Blog posts tagged "shakespeare"

Exit, Chased by a Bear

February 20th, 2004

Saw Seattle Public Theatre’s production of Winter’s Tale with Todd and Sarah this evening. It was community theater, and enjoyable. Winter’s Tale‘s tragecomic (The Tragedian would have been apalled by the lack of blood) , Greek-infused form is something of an oddity in the folios, and while its been praised for its realism, I’ve yet to encounter a production that brought that home for me.

With Shakespeare’s more obscure plays you often wonder if there is a reason they are obscure. Last time I had these thoughts were in the lead up to SSC’s Coriolanus, which in the end was one of the most stunning, riveting, inventive productions I’ve ever seen bringing out a richness and contemporaneity missing from much of the Bard’s more traditional works. On the other hand Pericles is just awful, and I can’t imagine why anyone would perform it. For me the jury is still out on Winter’s Tale. This is the second time I’ve seen it, and it has yet to be compelling.

A Dying Breed?

It did however get me thinking about the nature of the Shakespeare plays, and the nature of the actors we’re producing these days. Heather Hawkins as Hermione was wonderful. Except for the dramatic denouement in Act III she owned the words and made them hers in that way so essential to bringing Shakespeare to life. Next to this the actor playing Leontes (missed his name) struggled under the awkward weight of his prosy, melodramatic lines, and at times you squirmed at the sheer flowey-ness of it all. Hawke was great, but Hermione, while pivotal, is written more to a human scale. Leontes, like Hamlet, or Lear, needs a specialist, a patrician in old the RSC mold of Olivier and other greats to make the words sing. Otherwise they go leaden, and lumpy.

I’ve had the privilege of watching a few such figures at work, Tony Church in SSC production of The Dresser will always be memorable (a play about the fading patrician as it were), James Edmondson as Lear in Ashland (who is returning this season to direct the sorry king), and merely seeing Gielgud speak was enough to send shivers. But it seems to be a dieing breed (quite literally), and I wonder if we’ll have to see a radical shift in direction in order to keep these works alive. I’m not worried about them becoming un-doable, afterall we have actors who are being asked to carry heavier loads (Hirson’s La Bete’s entire first two acts are a physical, comic soliloquy in verse, and the Homebody of Homebody/Kabul must be a harrowing role), but I has my doubts that we’re producing a new generation of actors who can stand up, and play these old words straight.

Tagged: Uncategorized , ,

Ruled Britannia

March 26th, 2003

I picked up Ruled Britannia this weekend as it seems to have made its way on to many of the short lists of year’s best SF. It is Harry Turtledove’s latest, and unsurprisingly a novel of “alternative history”.

We find ourselves transported to Shakespeare’s England, 1597, but one in which the Spanish Armada has landed 10 years ago, bringing England forcibly back into the Catholic fold. The English Inquisition is upon the land, and the twin charges of treason and heresy has everyone stepping softly, and planning revolution. I’m about three quarters of the way through the book, but I have few thoughts on it.

Turtledove is working with an idea which has potential. It is a pretty conceit; an idea whose boards have been trod before, but with enough new to make it interesting.

Unfortunately the final results owe more to the gimmickry of Shakespeare in Love (the curtain rises with Will working on Love’s Labours Won), then the powerful imagination evidenced in Turtledove’s Guns of the South, or the lyric poetry of his subject, the Bard, from whom he borrows liberally. And therein lies one of the chief problems. Ruled is populated with characters who speak unceasingly in verse.

To Prance upon the Stage

When your cast of characters numbers many Elizabethan (Isabellan?) players and playwrights a certain amount of blank verse is expected. The scenes of the players twitting each other in broad, raunchy iambic pentameter ring true, and Turtledove’s early passages of Shakespeare and Marlowe fencing, each in his own words, sing. (and remind you who was the gifted story teller and who the master of letters)

But quickly the device grows old, tiresome, and distracting. Where is Shakespeare’s genius (a central dogma of Ruled) if you find his best lines, unprompted, in the mouths of others?

