Feeds:
Posts
Comments

2015francisep3

2015francistorossep4
Kyle Soller as Francis with his son, shaking hands with Ross (Episodes 3 & 5, second season)

Dear friends and readers,

It’s been over three months since I last wrote about the second season of the new Poldark: on the two episodes which dramatize Francis Poldark’s (Kyle Soller) having finally found and accepted himself, becoming the man, husband, father, cousin (brother really) he’d always wanted to be, and then his tragic (accidental, ironic, useless) death by drowning: 2 Poldark 4-5: exemplary and tragic heroism. I’d been having enormous technical difficulties watching the second season on my BBC iplayer, and when I saw that Amazon.uk was making available the complete scripts for the second season when they would begin to sell the DVDs for the second season, I decided to wait for both before writing any more blogs. I did finish watching the second season using the BBC iplayer but knew I had missed so much.

For example, I had no idea that the episodes were opened with Eleanor Tomlinson singing the folk song she first performs the first Christmas after she and Ross wed and go to Trenwith (see Series 1, Episode 4, p 245), no idea the soft acqua-colored waters were the palette for the second year’s opening. It matters what song a series opens and closes with, what pictures (this time more of Demelza) we see; these set the mood, the realm we enter into and then provide closure.

paratextfor2ndseason

paratextforsecondseason
From the paratexts and opening and closing music of the 2nd season

It’s feminocentric to use a word now fallen out.

Well the DVDs and second season scripts arrived early in December, and it has taken me all this time to first re-see the first season or year (all 8 episodes), read the complete scripts for the first season (and read/skin, look at Graham’s Ross Poldark and Demelza once again), and watch the second season or year (all 10 episodes) and read the scripts up to Episode 5 once again (reading Jeremy Poldark and beginning Warleggan). (I do other things.) Before I resume with Episode 6 (the equivalent of one third into Warleggan), I’d like to look at the first new season as a whole for a second time. The first time when I had come to the conclusion Horsfield and her film-making team and actors were consciously creating a new mythic matter, I hadn’t been able to read the scripts. I first found the scripts for the first year this August while I was in Cornwall in a Cornish bookshop. Before that, who knew?

Scripts are of enormous importance in understanding and enjoying a film. It is after all not the novel the actors are realizing, but the scripts. And the words go by so quickly, much is missed and in my experience we get a distorted memory view of what we saw and heard.

aidanturnermaginificent
Aidan Turner as Ross (Episode 1, first season)

demelza
Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza (Episode 8, first season)

I see some of the same flaws (or problems) in the new series (e.g., too much and quick juxtapositions) and some of the same differences from the 1970s older Poldark (e.g., the older series was more comic, more subversive in outlook), and also some of the improvements (the new series is actually literally closer to the novels at key points), but want to do justice to mainly to the dialogue which is much much better than I gave credit for. Also in the scripts you have Horsfield’s descriptions of the settings, her comments on how the actors should be behaving, looking, their actions. There is close continuity and give-and-take between the characters as they speak and act; the psychology comes from all these things. While reading I sometimes found that the realized scene was less subtle than it felt while reading, sometimes too hurried, too declamatory, too melodramatic for what the words were implying. By reading the short juxtaposed scenes on the page you can see the continuity more, feel it.

In addition, there is much lyricism in the language, as well as the acting and movement or rhythms of the music and action. It’s this latter I most want to call attention to: how there is an overall pattern-like effect across season 1 in the best episodes. Horsfield wanted less complicated language, because she was fitting everything together as a kind of projected world view of another time and different kind of people (almost). Think about the repetition of Aunt Agatha (Caroline Blakiston) and her tarot cards; how these recur and are pointed with the dialogues between her and Elizabeth (Heida Reed), the scene of wreath-making with Demelza, Prudie (Beatti Edney), and Jinny (Gracee O’Brien) picking up refrains of the song, Jud a low-voiced (Phil Davis) grunting

episode1laingcardsdown
Aunt Agatha laying an ominous card down

The relationship of Demelza and Ross is a slow developing romance and the many short dialogues where they seem not to be saying any new or much are part of a patterning. Francis’s in effect deterioration and self-punishment and destruction of others works this way: short patterned scenes with George (Jack Farthing). Then there are the rituals, which include the auctions I now feel. Elizabeth and her baby, Geoffrey Charles, with a butterfly.

And there is much more inward than I had realized. Much is brief pointed still and swift dialogue but the two together and repetition does it: these two are characteristic of the first season:

desolate-1
She desolate

desolate-2
He at work

A couple of examples and I’ll have done. I’ve picked two sequences for their typicality. The first is a piece of the long scene where Ross first sees Demelza beaten by young men when she tried to rescue her dog from serving as torture for entertainment and everyone else looks on and laughs. Notice the class commentary, the nuances of immediate motives intertwining

tyingdogstail
Early still: the boy grabs and ties the dog’s tail

firstview
Demelza held back for a bit as she desperately tries to rescue her dog

65. EXT. TRURO, MARKETPLACE …. ROSS’S POV: George, Cary and other gentry, all braying with laughter.
Something hardens in his expression. Calmly he moves forward, pushing through the crowd. Then he sees something which makes him hesitate:
ROSS’S POV: Elizabeth pushing forward to see what’s going on, followed by Francis. As they get nearer, Elizabeth turns away in distress.
This kind of baiting disgusts her.
ON ROSS: Knowing that if he steps forward he must eventually encounter Elizabeth. But how can he not step forward? Calmly he takes his riding crop from his boot and walks towards the young gentlemen. They are young, all them fully convinced of their absolute right to do as they please.
POV THE CROWD: Some cheering, some curious, most expecting the newcomer (Ross) to join in with the tormenting.
ON THE YOUNG GENTLEMEN: Some of them notice Ross approaching. They see his expression and start to run.
ROSS: Enough!
One — a young man with an arrogant face — stands his ground and sneers defiantly.
ROSS: If you’ll take my advice, you’ll run.
YOUNG MAN: Or else, sir?
Impassive, Ross hits him across the face with his whip. The man shrieks and flees, clutching his face.

macneil
Henry Garrett as Captain MacNeil

Now a sequence of quick scenes: we have just seen Captain MacNeil questioning Ross and Demelza (with Ross telling Demelza not to “underestimate Captain MacNeil”), Ross getting Elizabeth’s letter about Verity’s elopement whose tone to him worries him, the brief focus on Blamey and Verity’s “first meal together,” Demelza’s fearful POV with Garrick near,

verityblamey
Ruby Bentall as Verity, Richard Harrington as Captain Blamey

demelza
Demelza after Ross and MacNeil gone, before it darkens

Ross on the beach hiding the oars, then first dialogue of Dwight coming to Demelza’s house, move to darkened Trenwith:

59. INT TRENWITH HOUSE. Elizabeth is doing her household accounts when Ross is shown in .
ROSS: I came as soon I could. How’s Francis?
ELIZABETH: He’s half a mind to go after her .
ROSS: Persuade him against. He’s no match for Blamey.
ELIZABETH: Or Verity. For I think she’s now the bolder of the two.
ROSS Certainly the most reckless.
ELIZABETH She has the courage of her convictions. Which I applaud even if I seem to disapprove.
A brief moment between them. The merest hint that Elizabeth wishes she too had the courage of her convictions. Then Francis barges in.
FRANCIS Well, Ross, are you pleased with your handiwork? Clearly it was you who helped her.
Ross is looking at Francis in utter bewilderment.
ROSS: I? Arrange Verity’s elopement? Have you taken leave of your senses?
CUT TO:
60: INT. NAMPARA HOUSE, KITCHEN – NIGHT 58
Demelza’s anxiety mounts (as she realizes what Ross is planning tonight – Mark s escape – and how it might be compromised by Dwight’s arrival).
DEMELZA: I – I don’t think Ross would want you here —
DWIGHT: Have I forfeited his good opinion? Or his trust?
DEMELZA: Oh no, not that, but — he has business tonight — and mebbe visitors-
There is the sound of someone tapping on the window. Demelza almost leaps out of her skin.

markdaniels
Matthew Wilson as Mark Daniel’s fierce face to Dwight (Luke Norris)

rossandfrancis
This is Ross and Francis talking, wrestling, POV Elizabeth

Followed by Paul and Mark Daniel rushing into Demelza’s house, “soldiers everywhere,” and then paired scenes of different kinds of anger: the long-time smoldering and nuanced digs and anger of Francis and Ross, Elizabeth failing to moderate, with the blazing hatred of Mark and guilt of Dwight, Demelza panicking. The language refers us back and forward to next sequence, with action and nuanced descriptions of what is happening. One sequence seems to have closure with Ross succeeding in seeing Mark off, and outrunning the soldiers, back into the house, the other Elizabeth’s indignation. Demelza’s walk to Francis, confession; there is a separate sequence of the Carnemore Copper Company members now bankrupt because Francis has told George the names; and finally much longer (appropriately) Demelza telling Ross what she has done, said to Francis, and (as in the book) Ross’s adament anger at her betrayal and refusal to soothe her. A telling aspect of this is in the book the narrator (Graham) makes the point the woman is to be sacrificed to her family and leaves us feeling how both Demelza and Verity were to make their lives dispensable, and emphasizes Demelza’s fault is that she lied to Ross and has lost his trust; while Horsfield comes down hard on the demand everyone consider the group first:

rossadament

98. INT. NAMPARA HOUSE. DEMELZA: Can you forgive me?
ROSS: I will try.
DEMELZA: But Francis will not.
ROSS: No.
DEMELZA: And you will not forgive him. And I’ve caused a
rift between the two sides of our family.
ROSS: Yes.
DEMELZA: I will never be happy until it’s healed.
ROSS: Then I’m afraid you’ll be unhappy for a very long time.

The 1970s (as it does several times) elided over this discomfort, Ross scarcely scolds Demelza (Francis’s cursing it was felt perhaps was enough) but the conflict and meaning is lost while here if another side is taken, you do see what’s at stake. Essentially it is a fight between the men over women and if you look at the stills matched, you see men angry at one another over women, women trying to stop this, or mourning — a rare moment of more light is on Verity and Blamey at a late supper.

