Playing Shakespeare

October 4, 2010 at 2:41 pm (Asides, Live Performances, Shakespeare's Plays, The Merchant of Venice) (, , , , , , , , )

I’ve had to take a little hiatus from my Shakespeare project, but I intend to return to my discussion of Love’s Labour’s Lost when I can. In the meantime, I have recently been enjoying a 1984 British TV series called Playing Shakespeare featuring founding director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, John Barton, and an array of RSC actors including Ian McKellan, Patrick Stewart, Ben Kingsley, and Judi Dench. 

I studied English literature in college, so even though I knew intellectually that Shakespeare did not intend his plays to be read as literature, it’s how I naturally approach his work. Watching the plays is a profoundly different experience for me than reading them. I like both ways of enjoying a play, but have always felt I understand more when I read/analyze/mull them over as literature. The experience of watching a play is so fleeting. You have to be so completely present in the moment and it is more of a challenge for me personally to feel like I “get it.”

So, it is with great interest that I approach this TV series where a great Shakespearean director discusses the challenges and nuances of bringing Shakespeare’s text to life for modern audiences. The actors discuss their viewpoints on various issues and then demonstrate scenes using rehearsal props. It is amazing. It is such a different viewpoint and I am really mesmerized by it.

I have only watched three of the 9 episodes so far. The first episode examines the need to marry the Elizabethan acting tradition to the modern acting tradition, acknowledging everything in between. The second episode focuses on Shakespeare’s use of blank verse as a means of helping the actors learn their lines and present them correctly. This was an amazing episode to me, as I had never thought about this purpose for the verse, but the actors were all in agreement that the verse helps them immensely when they go with it and let the rhythms lead the way.

The third episode on language and character focuses on different ways of portraying Shylock and it blew me away even more than the other episodes I’ve seen. Here, actors Patrick Stewart and David Suchet, who both portrayed Shylock in RSC productions under John Barton’s direction, demonstrate their takes on various scenes from The Merchant of Venice. They are so completely different, yet Barton points out that both work with the text and that every actor brings his or her own personality and proclivities to each role. Amazing to watch.

I’m looking forward to the rest of the series. John Barton is absolutely amazing to listen to. He obviously has lived and breathed these plays for many years. The remaining episodes include Set Speeches and Soliloquy, Irony and Ambiguity, Passion and Coolness, Rehearsing the Text, Exploring a Character, and Poetry and Hidden Poetry. The series is available on Netflix and I highly recommend it!

© All Content, Copyright 2010 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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Seeing Green

April 29, 2010 at 10:37 am (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , )

Peter Hall’s 1968 film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream features the Royal Shakespeare Company including many actors who went on to great things like Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Diana Rigg.

I had a schizophrenic experience with this film. I watched half one night and half the next. The first half I found nearly unwatchable. The second half, I loved. It was so strange that I forced myself to re-watch the first half. I still hated it.

Let’s start with the problems. It feels very 1960s mod with the girls in their minis and eyeliner and the boys with their moptops. There are odd camera angles, frenetic editing and bad special effects. The fairies run in large groups, reminding me of Planet of the Apes (also released in 1968—maybe it was the style). The wandering around in the woods with a moving camera reminds me of Blair Witch Project. None of this is good. I just could not get a read on this movie.

My biggest problem: I really dislike the fairies—I mean, extreme distaste for these fairies. All the fairies are painted green. Their green skin makes their red lips and white teeth stick out in an odd way. It’s a bit overdone for me. Puck (Ian Holm) is an annoying green menace with a strange tongue tic. I dislike him very much throughout the movie. I also dislike Oberon (Ian Richardson). He looks very 1960s sci-fi/alien to me and his makeup is more metallic green than the others. It’s off-putting. I don’t even like Judi Dench as Titania, although her costume (or lack thereof) is eye catching!

So what changes midway through this film? All I can tell you is I resumed play on the second day just before the one-hour mark (it’s a two-hour movie) while I was heating up dinner in the kitchen. At this point in the film, the Athenian lovers are starting to quarrel in the forest. I wasn’t paying much attention at first, but a few minutes into it, I realized I really liked what they were doing.

The whole feel of the movie changed for me. The mechanicals came out to rehearse and I realized I really enjoyed them, as well. So, I continued watching through the end with rapt attention. I can say the second half is really enjoyable. The four lovers and the mechanicals are wonderful—maybe the best versions I’ve seen in the films I’ve watched. For me, Paul Rogers really nails the character of Bottom. I loved his performance.

This version of Pyramus and Thisby is also, I think, the best version I’ve seen. Watching it, I got the feeling it was exactly what Shakespeare intended… rustic and silly and unselfconscious.

So, I feel very mixed on this film. The fairies are the worst. The young lovers and the mechanicals, the best. What does that make the film as a whole? I’m not sure. I wonder if I’d watched it all in a single sitting what my reaction would have been. As it is, I’m glad I saw it. Your mileage may vary.

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