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Posts Tagged ‘Renaissance’

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Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall 3)

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Natasha Little as Elizabeth Wykys Cromwell, Thomas’s wife, who dies of sleeping sickness early in the series

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Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza rescued from an abject life by Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark (2015 Poldark 1): she is facing down Heidi Reed Elizabeth while Ross turns away

Dear friends and readers,

I acknowledge the unfairness of comparing these two mini-series airing at the same time on the UK BBC and US PBS, about which much fuss is being made. Wolf Hall as written by Peter Straughan (with the acknowledged presence of Hilary Mantel) is a throwback to true quality drama of the 1970s through say 2009 on PBS. It may carry on on BBC TV in Britain as many of their serial dramas do not make it over to the US. Wolf Hall has (relatively) long scenes between characters, longer utterances and dialogue weighty with meaning and wit, its model is ironic drama on the stage and great care has been taken with mise-en-scene, culled juxtaposition, flashbacks, and literal accuracies. The new Poldark as written by Debbie Horsfield follows the recent trend in mini-series to reach a wider audience (apparently 7.0 million no longer makes the cut) with short scenes, only rare excursions into longer developed scenes (but they are there, as in the long sequence at the close of Episode 4 from the time of Ross and Demelza’s love-making, marriage, and first time together through to the end of the Christmas visit); its model is action-adventure TV dramas (Master and Commander and Outlanders as the 1970s kept in mind The Oneddin Line and costume drama from the 1940s Gainsborough swashbuckling school),and cost-saving measures which make for crude and abrupt movements between shots, confused chronology and (without Graham there) irritating anachronisms.

I’ve been reading Jerome de Groot’s Consuming History: Historians and heritage in contemporary popular culture — spurred on by some panels at the recent ASECS  and what interests me here is how these two mini-series are presented as historical fiction films, based on history as well as particular novels De Groot writing about the resurgence of history in popular culture. At the same time as academics get ever more sceptical (post-modern) about what we can know of the past, and insist on disillusion and almost disbelief in documentary source, at least “interrogating” them, and self-reflexivity before they will give prizes to anyone; popular culture is devouring historical fiction and it is now respectable, making and going to historical dramas, costume dramas trying to make a comeback (if not based on older great books, based on recent very good ones).

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Is there a difference among historical fiction, historic novels (older written in the 18th century, say Tom Jones by Henry Fielding), and films and “real” narrative history. Yes – especially thoroughly researched history which is often thematic as well as narrative and well-documented. But for readers: do you read an older or historic novel differently from the way you read a historical fiction? More is it not so that historical fiction influences the average person’s conception the past and forces into reactionary historical narratives modern concerns.

Do these historical fictions then become part of the fabric of historical knowledge. Yes. In the case of Graham, he is bringing to bear also the strong pro-revolutionary currents of the 1780s and 1790s into discourse – that’s why the books still matter in some ways (also the proto-feminism and some other themes), Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a revision of common understanding of the Tudor era skewed by Bolt’s and the 1960s desire to worship Thomas More. Morrison’s Beloved is now part of our understanding of the effects of slavery – and the horrific reconstruction period for black people down south. I reviewed Heffer’s High Minds – historian writing popular narrative and it is Tory paternalism that is brought before us despite all his research.

Historical fictions, these 20th and 21st century books, the first four Poldarks and Wolf Hall —  on face of it differ considerably from one another and from fictions actually written in the era they are set; yet both are created from imitating these earlier fictions, what is familiar about the earlier literature of the era, and recent other historical fictions and films. There are long traditions in the representation of the Renaissance and the 18th century. Just to begin with the 1960s on (who has not seen Robert Bolt’s A Man for all Seasons, with Orson Wells, Paul Scofield, Robert Shaw, Wendy Hiller) they imitate Jacobean drama and what is felt is true of the 16th century classics (Machiavelli, Montaigne, More) we get these Elizabethan/Tudor political types as seething with subtexts, as all of them ever so intelligent, witty, ironic, guarded, making killing remarks that are funny. Similarly not to go back to Kitty (Paulette Goddard and Ray Milland) but just the two Tom Joneses (1960s and 1998), the 18th century is a time of sexual transgression, rebellions and riots, country life, manliness as building a world. The source here are also the 18th century novels, from Clarissa to Austen, and the French soft-corn porn too (who has not seen Stephen Frears’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses with the smoldering eyes of John Malkovich), and recently movies centering on traditionally heroic masculine males. (When a person writes a novel set in the 19th century today he imitates novels set in the 19th century and conventions about the 19th century that are found in historical fictions set in the 19th century; so Byatt’s Possession imitates George Eliot as seen through the Brontes.)

Now common sense tells us there were as many witty seething ironic and subtextual people about in say the 18th century as the 16th and just as many dullards, obtuse dense people at the court of Henry VIII as at the philistine court of George III who never made an interesting remark in their lives. Documents easily bear me out that Charles James Fox and Sheridan were far more into wit than Thomas Cromwell or Wolseley. In fact that is part of the power of say Thomas Middleton’s plays (a contemporary of Shakespeare): in Middleton’s famous The Changeling the man who is the evil cente of the play, Deflores (played brilliantly in the 1980s by Bob Hoskins in a BBC production) is not articulate and not very bright; worse yet is the silly heroine (played by a young Elizabeth McGovern in the same production) while the smart people (one played by Hugh Grant before he gave up on serious acting) are done in by Deflores. Deflores can’t and doesn’t want to make smart remarks. They are dangerous.