The epitomizing stills are things like flour kneeded into bread, location is one of the characters, and the use of light and darkness and angles at which characters are shot:

onthebeach
Ross and George on the beach (Episode 7 of first season)

finale-2
Demelza by the cliffs (episode 8)

People remember the visuals best, but the words, sounds, dialogue are what gives the experience the meaning in our minds too. I did wish there were more of camera angles and shots in the scripts; they are rather written to resemble novels. But there is enough.

Next Poldark blog will be brief recap of Episode 5 and move into Episode 6 of the second season.

Ellen

imageofwandpmaudemandelkertranslation

Dear friends and readers,

Not quite the familiar kind of title. I’d been reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace as translated by Louise and Aylmer Maud, revised, edited by Amy Mandelker, with Elisabeth Guertik’s superb La Guerre at la Paix just beneath for comparison since July;

elisabethguertik

and began to listen to David Case reading an unabridged text by Constance Garnett last May.

casereadingwp
Frederick Davidson (David Case) reading aloud Constance Garnet’s translation unabridged

constance-garnett
An appealing small photo of Garnett

I finished book and mini-series about a week before Christmas. So 9 months. Translated texts by four women. Mini-series by men.

But if you count that I began to watch (and fell in love with) Jack Pulman’s 20 part 1972 BBC War and Peace (Anthony Hopkins as Pierre), last January and have gone through it at least 3 times; and then went on to watch Bondarchuk’s Russian 1966 War and Peace (it’s 5 disks lasting something like 9 hours, Bondarchuk himself is Pierre; and I’ve gone through the whole thing nearly twice); Andrew Davies’s 6 part 2016 BBC War and Peace (Paul Dano, Pierre; watching at least twice, the last time weeping throughout the whole of the sixth episode) with one time for the Vidor 1955 War and Peace (once, Henry Fonda, Pierre, John Mills as Platon, Audrey Hepburn Natasha) — this experience might count for two years perpetual engagement.

fondahepburnpierrenatasha1955
Fonda as Pierre and Hepburn as Natasha

I probably proposed to the listserv at Trollope19thCStudies @ Yahoo to read Tolstoy together because I so loved the Pulman mini-series and wanted to understand it much better, see what depths it was drawing on, attempting faithfully to dramatize. Now I’d like to know so much more about Sophia as it was she was who copied out Tolstoy’s endless drafts and she who put together a final version of the book different from the one Tolstoy first published and the one translated and read today (except for those like Christian who read all the drafts). We have agreed that sometime next summer the group of us (whoever is there) will read and discuss Anna Karenina together.

You could say I immersed myself as I also read over the 9 months about 2/3s of A.N. Wilson’s biography, two old fashioned interpretive books (F. R. Christian and Rimvydas Silbajoris, close readers and real source students of the 1960s and 70s types), three of the chapters of John Bayley’s Tolstoy and the Novel, about one half of Alexandra Popoff’s book on the man who may be said to have preyed on Tolstoy in the last part of his life, his “false” disciple, Vladmir Chertkov, watched The Last Station and read Michael Hoffman’s shooting script (though not the book by Jay Parini), and now am one third into Alexandra Popoff’s life of Sophia Tolstoy.

helenmirrenchristopherplummer
A superb shooting script gives a reading on the very old Tolstoy and his wife: Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy, Helen Mirren as Sophia

I posted about all this too (to a small Yahoo listserv called Trollope19thCStudies), at least twice a week, sometimes more.

Has Tolstoy changed my life? or view of the world? No. Did the texts and films out of his book affect my existence? Well if you look at time taken yes. I agree it’s one of the world’s great novels, though Tolstoy would not like to hear it called a novel, and its reach is even severely limited by Tolstoy’s aristocratic and masculinist outlook. It absorbed me; often the text felt packed vivid with life, provided such compelling reading — the exception is after a while his repetitive chapters on what real history is, how events in history come about, how to write about these, and attacks on historians for great writing as if history were the result of a handful of powerful individual’s choices at any given time. But because Tolstoy is alert to genre and other books, this book speaks to what is in others, and contextualizes these others with itself.

Probably for me what this book most taught me was about other books because of its conscious relationship to them, especially historical fiction, the more typical 19th century realistic novels. Since reading his book I’ve become aware how much his double-structure, of one half richly individual stories, and the other larger political (war is politics by other means) contexts, taught other historical novelists since him. They imitate him, from say (to cite two recent books I’ve read in the past) Adhaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun (individual Egyptian and British characters contextualized with the larger Arab-Israel conflicts since 1948) to Virginia Woolf’s The Years.

If this seems dry, it isn’t to me for whom books have meant so much.

consuminghistory
A significant book — it includes historical films and adaptations

I read books as deeply reflective of the author and his or her life so that the book may be read as a disguised family history gives it another sort of meaning as a site of memory.

sofia
I hope to read this when we get to Anna Karenina

It’s easiest to fall back on the characters to grasp the book’s meaning in itself. Most of the characters are so convincing in terms of 19th century novels (the women less so than the men’ Tolstoy said early on he was imitating the English novel); what was happening in the “war” part of the novel and its politics so relevant. When I thought I would be bored say after a week’s hiatus (sometimes more), I’d fall back into the text and find myself engaged all over again. I felt that the characters could carry on almost without Tolstoy, and he ended where he did because one must end somewhere. 1317 pages (the Maud text) is enough. But this is absurd: the characters are given life by him, reflect and are shaped by his inner life, and the story comes to an end because what he wanted to say about them, where bring them to, has been accomplished. Silbajoris is particularly lucid on why the worlds of perceptions in War and Peace feel possessed by some real person (Chapter 5).

hopkinsaspierremoscowurning1972
Hopkins as Pierre in the Moscow burning episode

Since the male characters are those given most depth and reality, the females kept much more to stereotypes that males (Tolstoy specifically) see and understand, to enjoy War and Peace you must enter into a male-centered approach. At first this feels less gender- and class-driven (most of those we travel any time with are a tiny highly privileged group within larger Russia) because of the way Tolstoy shapes their conflicts as innate and generic to any private self. I bonded strongly with the central male character, Pierre Bezhukhov: the book is his journey from early adulthood as he gradually and with much emotional pain, and many divagations, decisions which hurt him, adjusts to living in and alongside his society in a way worthy of him, yet never gives scope to what his high intelligence and noble nature could do, were he given real room. I loved him for his kindness to others too.

2016wpballjamesnortonlilyjames
James Norton as Andrei dancing with Lily James as Natasha at her first ball (2016 W&P)

By contrast, the more secondary, normative, and higher ranking male, Andrei Bolkonsky, behaved in alienating ways, but I grieved for his self-deprivation and early death, brought on by his efforts to please conventional powerful authority figures whose corruption, blindness and narrow egoism he never fully comprehends. Nikolai Rostov, not quite tertiary, incapable of any self-examination or criticism of his society chance, yet so well-meaning, ends doing well from luck (though Tolstoy discounts chance repeatedly and his tenacious instinct for self-preservation.

denisovwooingnatasha2016
Thomas Arnold as Denisov entranced with Natasha at a home party (the same 2016 W&P)

A whole continuum of male characters contextualizes them, from their peers in years, the evil-committing pair, smart, effective and spiteful (he enjoys inflicting violence) Dolokhov and his mate (until he is killed) the utterly selfish, grasping, male animal Anatole Kuragin (apparently his rake-gambler type was in an original draft intended to be the central character) to the good-natured characters, the slightly obtuse (all the more survivable), Denisov (who I loved), the selfless conscientious yielder-soldier Tushin (who saves lives risking his own), and the half-mad uneducated pesant Platon Karataev (who his society throws away with his blessing). Then there are the older corrupted, the hollow-courtier of a man, Prince Vasily, the deeply humane (paradoxically) wise in experience general Kutusov. I could go on to add so many who come alive for one scene, one moment, one or a set of chapters, giving us this or that experience of life through their story-event.

kutusovretreatingfrommoscow1972
Frank Middlemass as General Kutusov (1972 BBC W&P)

For the men a group of issues emerges from the “le monde” chapters. The same public versus private, ethical (which has to do with doing right to others and to one’s gifts) versus amoral behavior (anti-social, inhumane). These feed into profoundly anti-killing, anti-war paradigms as senseless in the “war” chapters. Tolstoy’s answers are not satisfactory (sometimes perverse because of his religiosity), but he asks the candid questions without cant for his era and these questions and some of his answers are transferable. He says repeatedly that a war takes the willingness of thousands of men to spend huge amounts of time killing one another. The commanders care about their place in the organization first and their theories about how to plan for war show few consider its realities. People do not respond sensibly to crises, rarely acknowledge a coming disaster before it’s upon them.

bondarchuk1812
Bondarchuk’s War and Peace: Part 3: 1812

With the women he does not ask the crucial questions but he shows them suffering from powerlessness, so circumscribed and hemmed in, and with an added strong sexual standard (they are judged according to their sexual chastity and obedience to norms of marriage), lack of agency (under the thumb of a parent or authority figure): the saving element is their relationships with one another are detailed so believably and movingly, that what lies outside this seems almost unimportant.

madmess
Morag Hood as Natasha trying to explain to draw sympathy from Sonya (Joanna David) why she finds Anatole’s offer to flee so irresistible (1972 W&P, “Madness” episode)

joannadavidzlifedeath
Sonya bitter at what has been demanded of her, tells Natasha (against the countess’ orders not to) that Andrei lies very sick in the convoy (1972 W&P, “Life and Death”)

The central women characters are the ingenue heroine, Natasha Rostov, said to be modeled in part by Tolstoy’s (mis-)perception of his wife (who wrote an autobiographical story under this name, which she burned). Bondarchuk believed in the existence of this type and took her story and made it the center of the second part of his family so it becomes a sentimental heroine’s text within a heroic yet damning story of war. There’s the family dependent, semi-servant, Sonya (whose last name we never learn) and Marya, the cruelly abused sister (by her father) of Andrei. Most important throughout is the Countess Rostov who (like Pierre’s cousin, Katische) whatever it has taken from her, whatever she may have to demand of others, stands tenaciously and resolutely for obeying hegemonic hierarchical norms so as to stay wealthy — while her husband, the hopelessly non-competitive lazy amiable Count Rostov cannot hold onto even a wagon during a siege.

maryaprince
Angela Downs as Marya crushed by her father’s jeering cruelty over a proposal of marriage for her money — Anatole cannot even be faithful or interested in her for two days (1972 W&P, “Two Proposals”)

Equally central to the story (though not gone into psychologically very much) are Pierre’s (to Tolstoy and in the book), vicious and corrupt wife, Helene Kuragin; the semi-mistress (or sexually used) dependent of the Bolkonskys and companion-maid to Marya, Mlle Bourienne, and the female equivalents of Prince Vassily, Anna Pavlovna Scherer, the hollow saloniere, the parrot of what it is socially acceptable to say and do, with whom the novel begins, and the mother of the trained-to-be heartless Boris Durbetskoy (ever rising in rank and wealth), Anna Mikhilaovna, sycophant extraordinaire.

