Category Archives: Performances

Creative Casting of Revenge Tragedy: “Romeo and Juliet” meets “Game of Thrones”

One of Shakespeare’s earliest revenge tragedies is Romeo and Juliet. I’m a big fan of Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation, and was looking forward to seeing if Sir Kenneth Branagh could top it with his most recent stage production. I saw the play as-live through Kenneth Branagh Theatre Live, and was really pleased with the way it was adapted to the setting of 1950’s Italy, complete with monumental hand gestures and Sophia Loren looks. The cast included the timeless Sir Derek Jacobi as the oldest performing Mercutio on record, Lily James continuing her ingénue streak as Juliet, and Richard Madden, formerly Game of Thrones’ Robb Stark, performing on a twisted ankle as the simultaneously bright-and-teary-eyed Romeo.

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On top of the exciting casting of the main characters, I was extra impressed to see that women were cast as traditionally male characters, like the thugs Sampson and Gregory, and a servant of the Capulets, named Peter. Peter delivers one of my favourite lines in the play. Unaware that she is speaking to the enemy of her master, she tells Romeo of a party being held by Capulet: “If you be not of the house of Montagues, I pray, come and crush a cup of wine.” I love the imagery of that line: the violence of the crushing, the bloody splatter of squished grapes, and the destroyed cup, discarded and forgotten in the festive ruckus of the masquerade. Despite the violence of this image and the invitation’s deliberate exclusion of the Montagues, Capulet refuses to allow his nephew to be violent towards Romeo when he appears at the party and ogles Juliet. Capulet admonishes Tybalt:

 

Content thee, gentle coz, let him alone;
He bears him like a portly gentleman;
And, to say truth, Verona brags of him
To be a virtuous and well-govern’d youth:
I would not for the wealth of all the town
Here in my house do him disparagement:
Therefore be patient, take no note of him:
It is my will, the which if thou respect,
Show a fair presence and put off these frowns,
And ill-beseeming semblance for a feast.

 

Despite the fact that the Montagues are his enemy, Capulet refuses to “here in my house do him disparagement”: he forbids violence against a guest in his home, no matter who that guest is. Capulet escalates in rage not at Romeo’s attendance, but at the insult of Tybalt’s intended violence. Capulet’s response immediately brings to mind the concept of “Guest Right,” which entitles any guest who shares the bread and salt of their host to their host’s protection while under that roof. This is a topic that keeps coming up in my favourite show: Game of Thrones. Like any living, breathing person right now, I’m pretty obsessed with it. This season, the show’s violence has escalated to Shakespearean proportions. In order to avoid ruining it for those of us who aren’t caught up, I’d like to talk about Shakespearean resonances with a revenge scene from much earlier in the show: The Red Wedding.

 

SPOILER ALERT: Stop now if you don’t know what The Red Wedding is and don’t want to read spoilers!

 

The Wedding between Edmure Tully and Roslin Frey is meant to consolidate the treaty between House Stark (represented by the King in the North) and House Frey, who control an tactically-important river crossing in the fictional setting of Westeros. The Wedding was meant to be between Walder Frey’s daughter and the King in the North, but King Robb meets someone young and beautiful during the War of Five Kings (the book and show marry him to two different characters), and can no longer fulfill his promise to Frey. Father of the bride-to-be Walder pretends to forgive Robb for his breach in their agreement, and feeds the King the bread and salt that signify the Freys’ protection.

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Robb Stark and his wife Talisa on Game of Thrones

 

Frey, however, is fed up with not being taken seriously by his allies, and forges an unholy alliance with the enemy Lannister faction, as well as a trusted soldier from within Robb’s own ranks. After the most important members of Stark’s army are seated around Walder’s table and are listening to the cacophonous wedding music performed by disguised members of House Frey, the “musicians” pull their weapons out from the instruments and bloodshed ensues. Robb dies. His mother dies. His pet direwolf dies. Many loyal members of his army die. They trusted Walder Frey because of Guest Right, and died for it.