Players never merely act, but must be always strutting and fretting, and many pages groan under the weight of overwrought, leaden dialog, whose sole existence is to frame a clever borrowing or turn of phrase. This heavy handed paean feels more like an exercise carried too far then true craft. Contrast it against Pamela Dean whose appropriations draw yarn from the whole sweep of English literature to add depth and subtlety to her weave.

Perchance to dream?

Turtledove also fails in the “truth is stranger then fiction” department. His subjugated England, and its supposed alternative history hews closer to the conventional history of the time then many scholars propose as having actually existed. Bloom and Michell have proposed a dozen alternatives all more strange. And more intriguing because they might be true. A writer who seeks to tell a story of intrigue, plots, deception, and Shakespeare, but whom relegates Kit Marlowe to the role of pompous jackass, and Bacon to a bit part has thrown away much good material. So much you question the author’s wit, or, deadlier still for a career historical fabulist like Turtledove, his grasp on history.

After all, everyone knows Kit was a secret agent and assassin for the Crown (the original Bond) who staged his own death in that tavern (with Ingram Frizer help) and later published his own works under Shakespeare’s imprint. Or at least one could make a reasoned argument to that effect. Next to such, Ruled’s offerings seem inspid.

Other complaints

Ruled’s women are largely weak, receptacles of desire, and sketchily drawn. Cellis’ cunning woman is intriguing, but suffers from an embarrassment of anachronisms.

Dogberry could well be my least favorite of Shakespeare’s repertoire, and if Michael Keaton once played him marginally well, the pale shade Turtledove has cast in Keaton’s stead to animate Constable Strawberry proves unable to rise to the task, making the Ruled’s later pages, in which the constable plays a significant role, a chore.

Turtledove seems confused on the on the chronology of Shakespeare’s plays, or he has rearranged their order arbitrarily without justifying or bothering to notify us of this. An example, the clown Will Kemp’s silence is purchased with the promise of “Falstaff and a King”. Was not King Harry in Falstaff’s inaugural play sufficient? (and if commissioning the revival of that rogue in dreadful comedy of manners Merry Wives is not sufficient reason to dispose Queen Elizabeth, I can think of none better)

A Trifle, But Still Fun

Misunderstand me not, I am enjoying the book. William Cecil ( de Vere’s guardian) commissioning Shakespeare to write a play of Boudica to incite the rabble is clever and original, and much of the language is an old friend, and I’m glad to see it, even if it comes in ruder garb then usual. I have some doubts of the efficacy of Cecil’s scheme (though Coriolanus last summer showed me what a Roman play could be!) but I’ve not finished the book yet,the pages turn quickly, and I wish to know how it ends.

A host of furious fancies

Lastly, Tom O’ Bedlam (a song who has an fey grip upon my fancy) makes an unexpected, and welcome appearance at one point. Turtledove interprets “knight[s] of ghosts and shadows” as being knights of the cross-trade, and the Cecils, fallen nobility moving though the criminal underworld; spinning webs, pulling strings, and occasionally cutting a thread short are just such knights. This interpretation pleases to me to no end.


My thoughts on finishing the book, its weak ending, and surprising prologue copied from Recent Books: Lion’s Blood, More Britannia, Storm of Swords

Ruled Britannia

Ruled Britannia ended predictably I’m afraid. I hoped until the very end for some surprise of substance, but it was not forthcoming.

The 3 page historical end note on the other hand was fascinating. In it Turtledove talks about what would have been required for Spain to have invaded England at that time, and where the verse for the fictional Boudicca came from.

In his estimation (as the premier writer of alternatively historical wars) if the Armada had gotten lucky enough to land the Spanish infantry would have trounced their English counterparts. No word on how they would have fared against the Scotts.

Yet as the premier writer of alternatively historical wars, I was puzzled by Boudicca, the play Turtledove pens for the Bard, as it is awfully good. In fact Turtledove borrowed much of it from the play Bonduca, written by Shakespeare contemporary John Fletcher, and from Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. This is both clever and cynical, for the effect would have be utterly ruined if the reader had recognized the words. (as was the case with his more obvious borrowing from Titus to account for the bulk of his fictional King Phillip)

I wonder as the body of human literature grows with the passing years if each literary age will be boiled down to a single known author, the rest forgotten?