The great delight for those who delight in this sort of thing of Wolf Hall is the myth that everyone was supersubtle in talk and thought. It gave Hilary Mantel a terrific remit. Her novel (which I acknowledge I did not finish nor even start her Bring Up the Bodies, but which like some watchers I am now intent on rereading to where I left off and now finishing so as to enjoy the film adaptation the more). Her book imitates James Joyce in its self-conscious use of stream of consciousness, fills in with the expected rich furniture and strange doings of the Renaissance as seen in films, other historical fictions, “real” historical narrative, not to omit Shakespearean plays. She has also re-seen the paradigm given us by Bolt and the 1960s so now the ruthless thug politician (Leo McKern) is now true ordinary man, no better (though smarter and with more kindness and braver before the king) than the rest of us. It must be a winner.

The Poldark people have to make do with 1940s novels that mirror the dark times just after World War Two, and to give them credit, they are doing this far more authentically with the central characters than the progressive 1970s mini-series. And as Graham did, they are given voice to the marginalized and powerless, the abject, the lowest of the low, in a wide ranging perspective which includes underlying economic realities. The crime of poaching which leads to the death of one of the characters from epidemic typhus in prison was a disguised war of the propertied against the 99% of the era. Everyone knew it was a victimless crime, punished highly unevenly, the equivalent of Jean Valjean put away in prison for 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread in Les Miserables. We see the stranglehold of monopolies as Ross fails to make a go of it smelting and selling copper himself at prices that will keep the mine going and becomes a free trader (smuggler). So we need vast scenes of peoples not tight encounters of individuals.

I’ve written a more detailed comparison of one episode from each (the fourth Poldark, the first Wolf Hall) on my Sylvia blog (scroll down to the concluding three paragraphs) and so won’t go on at length — until that is, I’ve read Mantel’s books and seen all 8 Poldark episodes, but here would like to turn the depiction of the women in the new Poldark and Wolf Hall. For now I want to talk just about heroines of each. According to De Groot and Miriam Burstein the archetypes across historical fiction repeat themselves – whether the character is called Demelza, Anne Boleyn, or some version of Elizabeth. In short the heroine who is anti-ambition beyond marrying up, who does not act out agency, whose greatest happiness is with a partner, male (or female), being a mother, and virtues are loyalty is rewarded. Books side with constancy, prudence, obedience, domesticity (Katherine of Aragon, Mary Boleyn). Graham departs in giving us Demelza fighting for Verity’s liberty and then punishes her hard. Elizabeth seeking a life outside her family and ending up dead; Verity escaping to a kind of solitude of two in Falmouth.

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Scene from Wolf Hall
Hero and heroine scenes from both

For the supposed heroine of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the great and important book on Anne Boleyn is Retha Warnike’s The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn,– she shows the false constructions, where they came from, tries to disentangle this woman from myths, but go look at the popular historical fiction (The Other Boleyn Girl or Mantel’s Wolf Hall – I’ve not yet read Bring up the bodies). In Mantel’s presentation of Anne it’s as if Warnicke never wrote her accurate and moving portrayal of this woman,  caught up in a world of totally male hegemonic world where her family was out to sell first her sister and then herself corrupt coteries, a totally male and we are back with Boleyn as sly, amoral, wrongly ambitious, untrustworthy, deserving almost to be beheaded. I should bring up how in the 18th century Elizabeth Tollett wrote one of these Ovidian narratives deeply sympathetic to Anne, and full of the terror of beheading, but she sentimentalizes her.

We are hearing about the terrific performances of Rylance, Damien Lewis, watching Anton Lesser as More. But what of the women of Wolf Hall? Since she left off Amy Dorrit (Bleak House, scripted by Andrew Davies), Claire Foy has taken on ‘evil’ shallow ‘spoilt’ women — she did this kind of role for the 2010 Upstairs Downstairs, the pro-Nazi, Lady Percy, sexually exploiting the chauffeur. Angel face. But Foy is overdoing it, standing there stiffly; and Charity Wakefield as Mary Boleyn is mawkish (apart from the historical reality Mary was not acceptable at court once she had had a son by Henry who remained illegitimate — has no one read the recent history on these women?). The presentation of these women is not feminist — it’s typical historical fiction across the board. The heroine who is anti-ambition beyond marrying up, who does not act out agency, whose greatest happiness is with a partner, male (or female), being a mother, and virtues are loyalty is rewarded. Books side with constancy, prudence, obedience, domesticity. Graham departs in giving us Demelza fighting for Verity’s liberty but then the structure of the novel and everyone around her punishes her hard for trespass. She was not supposed to rescue Verity to choose her own life. And the actresses can’t do as well. Liz, More’s wife, has depth — but she’s all caution and prudence, won’t even read the Bible, sticks the prayer book as safer but she’s killed off by a dread disease of the era (sleeping or sweating sickness) — so Natasha Little (the great actress of the 1998 Vanity Fair) goes to waste — unless she’s brought back in flashbacks later in the series. By contrast, Eleanor Tomlinson has a complex role to play as did Jill Townsend for Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan in the 1970s. Elizabeth has a real ambition, for society, to rise in life; Caroline Penvenon has agency. The real sin among these women is the same as Anne Boleyn’s: when they are not loyal first and foremost. I admit my bonding thus far from the films is Demelza as played by Tomlinson and Liz Cromwell as play by Natasha Little. The books are different: I deeply enter into Verity’s case, bond with the intelligent Elizabeth but have not gone far enough for a second time into Wolf Hall or its sequel to grasp where I can find some purchase.

