Cutting Shakespeare

August 14, 2011 at 1:16 pm (Asides, Live Performances) (, , , , , )

The Washington Post ran an article yesterday that I found fascinating: Editing Shakespeare? You need guts to make the kindest cuts of all. The subtitle is: Subtle art of reshaping makes Bard’s plays more audience-friendly.

In a Bard-happy town like Washington, the subtle art of cutting Shakespeare is on near-constant display. The craft requires nerve, stage savvy and scholarship. And time.

“Dozens and dozens of hours,” says Muse, a former STC associate artistic director who now runs the Studio Theatre. The job can involve rearranging scenes, prioritizing story lines, combining multiple minor figures into a single character, changing line assignments and wrangling with the magnificent but sometimes elusive language.

I love seeing the plays, but as my blog project here of “reading Shakespeare” implies, I like reading them and mulling them over even more. Still, it’s fascinating for me to think about the intricacies of staging these plays for modern audiences.

I really enjoyed seeing the British TV series Playing Shakespeare and watching the Royal Shakespeare Company director John Barton and the wonderful actors discussing and playing with the texts as they made them come alive. The complexities and nuances of performance amaze me.

So, it is fascinating for me to consider how much must be cut. I had not really thought about it before, but here it is, bluntly (from the Post article):

For Cam Magee, a dramaturge who has cut 24 of the 37 plays, a running time of 2 1 / 2 hours has been a typical goal at the Washington Shakespeare Company.

“You’re losing an hour to an hour and a half of material,” says Magee, whose cuts also have been seen at the Folger Theatre.

Wow. That’s a huge chunk that they have to cut. I just had never considered that reality. I guess I realized they did it, but hadn’t thought about how much they really have to cut to keep the performances a reasonable length.

And not just the length, but the impenetrability of a lot of the wordplay/puns/references. I know this from reading the plays. Some of it, you just must yada, yada through, as I was tempted back when I discussed Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. From the Post article, again:

Then there are punch lines that slayed ’em 400 years ago but can be impenetrable now. “It can take half an hour to figure out one joke,” Muse says. Kahn mentions a long comic exchange in “All’s Well That Ends Well” between the Countess of Rousillon and the clown Lavatch that frequently sounds alien to modern ears. The gags are bogged down by topical references and ancient words. “If you can’t follow at all why something’s funny, then I’m going to cut it,” Posner says, “because I’m not interested in the theory of why it’s funny.”

Right? This makes total sense from a practical standpoint and I love how bluntly it’s stated. “I’m not interested in the theory of why it’s funny.”

The article goes on about cutting for storytelling clarity and adaptations that make them work and fresh for audiences. I realize these are all issues for modern productions.

I keep thinking, though, about, “I’m not interested in the theory of why it’s funny.” Because I really do get that. And yet, I find myself thinking about wanting to yada, yada through Mercutio and being ready to give up on Love’s Labour’s Lost as soon as I began. Yikes, it was difficult.

Yet I found that sticking with it, and giving it more time was worthwhile for me in both cases. I really enjoyed the puns, and found the seeming impenetrability dissipate with some work.

Work. I guess that’s why I’m reading them and not just seeing them in performance. It is not reasonable (maybe not really possible) to ask an audience to work at understanding what’s happening or being said. I get that, too. The play in performance is a fleeting thing. It brings clarity to the words, in some cases (the facial expressions, staging choices that can clarify meaning), but in other cases, the words can simply get in the way of the flow on the stage. From the Post:

And all, in their various ways, pledge ultimate fidelity to the Bard. They refer to folios and quartos, and sometimes have half a dozen published editions open during rehearsals to consult.

Yet they have to cut. They have to cut a lot. I get that. So, I will keep reading the plays (and going to see them and watching the videos). But I find reading them brings a different depth of enjoyment.

© All Content, Copyright 2011 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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In Search of Shakespeare

November 16, 2010 at 8:46 pm (Asides, Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Life) (, , , , , )

I watched the 4-part 2004 PBS series In Search of Shakespeare with Michael Wood over the past few weeks and found it really enjoyable. It is lively and fun and brought the Bard to life for me. I am not vouching for its scholarship, but the series paints a plausible portrait of the man from Stratford. It’s very entertaining, at least. The series feels sort of like a travel showy-documentary-whodunnit with plenty of drama and excitement. It’s fun!

