Posts Tagged ‘European Renaissance’

Lear (Joseph Marcell) and Gloucester (John Stahl) on the heath

I stumbled when I saw

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players …

Dear friends and readers,

Don’t miss it. If the ensemble production of the London Globe King Lear comes anywhere near you, get there. The Folger theater in DC was their first stop round the US.

This London Globe production, like that of the earlier Hamlet (in July) can function as a revelation. The three times I’ve seen Lear before (once a PBS film, another time at the Central Park Delacorte theater in summer, a third time in London), there’s been a famous actor delivering himself virtuoso style as Lear. Nothing against that and Marcell lacks nothing against the others I remember. He seemed to be an elderly black man with white grizzled beard and thin hair. Perfect for the part. What makes this production is this Lear is part of a larger world where other figures have countervailing weight (Bill Nash as the Earl of Kent, Bethan Cullinane as Cordelia and Fool); the taking on of more than one role for many of the actors brings out stinging parallels (Daniel Pirrie as Edmund and the treacherous supposed loyal servant Oswald). Alex Mugnaioni as Edgar and Tom the homeless man was particularly strong.

The Globe production of Hamlet revealed its predilection for giving its characters some fun; Shakespeare’s text allowed for much comic deliverance. With the Lear text, the Globe production was at a loss for self-reflexive amusement so they plunged into, and insisted upon the ritual aspect of life, the hypocrisies. The framing of having the actors come out in 1940s style dress and present themselves implicitly as actors going round England in WW2 to keep up morale was the same, but they kept up the suitcases and mime bits in the Hamlet far more than Lear; basically the frame was active in Lear only as the play started, and to make the intermission. It did not return at the end of Lear, for then they were doing toned-down wild Elizabethan dancing (toned down as befitting the play’s ending). The opening scene of Lear is stiff, parable or fable like (as in the opening of Pericles) while Hamlet is realistic — or more so. So here the conceit of actors playing players playing Shakespeare’s characters is used to tone down some of the cruelty. We see the same faces and bodies doing different roles so we know we are in a play. Otherwise, in this play barbarity is us. Both productions were directed by Bill Buckhurst.

To me this time round (this is probably the fourth time I’ve seen the play), the whole of the fourth and fifth acts, especially Lear’s near last lines hit me with their direct truth fiercely:

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!

It took enormous reserves of strength not to howl with him. Had I done so I would have ruined the play for others around me, so I contained myself with mere writhing and silent crying. I did feel the ripping out of Gloucester’s eyes produced a different gasp in the audience than I have heard before and it’s since the ISIS/ISIL state beheaded by knife two American journalists on YouTube video place on the Internet so the play has become more generally relevant to its audiences too.

Taken as a dramatized poem (which I can do as a watcher), I was most moved in the fourth act when Lear is brought down to the level of a second homeless old man suffering from “food insecurity” (that’s the latest euphemism on US TV media), seeing other beggars, the hard lot of workers gathering seaweed on a cliff. Lear’s insight into how the generality of people lived whether it be BC or Renaissance or today makes him ask himself why did he not see this before? the wracking pain of loss has made him realize how blind he was when prosperous, unfeeling. I look back to see my life with Jim over the past ten years feelingly:

Might I but live to see thee in my touch,
I’d say I had eyes again!

I thought about how I had been too complacent, mistakes I’d made, things I wish I had done otherwise. Since then I’ve told Charlie (my grief support person-friend at the Haven) how I felt when I saw the play. She urged me not to make causes of grief that were not there before. If I’m doing things now I wish I had done then, do not retrofit. He was satisfied with his life; he liked it.

The quiet of the audience filing out at the end of the play despite the use of exhilarating dance at the close suggests many were affected.

I can’t resist identifying an actress from Downton Abbey: Gwendolen Chatfield, Gwen in DA, the housemaid who left to take a job as a typist-secretary, was in this production Goneril. She plays the accordion:


As Gwen going off to her interview with Lady Sybil (Deborah Findlay-Brown)

It was Izzy who first spotted her — though Izzy does not watch Downton Abbey.

It was a Sunday later afternoon and we went out to get two yummy pasta meals from Noodles and Company to take home with us. I washed it down with wine and told myself I would try to go to more of the Folger’s poetry readings, lectures, and play productions too than I have hitherto done.

In talking of Lear, we talked of older literature, Charlie and I. She brought up an image of me as having a package or burden I carry and take to her every other week now, and we go over what’s inside. I mentioned that was like Bunyan’s Pilgrim who falls into a Slough of Despond. I quoted Shakespeare’s speech about men and women being merely players on a stage, and she then said that the act Jim and I were in is now over, I am in the next act, and he’s left the stage.

Tonight I found in Alexander Pope’s poetry where he has a poignant passage about leaving the stage (in his Imitations of Horace) and asserts his actor has “play’d, and lov’d, and eat, and drank your fill,” and my beloved didn’t get to do that, but in another of the Horatian poems there’s this: “The Cordial Drop of Life is Love alone.” “A wheel of fire” Lear calls his life and that is what I am on still too.


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The evocative set

Richard and Stanley right behind him

Dear friends and readers,

This is to add to a chorus of praise for the production of Richard III playing this month through early March of Shakespeare’s Richard III at the Folger. Izzy and I saw it tonight and by the time we were into the second half, enjoyed it enormously, were thoroughly absorbed.

As might be seen by my comparative qualification, I don’t quite agree with the estatic insights some reviewers have been attributing to the play. I’ve seen it so many times, and Izzy almost as many, and we agreed we’ve seen many a superior one: to name just a few, Ian McKellen as Richard III as a Hitler type in the film (and Jim and I also saw it on stage); Laurence Oliver’s film (where Ralph Richardson as Buckingham managed to steal the show); the Washington Shakespeare’s great version (a parable about politicians) a few years ago now at the Arlington theater; one I saw years ago with Stacey Keach as Richard III. The play is popular — it is just deliciously over-the-top for an ensemble cast and rich for a great actor) and frequently done in part or as a whole. This production was disappointing during the first half. The declaiming style used throughout could not accommodate the black and nervy humor of the first half: many jokes just thrown away and lost. Richard’s “We are not safe” to Clarence as Clarence is taken off to be murdered at Richard’s instigation fell flat.