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Robb crying over his wife’s lifeless body during The Red Wedding

So how does this tie back to Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet? Because Richard Madden plays Robb Stark and Romeo. By considering the “creative casting” behind Branagh’s production, we can think more deeply about the topic of revenge: when is revenge just and what constitutes a low blow? Who deserves revenge and when is an avenger in the wrong? Richard Madden may change his accent and cut his hair, but both of his characters fall in love with women that they shouldn’t. Their impulsive marriages come at the cost of their lives, and the lives of those they love. Capulet refuses to allow his nephew to “make a mutiny among my guests” at the feast, but Tybalt finds another opportunity to attack Romeo, leaving behind the bodies of Mercutio, Tybalt himself, and Lady Montague, who dies of her grief when her son is banished from Verona.

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Romeo crying over Juliet’s lifeless body in Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet

Tragedy is defined by the number of dead bodies onstage at the end of a play. Revenge is the impulse to kill, and revenge tragedy is when the impulse to kill ultimately kills the killer, as well. By thinking about revenge on TV today, we can reflect on those beautiful little details that Shakespeare left behind for us. By reflecting upon the issues that Shakespeare brought up in his revenge tragedies, we can gain a greater appropriation for the politics and drama that we continue to consume today.

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Mercutio and Tybalt: casualties of revenge tragedy

 

 

 

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Filed under Arresting Images, Characters, Creative Casting, Genres, Performances, Plays, Reviews, Uncategorized

The Fassbender Macbeth and Shakespearean Riddles

I finally got the chance to see the 2015 film adaptation of Macbeth, directed by Justin Kurzel and starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Based on the after-show rumblings, the people in the theater seemed pretty split between those loving the production for its visual sumptuousness and having such a hunky actor speak in verse, and those begrudging Kurzel for privileging style at the cost of the comic relief scenes, which were all cut.

I get it: I was waiting to see what they’d do with the Porter scene, too. I love when Macduff Jr. cheekily challenges his mum on the morality of whether every single liar should be hanged by every single honest man. These parts were missed, but what remains is a production streamlined to reflect Macbeth’s own subjective: what does he see? how does he feel? What’s left is his descent into madness.

In the process of this descent, Macbeth kills all of his friends / competitors, defending his crown while the rest of Scotland turns on him. He makes one final visit to the “weird sisters,” who foretell whether he will win the war or be vanquished once and for all. They respond with the following riddle-like stipulations:

1: “None of woman born shall harm Macbeth.”

2: “Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.”

Ultimately, Macbeth hears only what he wants to hear. To the Scottish king, their responses are not cryptic but clear: your cause is just, you will survive this war. To someone terrified of being defeated without an heir of his own, Macbeth hears that it is impossible to vanquish him, just as it seems impossible for a person to be born from anyone but a woman, or for a forest to exist anywhere but where it is rooted.

To me, the most important quality of any adaptation is whether it makes me think about the play in a new way. Kurzel’s Macbeth does this with the final battle scene. In most productions that I have seen, the allied powers transport Birnam Wood to Dunsinane by camouflaging themselves in the leaves and branches of Birnam Wood, effectively going unseen by Macbeth until it is too late. This convention is exceptionally clever: it requires surprisingly little effort in order to stage something that, to Macbeth, seems so impossible. Because I’ve seen the scene staged in this fashion so many times, I wasn’t expecting this production to go in another direction. But boy, did they! Instead of bringing the forest to Dunsinane through camouflage, Malcolm’s army sets Birnam Wood ablaze. That’s right: the final battle is staged on the smoky, ashy, periphery of a giant forest fire!

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Coming disturbingly full-circle from the misty heath on which the first battle was set, what we get is a stark contrast between natural order and man’s interference:

  • Duncan, the natural king, vs. Macbeth, the regicidal usurper
  • Mist vs. ash
  • Nature’s inherent fearsomeness vs. destruction at the hands of men

Macbeth disturbs the natural order by killing the natural king. Kurzel epitomizes the subsequent challenges facing the usurper by showing not only man, but nature rising against Macbeth to restore Malcolm to his rightful seat.