I found the readings of Natasha found in Pulman and Davies of great help in coming to terms with Tolstoy’s central anticipatory Freudian account of the “enthrallment” of Natasha to the sadistic Anatole: after her engagement to Andrei, she is in considerable distress from how Andrei’s family has rejected, mortified her, her self-esteem badly wounded by Andrei’s leaving her, the very sheltered nature of her life a risk. About four of us felt similarly that we were not given anywhere near the insight into Sonya’s feelings her plight as lover (physcial too) of Nikolai and pillow-like confidante of Natasha when she is harassed into allowing herself to lose chance of personal fulfillment because she lacks sufficient money to make up for the Rostovs’ coming bankruptcy. Helene is a monster in the novel because she’s sexually promiscuous, has no understanding of what integrity or virtues might mean, in Tolstoy’s ms incestuous with her brother; as with Dolokhov Davies tries to humanize her as wanting pleasure, adulation, and independence at any price (many human beings are cool towards one another, use one another).

I particularly admired how Tolstoy could move from such large perspectives, vast battles made sense of so that they are de-mystified, seiges, how human beings behave so barbarically in mobs, and as particular individuals (the mayor of Moscow scapegoating a miserably abused once idealistic middle class young man so that he is torn to bits after weeks of mental and physical torture and abuse in the czar’s prisons) to paying attention and bringing to life the smallest details in a scene (Platon’s dog howling at his death but then trotting after someone else), the most seemingly unimportant creatures (down to insects), and how beautiful with acutely felt life he could make a landscape. This is compensation: the joy some human beings feel at a hunt (competition in killing, the thrill of this some feel) and how sometimes he seemed to break taboos over what one can show about human beings even today. The death scenes are startling: from the fights over who gets what once the agonized or nearly unconscious presence vanishes, to the process of death itself going on all that while.

annamikhailovnaholdingontothewill
Rebecca Front as Anna Mikhailovna holding fiercely onto the will; Fenella Woolgar as Katische, Pierre’s cousin, has tried to steal in order to destroy it, Stephen Rea as Count Vassily looking on (2016 War and Peace)

Ellen

thecrown
The ultimate symbol of power

You sleep in peace, the tyrant being slain — Richmond, Henry Tudor, RIII

Dear friends and readers,

This week I’ve been watching the BBC versions of the second season (2016) of The Hollow Crown. Three plays (Henry VI, 1-3) at one time, or for a couple of hundred years thought such juvenilia that Shakespeare did not write much of them, seen as incoherent undoable (on the stage) obscure messes, were made to speak home to us in thrilling relevant ways. A fourth (Richard III) once seen as a vehicle for almost camp histrionics, becomes a serious study of how an evil character forms and how such a man gets behind him sufficient powerful people to put him in charge and in the process becomes a haunted crazed warrior-soul. I won’t be dealing with the obvious parallels between the present dire moment in public US politics (and less frightening but still urgent parallels in other countries), but just assume my reader will see them. If you will watch these brilliant abridgments, then read Shakespeare himself (the full texts), and then watch again. If you think I am exaggerating, remember (or I need to tell you) that the wildly-popular Games of Thrones began as a free semi-fantasy adaptation of these Shakespeare’s plays by George Martin (who read them as history of “the wars of the Roses in the Middle Ages”).

A little background in recent performances will help. One scholar-critic says it was in 1953 that the four plays of the Wars of the Roses were staged fully and in sequence for the first time (Brockbank, “The Frame of Disorder”); another dates this back to 1906 (Swander, “The Rediscovery of Henry VI“). Then in 1978-79 Terry Hands staged the Henry VI trilogy (“warts and all”) and the production was a terrific success. Then the 1980s the BBC staged all four plays as closely as possible to what was written by Shakespeare as part of The Shakespeare Collection. I can vouch personally that in the 1970s Joseph Papp in the Delacorte Theater one summer did all three Henry VI plays complete followed by a complete Richard III in repertoire across the summer; on an all-night marathon all four played from 9 at night to whatever time in the morning they ended. Jim and I were there, and I know I slept through some of Henry VI Part 2 and again part of Henry VI Part 3, but saw most of the series, covered by a blanket. Why for so long were these plays not long after Shakespeare’s era thought impossible to have a success with: episodic structure, pageantry, stilted lines (let’s admit it), to say nothing of the foreignness of the story-matter?

fatherandsonamidcarnage
A father and son pair amid the carnage

But with the whirligig of time leading audiences to recognize in the deeply pessimistic content and political insight of these stories, the content attracted once again. The Tudor matter is not a barrier after it has been made so familiar by her recent resurgence of popular historical films and adaptations (especially of Henry VIII’s court). So abridgments began to emerge. A specific pattern can be seen in three compressions: a film-culture Shakespearean, Alan Dessin (Rescripting Shakespeare), was the most helpful in enabling me to understand what we see in this abridgment in his descriptions of three previous condensed abridgments: 1988 ESC by Michael Bogdanov, 1988-89 RSC by Adrian Noble, and 1991-3 OSC by Pat Patton (“Chapter 7: “Compressing Henry VI“). What’s common to them all is the three parts of Henry VI are compressed into two, with Richard III following the same trajectory as Shakespeare’s play, but made shorter, to leave room for location shots, some re-arrangements and additions taken over from the previous plays for connection (in the appearances of Margaret for example) and satisfying climax. It’s much less changed than the Henry VI plays, which may be said to be re-vamped for TV and location shooting too. That’s what we see in this new Hollow Crown, with a few important new emphases or differences. As with the first season (2012) of The Hollow Crown (Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V, a Henriad so-called), the roles of the women were not so much expanded as given full play, all the original nuances, emphases and pivotal moments played up for all they are worth. Strong women everywhere. Silent women clearly there in the scenes (Doll Tearsheet in the Henry IV plays) given plenty of pantomime. This may be history as Jane Austen suggested “the men all good for nothing,” but it’s not “hardly any women at all.”

lindsayduncan
From the powerful memorable performance of Lindsay Duncan as Duchess of York pleading for her ne’er-do-well son’s life before the king: she does not sue to stand; she sues for pardon (from the 2012 Hollow Crown series, Richard II)

More to the point these are not “tiresome at all,” nor dull” (Austen as Catherine Morland on history, Northanger Abbey) and not exactly “made-up.” I am persuaded these marvelous Shakespeare series are the old-style BBC mini-series, brilliantly updated marvelously: they keep some of the sterling qualities of the old: lingering pace for inwardness, profound acting, extraordinary dramaturgical brilliance in staging scenes, but to this has been added the way the actors speak the lines. They talk the lines as if they were speaking today’s English and yet they make clear what they are saying by action, gesture, costume, emphasis, nuance. Ben Power, the script-writer has cut astutely, omitting, re-arranging, picking up what epitomizes, what is closest to street or ordinary talk. It’s just astonishing what they achieve by the outstanding performances, saying the speeches so naturally.

gardenscene
Far shot of garden scene: where the two sides of York and Lancaster pluck the red and white rose

To this has been added, the use of the locations – the locations become actors in effect themselves, each old castle, fortress, field; these are not staged plays as in the 1970s and 80s, but figures in large picture screens where sometimes we have a staged scene but never allowed to become wholly still. The director Dominic Cooke is so alive to how to emblematize, make bodies move, and intersect with one another and yet the added action does not distract. The camera work is as sophisticated as any expensive cinema production, with zoom, medium, far shots at the right moment, and so many close-ups done at interesting angles. I wanted to watch again and again because there was so much to see — and even more in the more mature first Henriad series (which I’ll blog about this quartet eventually too).

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 01/05/2016 - Programme Name: The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses - TX: n/a - Episode: The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses (No. Henry VI Part 1) - Picture Shows: *STRICTLY NOT FOR PUBLICATION UNTIL 00:01HRS, SUNDAY 1ST MAY, 2016* Gloucester (HUGH BONNEVILLE), Talbot (PHILIP GLENISTER), Plantagenet (ADRIAN DUNBAR), Warwick (STANLEY TOWNSEND) - (C) Carnival Film & Television Ltd - Photographer: Robert Viglasky
Principal male roles: beyond Gloucester, Talbot (Philip Glenister, Plantagenet (Adrian Dunbar), Warwick (Stanley Townsend)

What else? This second series of Hollow Crown (though Shakespeare’s first) is done as a single story. All three plays (originally four) are one continuation. The abridged or compressed Henry VI Part 1 opens with death of Henry V, grief, and declaring a baby king, and then we see an intertitle to 17 years later and a scene where Mortimer, father (Michael Gambon) of the Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York (Adrian Dunbar), is dying; Mortimer tells his son, he is the rightful heir. What happened was years ago Bolingbroke wrongly took the throne from Richard II, and Mortimer and his sons were next in line. The camera cuts to Henry VI (Tom Sturridge) a well-meaning boy, with the Humphry, Duke of Gloucester (Hugh Bonneville) nearby as his protector. We then move to the symbolic scene in rose garden where the Duke of York and his followers on one side, declare the House of York should have the throne, with the Duke of Somerset Ben Miles) and his followers on the other saying they or the House of Lancaster should have inherited after Richard II. Each plucks a rose: white for York, red for Lancaster.

