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italianrecreation
Italian Recreation by Antoine Watteau

Dear friends and readers,

Last night The Folger Consort, put on a truly enjoyable concert of 18th century music appropriate for the winter season, “The Season Bids Us.” It consisted of four pictorial (in the 19th century way of music) Four Seasons (Scherzi Armonici sopra le Quattro Stagioni dell’Anno) by an early 18th century French composer variously called Antonio or Mr Antonio at the time. The Folger gave his name as Giovanni Antonio Guido; born 1675, from Genoa, studied violin in Naples from 1683; was employed at the city’s Conservatory, paid as a copyist, a violinist in the Royal Chapel and moved to Paris in 1702. There he became successful enough to end the head of the Duke of Orleans’s musical establishment. He was painted by Watteau.

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Antonio by Watteau

The four movements of Four Seasons, each have subheadings which suggests a story, and the Folger Consort group printed four French poems (with facing English translations) which correspond to the changes of story line in the music. You can follow along from mood descriptions of the season, to events occurring in the natural world among animals and people (including a fierce hunt where the poor stag is destroyed no matter how hard he tries to escape).

The consort used to consist just of four older (white) men; it’s now about 10-12 people, some young, women, African American. The older men are still playing their harpsichords, recorders, older violins, cellos, and period instruments I can’t name; the new people have older instruments too, but also modern violins, cellos, horns.

For this concert and I can see those coming next year each time a “star” instrument performer is hired. This time it was the stunningly good Julien Chauvin. He can play that instrument wildly and it becomes alive with feeling. They also had a soprano with a beautiful voice, Rosa Lamoreaux. Between the first two seasons she sung carols using the Christian mythic story by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, a French composer active in Paris in the middle to later 17th century.

Born in 1643, Charpentier’s father was a scribe, and he spent time studying in Italy under the composer, Carissimi. He too ended patronized by the French aristocracy, given an apartment by Marie of Lorraine in the Hotel de Guise. As wikipedia says, “prolific, versatile,” he is said to have “produced compositions of the highest quality” in many genres, among these oratorios, motets — and Christmas pastorals. He is best known for music composed for Moliere’s plays and company of actors. He kept his autographs and they are now in the Bibliotheque National so his work is known. He was music director at a Gothic style chapel Sainte-Chapelle for six years where he is said to be buried, but there is no marker. The program notes quoted him from near the end of his life:

I was a musician, considered good by the good ones, scorned as ignorant by the ignorant … since those who scorned me were more numerous than those who lauded me, music became to me a small honor and a heavy burden. and just as at my birth I took nothing into this world, I took nothing from it at my death.

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Charpentier

The consort matched traditional carol words to some of his melodies, with deft dance rhythms, folk tunes. The songs are playful; one ruefully feels sorry for the apparently cuckolded Joseph. Another is universal in spirit about the new year. Some of the translations were very Baroque in imagery and feel; others influenced by William Cowper-style verse:

From Spring: there was a shepherd and shepherdess song:

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The Shepherds by Watteau

From Summer

The air sets fire to itself: Phoebus in his brilliant course
Has already met Leo in wrath.
Zephyr disappears, the burning countryside
Leaves no birds to sing excepts the cuckoos …

The stag, horrified, sees no escape.
He flies, attempting in vain to escape death.
His power leaves him, he cries of his defeat,
He surrenders to the conquerors who deny him mercy

From Winter

The season of freezing fog saddens Nature,
The weakened sun escapes before our eyes
To the animals, the soil offers in place of grass
Only snow and icicles that are found in every place.

You can find read the program and all the songs on line here:

The whole thing was done so unprentiously, without pomposity, people coming in, setting themselves up, playing and singing, and taking a few bows after that I wish my one on-line YouTube about it didn’t have the bit too much hype (or ad stuff here and assertions about this ritual time) but since I am not good at describing muisc, you do see the group, hear a bit of it, the soprano and the main violinist:

Pericles is still on at the Folger theater and the audience was probably too large for the Folger Theater, so it was held in a church across the street, the American Lutheran Church of the Reformation. The main nave is beautiful: simple, very Renaissance in the use of wood decoration, the forms across the ceiling reminded me of women’s headdresses. Four Christmas tree with white lights, wreaths without any ornaments.

Most of the time Jim and I did not go to the consort because (he said rightly) they were dull about 10 years ago or so, the four men just using religiously the instruments of the time, sticking to the way a song might have been done. Once in a while though they would break out. I remember seeing a delightful rendition in the small Folger theater itself of Milton’s apparently stern Comus: it’s a play meant to be done in an aristocratic house by children. For that they did hire actors, and had extra more modern instruments — after all it was mid-17th century, 100 years after the “official” Renaissance.

I see coming up in spring, “Playing with Fire,” a consort similarly inventingly combining different kinds of instruments and players: made up of fanstasias, dances and and tunes from Shakespeare’s plays; and in late Spring, Shakespeare and Purcell; music from the Fairy Queen and surely other works will include Dido’s song, “Rememember me but forget my fate,” and settings of Shakespeare by Purcell.

My neighbor-friend, Sybille, was with me. She is also a widow, her husband also taken by the cancer epidemic (in his case a devouring pancreatic cancer). Downstairs they had had mulled wine and various sweetbreads. We’d had some, and since she brought her car, it was an easy drive home. I would not have gone but for her.

I was much moved because this is the first time since Jim died I found myself having the kind of theater and music experience Jim used to find out for us regularly. I came home near tears and write this morning to record this renewal of dear memories through an experience. Also to tell of what this Consort has now become.

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Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750, Netherlands — to represent the later 17th century)

Ellen

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Pericles (Wayne T Carr) and Thais (Brooke Parks), tempest-tost, he grieving, she dead (Shakespeare’s Pericles, directed by Joseph Haj, scenic design Jan Chambers, Folger 2015)

… your present kindness/makes my past miseries sport … (Pericles)

AnitaMaria
Anita (Natascia Diaz) and Maria (Mary-Joanne Grisso (from this season’s West Side Story by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, choreographer Parker Esse, directed by Matthew Gardiner, Signature 2015)

Friends and readers,

Any one who comes to this blog regularly could come to the conclusion that here in the Washington DC area we’ve had a spate of politically-atune, actuated, effective films and stage plays from Antigone to Trumbo, or this blogger is obsessively seeking these out and writing about them. Where I went has of course not been pure serendipity, nor do I deny enjoying telling others what I’ve seen and recommending what’s significant. Nevertheless I have here mirrored without making any effort the reality that the last few months in DC and Virginia have seen staged and screened as many or more relevant, pertinent, and grounded as deeply in human psyches and family and socially pressured-dramas as in any time I’ve been here over a few years (or in New York City, where I came from in 1980).

This year’s Pericles and West Side Story are en rapport too. Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre was not written with the refugee exodus from the Middle East into Europe of 2015 in mind; Sondheim and Bernstein’s West Side Story was written and a stupendous hit more than 40 years before the endless war abroad, spread of guns with daily massacres, whipped up hatred for “the other” in the last year or so of the Republicans running for President. But effortlessly the first was made to speak to us about powerless wandering individuals in a vast world of treachery, betrayal, exploitation and nature’s indifference, and the second couldn’t help but show us the same violence intrinsic to American male culture as is found in the Oxbow Incident (for example), or city streets then and movie theaters (or agencies, stores, malls, wherever today), the power of the gun to kill so easily, and ethnic hatred.

My desire to demonstrate the moving marvel that is the Oregon production of Pericles re-created here at the Folger is made easy for me by directing the reader to Susan Galbraith’s A Magical Pericles, DC Theater Scene. If you don’t believe her, Kate Wingfield is grudging; I’ve read the play several times (I once planned to write my dissertation on one of Shakespeare’s late tragic romances, of which this is the first, the others Cymbeline, Winter’s Tale, The Tempest) and was re-persuaded the first two acts are by him but from a very bad or corrupt quarto where what we have is half-remembered scenes (the man is trying hard): many lines here and there his, passages, the fishermen’s language jokes, e.g.,

    The blind mole casts
Copped hills towards heaven, to tell the earth is thronged
By man’s oppression, and the poor worm doth die for’t …

They say they’re half fish, half flesh. A plague on them! They ne’re come but I look to be washed. I marvel how the fishes live in the sea … Why, as men do a-land — the great ones eat up the little ones …

Die, koth-a? Now gods forbid’t, an I have a gown here, come put it on; keep thee warm … a handsome fellow … we’ll have flesh for holidays, fish for fasting days, and moreo’er puddingg and flapjacks

    the rough seas, that spares not any man,
Took it in rage — though, calmed, have given’t again
I thank three for’t.

