare's art that year. According to Shapiro, the demise of the concept of chivalry is strongly present as a central idea in "Hamlet" where the protagonist's indecision seems to have its origin in the existential vacuum left by the death of a chivalric moral code. Shapiro interestingly links this with Essex's forbidden return to England from Ireland and his unscheduled meeting with the Queen which, according to the earlier code, should have resulted in chivalric success but, in the new moral climate of the time, was merely a prelude to Essex's trial for treason and eventual execution. Shapiro is also good on pointing out the way in which the Elizabethan populace was still not used to the reduction of holidays after the Reformation, when the Catholic saint days were cut from the religious calendar (connecting this with the first scene of "Julius Caesar"). Furthermore, the two tribunes who remonstrate with the crowd at the beginning of the play ("Hence home you idle creatures, hence you home...")are seen as the embodiment of the new puritanism which frowned on frivolous entertainment and idle amusement in Elizabeth's protestant England. On the other hand, as Shapiro points out, the Elizabethan theatre itself had gained in popularity since the demise of the ostentatious show associated with Catholicism. It had become, so to speak, a substitute for religious entertainments which were no longer permitted.

I found the weakest part of Shapiro's book to be the chapters dealing with "As You Like It". His central thesis seems to be that in earlier romantic comedies, including Shakespeare's, true love had always been blocked by some outward source: an irate parent, cruel fate, or whatever. However (says Shapiro) in AYLI Shakespeare went beyond this rather mechanical structure and placed the impediment in Orlando's own mind: he must learn how to love before he can truly be worthy of Rosalind. His early bad versifying is seen as an example of his ineptitude and those scenes where Rosalind (playing the part of Ganymede)instructs him in the ways of love are regarded as his essential education. Now this might be a good interpretation or not, but it appears strangely conventional compared to the rest of Shapiro's insights. AYLI as a play in which one of the protagonists must learn "how to love" seems to belong to a long line of rather dated Shakespearean criticism based on some kind of analysis or psychoanalysis of the central characters.

Perhaps Shapiro's most incisive point is his insight that through the reading of the essays of Montaigne and others, Shakespeare developed his mastery of the internal dialogue or soliloquy and, through this, a profound method for the writing of tragedy. As Shapiro points out, "Hamlet" was probably Shakespeare's least original play being largely based on an earlier drama of the same name. However, the addition of Hamlet's self-questioning soliloquies made all the difference, producing what is still generally considered to be Shakespeare's best play.

In conclusion, Shapiro's book is thought-provoking and useful in reconstructing the social mileau from which Shakespeare's plays were produced. However, Shakespeare himself still, somehow, remains mostly absent in a way that might be considered surprising. After all, he was at the centre of the group that built the Globe, performed regularly before the Queen at Whitehall and Richmond, and was frequently spoken of by contemporaries. Perhaps the truth is that Shakespeare as a man was just not very memorable compared to larger-than-life characters such as Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe. Only his internal life was exceptional, and it is Shapiro's achievement in this very readable book to throw at least a few shafts of light upon that darkness.