What is the definition of manliness in such films or their books? the heroes are Thomas Cromwell who takes More’s old place as the tolerant man of integrity; Ross Poldark who builds a home and world.  It’s curious to see how physicians, Dwight Enys (Poldark), Stephen Maturin (O’Brien’s sea-stories — to me Paul Bettany is perfect) are held in high repute in historical fiction and merchants (Stephen Vaughn of Antwerp, Antonio Bonvisi from Lucca, friends to Cromwell) in Wolf Hall.

For myself I still haven’t enjoyed a costume drama mini-series in the way I am thus far Wolf Hall and also only intermittently the new Poldark since some of Andrew Davies’ film adaptations in the first decade of the 21st century. Bar none (perhaps exceptimg Breaking Bad, better in its depiction of women, probably much more thematically important and relevant), Wolf Hall is absorbing, entertaining most of the time, usually intelligent (though not Anne or Mary Boleyn). Certainly Downton Abbey was problematic even in the first two years. The new Poldark’s closer reading of Graham’s depiction of the sources of Demelza and Ross’s relationship is teaching me why I so bond with these recurring two characters, Wolf Hall is pulling me into strange violent terrors of the 16th century, religious — you can’t mock the way Clive Francis as Francis Poldark or Paul Curran as Jud dared — a world without any individual rights. The savagery reflects our own era.

Ellen

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Love’s Labor’s Lost — Peter McGovern (who sings with a voice worthy the first actor who played this role — and Feste too) — just of one of the many strange images in this production

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Love’s Labor’s Won — the key ritual moment made torturous

Dear friends and readers,

I might not have noticed that the Folger Shakespeare Library offered an HD screening of a paired production of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Lost and Love’s Labor’s Won (Much Ado About Nothing re-named as an act of faith by Christopher Luscombe, the director of both), had I not over four weeks spent well over an hour (I wish it had been longer) watching, listening and reading a Future Learn course, Much Ado About Nothing, sponsored by the Shakespeare Trust Birthplace, the Royal Shakespeare Company also in Stratford, England, and the University of Birmingham on Much Ado About Nothing in Performance. (See my blog outlining this course, scroll down.) The same cast, the same set based on Charlecote Park, the same time, just before (LLL) and just after (LLW) World War One.

The underlying thesis of the course was that a “dark” interpretation of Much Ado About Nothing, one which gives as full weight to the Claudio-Hero story, the malevolent action of the depressive betrayer, Don John, as to the Beatrice and Benedict witty courtship, makes much more sense of the whole play. I noticed as with Josh Whedon’s production of MAAN in his own home on film, the Dogberry and Verges story took on resonances which were not snarkily condescending towards lower class people, and instead brought out how these ordinary townsmen found out the sinister plot, reported it, and their nervous (perhaps depressive) leader, Dogberry, lived in his own agon of continually corrosively self-flagellated pride. Nick Haverson played Costard and Dogberry. Michelle Terry was both Rosaline and Beatrice; Edward Bennet, a fully-felt enactment of Berowne and Benedict.

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The drive around the park (Love’s Labor’s Lost)

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Opening match-set between them in Much Ado About Nothing (aka Love’s Labor’s Won)

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Love’s Labor’s Lost. The two times I’ve seen LLL every effort was made to make it hilarious, and in one case they succeeded brilliantly with the play within a play (rather like the Pyramus and Thisbe play inside Midsummer Night’s Dream). This production did not go for this kind of comedy at all, and indeed not much humor except the occasional exposure of absurdities, people spying on one another, found out and the like. Rather it was a dance of figures in a leisured landscape.

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The secondary gentlemen vowing their abstinence, the secondary ladies sauntering through the grounds

Yet there was no strain in bringing out the darker threads in the talk of the play. They seriously presented the poetry as arising from illuminated enthralled visions of love. Given the talent of Peter McGovern, songs were added — all highly longing and erotic, and meditative. I began to wonder how the other productions had managed to be funny.

The play’s wordiness came out a lot: its puns, its mockery of language. In the present US atmosphere and mass media (epitomized by the many PBS costume dramas where characters hardly have a long utterance lest the audience grow restless) this does not please. (Hilary Mantel and Peter Straugh’s Wolf Hall is a recent exception.) I saw empty seats after the break, even though the break itself had had a 10 minute fascinating film by the theatrical designer who showed us how he used the choice of Charlecote Park to make his stage settings. He seemed to want to bring the proscenium stage back.

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For me the result was a revelation: the acting and the four young men opening themselves up to charges of softness, open vulnerability, in short the “feminine” projected an undercurrent of eroticism towards their unknown targets (after all they have hardly seen the French princess and her ladies) not contained by the heterosexual relationships. The men were so (if you will) unashamed of their depths of feeling and softnesses — they were not afraid lest they not be perceived as manly. Jane Smiley suggests this fear limits the kind of male characters we can have on screen.

The play made me want to reread early criticism of this play which argued it was made for a group of young male aristocrats, which included Southampton, who was perhaps an erotic target or lover (?) of Shakespeare. Not working to make it hilarious (you have to work at such effects) brought out its “queerness” in the original sense of the term. Why have four young men vow not to have sex, not to be with any women for three years (not to eat much or sleep much either); why this symmetry which is so artificial. Why the emphasis after false performative erotic behaviors? I wondered what modern “theoretical” and queer studies or the new historicism makes of this play. Surely that sexuality is constructed as well as really impelled by appetite and vision.