The which hath fire in darkness, none in light,
Whereby I see that Time’s the king of men;
He’s both their parent,and he is their grave,
And gives them what he will, not what they want.

the whole conception his, reminding me of The Merchant of Venice and as a first full run of the motifs of the late romances.

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The production turns into self-reflexive parodic comedy (with an unacknowledged wink) some of the more stilted passages, and into semi-dumb show the paradigmatic moments, investing what adult emotion fairy tales allow until the moment Shakespeare’s text emerges at the first great tempest. Carr is up to it:

thegodosthisgratvast

The god of this great vast, rebuke these surges,
Which wash both heaven and hell; and thou that hast
Upon the winds command, bind them in brass,
Having called them from the deep! O, still
Thy deaf’ning dreadful thunders; gently quench
Thy nimble sulphurous flashes! — O, how, Lychorida,
How does my queen? — Thou stormest venomously;
Wilt thou spit all thyself? The seaman’s whistle
Is as a whisper in the ears of death,
Unheard — (III:1)

Pamela Roberts also is eloquent and makes detail about the production by me unnecessary. I should add the use of computer-generated movie-like images in across the walls (as seas, stars, islands) worked beautifully (as these did in Antigone earlier this year).

In addition, the Folger team has had the intelligence to put on-line stills from some of the more wondrous, narrative:

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Amando Duran as Gower comes from the grave and ancient (even to Shakespeare) poetry to play narrator —

tragic and funny moments from the play.

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The three fishermen, in the center Michael J Hume who also plays Pericles’s wise moral mentor, Helicanus, and then turns into the vamp-bawd, of Mytilene:

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U. Jonathan Toppo one of the fishermen, now her sidekick pimp, Boult.

It’s more than a wondrous production. I saw something as deeply uplifting from Pericles at the Delacorte with Jim in the 1970s. It taught me what I know about books: years later the same work speaks to you in a way consonant with your life in a new time. This time watching people who died or were thought to be dead brought back, death conquered, I was brought to tears. Pericles is Lear in reverse. When Pericles says to his daughter, Marino, now found , “Thou beget’st him that did beget thee,” and “This is rare dream that e’er dull sleep/Did mock sad fools” (V:1) I thought of Jim he appears to me in my dreams. If you want to have your spirits cheered for this winter solstice, and live in the DC area or can get there, you can do no better.

But I also liked how they managed to do (as in The Tempest and Cymbeline) capture the malice, envy, indifference to suffering, sale of souls and bodies that is the world in other of the scenes, from hired assassins, to fishermen, to pimps:

Marine: “Thou hold’st a place for which the pain’st fiend/Of hell would not in reputation change/Thou are a damned doorkeeper …
Boult: “What would you have me do? go to the wars, would you? where a man may serve seven years for the loss of a leg, and have not money enough in the end to buy him a wooden one (IV:6)

I wish I could find as accurate reviews of Eric Shaffaer’s most recent Sondheim (he is ever in charge, and this was his choice for the Christmas mainstream-enough program). I can find none. Nor are they generous with photos (foolish). Esse and Gardiner do little that is original or different or especially inspired. They try to follow the original Broadway production, with the difference that they have a lot less to work with (props, space, dancers, money for supremely good dancers and minor roles). They also alter some of the silent staging so that Tony and Maria are seen to go to bed together the one night they are together, and the white gang just about rapes Anita when she comes to warn Tony that Chino has a gun. I assume my reader knows the story and characters of this adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet story.

The decision which seemed to me most right was to turn the production as much as possible into sheer dance and song. The story and characters became part of an expressionist dance.

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The white male gang

Anita
Anita (Natascia Diaz was the strongest performer on stage, she exhilarated the audience as no one else did)

But (as with Shakespeare), the work can carry itself if everyone will but try, and that’s what happens in this production. The crowd of dancers, actors, singers are there in front of you interacting in visceral ways.

You also see what makes for a lasting classic: the older work gets new electric relevancy when it’s redone in another era. When Chino gets a gun and kills Tony the meaning now is different: we see how much easier it is to kill. They had Maria take the gun from Chino and her words cursing it had a new resonance. Also the speech of Doc against whipped up hatred. There is no place for these lovers and their ideals. This is one not to miss this year too.

Haj says in his program notes that Pericles is a play of survival, loss, maturation, and reconciliation. There’s not much to reconcile. Shakespeare opened with a cruel incestuous king and his daughter; Pericles left his baby, Marina, with a queen out of Snow White; having buried his beloved wife, he wanders griefstruck, alone. When the gods or fortune are finished playing their games with him, he exhibits acceptance, resignation, expansive relief. Gower has told us again and again what we are seeing is “in the old story” if you cannot believe. If it is all improbable, including several abandonments, the actors on the stage filled the roles with an intense enough identfication from somewhere.

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A balancing act on a swing

The program notes for West Side Story tell of the 1950s gangs in NYC, the immigration into the northern cities of the US from the south, and into NYC in particular, hispanic people from Latin and South America (listen to Juan Gonzalez about Puerto Rico’s position as a century-old colony), the destitution and poverty of the slums, the violence resorted to by the males excluded from economic hope. We all know homicides, racism, inequality, violence is as intrinsic to American experience today as it was then. Signature sees this musical as “plea for tolerance, acceptance and love.” I was impressed by how it ended on another widow — like Natalie Wood in the movie, Mary-Joanna Grisso who gives the most moving performance of the ensemble, genuinely convincing, plangent, trembling, leaves the stage swathed in a widow’s cape and shawl. Her brother, lover and fiancee all dead, Anita last seen racing away in a seething rage for having tried to forgive, and been near raped for her efforts.

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No lack of women in widow’s scarves today

Ellen

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The cast at the end

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Laurence Gobbo (Tim Samuels), who transitions from being Shylock’s to Lorenzo’s servant — the world as dark masquerade seen in this facial make-up

Dear all,

This is the third HD film of a production of the RSC Shakespeare company that I’ve seen at the Folger Shakespeare library theater. Their Love’s Labor’s Lost was excellent as one of the first genuine attempts I’ve seen to present the play’s content seriously, but when it came to the play within a play, their concept couldn’t take in the humor or irony; unexpectedly their Love’s Labor’s Won (a retitled Much Ado About Nothing) was a disappointment: I had watched a Future Learn which focused on this production and it lead me to think it must be marvelous: it was very good but its dark or pessimistic interpretation was unable to make sense of the play’s supposed happy ending. Still both productions persuaded me that at every opportunity where a film of a live production (HD screening or encore) existed within my reach, I should go.

I am now convinced the latest phase of the RSC company is as deeply rewarding as any phase that has gone before it. For the very first time in all the productions of The Merchant of Venice that I’ve seen, in this one directed by Polly Findlay, the character of Antonio and his relationship to Bassanio makes sense. As the play opens, Antonio (Jamie Ballard) is on stage in a deep depression: the cause emerges as his love for Bassanio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) who loves Antonio in return but longs to marry Portia (Patsy Ferran), a wealthy beautiful Venetian — because Bassanio is capable of bisexuality, because he finds her attractive and compelling and to get her money. It is the deep betrayal of Antonio that this means that causes Antonio’s melancholy. Nonetheless, because he is an abject lonely man in his heart, he agrees to the bond with Shylock in order to supply Bassanio with the wherewithal to woo the rich lady of Belmont. The words of the last act which indicate intense quarreling as well as the poeticisms of heterosexual romance at the opening suddenly made ironic sense. At the close of the play Bassanio must go off to bed with his wife, and leave Antonio alone again.

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The stage was a wall and floor made of golden metallic substance, all smooth and glittering. All the characters who are active in choosing their fate (servants or hangers-on like Gratiano imitate) are out for money every time. Lorenzo (James Corrigan) wants Jessica (Scarlett Brooks) for her body but were the money not here he’d not be seeking to elope with her. She has to tell him about (Shakespeare’s words are there) the jewels, the casket and money to come to excite him to act. It’s clear from words that she is regarded as inferior. The production added an enactment which made Jessica feel bad that she had deserted her father (Makram J. Khoury) and was the abject person subject to Lorenzo as we see them exit the stage.