**VIDEO GRABS FROM BBC PREVIEW SITE FOR MOS PICTURE DESK** THE HOLLOW CROWN, BBC SHAKESPEARE ADAPTATION. Hugh Bonneville, playing the Duke of Gloucester, gets murdered while a couple make love during the same segment of the programme. The lovers are Sophie Okonedo playing Margaret and actor Ben Miles
Promotional shot of Hugh Bonneville, as Gloucester, fleeing those intent in putting him in the tower while the couple who brought this about, Sophie Okonedo as Margaret and Ben Miles as Somerset, make love

Looked at from this vantage what we trace is the destruction of the realm under a weak if honorable king, and story of the brutal wars of the roses, starting with York and Somerset’s competition for what Henry VI and Gloucester are not strong enough to hold onto. The compressed Henry VI Part 2 ends with Henry VI, disthroned, without followers, without clothes, distressed, in a kind of nervous breakdown, having lost all his followers and his wife (and relieved to have done so), wandering in the fields looking Christ-like in undergarments (and surely they mean to evoke Ben Whisloaw who played Richard II in Henriad series of the Hollow Crown) as he is dressed closely similarly; both are filmed to look Christ-like. Both are taken to prison, both murdered: Henry VI by the Duke of York’s deformed hunchback seething son, Richard, now Duke of Gloucester (Benedict Cumberbatch just as effective as everyone says) who is (“sudden when he takes something into his head”) rides to the tower intent on killing.

A little rewind: Shakespeare wrote the Henriad, the one the BBC did four years ago first, even though chronologically the Henriad comes second. Henry VI-Richard III were written 1590-93 and more or less in a row, while Richard II, Henry IV 1-2 and Henry V were written 1595, 1597, and 1599 respectively The Henriad is the more mature, and in numerous ways the more subtle, psychologically full and philosophically suggestive and varied but its story came first. Today we’d say Shakespeare wrote a four play prequel to his successful four play trilogy. But the second four plays were written as two or three stories: the story of Richard II is so separate in feel and time from the stories of Henry IV and V, a different man played Bolingbroke who became Henry IV (Roy Kinnear in Richard II; Jeremy Irons in Henry IV). The Henriad’s hero in Richard II never comes back in the other three plays. All the important characters in Henry VI Part 1 come back in Parts 2 and 3 and Richard III (even the murdered ones as ghosts).

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 01/05/2016 - Programme Name: The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses - TX: n/a - Episode: The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses (No. Henry VI Part 1) - Picture Shows: *STRICTLY NOT FOR PUBLICATION UNTIL 00:01HRS, SUNDAY 1ST MAY, 2016* Henry VI (TOM STURRIDGE), Margaret (SOPHIE OKONEDO) - (C) Carnival Film & Television Ltd - Photographer: Robert Viglasky
Henry VI (Tom Sturridge) and Margaret (Sophie Okonedo) meet

So in this trilogy there are two major characters across all the plays: Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou (played by the terrifically effective Sophie Okonedo). Henry VI dies before the third play, Richard III begins, but his absence allows one of the Duke of York’s sons, the eldest, Edward (Geoffrey Streatfield) to take the crown. The conflict across the plays is between Henry VI and the Duke of York for the crown, with a sub-conflict between the Duke of York and Duke of Somerset. When Margaret murders after torturing and humiliating the Duke of York) towards the end of Henry VI Part 2, his place is taken by his three sons, the other two being Clarence (Sam Troughton) and Richard of Gloucester who becomes Richard III in the course of that third play. This is part of Shakespeare’s over-arching 4 plasy but the clarity with which we can see it is not.

Further clear patterns emerge from the abridgment: We see over-arching story has smaller stories within it. In Henry VI Part 1 we have the action-adventure or war tragedy of the destruction in battle of warrior-hero, Talbot (Philip Glenister) and his son played against the tragedy (and it is played that way in this rendition) of the deluded or visionary (take your choice) Joan of Arc (Laura Frances-Morgan), who first wins for Philip of France, then captured, is imprisoned, tortured and burnt at the stake. That’s the first 3/4s of Henry VI Part One. The last quarter, deeply movingly we have the downfall of the noble, innocent Humphry of Gloucester brought partly about by the ambition and crazed delusions-madness of his wife, the Duchess Eleanor (Sally Hawkins) touchingly called by him Nell. Henry VI ends with Nell taken away in chains, and Gloucester’s hacked-to-death murder in the tower. In Shakespeare’s original the murder of Gloucester comes somewhere in Henry VI Part Two.

edwardwidowgrey
Keeley Hawes as the Widow Grey take with Geoffrey Streatfield as Edward, Duke of York, soon to be king

The new or compressed Henry VI Part 2 gives us the anguished romantic love of Margaret for the treacherous Somerset and his destruction in battle in the opening sequence; the quick romance of the proud widow Grey (Keely Hawes) more or less bullied by Edward into marriage near the end of the second third; and in the last Margaret taking the role of the helpless Henry VI as the lead of Henry VI’s forces against the sons of York, and her heartbreak when her son, Edward, is dismembered and killed before her very eyes by the York brothers. Shakespeare’s Richard III had the clearest original line: it is the story of how a tyrant personality takes power: inside though a smaller arc is the erotic bullying of Anne (wife of Edward) by Richard of Gloucester into a sadistic marriage in Richard III, and this is given more play by silent scenes of Anne, montages. We see Warwick change sides because Edward married beneath him, an Englishwoman, and did not let this uncle engineer an alliance with the French king’s daughter; we see the brothers’ rivalry played out, the downfall of Buckingham (captured fighting against Richard and instantly butchered).

The clarity of the patterns in the Henry VI plays especially are the product of the abridgment. They are not clearly laid out in Shakespeare’s plays, which include other stories: Jack Cade’s rebellion comes to mind. Richard III is linked in firmly to Henry VI by the use of flashbacks.

*******************************

joanofarcbattle
Laura Frances-Morgan as Joan of Arc calling for battle above ramparts

Some particulars I really admired and then I’ll have done. In this new Henry VI Part One I was especially moved by the performance of Bonneville as Humphrey; the build-up of his fatherly relationship with Henry VI, Sturridge’s ability to convey what seems a disabled personality, a weakness beyond the character being a good man who is non-violent, not manipulative, so pathetically out of his depths with these people, led by his adulterous corrupt wife, Margaret to listen to evil advisers. Power arranged the script so that Dame Eleanor’s playing around with magical effigies (putting pins in dolls looking like the king) became a salient accusation in the onslaught against him. Sally Hawkins does the distraught and disturbed personality as she did Anne Elliot in Persuasion. Miles as Somerset gave off a depth of memorable sensuality; Dunbar as the Plantangenet tenaciously re-directed again and again to want to take the throne. The death of the Talbot becomes another instance of how the ambitious destroy the good (he is not given enough funds for his army by either Somerset or York (we see Somerset being massaged refusing the money). Sophie Okenedo is extraordinarily mobile from one extreme emotion to another. Finally, the way Joan of Arc is played we pity her: she does not look to any gods but faces a mirror as she begs for her life — which is startling allowed by Shakespeare’s words.

I concede Henry VI Part Two is a little in danger of being mistaken for Full Metal Jacket at times. Maybe in Shakespeare’s original with the extra stories the space of the play would not be taken up by so much brutal violence. At the same time, what made the play work (each part can be seen as an individual playlet in the way BBC mini-series usually are) is how Shakespeare here is streamlined to give coherent shape and trajectory. Power and Cooke organized the 2 hours around battles. In the first hour or half of the unit we have a series of battles where first York and Somerset’s men are at one another until these two are beheaded, Somerset is casually crushed to death, then beheaded; York by contrast killed deliberately viciously. Then in the second hour a second series of brutal encounters where York’s sons, Edward and Richard, with Clarence at first having switched sides to Henry VI and Warwick, having returned to his brothers, fighting the forces nominally around Henry VI, actually Margaret (again Odenoko terrific), Warwick, and the few older men left loyal from Henry V, Exeter (Anton Lesser) for example. (This hanger-on from a previous reign reminded me of Bush senior’s most evil men, say Cheney, having a central place in Bush, the son’s administration and today still making phone calls on behalf of Trump to pressure congressional Republicans protesting against the the head of Exxon at the head of the state department).

kylesoller-large
Kyle Soller as Clifford

Between these two series of battles, or threaded through them are the sudden alliances, treacheries, confrontations which emblematically bring out themes. Shakespeare’s original plays and this abridgment too works by repetition and emblem: the excruciating deaths of father and son, the son dying in spite of the father’s protest, the father in effect betraying the son by having taught him to murder and seek hateful revenge. This begins in Henry VI Part 1 with the deaths of Talbot and his son together, and now in Part Two we have at least four such scenes, two close together. The one which carries across the play is that of Clifford (Kyle Soller, outstanding presence here) seeking violent revenge for his father’s death. This is Shakespeare’s anti-war allegory. War as a value destroys men who love one another; they behave in utterly counterproductive ways. The depiction of Henry V and VI does not fit this trajectory but across the Henry IV plays (1 and 2) Northumberlands treachery against Henry IV extends to manipulating his son, Hotspur, and then managing to keep from his son that Henry IV offers a truce, so that Hotspur is led to his senseless death. Hotspur might have chosen the course of action anyway as war as a way of life is what he was taught, but actual cause is a father’s betrayal and lies. The theme is developed at length and maturely in this later double play. One might say the relationship of Bolingboke as Henry IV with his recreant son, Hal (Tom Hiddleston) is a father-son comeuppance for Bolingbroke, and Hal’s choice of Henry IV as his father rather than Falstaff (treacherous and cowardly as he is, selfish, without any sense of responsibility or care for others) feels to be a tragic loss of companionship, a lesson in necessary betrayal.