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Unwanted women — whether goddesses or huntresses

I felt exhilarated by something that had been revealed by the turns from patterned behavior to visions to deep sadness. The sets and costumes with their strangeness, fairy tale elements, references to war fit well too.

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Love’s Labor’s Won: After all I was a wee bit disappointed perhaps because I was expecting too much. The talk of the actors, the designer, the director, script writer had all been so intriguing about the dark currents and unappreciated veins of comedy, I forgot that they couldn’t get beyond the text of the play. Individual actors could pull out of lines new sources of emotion; but there is a limit as they have to reach to its darknesses beyond what the language lets us.

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A normative scene as the nurses and returning soldier scenes fade from memory

You cannot cut the wry satiric highjinks which seem somehow are out of kilter with the driving force of Don John and the way the Hero-Claudio story was pulled out as well as some currents in Beatrice and Benedict. I began to think of all the many melancholics in Shakespeare’s plays. Usually Shakespeare empathizes. Not here. But what is Don John given to do? Very little. He is lame in this production — from the war?   The actor played an excellent game of billards. It may be Luscombe has overinterpreted a somewhat confused “problem” play

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Wonderfully timed comedy as the chief of the watchman takes it upon himsef to tell Leonato that Hero was wrongly shamed

Several of the actors brought something new to the play, especially Michelle Terry. She lent depth and a sense of the past she had had with Benedick to her part. She would sound sudden notes of self-controlled desperation. She is not conventionally pretty, not quite a “jolie laide” in the way of say Jodhi May and I fear that will limit her career, the parts she is permitted to play.

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The wedding terror

Nick Haversham playing Dogberry turned the part into one of an anguished man hurt over how everyone despises him — and yet it was his (or his silent partner, making me think the same actor must’ve played Sir Andrew Aguecheek to this characters Toby Belch in TN) persistence that brought the criminals to light.

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Love’s Labor’s Won — Nick Haverson as the sensitive Dogberry

Luscombe’s directing brought out how the deceit practiced by Don John to shatter his enemies is a mirror of the other deceits to manipulate Benedict and Beatrice and to punish Claudio too. Don John has no trouble persuading Borachio to masquerade with Margaret as Hero (rather improbable). How different is this from the deceit swiftly practiced on Benedict and Beatrice by their respective friends to break down their pride. The manufactured ending is based on more masks and more deceits. But since everything is swept under the rug at the close when Claudio is forgiven by Hero and Beatrice forgets whatever her past experience with Benedict was, this parallelism loses its significance. I wish I could have compared the other dark versions of this play discussed in Future Learn and look forward to seeing the Shakespeare Re-done version of MAAN with Damien Lewis as Benedict and a non-passive Billie Piper as Hero.

I loved the new seeming 1920s kind of music, and the settings from World War One as the play opened and then ended were very effective. There were many references to death in both plays, in Love’s Labor’s Lost the death of the French king, the funeral like structures in the play,

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In Much Ado, men are not to be trusted; at the drop of the slightest excuse, they humiliate and (Leonato too) threaten to kill women. They are more loathe to kill one another:

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Again death: the supposed death of Hero, Beatrice’s wanting Claudio dead, the funeral service all led to group mourning. Then the grieving over World War one and all those deaths, all those gone? But then the getting together of the couples and especially Beatrice and Benedict.

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What was it we were to feel? The play does call for dancing at its close and the actors dance away.

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It seemed to me the paired plays enriched my understanding of Love’s Labor’s Lost more they did Much Ado About Nothing. Bringing them together suggested that this “problem” aspect of Shakespeare’s plays, deep melancholy and visionary undercurrents are not something that starts after Romeo and Juliet (Twelth Night can be played as deeply bitter), or around the time of the great tragedies (as who could laugh at All’s Well’s that Ends Well, and the intertwined rage, desperation, hypocrisy, sexual crises of Measure for Measure), but are there from the very beginning.

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The set ourside Charlecote Park: Love’s Labor’s Lost

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The set inside Charlecote Park: Love’s Labor’s Won

I should say how I hope more of these RSC productions come to the Folger on the HD screen.  If I lived closer I would go to their poetry readings and lectures regularly. The trip is an hour and fifteen minutes for me (car, walk, train, walk again and then reverse it).

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I had arrived early and saw an unusually good exhibit about the discovery of the Longitude: Ships, Clocks and Stars.

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Much to my surprise the Folger had on loan all four of Harrison’s time pieces: the cumbersome first three with their pendulums and complicated works. Beautifully shiny gold. How could he have thought such a machine could withstand an ocean storm. And how super-careful the two institutions had to have been to send the clocks across the ocean. And then Harrison final transformative insight into a stop watch was shown by having in the exhibit the exquisitely beautiful one made by Harrison himself. There were other pictures of people I’d read about but never seen an image of, interesting maps, educational explanations about the problem of finding the longitude, the attitudes of the learned astronomers. I barely had time to get in as the play began.

Intermission: There is a public relations young woman who greets people at the door and tries to make everyone feel “at home.”  Another new idea is to set up a separate wine bar downstairs; this makes for shorter lines and I was able to drink my whole glass of wine each time before half way through the intermission and get back in in time for the interviews with the director and set designer. The second time I met and talked to a friendly French woman and she was taking the Metro too so my trip home so I did not feel bleak and lonely the way my trip home usually does.