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Shylock (Makram J. Khoury)

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Those (Portia in disguise) appealing to him

The production put the anti-semitism of the text in your face. Makram J. Khoury looked like a caricature of a Jew, though what was brought out was that despite Shakespeare’s clear empathy for the man, Shakespeare’s presentation of the Christians as just as mean and amoral, greedy, hard as Shylock. This the first production I’ve seen that brought out how Shylock points out to the Duke were he to ask the Venetians to treat their slaves humanely they would laugh or just ignore him. Nonetheless, this Jewish man is a hate-filled figure; he says bitingly, bitterly of Antonio that Antonio is himself getting money by his trading and why should he the Jew not do likewise where he can, and says it seethingly. Shylock’s reaction to Antonio who openly despises and actually spits on his face (which the actor does twice!), is natural but this sort of human reaction is rarely shown so clearly. We see humanity as it is, the thing in itself on both sides. Still the Christians seem more forgiving: they have one another to comfort them. Shylock had only Jessica and she fled; Tubal (Gwilym Lloyd) is a confidant but there is little emotional relation between them felt and Tubal is not there for very long.

The scene where Antonio bares his chest to be cut up functions as a trope of torture. Shylock prepares to torture Antonio before our very eyes.

The production add an enactments (gesture as well as Shakespeare’s words) which insisted on Shylock’s hurt at the loss of this daughter and her betrayal of him (as well as the loss of the ducats and jewels), but the bare cruelty and greed of the man was undeniable. The play’s text exposes him when he turns to ask for his money when he can’t have his pound of flesh without blood. When it is required of him by Antonio that in return from keeping one-half of his money until he dies and it goes to Lorenzo, he become a Christian, he grovels. This is the play. In the 21st century the gov’t of Israel has acted according to Shakespeare’s conception of how an ostracized alienated person, a Jew, would act.

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Lorenzo and the (rightly) insecure Jessica

The money angle of the play is important. In Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell tells Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, the world is not run from war sites or by swords but from Antwerp and by money transactions of bankers. In his mesmerizing series of lectures for Future Learn on Shakespeare’s plays, Jonathan Bate included a long section on the function of interest (usury) in making the Renaissance happen and talked of money and usury and Venice in his comments on this play. Love & friendship and money are the focuses of this play.

I was not surprized to hear a number of audience members talking during the intermission as if in shock; and while the theater was packed as the film began, after the intermission, sufficient numbers of people had left to reconfigure the way people were seated so new people were sitting up front (where I was). Those who left couldn’t take it, didn’t like it? Not only was the Shylock too hard, but perhaps when Antonio and Bassanio kissed so passionately and made it clear they were the true lovers, audience members were also turned off. None of Shakespeare’s words were changed and I heard no one say that what was being shown was not in the play. I love when art is hard and candid in this way, shows you what you are or could be, shows what people hide because of socially acceptable pious norms. Were the production not equally hard on the Christians, I would castigate it, but it is as hard on them. I have not mentioned that Gobbo impregnates Portia’s servant (as Shakespeare’s words imply) but does not want to marry her – she has no money. The first two suitors, Morocco (Ken Nwosu) and Aragon (Brian Protheroe) are jackasses. The male cronies of Antonio and Bassanio unscrupulous roughs. Gratiano (Ken Nwosu again) is funny because he is so unguarded.

The RSC has turned The Merchant of Venice into the unsentimental tragedy it is, and demonstrated to me why 18th and 19th century critics and readers kept saying how real much real human nature Shakespeare’s plays enact. They came out on stage as a group but they did not (as is so common nowadays) break into a happy dance at the end. Even enactments of the tragedies sometimes end this way. I was glad they did not.

People seem to want to forget that Shakespeare’s plays are plays meant to be read. Reading plays have existed since there were written down plays and exist still. The text also offers profound meditative material on law, justice, mercy, pardon (forgiveness) and (just as important) learning to turn a blind eye on what’s in front of you in order to carry on. Patsy Ferran carries or pulls off this difficult content superbly well. The business of “the ring” at the end of the play shows Portia that Antonio is Bassanio’s preferred love. It inheres especially of course in her fully-emotive and eloquent treatment of the several phases of Portia’s appeal to Shylock (the famous speech about mercy). When he will not yield, she turns on him to show him how words may be interpreted against him so easily. Never depend on your bond, your contract. Who has the hegemonic powe is the person who wins out in public life — public life shapes the private. And as a Christian male (who hides his homosexuality from everyone but Bassanio) it’s Antonio who holds public trumps. The point of the first scene where Antonio refuses to say why he is sad is to show him hiding what he knows is the reason for his sadness from his male buddies. He does not win in private life, but then Shylock does not either. I’ve wondered before if the title refers to both Antonio and Shylock, making them parallel. Both outsiders.

The Merchant of Venice Royal Shakespeare Company 2015 handout ....
Portia and Nerissa — note how intwined they are, how they need one another’s support

Perhaps the production sought to disquiet and disturb complacencies beyond what is in Shakespeare’s text. The actress playing Nerissa, Portia’s servant, Rina Mahoney has had one of her arms amputated or it was lost in some dreadful accident above the elbow. She did not wear a prosthetic so that again and again the audience was confronted with the stub of an arm. Mahoney is small in comparison to Nwosu (Gratiano) and he swung her around in ways that suggested when out of sight of Portia, Nerissa would not be able to enact an imitation of Portia’s power. Samuels’ behavior as Gobbo put me in mind of Roy Kinnear as the bizarrely heartless theatrical Common Man in Robert Bolt’s play of A Man for all Seasons (as filmed in the Charleton Heston production).

There is a new style of acting or delivery of Shakespeare’s lines afoot in all 3 productions I’ve seen: at top speed which imitates psychological reality and yet each word or phrase super-clearly heard so as to try to reach 21st century audiences who may never have read any Shakespeare play; there are editions of Shakespeare’s plays for students where on one side is Shakespeare’s English and the other a modern paraphrase, as if this were a dual-language text. I find this style acceptable to working well — though it must be said the mode relies on artifice of delivery which takes away from in-depth psychological presences. The only actor performing in the old style somehow more naturalistic way (stylized but differently, in this case wittily) was Protheroe, an older man playing Aragon, the second suitor who chooses the silver casket. Protheroe spoke more slowly, and it was a sort of relief to have this less demanding kind of projection.

This is a courageous and intelligent production of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, demonstrating again (as if we needed to be taught this) that William Shakespeare’s almost preternatural intelligence left us plays audiences and readers have not yet been able to come to terms with. The RSC is trying to lead the way.

Ellen

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Poster for Happy Few The Winter’s Tale

Dear friends and readers,

I went for a third year to a We Happy Few production: 3 years ago they managed to present a remarkable take on Hamlet in 90 minutes; last year a sophisticated modern-feeling Webster’s Duchess of Malfi. I can’t say that this year’s The Winter’s Tale is memorable for a uniquely perceptive view of the play. The play’s two parts (as cut), joyfully lightly transgressive comedy (Act 4 in Shakespeare) sandwiched between wild (Acts 1 & 2) tragedy and redemptive (Act 5) fairy tale does not leave a lot of room for psychological nuance (see Morgan Halvorsen’s review). Hannah Todd’s director’s notes in the pamphlet that serves a ticket and program showed she only came up with the idea this play is faery tale material we are supposed to believe in. An opportunity lost.

Still, they held the audience’s attention — it was a small area, they were very close to us, and they cleverly handed people sitting in the first seats props to make us all part of play. I held a tambourine for a while. The actors all had strong moments, but Nathan Bennett as Leontes, Raven Bonniwell as Hermione, Katy Carkuff as Paulina, Kerry McGee as Autolyclus (trying hard to be amoral but since she was also Perdita, not quite distinguishing the role clearly), and Kiernan McGowen Antigonus, with William Vaughn as Clown and Florizel provided the most effective ones.

Antigonus
MGowan as Antigonus having brought the baby in a basket to a far away seashore feels the coming tempest and hears the hungry bear

What was most striking was how six people jumped in and out of at least 18 different roles, but while in each maintained strongly projected full-blooded acting. They also had such minimal costumes, the same scarves and capes were whisked about doing duty for several garments in tandem. Laughter came easier, and the actors played for laughs where they could; it therefore seemed more spontaneous than pity, which we were not given much time for. If you were listening to what Leontes and Polixenes threatened to do to others at the turn of a coin, and remembered that monarchs could torture, kill, starve, and make a life excruciating if they pleased and sometimes did so in Shakespeare’s period, there was more to the content than manipulative metamorphorsis. There is real terror in Shakespeare’s words, real anguish and now and again this came out, especially I think from Raven Bonniwell as Hermione.