One can regard as threaded in between the two sets of battles also when the Widow Grey is brought before Edward to ask that her property be returned to her son, before you know it Edward is wooing and offering to marry her when she refuses to be his whore while a delegation unknown to him is making up a French marriage, which delegation, including Warwick regards this conduct as betrayal, shameful and they move back to Henry VI’s side of the board. And so the battles begin again. Gradually too York’s youngest son, Richard emerges, Cumberbatch just electrifying as Okonedo as Margaret, steals the show each time he is on the screen. Henry VI Part 2 ends with a shot of Margaret in a dungeon in the tower, a chain around her neck, jerking madly at it, screaming I a queen, I am a queen.

cecilyduchessofyork
Judi Dench as the aged Duchess of York: the tragedies of this world imprinted on her face

I can’t do justice in the paragraph or so left to a few particulars of Richard III. I’ve known before through reading all the plays (yes I’ve read all of Shakespeare’s plays, and some of them a number of times, taught four: Richard II, Hamlet, Othello and The Winter’s Tale), and seen so many so many times that the great jump in ability, capacity, genius, Shakespeare makes is suddenly to throw into a full consciousness of a single man and make us stay there. He had not come near this before. It’s worth noticing fully that the consciousness he first chose was not a good man or highly intelligent thoughtful type, say Humphry of Gloucester (who is still only seen within for a couple of albeit long speeches, or Hamlet. No. A forerunner of Macbeth. It is the peculiar take in this one that all the lines that can be played up as showing deep psychological distress and disturbance and insane resentment and revenge (how hateful is revenge says Mozart in his opera play of Idomeneo) are drawn out, emphasized by the body Cumberbatch has had built around him. We can’t sympathize with this disabled unloved creature because he is so sneering, disdainful, cruel, lying in all his ways, but the lines are there. He feels a twisted remorse – or Cumberbatch makes us feel that fuelling his nonetheless attack-mode thoughts and actions. When he meets Judi Dench as his mother, the Duchess of York now grown old (Lucy Robinson plays the role in Henry VI Part 1) he does convey he is hurt she never loved him as she conveys that upon looking at his deformed body she was disgusted.

cumberbatch
Close-up of Cumberbatch as Richard

The action takes us through the steps by which this Richard rises to power, wins people over to him one by one (out of greed, sometimes fear) and then alienates them, one by one. Most of them he manages to murder, but not all. (Therein lies our hope, those of us who are making analogies with Trump’s rise today that not all are murdered and slowly a group emerges who find their vital interests so threatened they raise an army around Henry Tudor.) The father-son theme is brought back. At the end Stanley terrified that the son he had been forced to leave behind in order to do the right thing, flee Richard of Gloucester and enlist Richmond, Henry Tudor, this son is seen walking over the hill. A great moment of hope and joy as they hug.

cumberbatchaswarriorhero
Cumberbatch as the warrior Richard

At the end when the army which has gathered round Henry Tudor marching forth against the army Richard III can still amass, we have yet another of these ferocious brutal set-too between men hauling axes, clubs, broadswords, dirks (is that the term), and not far away others shooting dead arrows, the blood and guts and horror of the scene is obscured by rain and mud. It comes down to someone unseating Richard from his powerful horse (and we are made to feel how important being high up on a horse is) lands him in the mud. (In the Making of the Hollow Crown the filming of this part was discussed as very hard on the actors.) As they battle it out, and Henry Tudor wins, partly because Richard III is exhausted after his nights of harassment from ghosts and his own tormented mind, Henry Tudor downs him –- with help from Margaret who is suddenly there with a small mirror which shines a light blinding Richard’s eyes for the important few seconds. “My horse my horse a kingdom for a horse” is shouted coarsely and hoarsely, not as irony (Laurence Oliver’s take) but as a man in desperate need of a horse. Tudor comes from the back and hacks, and when the man lies prostrate, pushes a sword through his body, and blood squirts all over the mud and rain. The declaration is then: the tyrant is dead. Now we can all sleep in peace. (Well we here in the US and perhaps across the world can no longer sleep in peace. I’m sure I’m not the only one whose sleep has been ruined by hideously poisoned tweets.)

The film does not actually end on him, and there is a penultimate beautiful coronation ceremony where once again this iconic cleaned up hero is married to an iconic blonde, this time her grim mother (Keeley Hawes) standing to the side.
And then the final scene: the mad Margaret, impoverished, filthy, crazed, lookin down at the grave in which all the bodies are being thrown.

closingstills
Margaret among the hundreds of dead — final closing stills of Hollow Crown

I felt astonishing how dark Shakespeare is at the very outset of his career. This quartet made into a trilogy are his first known plays. People so rarely today (they used to in the later 19th century when biographical criticism of Shakespeare was common) talk of his relationship to his plays: but here he is at the beginning of his career emphasizing the tragedy of sensitive good people (he develops Hamlet out of that), and the attack on the ambitious, power-hungry as deeply untrustworthy (Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra say) stays throughout the career.

Ellen

secondshepherds
Mak (Ryan Sellers) and Gill (Tonya Beckman)

Mak (to his wife and the 3 visiting shepherds looking for their lost sheep: Ye have run in the mire, and are wet yet;
I shall make you a fire, if ye will sit.
A nurse would I hire [to groaning wife]. Think ye on yet?
Well quit is my hire — my dream, this is it —
A season.
I have bairns, if ye knew,
Well more than enew;
But we must drink as we brew,
And that is but reason …

Gentle readers,

You still have three days or evenings to get there. Are you down in the dumps and obeying the social conventions to appear all gaiety and cheer? If you can’t catch the theater (live too far away?), not to despair, from photos I gather this production has been done elsewhere so it can move again. Of course I can’t guarantee this inventive staging and lovely music of The Second Shepherd’s Play, as directed by Mary Hall Surface and Robert Eisenstein (music director) now playing at the Folger in DC will do it. Indeed, the reviewer for the DC Theater scene seemed strangely half-apologetic (“though this will not appeal to all tastes” — what, pray tell, does?), so clearly the “magic” he so praised is rare, and the high spirited “originality” another reviewer attributed to the experience (also worrying about the depiction of women as well as something overdone in sentiment), may come across as tepid to our 21st century aggressively explosive film and art experienced taste, but I felt what was so good about it was its quiet human feeling.

Second Shepherd's Play
Shepherds, sheep and musicians

What the anonymous cycle play has been known for since it has been revived from the Townley manuscript of 15th century plays (in which it is found) is how it mixes the ordinary vexed feelings of put-upon serfs (giving full play to their complaints about their lives), farcical comedy and (at the close) with sublime religious feeling. David Siegel provides the story-outline turn for turn. In the program notes I counted 23 songs and dances.

shepherdsmanuscript
From an illuminated (with pictures) manuscript

To be all scholarly the author is known or recognized as “the Wakefield master” — who lived in Wakefield (to which I used to go taking at least 4 buses from Leeds in the later 1960s). He wrote the First Shepherd’s Play, and four other “pageants” (this one is sometimes called a pageant because of the ending in a creche scene): The Murder of Abel, Noah and His Sons (probably a comedy), Herod the Great and The Buffeting, as adapted by the great poet-translator, Tony Harrison as one of the Yorkshire Mystery plays, a powerful play where we watch a group of Roman soldiers prosaically nail said Jesus Christ to a huge cross and hoist it up. You can read The Second Shepherd’s Play as well as other plays by this Wakefield Master in an old Everyman paperback edited by A.C. Crawley (Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays, Dutton, 1959).

I’ve seen it twice. I remembered a film of the Monty Python group doing this story of a hungry shepherd and his wife stealing a sheep and hilariously trying to pass it off as a newborn baby in the wife’s cradle: Dudley Moore was in it and he somehow made the idea he was “biding” in the fields peacefully deliciously absurd. Upon reading the program notes, Izzy told me she and I had seen it before: 2007, and with Jim, but when they’d done, she said it was very different from that earlier version, and this one “much better.” For a start it was longer, something over two hours with intermission.

shepherd226-overthemountain
Over the mountain to home Mak goes

What was different was the intermingling of song and dance and puppetry. The one large puppet was the sheep, and he (or she) was done with sticks and reminded me of the way a cat will respond to its beloved staff-friends. Its head was all nudge. At different junctures, for example, after Mak ferrets away the sheep while the three trusting shepherds lie asleep, there is a quick set up of a temporary arch and two puppets representing Mak and the sheep are seen traversing hills and valleys to get back to Gill at home spinning. When the shepherds discover that the baby in the cradle is a sheep and elect to toss Mak in a blanket, a large blanket is suddenly there with a puppet tossed up and down. The three shepherds, Coll, the most articulate (Louis E Davis), Daw (Megan Graves, she was a young Juliet in a Romeo and Juliet play I saw at the Folger a few years ago), and Gib (Matthew R. Wilson) are turned into puppets traversing the snow. This is the kind of thing done in the recent Sense and Sensibility: really taking advantage of the live performance aspect of play-making. There is a rolling machine turned and turned to make high winds of a tempest, and the actors twirl ribbons across the stage to make a storm. You could not do this in a film.

I like Renaissance music very much, and as at previous concerts for the last few years, there were guest artists: particularly felicitious is Brian Kay on the lute, performing love music in a melancholy moving way. Daniel Meyers plays various instruments but I remember best what looked like a Renaissance flute; and of course Eisenstein. The ending in the coming of the angel to tell Mary she is carry the “god-head” — a dea ex machina from the balcony sung by an opera soprano (Emily Noel, who sang two other individual songs)

noel

and the music from the mass (“Gloria in excelsis deo”) was prepared for at the opening of Act II. The play was held off while we had a small concert of very touching music both appropriate to the season and on peculiarly Renaissance instruments (I can’t name them). For me that was the highest moment of the play. Songs familiar (Greensleeves, the Coventry Carol, rounds like Blowe thy horne, hunter) are threaded in along with less familiar and unfamiliar pieces. The titles of the whole lot are reprinted in the program notes.

