Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

I know that many – perhaps even most – people believe that the truly great plays demonstrate their greatness, in part, by proving themselves to be infinitely open to interpretation and presentation.

Along side this belief there is also the much-repeated claim made by actors (genuinely meant, I am sure) that they feel that they never did – never COULD – get totally to grips with the character of Lear, Hedda, Iago – whomever.

These two things taken together make it almost blasphemous to talk about a definitive performance in one of those roles (let alone the more complex and wide-ranging idea of a “definitive production”)…and yet…

Of course these things are matter of taste, and they are locked in time (even if one were to admit its possibility, a definitive “Othello” of the 1950s is going to be very different to one of this decade – not least because of the natural skin tone of the actor playing the eponymous hero), but that said, I think I have seen quite a few “definitive” productions of the great plays (and thus with “definitive” performances at their heart) – and I think (without modesty) that I have seen enough and no enough to be able to make that judgement. I’m thinking of “the classics” here – rather than modern plays where the production has been mind-blowing (and hard to imagine an improvement being made: such as Denise Gough in “People, Places and Things” or Mark Rylance in “Jerusalem”).

These are not in date order, and I don’t know how they’d hold up today: but I would guess “pretty well”…

Fiona Shaw in Deborah Warner’s “Hedda Gabler” – still the best night (nine nights, in fact) that I have ever spent in a theatre.

Antony Hopkins and Judi Dench in Peter Hall’s “Antony and Cleopatra”

Ian Holm in Richard Eyre’s “King Lear”

Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in Trevor Nunn’s “Macbeth”

Adrian Lester in Nicholas Hytner’s “Othello”

Mark Strong in Ivo van Hove’s “A View From the Bridge”

Fiona Shaw in Deborah Warner’s “Medea”

Andrew Scott in Robert Icke’s “Hamlet”

As I write this, “Hamlet” is still on at The Gielgud Theatre in London. I saw it for the first time in the Almeida, and then the second time with my children at The Gielgud – and I’ve got tickets for two more nights before it closes in a month’s time. It is absolutely extraordinary.

Andrew Scott’s Hamlet makes the play – and the character – feel newly minted (which I would have never thought possible). He is conversational, clear and accessible, never once striking a false note; and managing to find wit, humour and passion in even the most well-trod of passages. There isn’t one cliche, there isn’t one moment that feels manufactured: this is the first time that I have seen the leaps in emotion executed with such clarity and conviction – it really is a monumental performance. This Hamlet is so grief-stricken because he is so passionate: you feel that he has one layer of skin less than anyone else – he is so vulnerable to what goes on around him, to the endless betrayals that he faces and the lies that he is told that his death felt like a release that he was yearning for. The “fall of a sparrow” section had me in pieces: this was someone looking forward to death as a way out of a tormented life. Mind-blowing.

The direction is a masterpiece of clarity and creativity. I’ve never seen the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father presented in so chilling and brilliant a way. I’ve never seen Elsinore feel so watched and watchful (even in other productions when that was clearly a core part of the interpretation: Nicholas Hytner’s great production with Rory Kinnear in the lead was awash with FBI types with earpieces and walkie-talkies – but somehow I became immune to it: here, the touch is far lighter and far more significant). I have never seen such a strong and affecting Ophelia as Jessica Brown Findlay, whose mad scenes were handled with such control and pathos that there wasn’t a single embarrassed titter throughout (and if that doesn’t sound like the highest praise imaginable, I assure you that it is): this was the first time that I thought Hamlet and Ophelia really, really loved each other. The final scene (well cut and sharply staged) ends in a coup-de-theatre that delivers a punch to the heart.

It is absolutely once in a lifetime, dust-free, fuss-free stuff: and it blew me (and my children) away. If you can get to see it, I would urge you to see it. If you only go to the theatre once a year, make it this. It is so, so good and I know that I will never forget it.

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I had an invitation from Woman With Whom I Share A Godchild to the theatre not so long ago – a date suggested and (very swiftly)locked.

What neither of us had really factored into the plan was that the theatre was in Sheffield.