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Bonnwell as Juliet in the final moments of Happy Few’s Romeo and Juliet (I could not find any photos of her in this Winter’s Tale; she doubled as Camillo and there were none of her as Camillo either)

Since I’ve been reading and listening to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, I was again struck by the parallels between Henry and Leontes and Hermione and both Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, especially his sexual anxiety and distrust towards the latter precisely because she held him off (humiliatingly) and then showed she knew sexual acts that he could not believe a virgin would figure out herself. Shakespeare’s Henry VIII is a bold portrait of the tyrant Tudor in old age and nowadays I’m thinking that instead of placing WT with the dramatic romances from Greek stories, chronicles, and poetry (Pericles, Cymbeline, The Tempest), we ought to see it done as a pair with Henry VIII the second half. Have the same actor play Leontes and Henry, the same Hermione and Catherine.

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Nathaniel Bennett in one of Leontes’s wild murderous moods

Unfortunately, there is only one performance left but (sadly) unlike the previous two years, it seemed half the seats were empty. In the previous years, there was not one empty seat both times. I felt the actors felt this lack of people, especially given how hard they were working to make too few props and costumes go very far. So if you read this tonight and live in the DC area, consider this one. Unlike too many of this year’s events, it is located in a place in the city close to a Metro stop so you really can get there by public transportation and on foot! There was no hope of my reaching Gallaudet College I now know. I would have seen the Guillotine Theater do an adaptation of Middleton’s Second Maiden’s Tragedy as Cold as Death, but (like It’s What We Do A Play about the Occupation), it appears to have been under-rehearsed.

The move of the festival to real fringe areas of DC, with venues where there is no nearby Metro stop or frequent bus, and more scattered hurts the festival feel that a center with people selling tickets, socializing, late night cabarets gives. Maybe for those going to the cabarets and musical events on Florida Avenue (in the Brookland area of DC) the experience is as good

Fringe Preview Party at the Baldacchino Tent 6/28/2013 Capital Fringe Festival 2013
Two years ago (2013) on a preview party was held in Baldacchino Tent on H Street

Two of the plays I went to and a third and fourth I couldn’t manage but was told about as awkwardly performed by a friend (Shakespeare’s The Life of King John, done as goofy comedy) seemed more minimally staged and costumed than previous years. In early years the venues were in condemned spaces with no air-conditioning; I hope I am wrong but this year has seemed more strapped for funds than the previous couple.

So for me ends my second year of going to the Fringe Festival on my own. I enjoyed this play and Ellouise Schoettler’s The Hello Girls.

Ellen

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CromwellWristsCrossed

Programme Name: Wolf Hall - TX: n/a - Episode: Ep6 (No. 6) - Picture Shows:  Anne Boleyn (CLAIRE FOY) - (C) Company Productions Ltd - Photographer: Giles Keyte
Cromwell (Mark Rylance) holding up crossed wrists at Henry’s seething onslaught of accusation of plotting against him with Chapuys for the Emperor Charles V; Anne (Claire Foy) shivering in the wind, trembling as she waits to be beheaded (Wolf Hall 5 & 6)

He doesn’t exactly miss the man. It’s just that sometimes, he forgets he’s dead. It’s as if they’re deep in conversation, and suddenly the conversation stops, he says something and no answer comes back. As if they’d been walking along and More had dropped into a hole in the road, a pit as deep as a man, slopping with rainwater. You do in fact, hear of such accidents … (48)

‘He sent last week for a French executioner. Not from one of our own cities, but the man who chops heads in Calais. It seems there is no Englishman whom he trusts to behead his wife. I wonder he does not take her out himself and strangle her in the street’ … (382, Mantel personating Cromwell, Bring Up the Bodies)

Dear friends and readers,

Prompted by Anibundel’s blog The Course of History, and having finished Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, plus locating the release transcripts of Straughan’s screenplays, I feel compelled to add another perspective on last two hours (Act III) of this mini-series, though I know there have been many insightful conversations and blogs online, to say nothing of the print media, about it. I want to point out that this last pair turns this famous Tudor marital-sex imbroglio into a usable past, a mirror to see ourselves in, its obsessive topics circling round its terrifyingly, almost inexplicably powerful figure, Henry Tudor, the Eighth of that name: death waiting right next to us, memory continually haunting us from our particular pasts as each day vanishes, and terror, not just state terror:

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Henry (Damien Lewis) watching Anne, Elizabeth on her lap, reach out to him with an embroidered handkerchief

but what makes state terror possible, the obedient collusion of all who together make themselves subject to this terror

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Richard Cromwell (Ross Porter) come to tell Henry that Mark Smeaton (Max Fowler) has named the names of men to be accused of adultery with Anne

Bring Up the Bodies may be regarded as a kind of culmination of a group of what’s called gothic but are political themes in Mantel’s contemporary fiction, memoir, and essays diary entries for the LRB, literary reviews and life-writing as a writer. I know as steadily and maybe more continuously nowadays as Mantel that the dead are real (see Larissa MacFarquhar, The New Yorker, October 15, 2012).

The need to keep the film historical, and explain how these startling visible turns of events from making Anne Boleyn into a cherished legitimate queen and wife into a powerless traitor-concubine treasonably adulterous came about rightly takes precedence over the course of Part 5 and into the opening of Part 6. At the same time the central story line about our hero, requires dramatizing the inward journey of how Cromwell drove himself however part- (but only part) reluctantly to put together transparently inadequate evidence. And there must be a pivotal high drama for the hour so that the high point of Part 5 was Henry’s fit of unconsciousness during a joust, and the sudden hysteria and unmasking of many about the king, and the improbably resuscitation by Cromwell:

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The turning point for Part 6 the long interrogation of the foolishly vain Smeaton, seething with wounds over his “inferior status” and despised feminine brand of masculinity.

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Cromwell congratulating the smirking Smeaton as Rafe watches and listens

And when Smeaton is taken away, Cromwell to Richard:

Well, there aren’t many men alive who can say they took me by surprise. Years of being despised by lords has made a boaster of him. Sometimes I think I should have taken him in here. I don’t want him hurt. If we have to torture sad creatures like that, what next? Stamping on dormice?

These plot-designs precluded the kind of quiet dramatization of passing events that count which were seen especially in Parts 1 & 2. No time for registering the increasingly criminal behaviors of Cromwell (as when he takes a tavern keeper’s wife to bed for a casual encounter, and later brings her to one of his houses, and has her husband disposed of) and the scope of his activities across England enforcing Protestantism, growing richer himself, and the many passing quick scenes, memories of such, letters to and from middle ranking eager sycophants (names familiar to anyone who has read anything of the period, as the Lisles).

Worse yet, well over half of Bring Up the Bodies is given over to Cromwell’s dramatic one-on-one encounters, from the slow gathering of envious vengeful or simply desperately self-serving witnesses (Chapuys, Jane Boleyn’s salacious malice), to the dialogues between Cromwell and his now grown instruments (Richard Cromwell, Rafe Sadler with whose family Cromwell shows his continued ability to love, to be fond, to be kindly cordial) and first Mark Smeaton, then the four accused (George Boleyn, Francis Weston, William Brereton, Harry Norris) and what we can call protected secondary characters (Henry Percy, Thomas Wyatt). In the mini-series only the last third of Part 6 covers this material. The book does give less time to Anne versus Cromwell because he keeps away from her until near the trial.

Yes I’ve found a flaw in the series: they needed seven parts. At least another hour.

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The heroine’s text story-line is seen through Cromwell’s POV: he is ever coming upon and watching from the side the results, evidence, signs of Anne’s miscarriages (her own terror at the window after she bled after the king seethed at her trying to stop him jousting, with do you seek “to geld” me, Madame) and the way her gradual displacement is registered, most notably through the death of her dog: the helpless animal a cynosure for her.