There is something effeminate (a fine thing to be by the way) in Richard III (as there is Richard II) and this was erased utterly — can’t have that in this macho male world of long leather coats, and heavy armor and weapons. In fact the costumes recalled the way we see police dressed in the US when they attack crowds (say Occupy groups) or shut down and swarm all over a city (say Boston). Cortese was superb

Drew Cortese as Richard III,

but he also seemed unwilling to unbend and the worst scene of the play (though it was effective as Shakespeare’s scene is striking) was the one where Richard wooes Lady Anne (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan) in front of her husband’s bleeding corpse.


Cortese kept his distance and his dignity; what he should have done is sidled up to her, and engaged physically with her, alluring and luring. They didn’t even obey the stage directions which include a comment about how she had thrown the sword he gave her to push through his heart on the ground: they kept the line, but she didn’t throw the sword until well after he uttered the line.

The nervousness of the usual scenes in the first half often leads to cutting the second half where the mood become direct and hard-hitting and this is where this production came into its own. What it had to add to the all the productions I’ve seen before was it was utterly traditional — as we might imagine it. In fact they risked slight parody (a la Beyond the Fringe) as they marched on and off the stage, declaiming at one another at the top of their voices with their bodies just writhing and just standing in place. No lines were left out, no scenes cut.


The reviews I’ve read have strangely left out two important themes of the production: the way characters were killed was in imitation of Sweeney Todd, that modern neurotic nightmare of slaughter. There were squares and triangles in the floor which would open up and the assassin would come along and slit the person’s throat, or pull them down and we’d hear some sort of thump, clang; the repetition of this was effective. These holes in the ground allowed for continual allusions to the finding of the much decayed corpse of Richard III in 2012 in a parking lot in Leicester, England. The program notes were all about this, and this corpse & parking lot were continually evoked on stage. The lights underground were parking lot lights. The corpse of Anne’s husband was wrapped like a mummy one finds in a excavation of a site where savage rituals were performed.

UK - King Richard III Discovery

A contemporary gothic all right.

This evocation may have been meant (the program notes suggest this) to remind the audience that although this version of Richard III as malign and deformed may be a Tudor myth, based on More’s biography intended to please Henry VIII; nonetheless, a terrible reality gave rise to this fascinating dramatization of the criminal and desperate behavior of the aristocrats of the UK in the 15th century. The women were the desperate mourners (Nanna Ingvarsson came through as a great actress once again as the Duchess of York in her set-tos with her vile son, Richard) or worked upon to give in in order to salvage something or appear too. Richard’s seducing of Queen Elizabeth (Jula Motyka) paralleled his seducing of Anne:


He is offering her a replacement of a possible future and safety if she will allow him to marry her daughter, Princess Elizabeth (Jenna Berk). I liked especially that the production conveyed by costumes and gestures that when Henry VII took over and the Princess is brought by her mother to stand by his side, that we not having any improvement. This man is such another perhaps as Richard was — whose death has a certain desperate pathos – throat slit just as he goes down the hole and cries “a horse, my horse … my kingdom for a horse … “. A parable for our time, and depiction of how the real corpse that was found got there.

I could see the audience was not gone on the production until the second half either. The actors brought the audience in as if they were London citizens and the audience at one point obliged by clapping. People like to be amused and there was laughter at the some obvious stage business like jokes during Richard’s hypocritical refusal of the crown. Some of the best secondary male performances came out here. Richard Sheridan Willis as Stanley in dark-colored glasses with his sheaf of papers and fear for his son but determined betrayal of Richard III evoked a modern day powerful minister backing up whoever is in power by whatever means necessary.


So don’t miss it; it’s another winner for this new Shakespeare all the time group at the Folger. As to our personal experience, see Under the Sign of Sylvia.


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And she to me: ‘There is no greater sorrow
than thinking back upon a happy time
in misery …
One day, to pass the time away, we read
of Lancelot — how love had overcome him …
this one, who never shall be parted from me,
while all his body trembled, kissed my mouth …’ Dante, Inferno 5, translated Allen Mandelbaum

Francesca da Riminiactoneblog
Act One: the stage scene as a whole

Act One: Francesca (Eva-Maria Westbrook) and Paolo (Marcello Giordani) meet: he pretends to be her bethrothed

Dear friends and readers,

The 1984 Pre-Raphaelite picturesque production of Riccardo Zandoni’s Francesca da Rimini (libretto Tito Ricordi) is wonderfully absorbing in its HD Met Opera format (conductor Marco Armiliato; production Pero Faggioni; set designer Ezio Frigerio; costume designer Frana Squarciapino, lighting Gil Wechsler). I had not expected to enjoy it so much. Breaking through the fussily-decorated elaborate Pre-Raphaelite picturesque and early 20th century art deco decor, its core and action are fuelled by primary passion: the coerced marriage of Francesca (Eva-Maria Westbrook) secured by trickery: Paolo (Marcello Giordnai), the youngest handsome brother of the groom allows himself to be presented as the groom); these desperate adulterous lovers driven passionate in the way of Cavalliero Rusticano or Il Pagliaccio; the violent brutish lame murderous anguished husband, Giancioot (Mark Delavan); the even more brutal vengeful one-eyed malacious younger brother, Malatsetino (Robert Brubaker).

It’s the stuff of a verismo tale except occurring among aristocrats of the 13th century, and first turned into literature by Dante who presents the lovers after death in fifth circle of hell,

… a place where every light is muted …
The hellish hurricane , which never rests,
drives on the spirits with its violence;
wheeling and pounding, it harasses them … (Inferno 5)

“damned because they sinned within the flesh … now here, now there, now down, now up, it drives them./There is no hope that ever comforts them — no hope for rest and none for lesser pain.”