To be fair to WWWISaG, she had rather more reason to be ignorant of the exact locale, what with her being American. I, on the other hand, have absolutely no excuse at to thinking that it was probably in Zone 6 of the London Underground, or (at most) a thirty minute train journey out of London. This, to be clear, is not the case. Sheffield is a long way away from London: it’s a two-hour train journey, and once you get there – and you might want to sit down if you’re not already doing so – people talk with a differently inflected accent. True.

Anyway: we worked out the facts, and we committed to it. It was going to be a laugh and a carry on anyway (she’s very funny, amongst her many other recommendations) and it was in the service of Shakespeare (for whom I have seen Hamlet in Bulgarian, a Kabuki King Lear and – worst of all – Gary Wilmot as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in an open air theatre…) – so this seemed like a walk in the park, as it was to go and see Dominic West and Clarke Peters in “Othello”.

It was phenomenal. Dominic West is by far the best Iago I have ever seen: playing the part as a common sense talking, all-round good lad whose blunt logic takes him very credibly from “passed over” to “revenge by murder”. The best I have seen before were Ian McKellen and Simon Russell Beale – shrewd strategists and cold calculators both. West’s was the most credible soldier I have seen in the role. To be reductive (not for the first time), it seemed to me that this man was a soldier, a man of the army first and last. The army is about rules, rank and death – so if you break what are seen to be the rules of rank, then it’s only logical that the price will be death. The army also doesn’t welcome “the feminine” – and so, without a hint of trendy sexual politics or an alien extra-textual gloss, we saw a man who had no time for women: from his own wife, to Othello’s to Bianca. They got in the way, and were best used as pawns in the real matter of men dealing with men, according to the rules that they had chosen to live and die by.  He avoided any hint of bathing in his own wit, smoothness of ability to control and played it straight down the line as good bloke to whom anyone would turn with a problem – and it was more unsettling as a result than any other painted, obvious villain.

He was equally matched by Alexandra Gilbreath as his wife, Desdemona’s confidante, Emilia. Sunny, smirking, taking nothing seriously: this characterisation served her brilliantly for the full guns blazing of the final act when she recognises her complicity in her mistress’s murder, at the hands of her own husband. She was railing at her own stupidity, horrified at how she could have been so naive, just as much as how her husband could have acted as he did.

Desdemona was great too: heart-stoppingly beautiful and credible in a real dog of a part (the only other comparably sized part that is as stinky is surely Miranda in The Tempest), she made goodness alluring, and handled the scenes with her father better than I have ever seen them done.

Clarke Peters didn’t quite do it for me, sad to say. His was the most “in love” Othello I can remember seeing (helped by the staggering beauty of his wife) and so the pathos of the finale really was enormous. But love seemed to be the only emotion that he did suffer an excess of: jealousy did not appear to be a problem for him – certainly not the sort of emotion that Iago needed to warn him of – and when he entered to commit the final terrible murder, he had the air of a man who was about to dial in for an irksome, overlong conference call, rather than one who has convinced himself that there can be no other course for him than to kill his once-loved wife. That said, he was an entirely credible commander of men, that Desdemona should defy her father for him seemed very possible and he seemed to be bowled over with love for her. He also managed the (almost impossible) “falling into a faint” sequence in a way that was neither embarrassing nor half-hearted – and that alone was a first for me, so he should be praised for much.

I can only say that I am very pleased to have discovered Sheffield – and with such an excellent companion – and that if the next show weren’t “Annie”, I would be up there again.

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Well: I feel rather stupid.

I thought I was off to the National Theatre to see “Mother Courage and Her Children” starring Fiona Shaw (a production that, in spite of its delayed Press Night and decidedly mixed reviews, I am assured by Me As A Protestant has rekindled a love for Brecht in him – so that’s pretty high praise…), and it turned out that I was going to see David Hare’s (equally schizophrenically reviewed) “The Power of Yes”.

Once I’d actually LOOKED at the tickets, and realised that I wasn’t just going to see a different play, I was also going to see this with my parents, rather than alone (Miss Shaw being someone whom divides opinion, but about whom, like Shakespeare, Steiner, Titian, Matisse and a few others, I am not prepared to hear negative opinions – so I tend to worship at that altar  alone), I started to get very excited. I am absolutely in Hare’s camp. I think his work is serious (which is not to say that it can’t be, simultaneously, incredibly funny), heart-felt, ambitious and extremely accomplished. Like everyone else, he has his ups and downs: but I think a man who has given us “Plenty”, “Racing Demon”, “The Absence of War”, “Murmuring Judges”, “Skylight”, “Stuff Happens” and – my favourite of them all – “Amy’s View”, has got to be counted amongst the gods of contemporary playwrights.