So, the tale told here is of Shakespeare, son of a Catholic family, and how perhaps his closet Catholicism (in the era of the Reformation) plays out in his life and work. Interesting!

The story is fleshed out with a great deal of documentation. Michael Wood is off to all corners of England, going through the Elizabethan paperwork that still exists in dusty corners of libraries throughout the land. I was kind of fascinated at the thought of scholars poring through all these old papers. It would seem a needle in the veritable haystack to come up with any reference to Shakespeare (with all its many spellings) in 400 year old documents in any random corner of England, but there  you have it. Somebody’s got to do it, I guess.

That sounds like it would be boring to watch, but it’s not. Wood is excitable and he gets ramped up about all this stuff he finds, and he lays the land very convincingly — you get a feel for the context of everything he presents and the possible implications for Shakespeare.

The Royal Shakespeare Company joins in the fun, presenting various Shakespearean plays in various places reminiscent of or actually where Shakespeare’s players played. There are a lot of bits and pieces of plays sprinkled throughout the series.

I recommend the series for some light entertainment. Like I said, I don’t vouch for the scholarship, but Wood presents a life of Shakespeare that seems very reasonable and understandable. He places the plays in the historical context and within a plausible life journey of Shakespeare. I found it convincing!

I enjoyed it and maybe learned quite a lot about what life was like back then, and maybe even what life was like for William Shakespeare. I have a picture in my mind now of a charming rake, with quite a bit of drinking and carousing and living the bachelor’s life in London and suffering a midlife crisis and falling in love with a married woman and dying a bit young after a drunken binge.

As Gavin Wilson, a reviewer on Amazon put it, “It is one of the regrets of so many adults that they wished they liked Shakespeare more … if only it wasn’t so much work to appreciate him, compared to ‘Friends’ etc. Here Michael makes him very digestible.” I agree wholeheartedly!

The PBS website is interesting and has quite a bit of information on it. There are lesson plans and other tools for teachers who want to use this series in the classroom. I think kids (say late elementary and up) would like it. PBS also sells the DVDs or you can watch it on Netflix.

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

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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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Worthy of Magritte

April 20, 2010 at 11:14 pm (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , )

Surreal. That describes Adrian Noble’s 1996 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream featuring the Royal Shakespeare Company. This was originally staged in Stratford-upon-Avon and the film version retains much of the theatrical feel of the original.

This film is a little off-putting, but that is what surrealism is all about, right? The entire film is a little boy’s dream. He (played by Osheen Jones) is shown throughout the film, watching, but unseen by the other actors. He lends another level of dreaminess to the proceedings.

The film is a little off-putting and surreal in many other ways. It’s artsy and strange. The colors are bright and garish. Costumes are odd. Sets are… yes, very strange. This is all quite definitely a dream, and not always a good one.

Puck is not a sweet imp, at all. He is creepy and dark. Bottom is not just a silly ass… he is a bit gross. The fairies Cobweb, Peaseblossom and Mustardseed, who I usually see cast as children or pretty girls, are old and kind of clownish (scary clowns, not funny clowns). Some of them play double roles as Mechanicals.

The Pelican Shakespeare edition that I am reading notes that actors often pull double duty in the Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania roles, since they are parallel couples who never appear on stage together. This was true in the performance I attended last weekend. Royal Shakespeare Company actors Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan each take on the two roles in this film version. On stage, I think it’s easier for the audience to be fooled by different costumes and the distance from seat to stage (my eyes aren’t that great anyway!). But on film, you notice immediately that they are the same actors, transformed. I think it adds to the surreal feel of the film.

Much of the film takes place in the minimalistic “forest” set. It’s an empty stage with lightbulbs hanging down, oddly placed doors that appear and disappear, and strange colors. Titania sleeps in an upside-down umbrella. It is very artsy, but it works. I thought it was interesting.

Unlike the rest of the film, this version of Pyramus and Thisby is quite silly and slapstick and my kids enjoyed it. Which reminds me, there is a sex scene with Titania and Bottom that seems completely unnecessary and gross to me. Be aware of that if you have kids watching this. Also, be aware the whole movie is a bit darker than most productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream… younger children might find it scary.

I would not say I loved this film, but I thought it was interesting and worth watching. It moves along quickly (just over 1.5 hours), and it’s never boring. It definitely gives an unusual, darker, spin to the comedy—a different way to look at things.

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