The story has a basis in actual events, and before this 1914 opera after a play by Gabriele d’Annunzio whose language came through the modern English subtitles (“The stars are drowned in the sea” Paolo says), the story had been told in many versions, staged, sung, painted mostly (it seems in Pre-Raphaelite style). Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1855) tells the spiritual after-death Dante version:


but Alexandre Cabanel (1870) prefers the theatrical murder (reminding me of Wallis’s Death of Chatterton, which is just now hanging at the National Gallery in DC, part of a Pre-Raphaelite exhibit):


What distinguishes this opera is its highly dramatic play with effective vigorous scenes, sung to music said to be a mix of Strauss, Puccini and Debussy: the love duet at the close of the second act which in the required way the lovers are reading of Lancelot, let the book fall and then “read no more” is just sweepingly swayingly lush,


It ended as swiftly as Cav and Pag; the words were simple and music felt sudden and elemental at the close: the lovers are stabbed to death and the bodies drop on the stairs, with the actors making sure they ended up flung over one another.

It was said the production was revived because Westbrook asked for this, and she sang and acted her part to perfection. She did carry the opera; she was hardly ever not there, and was endlessly singing. She got to wear the loveliest of embroidered costumes. In her interview she insisted the story was not just credible; coerced marriage happens still today. This is a big disingenuous since the motives given the lovers are hopelessly lachrymose and ethical, but the situation is given bite by ferocity of the behavior of the husband and his demented brother. Delvan was powerful, Brubaker memorable, especially when threatening Francesca and then going down below to behead a man in the midst of being tortured and screaming. Jim said Giordani sung weakly; I wished the lines about him had said she loved him for his goodness and kindness, for he’s not handsome, nothing like a Rufus Sewell.

The opera is fleshed out by Water Scott like happening: a comic minstrel opens the piece, offering to serenade Francesca’s ladies with the story of Tristan and Isolde (anticipating the story to come) — we are led to fear for his life because at the hands of these criminal males. Her ladies were characterized enough, her sister (a kind of Dido relationship):


A supposed battle takes place in Act 2 which is not convincing as the production did not take advantage of modern screen computer techniques at all. It was grotesque, with a gold-layered siege ram set on fire (like something taken from an Aida set). In act three a bloody head is flung about in a pillow case.

Francesca da Rimini
Delavan as Gianciotto in a Walter Scott-like knight-warrior outfit (aware he is a bad guy in the interview he asked our “hostess” what she had in her wallet)

And what a pleasure it was to see a new great grand opera. While I knew the story of course (the opera audience does not practice the inhibiting nonsense of no-spoilers), I had no idea how it would work out as an experience. The surprise element added to my experience.

Any flaws? well, yes. It just took too long between scenes which intervals sometimes seemed much longer than the acts. At one point the camera cut away far too quickly from a genuinely moving scene to Sondar Radvanovksy as “hostess” which her commercial blurb and hype. While we really enjoyed watching the behind-the-scenes setting up of the scenery and curtains, and painted flats, there was just too much of it, and it made the production feel as staid as some Victorian drawing-room. I’d love to see a new post-modern kind of production, with maybe a mimed scene of the woman raped by the husband, a far more effectively suggestive violence for the battles, and a mimed-coda added on where we see the lovers in hell. In Claus Guth fashion, it could critique even Dante for punishing those whom life had punished enough.

Rodin’s The Kiss (1888), said to be originally titled Francesca da Rimini

As to the play itself, there was something funny to see the principles act out the love scene over a book, and wait for the book to drop. Everyone accepted this because it was in Dante. More seriously, while here was the inevitable falsifying of sexual life so that what was the real horror of this situation, marital rape, was obscured from view; as Izzy said, the “lesson” of the play was not that adultery was evil. The lovers are not evil. It was deceit and brutality that were the evils in this opera. So it had no trouble speaking to our time. As Maria Stuarda seems to have not been revived for decades and now is utterly a propos, so Francesca da Rimini, if revived for a diva, seemed to please the audience strongly for its fable and presentation, which (to refer to the Pre-Raphaelite exhibit’s comments on my blog), revealed a pseudo-medieval, literary highly sexually liberated (for the men) art fit the pre WW1 world.

Few women in the arts or as patrons have interested themselves in her story. Josephine Bonaparte bought a 19th century painting of the story; Gabriele d’Annunzio’s play was written for Eleanore Duse:

Eleanore Duse as Francesca da Rimini (1901)

and Olga Gorelli, a 20th century Italian composer wrote some music.
Renata Scotto played the part with Placido Domingo as Paolo, and Cornell MacNeil as Gianciotti in 1984, the production now available as a DVD.


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Michael Benz was a superlative Hamlet — within the limits of the kind of acting used

Dear friends and readers,

Jim and went out last night to see the London Globe company act Hamlet at our Folger Shakespeare Library. Like last time (8 summers ago now, in the Globe Theater itself in London where we were groundlings), the company’s way of doing the plays left me cold. They again enacted actors acting the parts. For me the result is too stylized.

The dress this time reminded me of the way people costume the rude mechanicals in Midsummer’s Night’s Dream and before the play started two actors, one playing Polonius (Christopher Saul) and one Claudius (Dickon Tyrell, a superbly effective presence even in stylized patterns), mingled with the audience. They were people like us you see, their costumes not so different from ours. The era imitated was 1940s mostly, with Miranda Foster having her hair in a snood, buns on top of her head, seamed stockings, 1940s pump shows. One problem was, why 1940s? This choice of era was not addressed. Like the Shenandoah play, the company do it in the light. Minimal props. I loved all this in a way. And I can’t really complain that they depend wholly on the lines spoken beautifully in a talk way. That means you’ve got to listen — and you appreciate the words both how they still speak to us and how they are Elizabethan in feel, outlook, nuance. But during the intermission I heard people talking about how hard it was for them to keep up, to follow. Those who had read the play rejoiced. I’ve read it many times so I could follow. I loved the folk dancing before and aft. They do get across the comic moments of Shakespeare’s even most pessimistic of plays.