Ellen

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Haunting presences which fill stage again and again

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The soothsayer (Nafessa Monroe)

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Central presences: Brutush (Anthony Cochrane) and Cassius (Louis Butelli)

Dear friends and readers,

If you are anywhere near the DC area, you’ve got five days left to see this stirring and visionary production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar directed by Robert Richmond with its striking stage design by Tony Cisek, costume Mariah Hale, lighting Jim Hunter. As Kate Havard writes (for once this is an accurate description), this is a dramatization of Shakespeare’s play which speaks home to us in 2014 as about war’s futility and cruelty, the ambition of self-blinded men, the destruction of a republic (however ill led by a vain man, aka Caesar played vaingloriously by Michael Sharon), with hooded figures everywhere. People on the watch for surveillance and ambush. The costumes of the war scenes in the second half were those of WW1, the gassing of populations was invoked (this has been a year of memorials of 1914), but the highlighting (rightly) of the aka-47 (killed more human beings than any other) invented first in 1945/6 shows that the reference is universal. had they the courage, Brutus should have been dressed as an Arab (bin Laden would have shocked, but what say you to one of the leaders of the Arab Spring in Egypt), with Mark Anthony in Western garb, or vice versa.

The women are minor or secondary presences who plead with their men to keep away, and the solution was to choose actresses who looked alike and like the soothsayer

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Portia (Shirine Rabb)

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Calpurnia (Deidra LaWan Starnes)

who turn turn up as women in the chorus as destroyed as well as easily led and suffering people.

It is at the same time a testament to the vitality and intelligence of this production, the play is still centered on a relationship as the text is: that between Cassius and Brutus, with Brutus, the conflicted hero-villain whose later grim thoughts anticipate Macbeth’s:

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Brutus

I’ll remember to my dying day, my father saying to me when I was around 10 and we had gone to see this play somewhere or other and he had read it afterward, how brilliant and astonishing was the scene between Cassius and Brutus where the Cassisus says, hurt, petulant, “What cold to me,” and Brutus replies when accused of not liking Cassius as his friend anymore, “I do not like your faults.” How human, how real the utterances, my father said. The slow awakening of Brutus to what is evil, the deterioration of this pair’s relationship, their individual noble suicides are kept intact. Perhaps Mark Anthony is made corrupt too quickly; in the play Anthony does care for Caesar, is angered, even if we quickly see what he admired in Caesar was not his republicanism as Anthony pricks off who to kill and who to bribe. As a character he was more sidelined than usual, since his indignation and modicum of idealism was not believed in:

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He seemed too much a tough guy (who one could see in Titus Andronicus)

But the touching boy-like sleepiness and innocence (to Brutus) of Lucius (William Vaughn) is kept, and his loyalty to Brutus, so human nature’s better potentials are here too, though the overall effect is nihilistic. The actors playing the tertiary roles were effective here, especially Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Casca/Messala.

The production did remind me of last year’s Richard III in its use of straight-forward traditional large gestures and symbolic staging, both had highly theatricalized acting. When the lights were on, this set was beautiful in its grey marble.

The last time I saw Julius Caesar was at the 14th Street Shakespeare company (many years ago now), and it was just saturated in blood. The imagery of the play does call for it; this production kept blood to a discreet minimum. I understood that, but thought the substitution of the leafs from red poppies had the unfortunate effect of somehow valorizing the hideous slaughter of WW1; I know that was not meant but recently I’ve watched a profound Future Learn MOOC on “Trauma and Memory” in World War One, one which focused on those who survived, just, wounded horribly, on those hardest hit (millions) by the loss of family members and friends, and whole neighborhoods decimated. I’m just not keen on these fields of beautiful poppies. But it’s a small flaw.

The exhibit in the Great Hall linked in: it was about a pair of scholars who undecoded some manuscripts said to prove that Bacon and not Shakespeare wrote the plays, and as context, there were cases showing the history of codes for surveillance, and one showing how kings and queens in the Renaissance used codes for spying on one another and communication.

This staging made me recall the famous MGM production on film, and I rewatched (a YouTube), James Mason as a more sensitive Brutus, John Gielgud a humane Cassius, Marlon Brando a noble Mark Anthony, Deborah Kerr Portia, and Greer Garson Calpurnia as again interchangeable, with Louis Calhern as an arrogant Caesar, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. It was far more personal, more hopeful.

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Mason as a much softer sensitive Brutus

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Gielgud as Cassius frantically hurt, angry at Brutus

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Brando as a seethingly dignified Anthony

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The two women, Kerr and Garson again made interchangeable

Still time to make it there.

I’m continuing to watch and listen to Bate’s Shakespeare and His World, another fine MOOC, well worth reading the plays for and watching more than once. To these two blogs: Weeks 1-3; Weeks 4-8, I add here another commentary on the final week of Jonathan Bate’s Shakespeare and his World

Week 10, 12/3/2014: This was a concluding week in which Bate attempted to account for the transformation of Shakespeare into a much respected playwright, but one among his fellows to his present domination and ubiquity, something not far off from idolatry; he moved from how popular Shakespeare’s plays were in his era, to the later 17th century when Shakespeare held his own, however adapted into the 18th century, the first serious editions, lives of Shakespeare by Rowe, Pope, Theobald, Johnson. Here he did pause to go over a few of the adaptations of the era. The clincher or turning point was Garrick’s Jubilee in which he brought together the continuous stage traditions and these editions, and the reading of Shakespeare (the sonnets had begun to be paid attention to) into a outward public series of ceremonies at Stratford which became a site de memoire. He hastened over the 19th century to our own time and wandered among shelves to show us how many languages Shakespeare is now translated into.

Watching this spurred me to write about the Julius Caesar presently at the Folger here in DC, a play much played over the century.