So, I was excited, and after just over two hours (for it runs without an interval), I wasn’t sure. It is a very dense play, crammed with facts, figures, historical events – and even mathematical formulae. It has the great seriousness of purpose that I so like in his work (and how could an analysis of the current financial crisis fail to?) – and it is an absolute endorsement of theatre as THE art form to encourage reflection, debate, understanding and dialogue about our immediate surroundings.

And yet, it did, at times, feel like a draft, not a play. The sub-title is “A Dramatist Attempts To Make Sense of the Financial Crisis” – and therein lies some of the problem. The play is, a verbatim record of Hare’s characteristically pains-taking research and meetings with the people directly involved in, and writing about, the crisis: real people, real conversations, real exchanges. The cast of characters (and to some extent, the cast itself) is huge – and this has necessitated (in Hare’s opinion, at least) the need to precede every appearance made by any character with a Choric figure announcing his or her name, role and involvement in the crisis. This slows the pace considerably, and I wonder how necessary it was, either at all (after all, the endless Dramatis Personae in Shakespearean history plays don’t get the equivalent of a personal introduction every time they open their mouths…), or through some other medium (the set is magnificent and consists almost entirely of projections: there would have been one alternative, at least…). We keep returning to the figure of Hare himself being asked by a kindly, female trader who has been roped into briefing him if he is “alright” and if he is “keeping up” – and it’s hard not to see that as a quick reminder to the audience that this is what they are being expected to do. I felt at some points in the evening that what this should really be is an extended essay in one of the few periodicals that still publishes these things: “The New Yorker” or (oddly) “Vanity Fair” where Hitchens has been so brilliantly contrary – but that is to dispute my credit to Hare for exploiting theatre as a medium so brilliantly, so it becomes self-defeating.

In a very different play, by a very different dramatist, Alan Bennett gets round the issue of having himself on stage (and tackles this issue of “trying to understand how I feel about something”) through the device of two “Alan Bennett’s” in “The Lady in the Van” – and it works very well indeed (although the comic tenor of that play is a little more forgiving to this sort of conceit than Hare’s aggressively “real” piece would be…

I think what stirred me into thinking “This is a draft” is that there is a magnificent, and all too brief scene when Hare is matched with a female journalist who reported on the crisis and who (it transpires) used to count amongst her friends a number of the bankers involved, or those very like them. Maybe it’s Hare’s undoubted flair for writing female characters, maybe it’s because “writer to writer” something comes alive in the language, but this is the scene that sets fire to the whole night and made me wish for more of the same. In response to Hare’s bewildered (and utterly credible) cry of “Why has not one banker apologised for this? How can they be so arrogant?”, she asks him “And when critics attack your work, do you think they’re right? Do you revise your opinion, do you change what you wrote, or what you will write?” and the play moves into a new dimension.

My parents, I should say, were unreserved in their admiration for the piece: intention and execution, and I would certainly recommend it to anyone, but perhaps in the way that one might recommend “All’s Well That Ends Well” (which I directed my own broken-backed production of when at University…) or “Measure for Measure” to someone: fascinating, but apt to leave one thinking about what the structure is and might be, as much as simply enjoying what is there in front of one.

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The G.K.Chesterton experiment continues – and I am enjoying it – but I became aware not that long after my first steps into Lake Chesterton, that I would want something else to complement its cool, lapping and soothing waters: that “something” has turned out to be George Steiner.

Steiner is a long-term hero of mine, ever since I came across “The Death of Tragedy” whilst at school and (predictably for a teenager) was obsessed with the misery, woe, self-centredness and formality of the genre. Steiner’s book wasn’t (isn’t) a simple education in precedent, form and structure – but it was (is) magnificent, ambitious, wide-ranging and (most importantly) of high seriousness. I have read everything he’s published ever since, being particularly fond of “Real Presences”, “After Babel” and “Tolstoy or Dostoevsky” – or I thought I had, until I came across “George Steiner at The New Yorker”, a collection of his essays for that great magazine.