A couple of the younger actors were weak. There were but 8 of them, lots of thoughtful doubling. Tom Lawrence most notably as Horatio stood out as somehow embodying a quintessential English Renaissance player look. The actors playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern came in with sheepish comic looks, carrying suitcases, tennis rackets, vacation stuff. The whole feel alluded to Stoppard’s play — so the aesthetic control could be broken to allude to another art world.

But finally I prefer modern psychological enactment because I was not moved until near the end. The acting keeps me at a distance: the pace is too quick, and the gestures somehow slightly frozen, graceful in frenetism would be the way I’d characterize the Hamlet-Gertrude hard encounter. The American Shakespeare Company players (formerly Shenandoah express) do their plays using modern psychological mimesis with direct connections to our lives and norms today. I also much preferred the more abridged Hamlet we saw this summer: this Globe version was shortened too, lines sweated, here and there a speech omitted).

Go see it as an attempt to bridge the past into the present.

For a list of the company, director and notes, see Globe on Tour with Hamlet (they come to the Folger).


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John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (Patrick Earl as Giovanni, the lover-brother, and Denice Mahler as his sister-lover, Annabella), from the ASC’s production 2012

Dear friends and readers,

This is a “must-see” production. So wrote the “Mid-Atlantic Travel Blogger” who while anonymous had enough clout to see a “private” performance of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore by the group who used to call themselves “The Shenandoah Shakespeare”. He or she couldn’t or doesn’t explain why; indeed seemed puzzled how such a “twisted” play could please, and put it down to “shock.”

Within a few seconds of the start of the second act, I realized this was the production Ford’s daring play calls for: its note throughout is a gleeful exposure of the angry cynicism, amorality or sheer stupidity (imbecility) of all the authority figures of the play: some are amoral such as the cardinal (Rick Blunt), who is disinclined to prosecute the murder of one citizen because the murderer has some connections, and who gathers up all the gold left by dead strewn across the stage at the play’s close; some are justifiably cynical like Hippolita (Stephanie Holladay Earl), rejected wife of a nobleman; or Vasques (Eugene Douglas) a kind of Iago who pronounces moral lessons. There are simpletons who enforce unexamined norms: Florio (Daniel Abraham Stevens), Annabella’s father who forces her to marry the vicious treacherous Soranzo (Jake Mahler). There are the complicit for their own appetites and interest’s sake, Putana, Annabella’s “nurse” (Bridget Rue as brothel madam); Grimaldi, willing to murder at the drop of a sword (typical type of this era, played by Michael Amendola). Dark farce is the way much of these interactions are performed, with over-the-top garishly sexual costuming for the women. The story is complicated but it’s told simply at wikipedia).

Really though there’s nothing new here for us in 2012. Old hat since Marat/Sade. What is startling and commendable is from the second part of the play on, the players did Giovanni and Annabella’s love for one another as totally passionate, a beautiful thing, two souls made for one another with the most idealistic soaring of the spirit. Here’s Annabella telling Soranza what Giovanni is:

This noble creature was in every part
So angel-like, so glorious, that a woman
Who had not been but human, as was I,
Would have kneeled to him, and have begged for love.
You! why you are not worthy once to name
His name without true worship, or indeed,
Unless you kneeled, to hear another name him. (Act 3, sc 3)

The look of aspiration in Earl’s eyes is pitch perfect:

The twisting of this young man from within until he goes mad by the end of the act and himself cruelly murders Annabella (Othello-like, and Ford alludes to Othello, he cannot bear to have his woman taken by Soranzo nightly) and stalks about covered with the blood of Soranzo crazed and vehemently assailing the world from the top of his lungs on the top of a high table — these final moments are where the plot-design of the whole play had been heading.

As ever, our players “did it with the lights on,” and so they had no technology to rivet or distract us with. Earl as Giovanni was up to absorbing an audience into awed silence watching him. At the play’s close he has not the problem of what to do next since Vasques comes up to stab him from behind and then has his hired assassins (several in black who turn up whenever needed) to finish the job off:

The woman imitates a police offer, the men without the religious symbols FBI and spy-detective types, and then there’s a priest

The second half of this production was thus much braver than the Capital Fringe Festival group two summers ago who drew out of an abridged version of the play a socially acceptable feminist moral: at one point Annabella tells us (in this production from a high window) we are seeing “A wretched, woeful woman’s tragedy (Act 5, sc 1). But the dignity with which she is endowed, and the way the previous production managed to suggest this play was about men oppressing women was not followed here. This Annabella grovels on the floor:

The lines emphasized are those which present the two people as gripped by love, unable to do without one another surrounded by these “vile” types. The production used “mash-up” techniques for the intermission and during the play we were treated to 1950s rock-n-roll ballads that were very familiar to me, strains of them which I could not quite place: about love a blind passion, about loneliness. Soranzo’s bullying becomes a raping of Annabella nightly instead of justifiable rage at finding himself stuck with a pregnant woman who will not tell her lover’s name; he orders her to bed (the lines are there) where he will again do what he wants. Coerced marriage is rape.

The play put me in mind of Simon Raven’s unfortunately little known masterpiece novel, Fielding Gray: the life of the homosexual male is twisted and perverted by having to hide it, being subject to blackmail and abuse. Heterosexuals can be as nasty and horrible as they please in their sex life, it remains okay as it’s heterosexual; homosexual sex is not prima facie no good in itself; it’s what the society does to it that makes it base and wild (see my blog on Andrew Davies’s film adaptation of Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty). So too incest here. Ford’s play differs from the many Jacobean plays enacting incest or incestuous desires and vicarious sex (Beaumont and Fletcher’s Maid’s Tragedy, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, Middleton’s Women Beware Women): Ford empathizes with the lovers. As Eric Minton puts it, Giovanni and Annabella are just these “true-hearted individuals who just happen to have fallen in love with someone sprung from the same womb. Theirs may be the squirmiest sin, but many other characters prove more loathsome in their violent natures, their greed, their infatuation with revenge, and their self-serving self-righteous.” Minton then goes over the downright silly in the play but omits one young woman, Philotis (Bridget Rue), who is sent to a nunnery in a sort of daze: she had on a shiny satiny skirt with a petticoat which reminded me of outfits made for little girls who are given tap-dancing lessons by middle class US parents for the once-a-year stage performance.