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Purefoy thrown on the hard stones, bleeding to death

Cromwell: “The window was open.”
Anne: “He was such an innocent What kind of monster would do such a thing?”
Cromwell: “Perhaps he got up on the ledge somehow and then his paws slipped.
Anne: “– Paws slipped? Paws slipped? — “

A rare scene without Cromwell occurs when we observe her household shunted off to the side, turning on one another, but that is immediately followed with Jane Boleyn reporting it all to Cromwell. The way people become eager to tell him of the slightest breakdown of Anne (as when she says in the tower she doesn’t deserve this room and Kingston reports it unasked) reminds me of the McCarthy era when witnesses came forward to testify against other people. Doubtless my reader will remember analogies of his or her own. We see Jane Seymour’s presence and Katharine’s death through Cromwell’s observation from afar and visits, as if we must have some sign of these or the story does not make sense, with the accent of the latter falling on Anne’s (premature) exultation and (wrong) idea she is now secure (just the opposite in fact happens). But again the focus is on the terrifying: the creepy nightmare of Cromwell seeing Anne served up as a meat dish pulled by sticks through the table with her face photographed upside down, her dress this deathly creamy satin:

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I didn’t find the trial as philosophically memorable as the Bolt one from A Man for All Seasons; it was rather realistic, with Cromwell as the effectively trained lawyer trapping George Boleyn, asking leading questions of Anne. From historical studies (as well as her heir-daughter Elizabeth’s survival and reign) we know she was highly intelligent, but this is as nothing when everyone is agreed you must go.

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Straughan is concerned that Cromwell should not appear a monster (and Rylance obliges by the quietude of his tones, face, and occasional hand gestures) so the revenge aspect of Cromwell’s motives are only quietly there. The memorable lines were in what was left of Cromwell’s encounters with individuals who provide phantom evidence, whom he turning into the dead.

So to Brereton’s outrage he takes him back:

Retort (1)

Cromwell: “Let’s go back. I remember in the late Cardinal’s time, one of your household killed a man in a bowls match.
Brereton: “Well, the game can get very heated.”

Retort (2)

Cromwell: “The Cardinal thought it was time for a reckoning, but your family impeded the investigation and I ask myself, ‘Has anything changed since then?’ John ap Eyton had a quarrel with one of your household only recently.
Brereton: “So, that’s why I’m here.”
Cromwell: “Not entirely, but leave aside your adultery with the Queen, let’s concentrate on Eyton. Blows were exchanged, a man was killed. Eyton was tried and acquitted. But you, because you have no respect for the law or Brereton “– I have every respect! — ”
Cromwell: “Don’t interrupt me! You had the man abducted and hanged. You think because it’s only one man, it doesn’t matter. You think no-one will remember, but I remember

To Norris’s complacent conceit, sudden bullying and threat worthy the ferociously corrupt Norfolk:

Norris: “You’ll not torture gentlemen. The King wouldn’t permit it.
Cromwell: “Oh, well There don’t have to be formal arrangements. I can put my thumbs in your eyes and then you would sing Green Grows The Holly if I asked you to.”

My favorite one:

George Boleyn: “But Mark Smeaton? — What has he done to you? — ”
Cromwell: “I don’t know I just don’t like the way he looks at me.”

He stonewalls Anne in the film, making her sudden reaching out to him feel more believable. When he looks out for her creature comforts (“Would you like your furs brought in?”) we get another more alienated light on how he looked out for Wolsey, Princess Mary’s and even Katharine’s transient welfare when placed in front of them. Given a chance, he will mouth platitudes as a wall around himself: to Jane Boleyn he inquires politely why she as a lady-in-waiting did not seek to “comfort her mistress.”

But what I suggest that we should note (while we wait for Hilary to write the third book, and then for the Straughan screenplay and getting the actors together, film-designers and funding together again) are aspects of Cromwell’s encounters with the king. When the king resorts to fierce bullying, Cromwell’s gesture of crossed wrists shows that there were tender moments with his father: it was Walter Cromwell who showed the boy how to soothe a wound with water and clenched hands. Henry makes an appeal which contains offers of friendship, concern, memories of shared interests, as when he takes Cromwell aside in the garden and pretends to ask what they should do for useful entertainment this summer.

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Henry: “Will you walk with me? I wish we would go down to the weald one day – talk to the ironmasters. I’ve had various drawings – mathematical drawings and advices concerning how our ordnance can be improved, but I … I can’t … I can’t make as much of it as you would. It’s because … Well Because you are my right hand, sir. So, shall we go down? You and I, meet the charcoal burners?”
Cromwell: “Of course. But not this summer, sir. I think you will be too busy.
Henry: “Yeah. I cannot live as I have lived, Cromwell. You must free me from this from Anne.

When the evidence has been gathered and the trial is about to commence, Straughan does give Henry some lines suggesting that Anne aroused male insecurities, but nothing like Mantel’s books’ dialogues and monologues suggesting Henry’s intense resentment at how Anne once kept him at bay and then once having given in, delighted him in bed by transgressive sex. In Mantel’s book we see Henry’s rigid pieties come out to condemn her as someone who must’ve been whorish before she met him. In the mini-series the accent is again on how frightened people colluded in believing what they in their gut felt to be false:

Cranmore: “I never had a better opinion in a woman than I had in her. I can’t believe she’s guilty … Except I know Your Highness would never go so far if she weren’t.”
Henry: “She deceived all of us. When I look back, it all falls into place. So many friends lost, alienated Worse.When I think of Wolsey [Camera is on Cromwell hearing this, face to the side.] The way she practised against him. She said she loved me. But she meant the opposite. I’ve written a play. A tragedy. My own story. [gives it to Cromwell]
Cromwell: “You should keep it sir, till we have more leisure to do it justice.”
Henry: “But I want you to see her true nature. I believe she has committed adultery with 100 men.
Cranmore: “But her brother? Is it likely?”
Henry: “Well, I doubt she could resist! Why spare? Why not drink the cup to its filthy dregs?”

According to J.J Scarisbrick (a standard biography), Henry did write a play about Anne’s adultery. It’s a nice touch how Cromwell must flatter the king’s literary aspirations. In Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, Paul Scofield as More pretends not to flatter Robert Shaw as musician and composer in order to flatter him the more delicately.

But the strength of the screenplay is to (as with the book) leave it improbable that Anne was adulterous but make it understandable that she could be suspected and even thought to have had sex with her male courtiers. Again looking forward to the third book and another mini-series, we should keep the ambiguities of Cromwell’s conduct and how Henry’s mind can twist something into plausibility in mind.

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I have in another blog described the unflinching close-up way the execution of Anne is performed (“How can one tell of a life lived at this aware angle” — the question referring to Mantel herself). Here I want to say how this terror is reinforced by Cromwell’s slow walk back to the king, half terrified that the king might turn on him, and then the look in his eye as he allows Henry to pull him into a bear hug and Damien Lewis personates the half-crazed lunacy of someone who knows he can do anything to anyone, almost.

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Eyes

A parable for our time, or a new man for how we today see all seasons. I remember reading later fragments in the papers of Anne Murray Halkett who wrote an autobiography of her life in the later 17th century as an adherent of the Stuarts. She wondered how it was that a group of men could just murder Charles I when everyone asked later on who would speak about it expressed horror. How could this have occurred? How is it all these people stand there going through this barbaric scene, each behaving with utter calmness over a detached head, a bloody corpse, a wooden box to take her away.

Head

Next to Cromwell and his son, Gregory (whom in the book he brings to demonstrate the boy’s loyalty) a man snickers over one of her women who had been so hard to her in the prison saying with frantic tones “We do not want men to handle her”: “It’s a little late for that.”

Ellen

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JaneBoleyn

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Anne (Claire Foy) has had a miscarriage (penultimate sequence, Wolf Hall 4), POV, Thomas Cromwell aka Mark Rylance first observes the sexually spiteful Jane Boleyn (Jessica Raine) and then stands before Anne

… the historical novel has been one of the sites where women writers have had most freedom to examine masculinity as a social and cultural construct, Diana Wallace, The Woman’s Historical Novel, British Women Writers, 1900-2000)

Dear friends and readers,

We left off at the close of Wolf Hall 2, whose screenplay is (let us nor forget) is by Robert Straughan since in Wolf Hall 5 &6, we will retrospectively observe and understand some significant departures by Straughan from Hilary Mantel’s conception. We watched Thomas Cromwell meditating over relics, objects to remember Cardinal Wolsey (played by Jonathan Pryce), including a blue ring he places on his finger, which he will twist now and again in the rest of the drama.

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face

I argued the over-arching trajectory of the three-act (albeit 6 part) mini-series is that of a psychologically and politically complex Renaissance revenge tragedy. Within that larger framing, there are a number of secondary stories, with accompanying themes, some which cross all six episodes, some dominating just one episode or group of scenes. This week I will concentrate on two, one pictorially and the other allusively and thematically brought out by Anibundel in her blog, Wolf Hall 3 & 4: A Man for all Seasons.