There was a 300 word assignment in which we were asked to write about a creative text coming out of Shakespeare (a post-text) and how it reflected some of the themes of the course. I was tempted to write but did not spend enough time on it. I cut down my blog on Shakespeare Restored and talked about how interesting it was to see these adaptations had some merit. Also that I had wished he had gone over Shakespeare’s sonnets as in these we feel we reach this remarkable man’s mind and presence, seen in his open vulnerability, candor: it’s this self that has made these plays what they are.

Ellen

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Lyndsey N Snyder as the Duchess (We Happy Few)

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Naeem Hayat as Hamlet (Globe players)

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Emily Relva as Anouilh’s Antigone (Wandering Theater)

Dear friends and readers,

This past week I was privileged to see three absorbingly well-acted productions of profound plays, Monday evening as organized by Capital Fringe Festival: inside a black box theater in an art gallery, a 90 minute version of John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, done more or less in modern dress by “We Happy Few” in a small theater where all the seats were sold:

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Duchess of Malfi’s cast and commentary;

Friday evening at the Folger Theater (the whole place much loved by me, now a member of the theater side as well as a reader on the scholar side of the building), a 3 hour Hamlet performed by the London Globe players as part of their tour of welcoming places in 2014 (the 27th stop they said):

Britain Global Hamlet

and late this Saturday afternoon, as organized by Capital Fringe Festival, at the old and once again re-vamped Atlas theater, H Street, NE, a nearly 2 hour version of Jean Anouilh’s 1944 Antigone performed by the Wandering Theater Company who expect to take the production to off-Broadway this coming fall.

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Clemmie Evans and Jenna Krasowski as two woman chorus for Antigone

I probably enjoyed The Duchess of Malfi the most. It was acted naturalistically with intense forcefulness and the powerful soliloquies contrasting the natural joy of the Duchess marrying her steward, Antonio, against the fierce opposition of her corrupt, rank-obsessed and incestuous brothers’ ferocious what seems crazed perverse opposition struck strong chords. The focus of the production was the lower class male character, Bosola, endlessly murdering and torturing others in the hopeless hope of promotion and big cash, only to be sneered at when he’s done. (Bob Hoskins did this role decades ago.) So it was accessible. I last saw a production on TV when I was 13 when Channel 13 in NYC was first aired. This production de-emphasized Webster’s exploration of meaningless (“look you the stars shine still” says Bosola to the Duchess at one point) for a mirroring of today’s sexually sick religious hypocrisies, glamorized gangsterism, and antagonistic heterosexuality. I went alone and when I returned home (later at night) sat with a plate of tuna and glass of Shiraz wine watching the latest dire news.

A few years ago now Jim and I saw another Globe production of Hamlet at the Folger, and we did not care for it. The actors were acting Elizabeth players performing Hamlet, and the double turn was too distancing. I believe it was the same actress who performed Gertrude (Miranda Foster) and the difference will epitomize why this production succeeded at least with me. She really played Gertrude directly and with modern virtuoso hysteria and subtlety once we were within the play while at its edges, the singing and dancing and movements as we moved from scene to scene she reverted to an actress-player with her lute interacting with other actors and the audience. I just love the dancing of all the performers together at the end — as magically they all rise from imagined death to brilliant life again. This time the group had a lot more effective stage business during the play, some of which was self-reflexive — the trunks they carried about. At deeply felt tragic moments I felt I was near tears (Keith Barlett as Claudius suddenly confessing that indeed he killed the king and it is killing his soul) and cried at Hamlet’s death, but suddenly we swung round for genuinely comic moments: the world is filled with silly and ignorant and dense (in Shakespeare, Polonius, Laertes) unknowing profound (the gravedigger) presences while others understand the tragic ironies of existence. The mix of comedy and tragedy must indeed have seemed barbaric to the French. The audience did not appreciate the this more modified version of the Globe style, but I gathered more what Shakespeare’s text was meant to convey than I’d done since some of the productions of Papp in Central park years ago. Izzy was not sure how much she liked it. You again had to pay attention to the words which went swiftly. Very strong beyond Hamlet, Claudius and Gertrude were Rawiri Paratene as Polonius and gravedigger, Tom Lawrence as Horatio, Laertes, Fortinras, Osric.

The players did get a standing ovation. Not only were all seats taken, but I saw chairs brought in for some known TV (WETA) critic types (Robert Aubrey Davis who seemed to be having a good time). Some of this type of clapping is the result of the place, the price paid, a sort of self-validation. For myself I felt the bitter ironies of the exhibit in the great hall on heraldry: Shakespeare had a hard time gaining the coat of arms for his father. Lord how petty and absurd these competitive mortals be. With my membership I did get a complimentary coffee without having to wait on line.

I mentioned the standing ovation because the Wandering Players were not similarly whooped up, and yet their efforts were as strong and perhaps for the audience more successful. The reviewers have been very hard on this production. It is true that their program notes where they say their play is an allegory of American power and abrogation of civil and other individual rights won’t wash. Creon’s self-justification is that of the Nazi collaborators (Vichy leaders in particular): if they didn’t compromise and collaborate it would have been so much more worse, there was nothing (was there?) to be preferred from the different “sides” and the whole controlled dramaturgy very French despite American costuming. Anouilh in fact like Sophocles keeps to non-specific references and that’s why the play applied at times to events happening in the perversely barbaric acts of this week. When Antigone from her place behind an immured wall talks to the callous jailer (who might himself have been murdered had events gone another way) the suggestiveness evoked the torture of solitary confinement in US prisons today. None of the performers were weak.