It was in the excellent introduction (by Robert Boyers) that I came across the following passage, wherein Boyers makes the point that so many of Steiner’s colleagues and peers (from so many diverse fields) view him as “exemplary”:  ” “He thinks, ” Sontag noted in 1980, “that there are great works of art that are clearly superior to anything else in their various forms, that there is such a thing as profound seriousness. And works created out of profound seriousness have in his view a claim on our attention and our loyalty that surpasses qualitatively and quantitatively any claim made by any other form of art or entertainment.” While there were those, in the American academy especially, who were all too ready to reach for “the dismissive adjective ‘elitist’ to describe such a stance, Sontag was more than willing to associate herself with Steiner’s commitment to “seriousness”… His efforts to discriminate better from best continue to draw the epithet ‘elitist’,”

Now: I am neither so arrogant, nor so stupid as to even begin to draw a comparison between myself and the truly great Steiner – but I am also struggling under the “epithet ‘elitist’.” Needless to say, his metier is that of the true polymath, his consideration of greatness (in literature alone) spans Dante, Shakespeare, Homer, Sophocles, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky – whereas mine is the very shallow world of advertising. But still: the JOB is to discard the better and reach for, and build, the best. I am unshakeable in this, but it’s getting me into a lot of trouble – there is a prevailing current of “no such thing as a bad idea” (palpably untrue, as scanning the theatre listings, bookshelves, cinema showings and television schedule should make it more than apparent) and “everyone’s voice is equal”. Well: RUBBISH.

What are inarguable rights of humanity (equality, representation, self-actualisation etc.) are simply not transferable to the realm of ideas: and I don’t see why that’s problematic. Indeed, it seems to me to be incredibly dangerous to assert that all ideas have equal weighting, all voices have equal resonance, all thoughts have equal brilliance: if you can’t say “That idea is poor in quality”, “that idea can be improved upon”, “that idea can be liberated by cutting away the dead wood that’s shadowing it” then what hope is there for great ideas? However, my enthusiasm for the great (and I will be honest: my dismissive treatment of the palpably sub-standard) is getting me a reputation of “only wanting to work with people he thinks are good” and the classic “he doesn’t suffer fools gladly” (show me someone who does, and I’ll show you a fool).

In the words of an infuriated Hanif Kureishi, during a Radio 4 interview at which he was surrounded by preening, specious, post-modern egalitarian pussies: “I’m sorry, but opera IS better than “Just Seventeen”. It just IS.” This captures my attitude precisely – but I am astonished at the number of people who are prepared to take the opposing side as they finger the toenails that protrude from their Birkenstocks, and adjust their bejewelled beanies, purchased at Womad or the fucking Innocent Village Fete or some such hell-hole of wilful ignorance.

I really don’t know what the antidote to this is, but my first act of defiance has been to put a poster above my desk with “Elitist at Work” written on it – and in quite an inaccessible font, too. I think we all know that Steiner would see this and think “mon semblable, mon frere.”.

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Ah, Holiday!

Is there a better feeling? Wife and I and the children leave for France tomorrow, to spend half-term recovering from a non-stop schedule of shoots (in her case) and too many conversations of the “Is it “Intelligence” or “Wisdom”?” variety in my case.

I am also looking to recover from the draining effects of seeing “Duet for One”, which (while it boasts two of the best stage actors around in Juliet Stevenson and Henry Goodman, both on blisteringly good form) is a play that only gets up to 90% of capacity, and leaves the audience with the unrewarding feeling of coitus interruptus.

It’s a real museum piece: full of the newly popular joys of psychotherapy (it was written in the early 80’s, and is clearly inspired by the life and illness of Jacqueline du Pre – although in the play the heroine is a violinist and her affliction is Multiple Sclerosis) and very static – unsurprisingly since the heroine is wheelchair-bound and it takes place in an office. The oddest thing about it, however, is that the final act feels like an Epilogue, rather than a conclusion: the emotional fireworks all come in the previous act, leaving the final one feeling very,very flat – and for all the firepower of the actors involved, they can’t quite coax it into the life that it needs to satisfy the audience’s need for resolution.