Alas though, reading the Mid-Atlantic Traveler, and finding hardly any reviews of this play, and remembering how the previous production I have seen (so to speak) normalizes the action in terms of 20th century values, perhaps the players and their director were rightly cautious in the introduction and first half. They had an added on introduction which both trivialized the coming play and warned us against it, going so far as to tell us Giovanni was a bad villain. It was all a joke we were going to see, but if we couldn’t take some (whisper the word) “incest,” perhaps we shouldn’t stay. Then the first act had the actors at first turning to the audience as if to ask for boos. What they discovered was there were several fools in the first row who took this seriously and began to call out heckling comments which was then half-clapped by further idiots further back. The play-acting in this first act was oddly artificial and over-the-top strident, rather like a clown show. The way of playing the love of Giovanni and Annabella and the betrayals of the other characters seemed to suggest it was a mystery what could possibly have fuelled Ford to write such a ridiculous piece. Maybe the heckling did some good, for I could see the actors begin to stop appealing to the audience, back off, speed up, though not until the second act did the front row people begin to realize they were not supposed to boo Giovanni or call him out as a “bad guy.” Perhaps the gouging out of Putana’s eyes after Vasques manipulates and deludes her into revealing that Annabella’s lover is Giovanni did the trick to silence them. I admit they interfered with my enjoyment in the first act and was relieved when they fell silent.

During the intermission for the first time in all the many times I have seen ASC productions (a lot of them by now), I began to think well, at long last they have goofed. Or maybe it was that in such a conservative era, and in this mid-Virginia Shenandoah valley (not so far off is Evangelical Jerry Falwell country) they were scared off of doing justice to the very material they had chosen. I might have suggested to Jim we go home, only it had been a 3 hour drive to get there. But I remembered the choice of ’50s music during the intermission and hoped it was deliberate and stayed.

In the event, the actors switched gears totally and the last hour and a half was magnificent in energy, bravura, acting, poignancy.

From a Brooklyn Academy of Music production

It may be that the day we went there just happened to be a number of naive audience members in the first row. I have seen actors on stage make the mistake of inviting an audience slightly to cut up, and have to actually not just back up but even half-scold said audience to get them to be courteous in their interactions again. One must not forget that the actors on a stage are in a state of abjection to the audience: they may seem to be individually triumphing, releasing themselves, showing off, but they are performing for us, nailed down to their scripts, often showing themselves, costumed in dangerously vulnerable ways. Actors have sometimes had overtly to separate themselves from evil characters to protect themselves from the audience’s identification of them with their roles. I have read insightful accounts of theater which make this point about the reality of the actor’s rightly unacknowleged position of supplication (See Kristina Straub’s Sexual Suspects: 18th Century Players and Ideology on the long-hard slog actors of the 18th century performed to gain respect stop heckling and abuse, and protect the actresses.) I had not actually experienced what this means before this.

Jim had a different take — while just as surely recommending going to see it if you are at all within driving distance. Over dinner Jim argued that Ford is playing with ideas, at a distance from them (in the way I think of the Fletcher plays, Middleton and Massinger in his comedies). The play, Jim says, is misogynistic. Ford judges Annabella to be a whore, using the term in a general vilifying way to mean any woman who has sex outside marriage even if with just one man. (Izzy protested that Annabella cannot be a whole because she is paid nothing, has no money; she used the 20th century definition of whore means prostitute which is the way I use the term.) Jim maintains the text of the play blames Annabella. Her looseness starts the evil spreading. PUtano had it coming to her. Vasques is the Vindice (revenger on behalf of God and providence) character and that’s why he is left standing. Jim suggested that since a modern audience would dislike this very much, and want to empathize with a tragic character and feel for the victims, the people who do Ford must alter the play into black farce. Then we don’t worry who is to blame. Or they can, like the Capital Fringe people, impose a modern anti-misogynistic message by abridging.

Tragic heroine from The Broken Heart

I’m not sure. I find it hard not to read Ford’s The Broken Heart as feminist. If we are to blame Annabella, why not Giovanni who is cursed by several authority figures in the play. Surely Soranzo. Vasques recalls Shakespeare’s Iago.

So don’t miss the play. This is a play where the behavior spectacle of the audience may become part of the play and the play itself of real interest.


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Robert Fripp’s website

Dear readers and friends,

I am honored and delighted to have a guest blogger today. Robert Fripp, the author of Dark Sovereign, a thoroughly researched play that does justice to Richard III. Robert came across my blog-review of the WSC’s production of Richard III: WSC Richard III: a parable about politicians. He liked what I wrote and was prompted to write himself about this king and his play here:

Richard III: Receiving emergency care after mauling by Shakespeare

Discussing Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Richard III, Ellen recently wrote, “They [the WSC] mean to take [Richard III] into the 21st century; as the director says, it’s not a history play anyway (as nowadays we know Shakespeare was repeating heavily shaped Tudor propaganda).”

“It’s not a history play anyway.” Too true. Shakespeare’s Richard III comes close to emulating British pantomime, where a rough-looking male with five o’clock shadow plays a wicked step-mother, and the leading lad is a nubile young woman in tight-fitting Robin Hood garb. Shakespeare’s Richard III goes far beyond character assassination. It crosses the line into farce.