Mantel’s Wolf Hall performs the function of recent sequels to classic fiction and revisions of consensus histories; she asks us to switch our allegiances to the victimized, conquered, castigated and stigmatized lives of traditional histories and in so doing discover the tragedy going on is one where the subaltern figures are us. In this case these figures include several of the hitherto despised and dismissed women of Henry VIII’s court and his low-born secretary, Thomas Cromwell. My feeling is Mantel came to her very project, her very choice of historical span, by way of so many women’s identification with Anne Boleyn, and added to her Mary and Jane Boleyn, Mary Tudor (Lily Lesser) re-seen (as the product of a neurotic relationship of a profoundly sexually twisted man and woman, Henry VIII & Katharine of Aragon). Thomas Cromwell she came to by way of her insight of the deep evils religion (in her case, originally Roman Catholicism) promotes and disciplines people to enact.

My favorite moments are when Rylance as Cromwell speaks truth to religious hypocrisy as when he follows Benjamin Whitlow as Bishop Warham upstairs to let him know he, Cromwell, understands, the games Waltham is playing using Elizabeth Barton:

Cromwell; “Archbishop Warham. This um, prophetess you harbour in your diocese – Eliza Barton? How is she getting on?
Warham: “What do you want, Cromwell?”
Cromwell: “Well, I hear that she’s telling people that if the King marries Lady Anne, he has only a year to reign. I just wondered who is controlling her.”
Warham: “She may be a simple country girl but she has a genuine gift.”
Cromwell: “She does, doesn’t she? I hear she can tell you where your dead relatives are. If it’s in Heaven, she speaks with a higher voice, if in Hell, with a deep voice.”

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The episodes are entitled Anna Regina and Devil’s Spit, both of which refer to women, the first obviously Anne’s coronation and the second Elizabeth Barton (Aimee Ffion Edwards] a burningly spiteful self-deluded woman at the close burnt at a stake, whose spit or uttered prophecies were used by the Catholic faction at court to try to frighten Henry VIII from removing from positions of power adherents of the Italian and German circles of power and marrying Anne Boleyn. Across the two episodes we travel with Cromwell: in the first he begins with attempting to reason with the losers, Katharine of Aragon (Joanne Whalley) and her painfully awkward daughter (to whom Cromwell shows an instinctive pity):

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Cromwell cannot stand there and not offer this stumbling naive woman a chair

to listening to Mary, Anne’s sister’s self-directed description of Anne’s manipulation of Henry’s insecure aroused sexual desire, her thwarting of him, Anne’s overwrought bargains:

bargains

Towards the end of the third part he is the first to notice Anne’s propensity to flirt too much with other men beyond Henry and arouse Henry’s ominous anxiety during dancing, hears their quarreling raised to a pitch that leads to an old-fashioned bethrothal. Henry had demanded sex after that flirtation with another man. Mary comes out and seeks a Bible; they pledge themselves off stage and we are to imagine consummation (this was a recognized form of marriage before 1753). We glimpse the wedding itself at first in Calais and then the crowning in Westminster.

But Anne’s fall from power doesn’t take much longer than that of her sister, both more watched and in invisible prisons than we or they are aware: by the middle of the fourth episode, a Boleyn male spy is there to stop Mary (Charity Wakefield) from kissing Cromwell; by the the close of part 4 Anne’s dog has been thrown from the window, and she has bled on the floor, miscarried a second time.

It’s easy to miss how many women’s lives are wholly epitomized in a few shots: Alice More (Monica Dolan) whose guarded face appeals to Cromwell as she cannot reach her husband, some complicit in evil thinking (deludedly) they can save themselves (e.g., Margaret Countess of Salisbury, Pole’s aunt [Janet Henfrey] later beheaded), or are exceptions because seemingly virtuously superior (Jane Seymour, played by Kate Phillips).

I am most drawn to those who recognize there is no safety and act out of this inner apprehension for others: say the interspersed touching moments between Cromwell and Johanne, through or in her his memories of Liz and his daughter with her peacock angel wings (ghosts), none of them can he reach:

Johanne
Saskia Reeves as Johanne

Anibundel’s analogy for Cromwell is that of a fixer, but in the stories of these women he is helpless to fix their lives, and he appears to want to help them help themselves by the good advice he gives them (as well as the young male studs around Mary). He is himself a subject, dependent on the unlimited power of a near madman whose eyes (those of Damien Lewis) are fearfully threatening, fierce, glitter at us while the inner thoughts of the brains we think of as behind the eyes remain opaque:

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Opening shot of Devil’s Spit

Mantel’s reconstruction of Cromwell in Wolf Hall, her rehabilitation of him comes from seeing him in terms of all these women at the court. If you go on to read even sympathetic historical accounts of him (e.g. Tracy Boorman’s biography) in the provinces where he successfully manipulated local powerful men by rewarding and punishing them through property arrangements, criminal charges dependent on the new Anglican church laws, customs, doctrines, you have to infer he drove these middle men to destroy and execute the local abbots or any priests who got in their way. The man Bolt and others have characterized as ruthlessly ambitious, and willing to kill, organizing from afar terrifying executions is glimpsed only fleetingly. The criminal aspect of Cromwell’s character is also more in evidence in Bring Up the Bodies where he will take a woman (innkeeper’s wife) casually, have her husband destroyed, remembers murderous acts he participated in in the past.

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More

Cromwell
More pouring over the documents, Cromwell trying to reason with him to return to his home, to Lady Alice who has food waiting and will put him to bed

Part 4 is indeed a rewrite of Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, to the point where speeches that Bolt plucked out of the historical records are re-plucked but uttered in contexts that reverse or at least significantly alter their significance. I was riveted by this as someone who has watched both movies of the original play several times: there was another beyond Fred Zinnemann’s with Scofield as More, Leo McKern as Cromwell, Wendy Hiller as Alice, John Hurt as Richard Rich; this other less-known A Man for All Seasons starred Charlton Hester as More, Corin Redgrave as the cynical allegorical ordinary man, and Vanessa Redgrave (memorably as a terrified Anne in way over her head). I also still admire More from having read his deeply humane analytical original Utopia, his Dialogue of Comfort during a time of Tribulation, his sardonic poetry, and his friend Erasmus’s Praise of Folly (in Latin translation it means praise of More as a holy fool dangerous to himself in his idealism). Much in More’s life resembles that of Cromwell as middling men in Parliament; both were instruments of Henry VIII.

In Bolt’s play all is done that can be done by More’s wife, daughter, son-in-law to persuade More to sign and live; Cromwell bullies and threatens, with Cranmore uttering the same rationalities. In Mantel and now Straughan, Cromwell takes over the humanity of the family. In Bolt’s trial it is Cromwell who engineers Rich’s betrayal; in Mantel it is Rich. Straughan’s 4th episode opens with More salivating over torturing someone, and again and again through dialogue and the burning and torture of other Protestants we are led to see More as the harmful fanatic. More’s utterance near the end that he has wished and done no man harm and if that cannot keep him alive, he’d rather not live (rendered famously by Scofield on the scaffolld), is answered here by Cromwell as they sit over a table by a list of people that Cromwell cites whom More has destroyed viciously. In the final scene of More’s beheading, in Mantel and Straughan there is only the pathos of a wretched narrow man.

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The burning (after torture and imprisonment, interrogration of Bainham for spreading the Bible as translated by Tyndale, More’s POV)

Mantel is doing more than insisting on more accuracy about More and some justice to Cromwell. As Bolt was making a fable for the hopeful sixties where people could respond to figures who acted out ideals, so Mantel is taking the past and mirroring a deeply pessimistic disturbed era where we have seen much progress made in social and other areas of life over the course of the 20th century reversed. Popular and significant TV mini-series on commercial channels (Breaking Bad, Games of Thrones) portray utterly amoral characters in environments where there is no hope for humane solutions, with voyeuristic cruel violence an accepted sport. Henry VIII in Mantel’s Wolf Hall and this mini-series is a site representative of today’s ruthless militaristic and fascistic oligarchies, seemingly crazed armies of fanatic men determined to turn women into subject creatures. She is a deeply secular woman, for tolerance, feminist. I know her Eight Months on Gaza Street shows how fearful and helpless individuals and especially women can feel in Saudia Arabia where there is nowhere to turn for certain information about just about anything, and all action hinges on gaining the favor of powerful individuals.

