Shakespeare red in tooth and claw

Link: Susan Hill’s blog :: REMEMBER THE 100 BOOKS YOU REALLY MUST READ ?.

I have sympathy with Susan Hill’s view that Shakespeare (she highlights Macbeth) can be better enjoyed read rather than seen at the theatre. I have read all of Shakespeare’s plays  when a teenager (in one of those "collected works" with tissue-thin paper and microscopic print). I’ve returned to them many times since.

Sometimes a performance of Shakespeare is enthralling. I remember seeing Alan Howard as Henry VI years ago, finally understanding the cliche "you could hear a pin drop" during his speeches. What an exponent of the spoken word. I even saw Olivier on stage, as Shylock, towards the end of his career.

But Shakespeare’s plays are uneven, and so are performances of them. One of the first Shakespeares I saw live was Twelfth Night at Stratford with Judi Dench as Viola (yes, dates me, I know). I remember being disappointed. But last year’s vibrant production of the same play in the very same theatre was a total delight — I was entranced and so were Malcolm, Jenny and Cathy — none of them particular Shakespeare fanatics. Returning a few months later to see As You Like It was not such a joyful experience.

Antony and Cleopatra is one of my very favourite Shakespeare plays — probably the favourite. Yet it is certainly uneven: it contains some of the author’s most beautiful poetry but also some dramatic casualness. I recently saw the Globe’s production of this play, and found it a real let-down. Frances Barber was the only member of the cast who was even half-way convincing, and Enobarbus somehow contrived not to thrill in that most wonderful of all Shakespeare’s speeches: "The barge she sat in…."

As has often been said, maybe the most reliable way to see Shakespeare is on film. But the medium can, er, swamp the message.  As I write, Cathy and Jenny are watching for the second time in as many days a rented DVD called "She’s the Man", allegedly an update of Twelfth Night, concerning a boy’s soccer team….you get the picture. I’ll draw a veil.

9 thoughts on “Shakespeare red in tooth and claw

  1. Shakespeare is so protean. Directors will do anything they want to with him, which means that so much depends on the production. A few years ago, the fashion was to stage his plays in modern military dress or among the decadence of the Weimar Republic –carousing with Hitler around the corner, you know. Directors all over America were hitting playgoers over the head with the irony and ominousness of it all. This worked brilliantly in “Coriolanus” (no surprise there); less well in “Measure for Measure.”
    I saw Frances de La Tour do “Antony and Cleopatra” with Alan Bates and the RSC a few years ago. The production contained the first full-frontal nudity I’d ever seen on a stage (with certain exceptions I need not go into here), and it worked brilliantly. De La Tour played Cleopatra as a young coquette, so the exposure of the actress’s obviously no-longer teenage body was an exciting and brilliant reflection of her inner state as she spiralled downward.

  2. ‘Appeal over Shakespeare lessons
    ‘The RSC wants Shakespeare’s work to leap off the page
    ‘The Royal Shakespeare Company has claimed that “boring” lessons are putting youngsters in England off Shakespeare’s work for life.’
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/5349952.stm
    Here’s how a teacher in the U.S. attempts to provide ‘a creative, in-depth approach leading to understanding’ a Shakespeare play ‘”in an active, engaging way”, focusing on the play as a whole piece of drama’, the Hobart Shakespeareans:
    http://www.pbs.org/now/arts/esquith.html
    http://www.hobartshakespeareans.org/
    http://www.pbs.org/pov/pov2005/hobart/

  3. I saw McKellen do “Richard III” in Washington. I was going to mention it, but I had to stop somewhere. That was a big celebrity tour: creepy and spectacular staging, McKellen all in black, big poorly laid-out hall, crappy acoustics. I wouldn’t mind seeing a film or video of the production, though.

  4. One of the first Shakespeares I saw contained a famous actress – Mia Farrow as Tatiana – that was a disappointment too. I have sometimes found that the famous names who are the ‘pull ‘ for a Shakespeare play turn out to be upstaged by the rest of the cast. I guess they are usually famous for their film or TV work and acting on the stage requires different skills altogether.

  5. One of the two most memorable Shakespeare prodictions I’ve seen was The Tempest in a small Chicago theater in 1993. A small hall may enhance the concentration necessary (for most of us) to grasp Shakespeare’s language.
    Peter
    Detectives Beyond Borders: A Forum for International Crime Fiction
    “Because Murder is More Fun Away From Home

  6. Clare: I went to see Henry IV part 1 at the National Theatre earlier this year, looking forward to seeing Michael Gambon’s Falstaff. I was disappointed in his prefunctory performance. (A non sequitur: he isn’t a very good Dumbledore either.) I’d always rated him before this play. Prince Hal, though, was excellent. He really “got” the character and spoke the language well. I had not heard of him before but Cathy had. And it turned out that he is Mr Darcy in the latest Pride and Prejudice. Matthew McFadyn I think his name is. He also unexpectedly cropped up as Hareton in our DVD of Wuthering Heights.
    Peter, I am pretty sure that McKellen Richard III is available — in the UK anyway. Yes — here is the link to it on UK Amazon — hope you can get it on the right regional version for you.
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Richard-III-Loncraine/dp/B00004SC7U/sr=8-1/qid=1159024985/ref=sr_1_1/202-0481004-3731046?ie=UTF8&s=dvd

  7. Thanks. Odd you should bring up Michael Gambon. I just mentioned him in a comment on my blog. He may not make a good Falstaff, but he was a fine Inspector Maigret.

  8. I used to admire Michael Gambon’s acting greatly, seeing him in many plays before he became truly famous, and appreciating his role in Dennis Potter’s “Singing Detective”. But I’ve been a bit disappointed in his recent outings (that I’ve seen).

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