I write this blog because all three of these productions will recur elsewhere so my reader can perhaps keep an eye out for them. I feel a bit guilty for not having praised strongly one of earliest of the Capital Fringe Festival productions, Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys, done by the “Rude Mechanicals” at the Goethe Institute. Marcus Salley as Sam was the noble soul. I was deeply moved and stirred, at the same time as I so badly missed Jim I had an episode of what’s called STUG. How I would have enjoyed discussing the stage business and props with him:

Prop

I came home in time to go to Noodles and Company and for the first time in my life bring home a hot meal of pasta for myself — spicey tomato and chicken pieces with some kind of scattered cheese, which I washed down with paisano wine.

I did justice to the witty comedy of Miss Emma’s Match-Making Agency for Literary Characters on my Austen reveries blog.

But I never mentioned anywhere a remarkable concoction written by Chris Braak an directed by Cara Blouin: entitled The Empress of the Moon: The Lives of Aphra Behn, the writer and director took numerous passages from Behn’s plays as well as short fiction of Oroonoko and her letters to her lover, Scott, and her begging pleas to Thomas Killigrew as a debtor in prison to present scenes from Behn’s life interpersed with some of her most intelligent moving commentary on her experience of life. It was that complicated an amalgram it should be published so people (me and others) could read the text before showing up. The players were movement artists more than actors and much was covered through mime. Sarah Robinson was Behn. I’d single out Alexandra Blouin as the bully Lord Willoughby and Jennifer Huttenberg as the sword-wielding Mr Scott. They all had studied later 17th century gestures. The production ought to be redone at conferences where people who can appreciate how the underlying material has been brought to life. Alas I cannot find one photo of the production anywhere on line so fall back on a photo of a young Jeremy Irons as a tough Rover from decades ago:

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as a way of remembering how badly Behn was treated by Scott, Killigrew and most of the men she ever knew, died young, but left 37 plays, many playable, much vivid iconoclastic poetry, translations from subversive French prose and verse, personal letters, and marvelously eloquent epilogues. Germaine Greer’s essay on her life is probably closest to the truth that she survived through sheer nerve, being kept as well as incessant writing.

Thus I managed to join in on some of the Capital Fringe Festival this summer. Jim would buy across the 3 and 1/2 weeks for us probably at least twice as many tickets and we would have gone to rock and concert shows. We would have gone to the final dancing under the tent near Gallery Place where prizes are given out.

Jim would have bought at least a couple of tickets for concerts and operas at Castleton. It’s a 3 hour trip to mid-Virginia by car. Out of the question for me alone. I would have gone to the Castleton Festival through the Jewish Community Center which organized a bus tour package to go to see Madame Butterfly complete with a lunch and lecture, but it was full up by the time I registered. I wonder now what the atmosphere of the place with Loren Mazaal’s death in the middle of the month-long teach-in for students and budding great opera singers and musicians.

This coming Friday evening will be my one effort at Wolf Trap. My friend, Vivian, who comes to the movies with me, will go with Izzy and I to a Mary Chapin Carpenter concert at the big theater, the Filene next week. With both Vivian there, Izzy, google maps and going when it is still light, I hope to learn how to get there and back without an ordeal of suffered anxiety over getting lost.

I am not writing as much about what play and concert going I do because a central inspiration for my blog is gone. My readers probably do not realize how much this was Jim’s as well as my blog. While I did 99% of the writing, many of my blogs were the result of seeing or hearing something with Jim, talking with him before and afterwards and then writing up the ideas and feelings conjured up. He would then read the blog and we’d talk again.

His life was cut off early; like many cancer victims he was destroyed horrifyingly by a disease with cruel indifference by the choice of the society he lived in. I was helpless to do anything for him, and today find myself sometimes asked to pretend it’s okay, that I too am getting over his absence. I am not nor are others similarly devastated and those who agree to collude to pretend do a disservice to those gone and the countless being thrown away or about to be as I write these words. Izzy and I remembered his quiet fun today as we went into DC. She talked of how she sometimes imagines herself talking to him as she leaves her job at the Pentagon, and I how I wish I could get myself to.

I did enjoy, learn, somehow profit from what I experienced and write to advise others to go see these productions if they should turn up in some form near you. And now I retire to read in bed with my two cats nearby.

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Vanessa Bell’s Girl Reading

Ellen

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Set
The evocative set

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Richard and Stanley right behind him

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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Drew Cortese as Richard III,

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

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

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

Cast

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

UK - King Richard III Discovery

A contemporary gothic all right.

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

Elizabeth

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

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

Stanley

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

Ellen

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Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedict (Alexis Denisof)

Dear friends and readers,

This is heartily to recommend seeing Josh Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. It makes sense of Shakespeare’s play. All the disparate groups of characters are filmed using the same mood of intense eroticism and sinister insinuation, so that the evil guys (Don John and his entourage of violent crooks, seducers and sluts); good but dumb clown-policemen who act as spies (Dogberry and Verges) for a larger power (a silent but effective policewoman); witty antagonistic lovers (Beatrice and Benedict) and sensual yet earnestly chaste ones (Hero and Claudio); not to omit servants, friends, hangers-on, all belong to one world. ‘

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Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) and Verges (Tom Lenk)

Just about every other MAAN I’ve ever seen did not know what to do about the villains; here they are central because if their insinuation, spying, seethingness, menace pervades all the couples. For the villains it’s on behalf of hurting others (of ruthless sex, solopistic drug-taking) as opposed to everyone else who are there on behalf of love, pleasure, friendship, just wandering about the large multi-level beautiful landscaped grounds of Mr Whedon, eating, dancing, drinking, protecting as police-watchers. But this distrustful feel, combativeness, sense of inexplicable alienation is everywhere. It’s aided by the black-and-white or grey colors.