So that leaves us with the question: is it worthwhile to brave the January cold in order to see this film? My answer: most definitely. See Kurzel bring the unexpected to Dunsinane! And if that’s not steamy enough for you, know that you’ll also be getting some of this:

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Not bad, Fassbender. Not bad.

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Filed under Characters, Performances, Plays, Reviews, Shakespeare

Creative casting: Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

The beauty of Shakespeare’s drama is its versatility: it has reached audiences throughout the ages as a product of its time, and as a perfect vessel to communicate the cultural zeitgeist ever since. We don’t study it just to learn a bunch of difficult words: it’s about how those words, delivered in the right way, can make us think differently about bigger ideas like love, ambition, fury, and revenge. When I say “delivered in the right way,” I mean, by whom? In what accent? Who are they speaking to? Where are the words being spoken? Is the speech staged based on First Folio stage directions, or at the whim of a director with another vision entirely?

A bit of a pop culture fiend myself, I love thinking about how who speaks the words matters. Where have I seen them before? How do their most memorable performances colour my understanding of the Shakespearean role they play? In the past I’ve called this inter or intra-dramatic doubling, but lately, I’ve been calling it “creative casting.” It’s a bit more pithy.

Most recently, I’ve been eagerly anticipating my trip to London to see Benedict Cumberbatch perform in Hamlet. We don’t live anywhere near England, but as self-professed “Cumberbitches,” my mother and I determined that we needed to see it in person. Why do we care so much? Because with all of Benedict’s filming commitments, we won’t be able to binge-watch another season of BBC’s Sherlock until January, 2017! In the show, he plays the sharp-witted and sharper-tongued Sherlock, who loves to confound his partner with his powers of deduction. Benedict’s Sherlock is unique because it’s his own spin on the role. I have no doubt that he’ll make his Hamlet unique as well, but I wonder: will his Hamlet bare traces of his Sherlock? When he raises Yorick’s skull, will he investigate it? Will Hamlet’s signature comeback, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” be delivered with the same sass that Sherlock lashes witticisms at Martin Freeman’s Dr. Watson?

Hinds as Mance Rayder

While Benedict is the main attraction of this Barbican theatre production, there will also be a familiar face in the supporting cast. Fresh off of his role as King-Beyond-the-Wall Mance Rayder in HBO’s Game of Thrones, Ciarán Hinds will be playing King Claudius. Hamlet contemplates revenge against his uncle when his father’s ghost informs him that Claudius poisoned Hamlet Sr. in his sleep. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “This isn’t a good fit! In season 5 (without giving away too many spoilers), Mance scoffed at the notion of poisoning someone, declaring himself above killing those under his hospitality!” Will Claudius be a complete change of character from Mance, or will Hinds draw on his recent character’s silent strength and determination to bring his people together at a time when “something’s rotten” north of The Wall? Mance is a man who understands necessary brutality for the greater good, but is also an advocate of justice. Most of all, he’s honest about his own shortcomings. Will this come through when Claudius gives his great speech, inches away from Hamlet’s drawn sword?

But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder’?
That cannot be; since I am still possess’d
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
May one be pardon’d and retain the offence?

Claudius admits his sin, but what Hamlet does not realize is that the King does not have it in himself to repent: he did what he thought was right. I see that in Mance, and I hope that Hinds will let some of that rub off on his Claudius!

Looking ahead, I can’t wait to see the chemistry between these two excellent actors. Both speak with outstanding elocution, and I’m especially looking forward to their verbal sparring in Shakespearean verse, which has its own internal rhythm. How will they dress? Will they look Danish, upper-class English, Viking Norse or trailer trash? Cumberbatch and Hinds share high cheekbones and a look that is rarely called attractive so much as “distinct”: will director Lyndsey Turner use that to her advantage, perhaps hinting that Hamlet is Claudius’s bastard? That’s an angle that’s always worth pursuing, because it makes it seem that Hamlet eventually kills his own father, which is deliciously Oedipal. There have been precious few clues about what to expect. All I know is to be excited!

Hamlet: directed by Lyndsey Turner.