The underlying feel — desperately needed for more than 2 hours is a group of people who are trying for a peaceful life where they “turn all to good.” (As I say, there’s a 1970s film somewhere of Monty Python finding this very funny — lucky them.)

Third shepherd to Mak & Gill: For this trespass
We will neither ban ne flite,
Fight nor chide ….

As luck would have it, this week I got my bi-annual copy of the Sidney Journal (34:2 2016) and will wonders never cease (?). Two new sonnets by Philip Sidney have been found (!). To me they sound like him. I like these lines in the first (yes plucked out of context, and re-contextualized):

In humble sorte contented yet am I,
Though in dispaire I dye without regard

I also got my yearly Christmas card from Arthur F. Kinney, a great Renaissance scholar who sends Christmas cards each year to each and every person who contributed an essay to English Literary Renaissance (he must have quite a mailing list by this time — I published but one paper, on a sonnet sequence by Anne Cecil in the early 1990s), and this year he chose to reprint and slightly modernize passages from Milton’s “On the morning of Christ’s Nativity,” and I quote these

No War, or Battles sound
Was Heard the World around,
The idle Spear and Shield were high up hung,
The hooked Chariot stood,
Unstain’d with hostile blood,
The Trumpet spake not to the armed throng …

These lines could be slotted into this play.

The experience brought back memories of when I was an undergraduate just beginning to major in English and read The Second Shepherd’s Play in an Norton Anthology (as well as the great 15th century tragedy, Everyman) and thought how all this is abolished for English majors and certainly for everyone else in most American colleges. I remembered watching the National Theater production of the Yorkshire Mysteries one Christmas for a couple of marvelous hours with Izzy and Laura (then 7 and 14); we would replay it on a video cassette we had taped it onto, and even made two to have a back-up. How joyous and funny the whole thing was. Both cassettes now unplayable.

Somewhere in me too I have never gotten over Christmas at Dingley Dell (Dickens’s Pickwick Papers Christmas) – when I was young my father read aloud to me — so yearn for some re-enactment in that direction. It is, since Jim’s death, not quite out of the question as Izzy and I try for one another. The best way for me is low expectations and minimal joining in (as what is available to a person like me is — or perhaps you too gentle reader). I decorated as far as I could; I send out cards; Izzy and I are going to three events. I was thinking this morning appreciate the use of music reaching out (as in the Folger Consort group) and stay with that, don’t seek anything more.

Jim was something of a musician (read music, would play scores of opera for piano on our piano spinet) and used to say the Folger Consort group was too determinedly scholarly and authentic, and the pre-Renaissance stuff was done dully. Then it was just four aging white men. Two of these people are gone, and now the group hires all sorts of people and are truly creative in their approach, and regularly dare to move well into the 17th century.

jacobruisdaelwinterlandscape-large
Jacob Van Ruisdael (1629-82), Winter Landscape

Ellen

amour-de-loinpilgrim
Tamara Mumford, Pilgrim, also called the Traveler

Friends and readers,

On Saturday Izzy and I saw, listened to, a strangely still opera: Kaija Saariagho’s L’Amour de Loin (Love from Afar), libretto by Amin Maalouf (see review in the New York Times by Anthony Tommasini).

There is hardly any action in the 3 hour opera-story. Jaufre Rudel, Prince of Blaye (sung and acted by Eric Owens), a troubadour now grown old, once a poet-singer accompanying the 12th century crusades, now residing in Aquitaine, ailing, in a deeply depressed state, dreams of an ideal woman with whom he can experience fulfilled love. A pilgrim or (as called in the French word Englished traveler) seems to sail/happen by and tells Jaufre the woman he has conjured up exists. Jaufre sets off to meet her.

troubadourpilgrim

Meanwhile Clemence, a countess of Tripoli, in this production dressed to align her with a mermaid (fish-y scale-y dress with a sort of parting at the bottom as if for fins, braided hair) is by magic or some other force aware of or longing for, this coming love. The same pilgrim sails/happens by to tell her Jaufre is writing of her in an ethralled way. This gives her a concrete person to dream of. She is conflicted: sometimes eager, young, and sometimes wary. When Jaufre arrives, he is dying. If this illness is physical we are not told, only that he has dreaded the meeting, experienced such anguish of anxiety, he is near death.

heconfesses

They meet, and while they declare their passion, he also says that he is afraid of life and also of dying. From the intensity of this conflict he enacts a kind of self-suicide. Se weeps that some external force is to blame, then that she is. At the last she decides she will retire from the world to a convent.

The stage when the lights are not on consists of seried rows of benches. When a computerized light show is on against the dark, we see wavering lines suggesting the sea along which everyone moves. The light moves from emerald green, to glooming yellow and white, to blood red, to deep blues. Everyone includes two choruses, one of men who dialogue with Jaufre, and one of women who dialogue with Clemence, who function rather like Sophocles’ or Greek choruses. The lower bodies of these figures are never seen; they seem like controlled slaves who exist for the sake of the numinous central presences. Opera is a deeply conservative form and this allegory is that here — the mood lacks the irony of Samuel Beckett’s figures caught in cans.

What is the audience to make of this? I might as well say up-front I thought the computerized technology overdone and because you can do a thing (make the stage into something near art film) doesn’t mean you should. I have recently heard music very like that of Saariaho: atonal, dissonant, each line differing form the other, many idiosycratic sounds, yet somehow peaceful, idyllic, a troubled pastoral. All three principals sang beautifully, especially fine was the Pilgrim. Until the second act, though, the lines in this opera were archetypal in content, utterly generalized. Set to Charlotte Smith’s complex poetry, the lines had thoughtful meaning to express. Similarly, Detlev Ganert’s music seemed set to a text of complicated many issue-d despair.

In the second half, though, we did get meaning, e.g., from the words Juafre spoke, the sensitive troubadour has been traumatized by life itself (so violent, so contradictory to him) and (once again) prefers death. He also yearns for compensatory beauty in return for the horrors he’s seen and done while “in the orient,” citing place names from Middle Eastern countries which played a part in the crusades or are mentioned in the chronicles written by men about their experiences in the crusades or Constantinople.

You can, and I would be inclined also to see the opera as an exploration of levels of depression and despair. The afflicted person tries to throw off by maintaining a belief in an impossible goodness, kindness, love. Jaufre suspects he is deluding himself; his dream cannot be realized. It is only real from afar. That’s why he does not want to experience this love close up. When he does see her, overcome by her beauty after all, he nonetheless is already near death. It’s too late to make a change.

Some further art context would be the Arthurian corpus. Voigt did refer to the lovers as a Tristan and Isolde at one point in her intermission talk. The depiction of the lovers was strikingly like my memories of a specific text, an 1890s fin-de-siecle French rendition of Trisan and Iseult by Joseph Bedier. Mark doesn’t have much of a role in Bedier. Bedier may be read in a beautiful English translation by Hillaire Belloc. The deeply reactionary meaning caught up in this enthrallment by sex was explicated in once famous book by Denis de Rougement: Love in the Western World, except Bedier is not into Christian apologetics: rather all in life seeks erotic ecstacy. From Celtic twilights of melancholy to the sublime transcendance of Wagner, it’s a perverse worship of self-annihilation, melting away into sensual pleasure to an extreme of self-destruction and death. For my taste there was too much squirming eroticism, or (alternatively) naive idealism of the ripe virginal maiden in all this:

l-amour-de-loin-susanna-phillipsclemence

While the opera also takes its resonance from texts by Tennyson, Sara Teasdale (a poem from Guinevere) and movies like Bresson’s Lancelot, Eric Rohmer’s Parzival, perhaps Boorman’s Excalibur (a Hollywoodized version); there is a counterforce, warrior-like memories at least caught up in place names and very occasional action. The cities chosen by the pair of creators include Antioch, the old world around the Mediterranean leading to Jerusalem. Though our troubadour seems to have never fought, he and the Pilgrim are sombre with the knowledge of something intransigent, wary of something “out there” which all seek to elude. Jaufre is also the wounded fisher-king, exiled or taken along as suffering figure at wars. The male figure who carries within him the evils and wretchedness of the world, and dies of this: I thought of Amyntas as dramatized in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival.

rarephysicalmoment

**************************

I was much moved by the second half; there was far more psychological content in the words; death seemed to me portrayed to some extent realistically: as a drawn out agonized process. Tides of grief wash over everyone. The intense rejection of anything close up by the troubadour. The huge iron contraption seemed to me perfect for some construction site, an over-the-top exhibit of angularity and abstraction and computer light show was now less in evidence. The three principles were at the bottom of the benches and and camera focused on them in various levels of close-up. It would have been too abrupt, too sudden, too somehow melodramatic to end abruptly with Jaufre’s death, so there was a lingering strongly controlled slow fade-away.

Can we place this in a more immediate and political context — in my experience operas written more recently (where I’ve seen a few at Castleton Festival in Virginia) are meant to resonate with today’s culture. An FB friend of mine, Tom Dillingham, caught

an interesting William Blake sighting’ or reference … During the intermission … Deborah Voigt interviewed the great Placido Domingo about his having taken on the role of Nabucco in Verdi’s opera of that name. Domingo commented on the complexity of the character and said that his name is also Nebuchadnezzar, and then mentioned that William Blake “the greatest of painters in England” (that’s close, anyway, to what he said) had portrayed Nebuchadnezzar as a kind of man/beast, crouching on all fours. The admiration of one great artist for another is always worth noting. Perhaps I should refrain from noting a certain evocation of a contemporary menace.

blakenabucconebduchadnazzar
Blake’s Nebduchadnezzar

I won’t refrain. The opera figures retreat in the face of fear, sexual engagement and reality. Ours is a hard world people with the wherewithal retreat to dreams like this from.

There is another great piece of music and lyrics that matches this one, as serious and allegorical as Saariaho and Maalouf’s and brings out the underbelly of this opera. Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall

The lyrics say what needs to be listened to, not just said, and acted upon, and a much seasoned-performer like Smith’s nervousness in front of this over-, opulently dressed crowd just make so much stronger how much this song’s concrete causes needs be heeded … I’ve not been so deeply moved by a performance or song in a long time.