An air of mystery is worked up — and fits. It is inexplicable why all the characters approach each other in these indirect spying ways. Why do Beatrice and Benedict have to be deceived into recognizing they love one another and admitting it? It’s inexplicable really why Hero’s father forgives Claudio for publicly humiliating his daughter at the wedding ceremony.

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Trustful father Leonato (Clark Gregg), Claudio (Fran Krantz), and Hero (Jillian Morgese)

It makes no sense that Claudio should be forgiven, or that he should have believed Hero sexually promiscuous on such slight evidence he didn’t bother to investigate. Dogberry and Verger make no sense at all — they stumble into revealing the villains. Shakespeare’s play has many problems. The way to get past them is to present them to us in our faces: everyone is wandering about in rooms that sometimes just feel wrong (like a bedroom with stuffed dolls in it). Everybody is drinking away (champagne, tall goblet glasses of wines).

Most productions of MAAN, don’t blend together all the seemingly disparate groups of characters and their moods, into one. The same holds true of Twelfth Night. Whedon’s production of MAAN reminded me of a production of Twelfth Night, I saw as A Play of the Week when I was 13 or 14 on the older NYC Channel 13 (predecessor to PBS): it too blended all the character types and moods of the play into one – how so? by refusing to make simple merriment anywhere, by making the comedy feel saturnine, bleak, more than melancholy, it was downright bitter. And it was not false for all the words came from Twelfth Night and were not belied. The perspective was that of Jacques, and everything fell into place. So here for MAAN, the perspective is eventually that of Benedict (wary), Beatrice (anti-marriage) and after them, the disillusioned Don Pedro, Claudio’s friend (Reed Diamond) whose line when Pedro learns how Hero has been shamed and killed remains in the memory once you’ve read it or heard it say resonatingly aloud:

Runs not this speech like iron through your blood?

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Reed Diamond as Don Pedro, as not a very good adviser, advising someone else

In the production of MAAN with Sam Waterson in the later 1970s in Central Park, the previous good version of MAAN I’ve seen, the above line seemed not to fit: there the play was set in the 1920s (rah, rah, rah, a college atmosphere), all innocents, a sort of escapees from Booth Tarkington’s Penrod. The famous 1990s movie MAAN (in color be it said) with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson I’ve thought one of their rare poor efforts: they make the mistake of trying to be swashbuckling, downplaying the Hero story and end up with something shallow.

It is better for the viewer to have read the play as the lines are pronounced in quick-style naturalism, just like talk and yet there are throw-away profound at moments — oddly bitter, and then again whacky, desperate, prideful. If not read the play, at least read about it. If you do, you are in for an aesthetic treat. It’s allusive, self-reflexive of Whedon’s other films, and makes fun of iconic scenes.

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Whedon’s version of the “wet T-shirt” scene (begins with Colin Firth, 1995 P&P)

All the actors are very good, they seem up to the lines — understand what the lines mean and the situation. They are dressed in a old-fashioned way: the men are all in suits, long-sleeved shirts for the most part, ties. Shiny shoes. It’s something out of the 1950s. Or maybe we were to think of Clark Gable and his era or Cary Grant and his.

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Hero and Claudio during one of the garden dances with glittering masks

Or it’s they have holsters with guns as in 1930s “gangster” films:

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Dogberry and Verges trying (dimly) to figure out what to do next

The women are in dresses that when I was young most women wore to work in the US, and plain high heels, pumps not too high: a slightly dressed up style, the kind you could once buy in Lerner Shops, or if you were disposed to spend more money in a good department store (Macy’s, Orbach’s). This evokes another time and place, a sense of pastness without specifying which past. The feel though is one of elegance. Departures include a very sexy outfit for the actress playing Conrade (Riki Lindhomme) who is in modern style tights, very brief skin-tight skirt, boots, low cut top, hair in extreme page-boy (very blonde): she goes to bed with anyone and everyone of the Don John group; she is side-kick to Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark) who differs from the others by having (it seems) taken his suit jacket off and left it somewhere.

There are servants everywhere, the women, e.g., Margaret (Ashley Johnson) in maid’s outfits (think The Philadelphia Story), and the men in waiters’ duds — rather like the servants of the 1930s US movie. I can’t find any stills of them, but here is a typical scene where we can see the costumes in the kitchen.

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Here is Beatrice listening to Hero and Margaret telling lies about how Benedick loves Beatrice

The play has good slapstick scenes, hiding scenes, emotional violence and (in this version) strongly erotic moments too. Nathan Fillion did stand out as a very funny Dogberry and yet the snobbery of the original was done away with. There is a problem with the demand for virginity from Hero (and use of a veiled bride as punishment for Claudio) but that’s a central given in the play and not to be done away with.

And in case you were wondering, Whedon’s has a very large and beautiful house, with lots of staircases, and grounds. Exquisite furniture. Gorgeous trees and bushes, all picturesquely arranged. And curiously shot sometimes in a highly stylized manner:

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Presented as the very edge of the property

Whedon is a very rich man, with many servants and (natch) many friends …

One might think about how a movie said to be “no budget” just reeks of money and why.

Ellen

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

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Act One: the stage scene as a whole

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

Rossettiblog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eleanore Duse as Francesca da Rimini (1901)

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

Ellen

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