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I do ask myself where the power of this mini-series resides. Each time I rewatch it I think to myself it cannot be as good as I’ve remembered it, and each time it is. Is it in this vision? In the case of the famed Brideshead Revisited, one can point explicitly to a set of filmic techniques new and daring, or older and breaking with foolish taboos and conventions. If anything this is a kind of throw-back to the staged days of the 1970s. I wonder if it’s in the stillness and slowness of the filmography, how much time is left for each shot.

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Cromwell coming to talk with the Boleyn family (to the back, George, the brother, to the front, Norfolk [Bernard Hill]

I come back to the use of Rylance as POV and his uncanny ability to convey complicated layers of thought in different scenes with these highly theatrical characters in situations of deep crisis strain, to seem outside the action and questioning it. The character he plays, Cromwell, is himself deeply complicit, compromised and comprising — rising, becoming wealthier, powerful, using his nephew and ward, Rafe as spies. He says at one point, now it’s his turn to get back. He participates in the neurotic fights of the Boleyns. He may tells Henry Percy (then drunk) the day of the power of the thug warrior-aristocrat as all-powerful is over: that the world also works on money, that bankers are in charge (this seems a bit anachronistic, you’d think the Italian bankers were turned into today’s European Union and World Bank).

Cromwell: “My lord, you’ve said what you have to say. Now listen to me. You’re a man whose money is almost spent. I’m a man who knows how you’ve spent it. You’re a man who has borrowed all over Europe. I’m a man who knows your creditors. One word from me, and all your debts will be called in.”
Percy: “What are they going to do? Bankers don’t have armies.”
Cromwell: “Neither will you, without any money. My lord, you hold your earldom from the King. Your task is to secure the north, to defend us against Scotland. If you cannot ensure these things, the King will take your land and your titles and give them to someone who will do the job that you cannot do.”
Percy: “No, he won’t. He respects all ancient titles.”
Cromwell [his expression conveys how dense Percy is and how laughable the idea that Henry respects any titles]: “How can I explain this to you? The world is not run from where you think it is. From border fortresses. Even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from Lisbon. From wherever the merchant ships set sail off into the west. Not from castle walls, from counting houses. From the pens that scrape out your promissory notes. So believe me when I say that my banker friends and I will rip your life apart. And then, when you are without money and title, yes, I can picture you living in a hovel, wearing homespun, bringing home a rabbit for the pot. Your lawful wife, Anne Boleyn, skinning and jointing that rabbit. Yes, I wish you all happiness”

Percy has no credit card you see.

The fascination may come from the puzzle and elusive depths of suggestion. The series can suddenly speed up. Just as the fourth episode seems to come to an end and Cromwell is in the crowd watching More being beheaded, his memory becomes a series of flashbacks, he as a boy in More’s house where More was a boy. Then we see More about to be beheaded (unflinching scene) and Cromwell the older man watching.

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Then the camera moves and sees Johanne watching Cromwell deeply ill in bed, sweating, hysterical, seemingly traumatized. We enter his mind as he glimpses his second daughter (not the one with the angel wings, but the one who wanted to learn Greek and marry Rafe).

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He says aloud if he’s dying there are things he needs to tell Gregory (his son), Then a patch of sunlight on his bed, Liz (Natasha Little) his wife knotting,

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Cromwell: “Slow down, so I can see how you do it.”
Liz: “I can’t slow down. If I stop to think how I’m doing it, I won’t be able to do it.”

The camera again moves, we hear words about an itinerary, which ends at Wolf Hall and out from the corridor comes yet another set of people, the Seymours.

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By the end of this second act (fourth episode), we are back in the era of the all frighteningly powerful tyrant, and Cromwell seems to glimpse Anne’s waning power and glimpses the wary alert presence of Jane Seymour as a possible fall-back position as Henry must be pleased and wants a son.

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The last still of Part 4

Ellen

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listening
Wolf Hall 1, early shot, Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) listening to Norfolk (Bernard Hill) and Suffolk (Richard Dillane) threaten Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce) at York palace (1529)

“A strong man acts within that which constrains him” …. to Henry, who resents being told he cannot war on France easily (Wolf Hall 1)
“I have never known anything but kindness from the Cardinal” … to Bonvisi, the Italian friend, advising to talk nicely to More and to dump the Cardinal (Wolf Hall 1, Cromwell)

Dear friends and readers,

I am just so riveted each time I watch one of the hours of this mini-series, and was at the end of the last, so shaken and roused out of myself to myself, that I must write some separate blogs on it now. If I waited until I felt fully competent to write a series of blogs on this season’s Wolf Hall, I’d not do it any time soon. I heartily recommend Anibundel’s meditation on Wolf Hall as demanding something more in the way of background (real knowledge of the era, the historical figures who appear with no introduction, a study of Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies, her sources and other books, not to omit re-watching the 2011 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by Peter Straughan), and an ability to see the genuine analogies of this early Tudor era with the politics and social life of 2015, and so I end on another must-read, Fintan O’Toole’s comparison of the RSC stage play by Mike Poulson with this mini-series (in the NYRB).

You may also have come across high-pitched diatribes by name pundits (Charles Krauthammer) and much lesser-known historians who are still engaged in a bitter debate (400 years later) over whether Thomas Cromwell was a ruthless brutal thug (Colin Burrow) or an early modern magistrate, by closely monitored persuasive manipulations effecting a revolution from a Catholic hierarchical medieval European outpost to a Protestant local monarchy, and in both cases defying his low rank and growing rich, developing a household and estate as part of his reward (G. R. Elton and Marilyn Robertson). Was More a fanatical burner of men rather than this man of conscience Robert Bolt created? Was Thomas Cromwell the first modern magistrate with some integrity but very human? How shall we understand Anne? Why was she so disliked?

And yet the deeper pleasures require nothing more than watching. After all a novel, a film, piece of music, picture must deliver in its own right, have no need of anything outside itself, and I maintain this does. Just don’t be intimidated by Straughan, Peter Koshinsky (the director) and several of the actors, most notably Mark Rylance’s, refusal to compromise. So here goes.

If they avoid unreal histrionic theatrics most of the time, and do not treat the costumes and sets as on sale in shop windows, Damien Lewis as Henry VIII and Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, Mark Gatiss as Stephen Gardiner, Charity Wakefield as Mary Boleyn, more than make up for the quiet realistic performances of say Jonathan Pryce as Wolsey, Natasha Little as Liz Cromwell. Anton Lesser as Thomas More is more gothic than one realizes at first.

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Our first sight of More which prompts Cromwell to one of many sudden frank speeches where he speaks truth to power (including to Henry):

More: “I care nothing for wealth. “The world’s esteem is nothing to me.”
Cromwell: “So how is it I come back to London and find you’ve become Lord Chancellor? Lord Chancellor. What’s that? A fucking accident?”
More: “You’re no friend to the church, Thomas. You’re a friend to one priest only – and he’s the most corrupt in Christendom”

And the music by Debbie Wiseman as driving and forceful and memorable, and turns soft, Renaissance like and lilting throughout as any of the latest commercial serial dramas.

Let us look at our story as three act play, which I believe a study of the release dialogue transcripts bears out. Let us think about how these imagined characters relate to the historical figures they represent only after we grasp the actors’ realization of them (out of Mantel’s characters and Staughan’s script, Koshinsky’s direction, in the costumes by Joanna Eatwell) as they move through the story which is a brilliant Renaissance “revenge tragedy” (Straughan’s phrase for how he constructed a coherent line out of Mantel’s two books).

The first act lays out before us the development of a father-son relationship which travels deeply into the core of the central consciousness, POV of the play, Thomas Cromwell, once a savagely-abused boy, homeless outcast, whose alert intelligence (social cunning), thorough practical and book learning, quiet reciprocal kindness, and loyalty (constancy) Wolsey recognizes and takes in. Wolsey is all personally that Cromwell admires and wants to emulate — the great public man.