You choose which one you think comes closest in this dire moment, the well-behaved decorous allusive myth with its diversity of casting or the accosting of what the blue-eyed son has done.

I must not leave out that this is only the second opera mounted in the whole of the Metropolitan Opera’s history to be by a woman; it is also only the fourth to be conducted by a woman: Susanna Malkki. My great grief is the first woman who won the popular vote to be president of the US is not the president tonight who could have heard it. Instead we have a man/beast who has promised to continue the horrors pictured by Dylan. Dylan deserved the Nobel, though perhaps he should have been there to accept it, and gotten it for music (and someone else for literature), I don’t mind. Patti Smith’s singing more than made up for anything awry.

Ellen

singing
Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser (Caitronia Balfe) singing & dancing gaily and wryly

murtaghnear
Murtagh Fraser (Duncan LaCroix) dancing stiffly and awkwardly (from Episode 14, “The Search”)

Claire: May I make a suggestion? Perhaps you could sing a song to jazz up the dance a bit.
Murtagh: Jazz?
Claire: To spice up, enliven. A song?
Murtagh: Yes.
Claire: Something toe-tapping, like

He was a famous trumpet man From out Chicago way He had a boogie style that no one else could play He was the top man at his craft But then his number came up And he was gone with the draft He’s in the army now A-blowing reveille. He’s the boogie woogie bugle boy of Company B

Murtagh: What?
Claire: It’s a bonnie tune.
Murtagh: But you need a Scottish song …
Claire (sometime later):

Here’s to all you lads and lasses That go out this way Be sure to tip her coggie When you take her out to play Lads and lasses toy a kiss The lads never think what they do is amiss Because there’s Kent and Keen and there’s Aberdeen And there’s none as muckle as the strathabogie wogie For every lad?! wander just to have his lass And when they see her pintle rise They’ll raise a glass And rowe about their wanton een They’ll dance the reels as the troopers go over the lea Because there’s Kent and Keen and there’s Aberdeen And there’s none as muckle as the strathabogie wogie He giggled, google me He was a banger He sought the prize between my thighs Became a hanger And there’s Kent and Keen and there’s Aberdeen But there’s none as muckle as the strathabogie wogie If you see a strapping redheaded fellow, let me know. There’s a big redheaded lad come through these parts. But there’s none as muckle as the strathabogie wogie And no there’s none as muckle as the wanton tune of strathabogie

Dear friends and readers,

In these last three episodes the first season concluded with moving from transitioning to a downright reversal of gender roles. This is taken to a level meant to astonish viewers: where else is a man broken in spirit and raped? The rescuers are all women or women-led. First, the two heroines (Jenny, his sister, Laura Donnelly, one, her breasts filled with milk), and then one, his wife, Claire, alone with her subaltern hero’s brother-mate, now discovered to be rather a replacement father, Murtagh, go on quest for said hero, Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). They find him having escaped hanging, thrown into chains in a dungeon, having been humiliated to the point of robbing him of all pride, tortured (his right hand smashed with a hammer), raped, brought to want suicide by one half of the series doppelganger hero-villain, Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies).

He is rescued by the concerted repeated courageous efforts of said wife-heroine, and a band of his mates; then he is nursed, his hand re-structured by her (now we move back to usual gender roles), taken loving care of by all, including brothers, in a monastery. Finally, coaxed out of intense self-hatred, depression, nightmares, but not just recalled rather driven back to life by Claire (again he is the one worked upon) and simply taken into flight across the waters. The three episodes form a kind of climax and denouement trilogy to all that has gone before. Taken to another level.

What many viewers might not know or not realize (or forget) is, like the 12th and 13th episodes (“Lallybroch” and “The Watch”), these three seem to follow the outline of the book’s ending, but in fact depart radically.

In the book the quest, which takes all of Episode 14 (as “The Search”) and then some of 15 (Wentworth Prison), takes 5 paragraphs out of the first of a closing series of long chapters (Part Six, 8 to be precise). While the capture, beating, breaking of spirit and body and rape of Jamie, is there in the book, it takes only about 2/3s of one chapter (35, “Wentworth Prison”) and is not placed as climax. In the mini-series, the actual core scenes of Black Jack and Jamie where Jamie allows Black Jack to make love to him and responds are held off as a flashback (reminding me of Richardson’s Clarissa) until near the end of 16, the last episode (“To Ransom A Man’s Soul”) so they become the climax.

discussing
Murtagh, Father Anselm (Ian Hanmore) and Claire discussing what seems the hopelessness of bringing Jamie out of his intense grief and loss

jamieremembering
Jamie responding, remembering, dreaming moving to the flashback (which I will not put stills from on my blog lest I attract the wrong kind of attention) (from Episode 16, “To Ransom a Man’s Soul”)

As in the book’s versions of Episodes 12 & 13 a lingering depiction of a story about a tense return home ending unexpected disaster from treachery, so that the theme is rooted in characterization and as much about what is meant by home, and men’s relationships to women there, in the book’s versions of 14-16 we are given a luxuriating in woman’s romance:

a full emphasis on Claire’s attempts to save Jamie by negotiation, entering two different Scottish households, one the armed castle type run by Sir Fletcher, and the other, another old-fashioned country house farmstead of the McRannochs, where Claire meets the wife as well as husband. In the book, as heroines have done before her, she is successful because she enlists the aid of the non-violent home-y private knowledge of the MacRannochs, including their cattle. The cattle is just about all that is kept in the mini-series: a way to barge into the prison and during the fracas and violence, sluice Jamie out. In the book Claire, Jamie and Murtagh flee to France — across the waters — immediately, and are taken into a French monastery, recalling to his mind the one he fled to (and told Claire of) after his first nearly mortal encounter with Black Jack, which inflicted on him his criminal status and permanently scarred back.

In the mini-series the monastery is in the highlands (and not safe, but hidden enough for a while) and,by contrast, the final scene is on the shore, a goodbye to Scotland for now, and the three principals sail away — rather like many a male-centered sea story.

agonized
Beyond intrigue, comedy and action-adventure, what survives from the book is the agon of Jamie and Claire forced apart by Black Jack on threat of destroying another part of Jamie’s body (Episode 15, “Wentworth Prison”)

In the book after Claire has performed her physical and psychological re-fashioning of Jamie, they find this French monastery unsafe. Reminding me uncannily of Sophie Lee’s Recess now, they flee into a cave where they stay, make intense love, and then crawl out through the earth to reach the sky and build another future than is in the cards for themselves and others.

But there another political level to this drama (as pointed out by Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker last year): the torturing of Jamie mirrors our own politics. Gabaldon wrote Outlander in 1995 well before 9/11, before systematic torture was practiced by the Bush administration, allowing it to spread and become acceptable elsewhere. It’s important to emphasize this political source for what we see, not only as demonstrating even women’s historical romances are about history and politics (as certainly historical fiction is), but because a newly elected US president has condoned torture and people he’s appointed condon it too. I believe the scenes are made emphatic and developed intutively as timely: there are two between Black Jack and Jamie, in the first Jack smashes Jame’s hand because it seems Jamie will not bend, not yield, in the second the intensely painful submission scene. It should be remembered that no information is being extracted. There are too many studies for me to cite showing that torture is useless for extracting truthful information; perhaps Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain is most pertinent here: she argues not force itself alone but the fear and infliction on someone of bodily pain lies behind powerful state gov’t’s successes. Here the English.

The mini-series might be said to be a (long-distance) descendant of Walter Scott, historical fiction, with a heap of fashionable post-colonialism; the book is a similar descendant of Ann Radcliffe (combining all three of her famous romances) by way of Daphne DuMaurier’s occasionally kinky eroticism, woman’s historical romance (often part fantasy).

Pace the book about these forms I’m reading just now, Bowden’s Descendants of Waverley, the differences between these two genres is considerable. I’ve now gotten myself the British DVD set of the new 2016 Poldarks and the fat books of Complete Scripts, Series 2 by Deborah Horsfield, and will be leaving off writing about the Outlander mini-series for a while, but I’m also struck by how both mini-series (1970s and again now) albeit in very different ways, as they go on become more literally faithful to the books as well as actual 18th century history.

marriotsurfacemining
Surface mining in the new Poldark (seen by the second episode of the 1st season)

inverness
The opening scene at Inverness (1, “Sassenach”)

The World of Poldark by Emma Marriot, a companion volume to the 2016 TV series has many short essays on historical topics; The Making of Outlander by Tara Bennett, a companion volume to this one on-going TV series has almost none: history is only brought up as a detail to explain this facet of a costume or prop or why a particular ritual or song took a certain hybrid form. Winston’s Graham’s original book about Poldark’s Cornwall had much about Cornwall itself (for real), his relationship to it, and his characters to history, actual photos of real places, all set-up as life-writing.

stwinowsperpendicularcornishgothic
Cornish perpendicular gothic window, a photo from Graham’s edition of Poldark’s Cornwall

Gabaldon’s equivalent Outlandish Companion has much about Scottish history seen through a prism of fantasy, romance, with astrological tables, ancient Scottish symbols, words, drawings of ruins, playful illustrations, all set-up as a kind of substitute (almost) for reading four of the Outlander books. I began these blogs on Outlander by way of having some comparative and intertextual context for the new Poldark.

outlandishbracelets-jph

outlandishbracelets2
Permutations of a bracelets from Outlandish Companion

*****************************

None of this is to stay this Outlander mini-series is not a marvel of good writing (especially the over-voice linking much), interesting human sequences, studies of gender, some post-colonial history, strong structure, effective music and effective scenery (beautiful when wanted), the cinematography breath-taking, the close-ups deeply moving, but to recognize what has happened to it in an adaptation meant to engage male as as well as female viewers. So I’ll conclude with just two elements I was struck by in these last three.