Maybe it wasn’t the best piece to see straight on the back of “Madame de Sade” – although interesting to learn that “Duet for One” is another play that goes over a bomb with our Gallic friends, recently having run for a record-breaking year in Paris. It’s another “listening” play, in the Racinian tradition – although Me As A Protestant would have been happier with the audience’s behaviour at this performance, as there were no crass exclamations of “Oooh!” as swear words abounded and emotions were stripped bare, as there were at the Mishima.

Anyway, next is some Shakespeare: “The Winter’s Tale” as part of The Bridge Project, so while it’s not the most action-packed of Shakespearean dramas, it is in a very different vein – and I have to confess that I am more than ready for that.

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In the last ten days, the Internet has given me the following presents:-

  1. A T-Shirt (for Best Friend) emblazoned with the slogan “I LOVE MY VAGINA” (originally from Lesbian Pride – so there it is as a bold declamation, untempered by anything such as ironic, Clerkenwell-lite typography.
  2. A copy of “Shakespeare’s Ambiguity” – a masterly piece of scholarship which was for a while the only item which I have ever seriously contemplated nicking from a library (I photocopied every page instead); and which has been out of print and unobtainable for nearly two decades.
  3. A cartoon of Fiona Shaw as Hedda Gabler, originally accompanying a review in The New Yorker, and a beautiful piece of linesmanhip as well as a record of that towering event.
  4. Aftershave made of myrrh – so I have now achieved my ambition of smelling like a church.
  5. Large prints of two of my children (the other having rendered himself so clownishly stupid-looking in the photographs, I decided not to immortalise him thus).
  6. A Slanket for Wife (this is a blanket with sleeves: entirely synthetic, extraordinarily warm – and ludicrously ugly).

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It’s not timely to say this, given the critical licking that his film “Australia” has just been given, but I adore Baz Luhrman.

His film of “Romeo and Juliet” is the best version of that play ever filmed (it certainly shows Zeffirelli’s version up as no more than an old queen’s ad for Verona and calf muscles) and one of the best films of any Shakespeare play there is; I thought “Moulin Rouge” was brilliantly inventive; and “Strictly Ballroom” had such an astoundingly powerful aesthetic that it had the same impact as “Reservoir Dogs” on how films have looked since (although taking them in a rather different direction, it must be confessed). I was always a fully paid-up fan – but I have just watched his version of “La Boheme”, recorded at Sydney Opera House – and I think the time has come to say that the man is a fully-fledged genius: it is remarkable.

It is funny, it is daring, it feels fresh. The leads are young and (fairly remarkable this, in an opera that has had both Luciano Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballe star as the “starving” bohemian leads) slim and attractive – in fact, the woman who sings Lucia/Mimi is ASTOUNDINGLY hot  and the woman who sings Musetta actually looks like she COULD be a kept woman who drives men wild – this is opera that you can actually believe in. The sets are superb, the translation is excellent (jokes about erections; swearing; references to “hot chicks”), and the singing is first rate.

But it’s in the acting, the staging that you really notice the difference. I don’t know if it’s because he’s working with Australians, who may not be under the influence of that fucking awful “Open-your-eyes-as-wide-as-you-can-stretch-out-and-wave-your-hands-like-a-sleepwalker” tradition that seems to inflict itself upon European and American opera singers, but it’s so very credible. People sit down. On chairs. They drop stuff and grope around for it on the floor. When they tell each other how beautiful they are, they’re actually looking at each other, rather than at the couple in 18 and 19C. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t have the worry of moving romantic leads around the stage who between them would weigh more than the proscenium arch, and would need sticks to move from fireplace to doorway – but these people actually DO shit, as they sing. 

The audience reception sounds ecstatic – and I can see why: this is one of those productions that I would love to see live – but I understand that it was badly received on Broadway (where they like their opera very straight, and their sopranos to be dressed by Osborne and Little), so it died an early death and isn’t going anywhere fast: a real pity.

So, if you get a chance: make it a priority. I’ve just seen it on Sky Arts, and they’re usually good for a repeat – it really is unmissable. I hope he gets a chance to do something in London (or Europe) soon.

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