What we are watching over the course of the two hours where time moves back and forth is Cromwell remembering his first encounters with Wolsey, the development of his love and respect for this man and how and why Wolsey was personally destroyed. After Wolsey tries negotiation in Europe with the Pope’s legate and then negotiation in England and then a trial of Katherine of Aragon in an effort to enable Henry to divorce Katharine and marry Anne. Wolsey’s autocratic dealings, we see his slow deterioration, which allows for an emergence of his affectionate ways (the birth and gift of a kitten to Cromwell). Here they are playing cards (the game Cromwell says supported him on the docks as a male adolescent):

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They talk and eat together. Then as events close in, Cromwell’s helping to move the old man to Winchester and then York,

Cromwell:  “Masters, I want kindling, dry kindling … Get the fires lit … Stephen, find the kitchen …. Actually, see him in first… I need the bedding … What? Who is that? … Michael? Down, off. The horses, later. We want the Cardinal in bed and warm. …Come on, come on, we’re not done yet! …”

To Wolsey now in bed:  “I asked if they had nutmeg or saffron – they looked at me as if I was speaking Greek. I’ll have to find a local supplier.”
Wolsey:  “I shall pray for it.”

I find it very touching the way Cromwell tries to secure creature comforts for the old man, and how the old man gently mocks his endeavours. Despite Henry’s claim that he loves and misses the Cardinal, and that he cannot bring the Cardinal back (as his courtiers, and the powerful aristocratic clans who loathe Wolsey as a butcher’s son are pressuring him), Wolsey is thrown away, humiliated, sickens and dies. Against this the horrific scene of Cromwell’s father almost kicking him to death, and the one encounter where we see how vile to Cromwell Cromwell’s father seems.

By contrast,

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there is the way Wolsey teases Cromwell and then blesses him. Perhaps the film-makers have Cromwell remember a nasty deriding masque four sleazy male courtiers act out against Wosley for the amusement of Henry and Anne a bit too often, but they want us not to forget what Cromwell does not forget. Colin Burrow suggests the two novels (and I this three act play) themselves make up a revenge story, deep and abiding. At the close of the second hour, Cromwell assures George Cavendish (Wolsey’s secretary, right-hand man who later in life wrote a memoir of Wolsey) who weeps for the man that he remembers all those who mocked, and used Wolsey:

Cromwell: “There’s no need to trouble, God, George, I’ll take it in hand.”

It’s easy to miss how often in the first two hours Cromwell is waiting to talk to someone, sometimes Henry himself on behalf of the Cardinal. Partly because Crowmell is an enigmatic figure, for after all although he promises to return north, he does not. He uses his mission to bring the king and cardinal back together to secure his own place in Parliament and in the king’s entourage. We are privy to his face, his remarks, his acts, his flashbacks, but not his thoughts.

The story of an old man and middle-aged one’s respect and relationship is not one must admit the sexiest of stories, and it occurs amid the criss-cross interwoven other stories, also told often through flashbacks coming out of Cromwell’s memory: the central one which also moves across the whole 6 hours is Anne Boleyn’s rise to power as a result of Henry’s sexual attraction to her strong aggressively confident character (as seen in this play)

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Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy) as first glimpsed dancing with Henry Percy (Harry Lloyd) in a flashback as her father, Thomas Boleyn (David Robb) explains to Wolsey that the young people have pledged themselves to one another

The homelife of Cromwell at Austin Friars, with his real love for his wife and affection for his daughters, seen in warm light, before they suddenly sicken with sweating sickness and die:

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The first shot of Liz Cromwell (Natasha Little), POV Cromwell as he comes home and up the stairs

Cromwell: “You’re sweeter to look at than the Cardinal.”
Liz: “That’s the smallest compliment a woman ever received.”

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With Grace on his lap as he attempts to tell Liz of the Tyndale English translation of the Bible which she should read

The stories of the boys he takes in, trains as courtiers, then spies, and finally aides in bullying, and threat-torturing of those Cromwell wants and needs to take down, take out. In the novel (and history) Cromwell filled his house with such young men.

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Another early shot, Richard Cromwell (Joss Porter) and Rafe, his ward (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) whom Cromwell’s young Anne loves as a young girl and asks permisssion to marry:

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Anne: “Can I choose who I want to marry?”
Cromwell: “What?”
Anne: “Can I choose who I want to marry?”
Cromwell: “Within reason.”
Anne: “Then I choose Rafe.”

I warmed to Cromwell’s turning to his wife’s sister, Johanne Williamson (Saskia Reeves); he pictures her in place of Liz, but he likes her for herself. It cheered me to see them in bed together in the morning talking. I sorrowed when she brought an end to it because her mother had found out. She is often seen in the group more lit up then the others

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If I’m supposed to get a kick out of Charity Wakefield as Mary Boleyn’s bitterness and ironies about her sister, and her attempt to seduce Cromwell to become her protector (as she sees how strong he is), I bond rather with Liz and then Johanne. But I am intrigued by Mary (discarded mistress and mother of children by Henry) and Jane Boleyn (one of those who provided evidence against Anne and her brother, Jane’s hated husband) and have gotten myself two history-biography books about them to read:

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Mary talking to Cromwell

The colorful contains the dangerous and we are intensely alerted to this at each renewed encounter of Cromwell with Henry, from their first meeting in the Hampton Court garden, to court interactions,

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The careful photograph captures the neurotic king, half-unsure of himself, and the bare grey head of Cromwell

to real intimacy, as when Henry asks for Cromwell to come to his palace at 2 in the morning to reinterpret a dream.

If you remember Katharine’s bitterness, her court trial where she stands up for herself as a virgin when she first went to bed with Henry (she has the most striking headdress in the series until Anna becomes queen (Margaret More’s easy to miss, the most beautiful and tastefuL):

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there is so much going on in these two hours, it’s chock-a-block. Mantel has remembered and used Shakespeare’s Henry VIII.

But it’s best to see it as slow, the scenes and shots are much longer than usual for a movie, you can take in what you see while the sense is if something hieratic. Think of it as a build-up. The sub-stories evolving depth and emotion while the longer over-arching ones are moving towards a terrifying climax as so few have power to keep themselves afloat. In Act One Cromwell thinks he can still act justly to most and get what he wants as well as secure himself. He will find otherwise.

Fintan O’Toole has the relevance and appeal of Mantel’s thematic shift to and take on Cromwell right:

He is a middle-class man trying to get by in an oligarchic world. Thirty years ago, Mantel’s Cromwell would have been of limited interest. His virtues—hard work, self-discipline, domestic respectability, a talent for office politics, the steady accumulation of money, a valuing of stability above all else—would have been dismissed as mere bourgeois orthodoxies. If they were not so boring they would have been contemptible. They were, in a damning word, safe.

But they’re not safe anymore. They don’t assure security. As the world becomes more oligarchic, middle-class virtues become more precarious. This is the drama of Mantel’s Cromwell—he is the perfect bourgeois in a world where being perfectly bourgeois doesn’t buy you freedom from the knowledge that everything you have can be whipped away from you at any moment. The terror that grips us is rooted not in Cromwell’s weakness but in his extraordinary strength. He is a perfect paragon of meritocracy for our age. He is a survivor of an abusive childhood, a teenage tearaway made good, a self-made man solely reliant on his own talents and entrepreneurial energies. He could be the hero of a sentimental American story of the follow-your-dreams genre. Except for the twist—meritocracy goes only so far. Even Cromwell cannot control his own destiny, cannot escape the power of entrenched privilege. And if he, with his almost superhuman abilities, can’t do so, what chance do the rest of us have?

Continually all these noblemen talk angrily and ferociously about both Wolsey and Cromwell’s low origins. They can’t stand that. They loathe having both around or above them.

Look at the use of the camera and color. The POV is only immersion when it’s a deeply private moment, one which must be hid from other’s eyes:

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Johanne and Cromwell

and it is most of the time Cromwell’s. But it is to the side: the camera (and Cromwell) keep looking at others from the side and when the camera is on Cromwell himself we see his face from the side, framed in doorways, walking down dark narrow corridors (of power?). There is a deep sense then of cautious lurking. There is little use of montage — which nowadays is unusual (except for old fashioned costume dramas like Downton Abbey) and not much voice over (ditto). This keeps us outside the minds of the characters and keeps them enigmatic, at a distance, and leaves us with a sense of film as a stage. Light is used to bring out beautiful colors: the modern tendency to use light in ways that repeat the darknesses of eras before electricity is practiced, but large windows and “day” time makes up for this. Light colors, beautiful windows. Cromwell himself is soberly dressed, only gradually beginning to appear more rich by furs and the like. Here he is towards the end of part two, la rare unguarded frontal shot when he is alone, looking over the relics from the Cardinal:

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I’ve written on functions of historical fiction and film in our culture, and self-reflexive acting of Rylance (scroll down to the final three paragraphs), but the joy of the experience is the story, the performances, the characters’ relationships, the film experience.

Ellen

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