Someday we may recognize 1983 as a watershed year in the history of research and reportage on the subject of Richard III; not because 1983 marked the 500th anniversary of Richard’s accession to the throne. Rather, because a current affairs television producer in Toronto (me) got so fed up with the quasi-history and fabulous (in the literal sense) character assassination of Richard III that I started writing a “better” play than Shakespeare to produce a plausible King Richard. I’ve written my play, Dark Sovereign, in the English it was available to for Shakespeare—which I learned to write “fluently.”

Strange projects may spawn stranger outcomes. Whether Dark Sovereign lives or dies as a play, overnight it is now the longest drama written in Renaissance English. Dark Sovereign bumps Hamlet and Richard III from being the first and second longest down to being second and third. I never intended Dark Sovereign to be performed at full length. My Introduction invites directors “to grab a machete and roll up their sleeves.”

Now to our new Richard III. As a boy, he took military training at Middleham Castle, in the North Riding of a northern county, Yorkshire. Much later, he married Lady Anne Neville, who grew up at Middleham. In Dark Sovereign, before Richard proposes to Anne, Robert has Richard remind her:

” ‘Twas in your father’s house I learn’d to war.
Remember wi’ yourself, how I bethought was
to play David in Golias’ armour;
whilst did you, a little golden girl, sit out and pick pied daisies.”

Five hundred years after the king’s death in battle, two Richard IIIs stalk England. Shakespeare’s ambitious psychotic still enjoys a warm welcome in the South. But many Northerners won’t hear a bad word against Richard. In many respects he was a benign governor in the North. When you enter a pub in Leeds, Leicester, Nottingham, Manchester or York, be careful what you say.

For nearly a decade Richard served as military commander in the North, defending the border against Scottish raiders on behalf of his brother, King Edward IV. In Dark Sovereign, a letter informs Richard that King Edward’s ambitious queen, Elizabeth Woodville, appears to be reaching for regal command herself, and Richard’s allies demand that he hurry to London. Richard angrily responds:

Richard: “I am to Edward shield and general captain
in the office of a wall against the Scot.
But these would have me hole the wall,
lay down my arms, quit vigilance, invite invasion.
Is England so phantastically king’d, that I
—while Scotsmen ravish English wives—
must haste to London,
there to save my brother from his queen?
Psha! Though it be comfort-killing, yet the Border is my stage.
I’ll order myself in the play I have in hand.”

When King Edward dies, Queen Elizabeth Woodville is able to use Edward’s underage heir, their son, as a rubber stamp to enact mischievous policy. Richard in turn is forced to react. Given the opportunity to seize the boy, he joins forces with Harry, Duke of Buckingham, who reminds Richard how many members of his immediate family had already been killed during England’s war for dynastic power:

BUCKINGHAM: “Our hurt’s not small;
no more is the common griefs of England.
Spare for no cost, no more than if it were the cause of all.
          A time and times the Rose that bare you
wept death-wearied tears for York, which,
claiming England’s dear-bought majesty,
did quit it debt with dearest blood. [110]
‘Twere the devil’s undeserving profit, did your father
—his three sons withal—untimely fall in grave.
For nothing!
          To sway the diadem doth mitigate abominations.
To lose the rule were death. And treason.
Standing: I’ll take me out a pissing while.
I’d purge the wine of fellowship on daisies.”

“Alone. At last alonely and alone.
The nighted hours pass, a quiet wilderness without,
contráry to the noise keeps coil within … [120]
          … How should I think? nor why, with voice of word,
lend mettle and substantial form to thought?
Springs up this maund’ring from a sudden fury of the night?
or wells it from a lock’d up inly fount? …
          … ‘Tis said the soul is fed with charity,
but charity contendeth ever to prevail upon base fearful parts.
The mind of man is wax, wherein old use sets to his seal. [130]
I’faith, it is his learn’d experience breeds each his habitus.
This man, this habitus, is phoenix-like his gather’d self,
but wanting Charity’s pure phoenix-fire
came to his years unpurified.
Seldom suck’d I Charity wi’ nurses’ milk.
How the devil can I express her?”

At this point, Richard broaches a topic much debated in late medieval and early modern times. Dante Alighieri had introduced this question in his Divine Comedy: Does the Will or Reason provoke action?

“Whence welleth thought? and whither flows?
Being mine alone, I speak to me alone. But which self speaks?
and whether, as Another I, doth arbitrate his thought,
I may not know. Some humour feeds the tongue, [140]
which, being feeding, moves noise, so.
Other chooseth out th’opinion ears give audience
and which reject, as they were darts turn’d by a buckler.”
          Lights: Dawn breaks.

Enter BUCKINGHAM silently. He listens.

“Speaks Reason to my Will?
or doth proud Will to Reason speak?
The Comedy did anciently set forth how wayward Will
strove with his government, the passive voice of Reason.
O, would I wist which captain order’d thought,
Prescrib’d it me, dictated every deed.
Whether doth the Will or Reason urge me fasten on occasion [150]
of this night to sway the rule on England?
If either door gaped wide, mankind would wholly righteous be
—or damn’d! How stony is the way ‘twixt Reason and the Will,
to judgment.”

I published Dark Sovereign in Arden style, meaning that the text shares the pages with footnotes, giving actors and students instant reference to precise meanings. Precision extends to the language in which his play is written as well as the history. My aim: “The language of Dark Sovereign is precise. It is written in the vocabulary, idioms and syntax of the period from about 1579 (Sir Philip Sidney’s Old Arcadia) to precisely 1626, a cutoff date dictated by technical reasons involving Francis Bacon. This interval of forty-seven years marked the renaissance of English letters. Every word in Dark Sovereign, each syllable, word-sense, expression, verb ending, tense and function, as well as word order, metaphor and construction patterns, is present because the author found precedents in English written before the year 1626.”