Barbican Theatre, 5 August–31 October 2015.

Sold out.

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Creative casting: Shakespeare featuring Game of Thrones actors

One reason why I love to watch and rewatch Shakespeare’s plays is because I get to see my favourite actors play my favourite characters. Some actors cement public perception of a character, such as Laurence Olivier’s Oedipal Hamlet. Other times, I find an actor’s best-known role tends to colour my understanding of any other role they ever play. In the past I’ve called this inter or intra-dramatic doubling, but now I tend to call it “creative casting.”

The “creative,” in this case, is our creativity as viewers who interpret a production’s casting. Our insights can often be anachronistic, because in the age of Netflix, we don’t necessarily watch an actor’s filmography in chronological order. As such, our impressions of an actor in a later but better-known performance might influence our impressions of their earlier roles.

Spacey as Francis Underwood in House of Cards

Spacey as Francis Underwood in House of Cards

For example, Kevin Spacey is currently making waves as the anti-hero Francis Underwood. In 2011, he played the title role in the Old Vic’s Richard III, which inspired his performance of the fourth wall-breaking, 21st century Machiavel in House of Cards. Yet, if I were to watch Spacey’s Richard III again today, my understanding of his performance would be coloured by my impressions of how Richard’s devious machinations are akin to Frank’s. To learn more about Spacey’s journey into the role of Richard, check out his film, NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage.

Even though the Bard himself has no say in how his plays are produced today, it is nonetheless worthwhile to think about the significance of contemporary casting choices. By looking at who is being cast, how we know them, and why we know them, we can learn more about the Shakespearean characters they play.

Craster is unimpressed with Jon Snow's snooping

Pugh as Craster, unimpressed with Jon Snow’s snooping

Let’s take Robert Pugh, for example. His name might be unfamiliar, but his piercing blue eyes will remind you that he plays Craster on HBO’s Game of Thrones. Just before he terrified as the morally twisted wildling, Pugh filmed BBC’s Hollow Crown Series, specifically Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1. In the movie, Pugh plays Owen Glendower, leader of the Welsh rebels. Glendower may be rebelling against Henry IV, but his time onstage is devoted to verbal battles with the defiant Henry Percy, aka Hotspur. When Pugh as Glendower boasts that he “can command the spirits from the vasty deep,” Hotspur doesn’t take him seriously, but I certainly do. This is because when I see Pugh, all I can think of is the character that does terrible things to appease what lurks beyond the Wall (no spoilers!).

Pugh as Glendower, with Joe Armstrong as Hotspur in The Hollow Crown

Pugh as Glendower, with Joe Armstrong as Hotspur in The Hollow Crown

Hotspur, on the other hand, is less cautious. Percy laughs at his host’s ostensible superstition, responding: “Why, so can I, or so can any man; / But will they come when you do call for them?” Glendower defends his pride, justifying himself with talk of even darker deeds. He tells Percy: “Why, I can teach you, cousin, to command / The devil.” Hotspur pushes all bounds of common courtesy by insulting the Welsh leader’s sense of spiritual authority, retorting: “And I can teach thee, coz, to shame the devil / By telling truth: tell truth and shame the devil.” Hotspur isn’t particularly spiritual himself: if an activity doesn’t call for a sword in hand and a horse underfoot, he laughs it off as cowardice.

In some productions of this play, the Hotspur/Glendower scene is comic relief – two bumbling villains who are too busy fighting each other to think up a smart plan to fight Henry IV. Whereas in the play itself, Hotspur and Glendower meet at the Archdeacon’s house, in this film, they seem to meet at Glendower’s own home. With this production’s particular choices in casting and setting, I have every reason to be afraid of Glendower’s spiritual powers. Hotspur may not be scared of him, but I am. I know what those remorseless blue eyes are capable of, and know that those who care more about the spirits care far less about honour. If Hotspur were watching Game of Thrones, he’d know to be more gracious to his host. If recent seasons have taught me anything about being a houseguest, it’s that even sacred hospitality laws can be broken!

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Shakespeare’s Birthday Resolutions: 2014 Edition!