comingtothemonastery
Coming up to the monastery

The use of the past is not just a pretext. The unfamiliarity of the past is important as when Claire and Murtagh travel across northern Scotland to find Jamie in an era without maps, daily newspapers, telegraph, telephone, TV, internet, lots of published maps (no GPS, no cell-phone). We are comforted by their overcoming the lack of technology, and we delight in how eras can be brought together. So Claire entertains with jazzed up versions of Scottish songs, sounding like a radio program from the 1940s. She tells fortunes of women glad to hear their husbands will die young. She fights one imitator for (in effect) copyright — and he cheats and uses her materials. It’s fun to see Murtagh’s awkward dancing. The visualization and sounds of all this is in fact what the book cannot provide.

inbetweenperfomances
Claire snacking inbetween performances (14, “The Search”)

Love and friendship are matters of affinity, companionship and then physical love are compensatory and crowning expressions of a valuing of one another’s individual qualities, rather than an end in itself. Black Jack is perverse because he wants to devour and punish, inflict pain to feel his power. The good features of any personality are the most solitary ones, the indwelling mind which keeps to its own integrity. So at the end of both book and this first series, we have the deeply gratifying coming together of loving affection between parting men and wedded men and women.

sayingoodbyetowillie
Claire saying goodbye to Willie who has been the most loyal of all Jamie’s friends

murtaghjamieclaire
Fair is the wind for France

************************************

I have not mentioned the music of this series thus far. Let me end on that which begins and haunts most episodes: the theme of the Craig Na Dun stones and women’s dance.

outlanderfanspageheader
A header on one of the fan sites for this mini-series

Sing me a song of a lass that is gone …

The song is a re-working of a traditional Scots folk tune: The Skye-Boat Song, with words paraphrased from Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, “Sing me a song of a lady that is gone.” Brian McGreary who composed it describes himself as “a Jacobite fanatic,” he did his thesis on the Jacobites and the music of the era. He used a “live orchestra and live soloists … live bagpipes, the live fiddle, the bodhran, which is the drum that can change pitch, [which we hear] predominantly in the main title … ” It was an attempt to be authentic Scots, using one of the great Scottish writers. It’s sung by Raya Yarborough and is part of the paratext opening for each episode.

There is a music or a theme associated with Frank, Claire’s tenderly loving husband from the 1940s and it’s classical, 20th century, what we associate with Vaughn Williams, English composers drawing on English folk song. There is a theme for Frank and Claire together, and there is a theme for Claire and Jamie together, heard in different permutations, bodhran, Scottish percussion, small string ensemble, a deeper more baritone setting with low strings or a viola da gamba when the focus is on Jamie (from The Making of Outlander, pp 22-27). But no theme for Claire. Ah well. She gets to do the over-voice, the perspective …

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Mull was astern, Rum on the port,
Eigg on the starboard bow;
Glory of youth glowed in his soul;
Where is that glory now?

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Give me again all that was there,
Give me the sun that shone!
Give me the eyes, give me the soul,
Give me the lad that’s gone!

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Billow and breeze, islands and seas,
Mountains of rain and sun,
All that was good, all that was fair,
All that was me is gone.
— Robert Louis Stevenson

ethereal

People disappear all the time. Young girls run away from home. Children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives take the grocery money, and a taxi to the train station. Most are found eventually. Disappearances, after all, have explanations. Usually. Strange, the things you remember. Single images and feelings that stay with you down through the years (the epigraph to Outlander, the first words heard in the series, spoken by Balfe).

Ellen

king-lear-antony-sher-david-troughton-rsc-greg-doran
Anthony Sher as Lear, David Troughton as Gloucester

The worst returns us to laughter — Edgar, a moment where the production’s clear speaking made a line shine through which is relevant to what is happening center stage in US newspapers on Trump’s “team” today

Dear friends and readers,

Last night I was privileged to watch an HD screening of a production of King Lear from Stratford-upon-Avon at the Folger Shakespeare library. It’s the fifth HD-screening of a Shakespeare play for me, and I take the occasion to praise the Folger for this program and hope aloud to others the library continues to to participate in these screenings. Each one of the five has provided me and those in the audience with a renewed contemporary dramatic realization of Shakespeare: particularly alive and deeply instructive have been the Love Labor’s Lost and Merchant of Venice. I did learn that Lily James is a great actress from Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet (“a few good experiences” — scroll down, just a bit). I still lament I had to miss Kenneth Branagh’s Winter’s Tale with Judy Dench as Paulina. The Folger itself on average is staging at most two plays by Shakespeare a year (the others are often modern adaptations of Shakespeare or some other supposedly related contemporary play). So by screening say three productions from the UK Shakespeare himself is kept before us.

It’s an occasion because Gregory Doran’s Lear (he was the director) is getting more attention than many RSC productions. These occur regularly and why this one is singled out I don’t know. One review from TLS will do, partly because Abell does not say much about the production except that it has to cope with the bombast of the play. There was magnificence in the way the play’s hieratic and crazed excruciating lunatic scenes were done, the scenes as a whole as living emblems before us, a dignity was maintained even in the most intimate moments

sher_with_graham_turner_as_the_fool
Sher with Graham Turner as the fool

3820693600000578-3782254-anthony_sher_as_lear_with_natalie_simpson_as_cordelia_and_anthonybyrneaskent
Natalie Simpson as Cordelia and Anthony Byrne as Kent leading Lear away after she and he have made up

But the experience was not as deeply moving for me in the way it has been before. I usually weep, occasionally almost uncontrollably, and and didn’t at all this time. They were too controlled, too aware of themselves as enacting the super-respected Tragedy. The actors all seemed so delighted to have been given their part.

A case in point was the opening scene: it is hieratic, and let us tell truths (dismiss adulation even for Shakespeare), and admit the scene resembles the static and wooden hieratic scenes in other of Shakespeare’s dramas, e.g., Merchant of Venice (the casket), the one in Pericles (where the suitor is in danger of his life).

Two reviews of an Old Vic production with an 80 year old Glenda Jackson making another astonishingly effective performance (recalling her first appearances as Charlotte Corday in Marat/Sade so many years ago) as Lear suggest the route taken there was quite different: a Samuel Beckett stripped down modernity (Fintan O’Toole in the NYRB; Matt Wolf in the NYTimes; Susannah Clapp in The Guardian).

The problem (as I see it) might be a lack of courage (or originality of interpretation), a fear of the audience, a reverence for the place they were playing in, too much self- and audience regard.

Shakespeare means to show us the mean pathologies of family life taken to a frightening ferocity, with each “child” a step along that road. Simpson is even worse: she hardly breaks her serenity across the play. Simpson played Cordelia so blandly: if she is not given some anger or resentment in the opening scene (as she was not), there is no psychological sense to what has happened. I’ve seen this reluctance before. The conventional Cordelia never not loves the old man. Then why did she refuse him at the opening?

I felt Turner was going through the motions of the fool’s speeches, not meaning them, careful lest we not get all the words. The wicked sisters were wholly unoriginal. Most of all there was nothing abandoned about Oliver Johnstone as the broken, abandoned, utterly distrusted betrayed child in Edgar; he was too studied.

edgar

The director and costumer reinforced the play’s artificiality as a kind of compensation, a guarded wall of costume.

Some intriguing moments: It was interesting to see Edmund so underplayed, understated by Paapa Essieddu, almost semi-comic, but it didn’t fit in at all. Nia Gwynne as Goneril needed to be in another melodramatically emotional production: she was effective, but, except for a moment where Lear seems to hug her so tightly he is trying to destroy her uterus or chest, she had no match anywhere. It’s a testament to the vivid thereness of a long career that Sher managed to give Lear a feel of a real individual looking out of his eyes. The best moments were where he was permitted to react naturally in an intimate or direct way to another presence on stage (with Gloucester, with Goneril).

leargoneril

Very effective Shakespeare’s drive down to utter degradation, misery, writhing madness in the scenes on the heath and in the hovel — not so much the individual (which is all I have promotional photos of) but the scene as a whole, the larger stage conceptions. I felt also that the age of the two men, aging itself, its vulnerability, its needs were central to what was moving in the experience of this production. But then I am old myself and identified as an aging parent. I would have loved to be able to see Glenda Jackson as Lear (photo from NYRB):

Glenda Jackson as Lear and Morfydd Clark as Cordelia in the Old Vic’s production of King Lear

Glenda Jackson as Lear and Morfydd Clark as Cordelia in the Old Vic’s production of King Lear

Shakespeare often carries himself in less alive or good productions, and that happened here too. Who can deny the horror of plucking out Gloucester’s eyes. You just need to do it feelingly. The long passage spoken by Edgar recreating a frightening height when well-spoken is evocative poetry. About a quarter of the Folger audience missed these scenes because they occurred after the intermission. It is a curious phenomenon how audiences seek to or just automatically respond to something immediately contemporary. So the least reference to corrupt politicians or anything that smacked of moronic or mindless hypocrisy got a laugh. The play’s real themes about say the importance of one’s status and respect of others, as in the famous bellowing of Lear over the putting of Kent into the stocks seemed to fall on blankness.

kent

As a lover of Shakespeare I enjoyed the production almost as a dramatic reading. Only once in all the 45 years or so I have been going to Shakespeare plays (I began at age 17 when I went to the Papp productions for free in Central Park, NYC) have I left a production. So, I encourage all who read this to go and have written this to bring out into the discussably open the danger that these “screening around the world” productions do not succumb to self-censorship or the self-puffery of praise they will get automatically from some reviewers.

A feature for the intermission of the HD-screening was about the super-expensive gilded costume made for Goneril in the opening scene. Much money was doubtless spent. You can glimpse the dress in this enlarged photo:

antony-sher-as-king-lear-nia-gwynne-as-goneril-natalie-simpson-as-cordelia-and-kelly-williams-as-regan
Other wonderful photos of on the RSC site.

I am worried by the (in effect) advertisement for the coming HD-screened production of The Tempest with the great actor Simone Russell Beale as Prospero when we were shown the technological marvel of the blue mask that will be part of his costume. For this reason I have written this critical blog.

Ellen