Robert Fripp’s URL: RobertFripp.ca/ & LinkedIn (Toronto)
Dark Sovereign: Available in Paperback from Internet vendors
Tags: Robert Fripp, Shakespeare, Richard III, Dark Sovereign


William Hogarth (1697-1764), David Garrick as Richard III (1745, a detail)

Gentle reader,

Allow me to add that it was in the 18th century the first revisionings of the Tudor myth began: with Horace Walpole (see his Historic Doubts). The source for Shakespeare’s propaganda play was Thomas More (a strong defender of Henry VIII — even after Henry VIII decided that More was more than dispensable). The subject is covered in Peter Sabor’s splendid Horace Walpole: The Critical Heritage. Paul Murray Kendall’s study reprints parts of More history and Walpole’s Historic Doubts.

Perhaps the 18th century stage, with turning away from beliefs in numinous kings, its scepticism, and new histories (David Hume, Catherine Macaulay), and its great empathetic actors first stirred pepple to doubt the accuracy of Shakespeare’s powerful play. The love of medievalism which fed into the gothic also created sympathy for the Catholic and Stuart point of view (for example, Sophia Lee’s The Recess, a gothic novel about the supposed twin-daughters of Mary Stuart by Bothwell, and Scott’s novels, Kenilworth and The Abbot) helped create a climate for revision.


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… blood streams through the firmament … Marlowe (Doctor Faustus)

Caius Marcius, called Coriolanus (Fiennes) waiting for suppliants

Dear friends and readers,

Do what you have to do to see this film. Maybe it’s not worth a plane ride, but if it’s a longish trip by car (4 hours is not too much to drive) or bus, don’t hesitate. Don’t miss it. We left our house (in Alexandria, Va) at around 3:15 (short car ride, short walk, 25 minutes by train, 10+ minute walk) for a 4:50 show. Good thing we arrived by 4:15 or so. By 4:30 the show was sold out. As we walked out at around 7, the next show was sold out.

I suppose my reader knows the play’s story; if not, here’s a synopsis. This, so I can cut immediately to what makes the film so riveting and important: the acting and how Shakespeare’s core story was made a parable for our times combined with the directing in the context of its mise-en-scene. It seemed to me to break with conventions of such films.

I’ve just read Stephen Greenblatt’s review in the NYRB (59:4, March 8, 2012, 4, 6) It’s unfair to Fiennes. How irresistible it is to ridicule, especially when a character role demands no humor from the actor — though Fiennes managed a moment here and there, as when in exile we see him like today’s homeless people, sitting in front of his tent, looking cold, hungry, slightly puzzled, staring at his stuff.

Fiennes’s directing (the blocking) and acting were (as they say) pitch perfect, uncannily so. I’ve seen him as good before and unlike many other actors he can take on many types (from the bullying dense duke of The Duchess, to the sensitive diplomat of Constant Gardener [the film is dedicated to Simon Channing-Williams who directed CG], to Heathcliff, to the neurotic, yes seeming tall, thin and tortured in an early Prime Suspect). Here he actually managed to project sensitivity now and again amid the crazed militarism of Caius Marcius. The towering fits of rage where he spits out intense hatred and scorn for ordinary people and most of his peers are brought on by something in him that is a nervous wreck, neurotic,but not intimations of Hamlet because there is something dark in his eyes, obtuse, and he is edginess itself. Fiennes may have meant to evoke Marlon Brando in Apocalypse; he was Kurtz looking out at the world and his reasons for refusing to condescend to ask for votes, to taken on the role of suppliant had also to do with an appalled horror at the world he lived in, his own values somehow, not just patrician disgust. (In Tinker Tailor Colin Firth also channeled as they say Brando, but as in The Godfather.) So Shakespeare’s basically conservative message was altered to fit our era, especially perhaps this year, say since 9/14/08, the real year the world changed: when Lehman Bros came near default and the economic and political systems we endure began to be laid bare before us. If there was some music from Apocalyse Now I didn’t hear it. The film had sequences of no-music in the background a lot.

I haven’t seen Vanessa Redgrave in so great a part, one worthy, giving room for abilities in years. (The Merchant-Ivories didn’t.) It’s hard for older women to find great parts. If possible, she was even better than Fiennes. Utterly plausible. Not some scold, not a domineering termagant, but sure of herself with her son. The best scene in the movie was a longish one of her rubbing his really woundered body all over with her hands, binding his wounds with gauze, all around his body, his arms lovingly, as he places himself intimately within the folds of her body. This is followed by a silent one of him lying looking in pain but resting in bed, with Virginia (Jessica Chastain) coming up to him, and gingerly lying down alongside him. This actress does seem to have been chosen because she looks like young actresses all do recently: super-skinny yet large breasted, curvy thickish lips, a jutting kind of face: the way Julia Roberts looked when young, and Cate Blanchet is attempting to keep up nowadays. Chastain can weep, look as if she’d like to escape all this, and has a scene gathering her boys’ toys — naturally a plastic sub-machine gun and other implements of death by his bed. Redgrave (bless her), like Emma Thompson, has not gone super-thin; she still has her regal body, smooth if aging face. Her smiles gave me the creeps, but I think she is not blamed for what happens. One danger of this play is it may be read simply as see what mothers do. No. Fiennes was his own man, the product that belongs to the world around him.

The scene all will remember is the one from which this promotional (and therefore decorous) still I found on line (above) is taken:

Scene mostly from Act 5, Sc 2, lines 23-190: Fiennes as Coriolanus, Redgrave as Volumnia, Gerard Butler soft focus, arms folded, as Aufidius

but this framed picture moment is not characteristic of it. Characteristic are medium shots of her pacing back and forth a bit, standing with her daughter-in-law, Virginia (Jessica Chastain), their woman, Valeria, and the son, now kneeling,

now rising, with a couple of individual moments for the boy (given lines not in Shakespeare), and the wife (she comes up to him, tries caresses, tears (the lines are his in the play, abridged):

As we all know the family wins, Volumnia the pyrrhic victor, and thus causes his destruction, though in the film we do not know that until he returns to Aufidius after signing the treaty, and Aufidius works up a rage in Coriolanus (“boy! boy” Aufidius jeers, rightly at Coriolanus), and then orders the men ringed round him to beat and knife Caius Marcius to death, himself, Aufidius, coming in for the last deep thrust as he, Aufidius, appears at the same time to be making love to the by then dying maimed, again bleeding man. The last moment of the film is Fiennes dead, thrown and kicked onto a steel kind of shield, ready for the garbage.