SSC and Merry Wives

August 2nd, 2002

I was working Merry Wives of Windsor today, mostly directing traffic, and trying to cram the 600+ people who showed up unexpectedly for a Thursday matinee, into the Glen


This production has almost restored my faith in the play. Almost. Its a light weight, campy play, not all that good, written at the whim of the Queen because she took a liking to Falstaff. Master Ford is often played unbearably, so that you cringe every time he steps on stage, very few Shakespearean actors know what to do with the 2 pragmatic wives, and the only way one can play Falstaff is broadly (pun intended) and in doing so many people lose track of his humanity.

Besides, it is a very English play, and a comedy at that.
The humor turns on class, class pretensions, accents, and making fun of the Welsh and French. Never a scene slips across stage without some blue collar elocuting out of their depths, and tumbling, via some malapropism, into sexual innuendo.

Dxxx Sxxxx

That, and Dxxx Sxxxx absolutely ruined the play for me in 1993, with a horrendous production set in a 1970s trailer park. Sxxxx is always over the top, and his artistic contributions have been both brilliant and formative over the last 20 years. No one who saw Prince Hal as Boy George, ride into the Glen on a motorcycle will ever forget it. Nor Sxxxx’s cross cast Midsummer Nights. And one of my all time favorite theater memories, is his production of the Tempest, set on Gilligan’s Island with Ariel a flaming trapeze artist, Caliban dressed in leather boy bondage style, and “water nymphs” dressed in 50s style bathing suits, dancing in sprinklers in front of the stage, who also served as something of a chorus, holding up beach balls, karaoke style, of Ariel’s songs.(of course I had a crush on one of the nymphs, might have had something to do with it) But Merry Wives was dreadful, and he cast himself, hideously, as Mistress Quickly.

The Good

But back to this years show. Ford in particular was masterfully done. His jealousy amusing without being despicable(and more believable, with Mistress Ford being cast very sexily, at several points appearing in Marilyn Monroe garb for this 50s production) and his transformation into Master Brook, subtle. And Falstaff was also human enough to connect to, to care about, again so often played in equal parts despicable and buffoon.

The setting is in the 1950s, but without a single American Graffiti prop. This is not James Dean’s fifties of teenagers. This is a 50s of adults, mercifully void of poodle skirts, muscle cars, and Grease casting extras. A beautiful set, in orange and turquoise, relatively minimal, as is usual for outside productions, but very expressive.

And I wish plays sold sound tracks, because this one was a great mix of hits of the 50s , masterfully synced, in snippets, with the action on stage.

Also heard a rumor that Ashland is opening its New Theater (yup, thats what its called), replacement for the dearly departed Black Swam, with a production of Macbeth. Which is just asking for it, calls to mind Terry Pratchet’s line about standing “in a thunderstorm, wearing copper armor, shouting ‘All Gods Are Bastards’.” But not just any Macbeth, a 5 person, 90 minute, no intermission Macbeth. Wow.

Tagged: Uncategorized , ,


July 9th, 2002

“Its a very popular play elsewhere, its play regularily in countries that take their theater and politics seriously.”

Shakespeare Santa Cruz is producing Coriolanus this summer, one of the few Shakespeares I truly know (knew?) nothing about. I sort of grouped it with Pericles as another Plutarch story that fails to translate to modern narrative forms. An obscure tragedy.

We went and saw Michael Warren tonight, UCSC professor of Shakespeare, and he corrected a few misconceptions.

First, its not an obscure play.

Second, its not failed, simply more expiremental. Separated over a vast time and space gap, set in Roman mythic history, Shakespeare had much more freedom to play with the roles of individual, the nobility, and God, all tropes that were largely fixed and not subject to much debate when writing more comtemporary work. (the hand of the Royal censor being heavy indeed)

Also its a really good cast. This almost makes up for them doing another staging of Merry Wives, a truly lousy play.

Tagged: Uncategorized , , ,