Menenius (Brian Cox, chain-smoking) is pulled from this scene. (He is there in Shakespeare) to give him a separate suppliant moment. Like Alec Guiness and Gary Oldman (as George Smiley), Cox worked wonders of myriad responses by taking off and cleaning his glasses and putting them back on his face.

Menenius is persuaded by the parliamentary men to try to persuade Coriolanus from further destruction of Rome. This gives the film-makers another chance to allow us to watch someone walk across a land- or city-scape at length, bridges, checkpoints, wasteland, to where he is confronted (a repeating scene in the film) by a group of men standing in phalanx form, holding weapons at the ready, grim. A truck or fleet of fancy cars stands ready and the person is driven to the scene where he must beg, negotiate, whatever. (No wonder Coriolanus hates it — and this we are to feel too.) He is broken by Coriolanus adament refusal to recognize he is even there. (This is not filmed — as it would not work to see it; it would show the man to be the “boy” is he accused of being at the film’s end.

Alas, some of his speeches were cut, others re-arranged. You could not really have that long allegory of society as a human body with the people as its stomach; it would not have fitted the created world, rhythms of the speeches at all, but others were lost that have saturnine subtle political meaning. (I’ve wondered at times how was that Coriolanus done in the 1940s in Paris that caused it’s said a riot.) He, like Volumnia, is the one who urges Coriolanus to the marketplace, the reasoner (it seems), moderate even. (I seem to recall one testimony from the Irangate hearings where someone said “there are no moderates” [in Reagan's or was it Iran's gov't?].) Probably what’s brought in here is the heartbreak of Cassius when Brutus rejects him. Menenius’s world is smashed as Rome is now smashed. Whatever happens now he is personally a loser too. He kills himself by slitting his wrist veins sitting over a filthy dump near a bridge over waters that look polluted.

Most of the other roles were small, not demanding much. Characters as reporters, as heads of gov’t, as important people in the mob — though there I felt there was something of the spirit of the presentation of mobs in say the 1939 Tale of Two Cities. The people are hungry for bread, have no jobs, but they are so easily swayed (as in Shakespeare’s play). They are often played by non-white people, Middle Eastern, Southasian, Spanish looking: Lubna Azabal as Tamora, and Ashraf Baroum as Cassius given names. It takes little to move them to feel for Caius Marcius, and then so little for the two tribunes (Paul Jesson, James Nesbitt) “of the people” to rouse their envy, fear, spite, resentment. I noted the brief presence of a favorite actress (of mine) from recent BBC film adaptations as an anchor woman (Tanya Moodie).

As important was the text (sometimes cleverly moved around by the screenplay writer, John Logan) and settings and costumes. Much of Shakespeare’s central speeches survived, the central plot-design; it’s Shakespeare’s play all right. A transposition (faithful) film. Brilliantly updated. The scenes are are contemporary world of harsh ruthless military dictatorships and parliaments filled with corrupt — utterly out for themselves — insinuating skilful manipulating suited men. The war-torn streets with steel and cement huge buildings in cement cities, and gorgeous mansions set in green landscapes, along side cardboard towns, brick tenements, wretched deteriorating streets, ancient dilapidated stores, tent markets, everywhere at a sudden flowing with people, many wretched, dressed in modern style rags — I thought perhaps we were seeing the streets of the middle east (say Syria, Egypt today, Yemen) or more closely South and Latin America as we used to see them on TV after some decent gov’t was overthrown by a civil war (fomented in part by the US), but Jim thought they were generic. At any rate many were shown to us as if we were watching them on TV film, a news show, with a voice broadcasting at us, and a band of letters underneath.

As with the destruction of the OWS movement, each time there is a confrontation — most of these occur in the first phase of the film, the police come out in full steel paramilitary riot gear and beat the hell out of the people; we see these cage barbed-wire walls set up that have to be broken through; the debris in the streets from last time is what people stumble over.

Street battles: civilians the “collateral damage”

Much of the action that is reported in Shakespeare’s play (by messenger type speeches) is acted out in front of us. Coriolanus, Aufidius, most of the fighting men are seen in camouflage most of the time. For ceremonies Jim says the costume designed resorted to British ceremonial mititary gear for the soldiers, of course suits for politicians.

All this is significant; it breaks with conventions; to some the opening terrifically violent sequence, and the controlled violence which punctuates the latter 3/4s of the film might detract. It’s hard to watch. Really up close shooting people through the head. But I think it matters and it was right to put before this world seen on TV or Youtubes and read about on the Net by its mostly white middle class audience I saw the film with — people living in or not far from an expensive area of DC, calm peaceful areas (so it seems) of Virginia and Maryland who had come by bus and train and walking.

I hope the film reaches far more people, for the film targets people of many types and countries. I don’t make a habit of seeing Shakespeare film adaptations so don’t know how it fits in to this sub-genre recently, but I do go, watch them on TV, through Netflix, certainly go to the theaters in my area and used to go in NYC most of the time a Shakespeare play was staged, and I have read Coriolanus a couple of times. Jim & I saw the RSC perform it as Kennedy Center a few years ago where Timothy West delivered a extraordinary — memorable — performance as Menenius. Izzy reminds me we 3 saw an abridged version at the DC fringe festival two years ago – but I have only vague memories. Still, this is the best Shakespearean film adaptation I’ve seen in a long time because like Shakespeare it speaks home to us today.

As Marlowe said (Shakespeare grieved at the death of this gifted man),
blood streams through the firmament not since 9/11/01 (that was retaliation) but maybe more patently and obviously, inflicted on its immediate early US audience’s own streets since 9/14/08.


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