With mirth and laughter, let old wrinkles come.

images-2Happy birthday, Mr. Shakespeare! Also, happy birthday to me! Today I turn 28, but the milestone birthday goes to the Bard himself, who turns 450! Every year on our shared birthday, I like to reflect back on the amazing ways that I’ve experienced Shakespeare over the course of the year, and my goals as a Bardolator (unabashed Shakespeare lover) for the coming year. Take a look back at my Shakespeare’s Birthday Resolutions from 2012 and 2013 – I can’t believe how quickly time flies!

 

Up till now

The past year’s shakespeareance (I had to – just once) most dear to me is my trip to England. There, I presented my research alongside my peers, and I got to go on a mini tour to visit some of my favorite people in London, Oxford, and Cambridge. I feel so lucky to be able to gallivant around England for a few weeks every year or two; however broke I am afterwards, I still think of it as one of the top perks of being a scholar. I love being able to work from where I want, when I want, be it in the promised land of Shakespeare himself, or working away at my desk with a sleeping cat next to me for moral support. Both are part of the lifestyle that I’ve come to savour over the past year.

Some of National Theatre Live's best offerings!

Some of National Theatre Live’s best offerings!

As ever, I cannot express the extent of my appreciation for the technology and arts funding that brings the best of England’s theatre live to my local cinema. This year, I got to see Rory Kinnear’s Olivier-winning turn as Iago in Othello; Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus, which was just as sexy as I’d hoped; and Kenneth Branagh’s outstanding Macbeth, which I am over the moon to be seeing in New York this coming June!

Professionally, I am always striving to strike a balance between working hard and having fun. This year, the fates aligned when my Victorian ecocritic boyfriend got assigned to TA Shakespeare with me; to have a boyfriend who can quote Shakespeare is pretty much all I’ve ever wanted…and far be it from me to stop our students from calling us the Brad and Angelina of the English department 😉

Thanks for the Bardie, Shakespeare Standard!

Thanks for the Bardie, Shakespeare Standard!

But enough of the lovey-dovey stuff! This year, I’ve been working to keep on top of my blogging while doing my research, which isn’t always easy but is nonetheless immensely rewarding. This morning, I found out that I won two Bardie awards on behalf of The Shakespeare Standard, where I discuss my grad school experiences in the Secret Diary of a PhD Candidate. Winning the award is such an honour, and reminds me that it’s worth it to keep writing because there are people out there who will keep reading! I thank you! I continue to strive to make your blogging experience better, which is why I’ve finally done away with the dusty bardolator23.wordpress.com domain and have finally locked down TheBardolator.com. Stay tuned for some exciting updates over the course of this year, too; as I get closer to the job market, I want to make this place shine!

And finally, the dissertation: I’m proud and relieved to have made some substantial progress on my dissertation research this year. After years of grappling with The Merchant of Venice (relationship status: it’s complicated.), it finally hit me that it is the beast that I was meant to tackle in my dissertation. I’ll be presenting the first nugget of that research at a symposium at the University of Toronto this weekend: wish me luck!

 

What’s to come

This past year, I’ve been building up my teaching skills by taking a course on teaching and learning in higher education. Teaching at the university level doesn’t require a Bachelor of Education, but the methods I learned in the course have already proved indispensable for my marking, and I can’t wait to see how they influence my teaching. In September, I will be teaching my own course. This is an experience that has been no less than five years in the making, and I can’t be more excited about it. Word docs with creative ideas abound!

Got an idea for my Shakespeare course hashtag? Leave it in the comments below!

Got an idea for my Shakespeare course hashtag? Leave it in the comments below!

But as much as teaching is a time to pass on my knowledge, it’s still very much a time for me to grow. In the past, I’ve been known to ride what I would call the “textual high horse” – I’ve argued that Shakespeare must first and foremost be understood through reading the text, and then only afterwards should students watch the movies. While this is one of my ideals, I recognize that undergraduate study habits don’t always work that way. For my course, I will be screening each of the films and I really hope all students, whether they’ve had/made the time to read the text or not, come to these screenings and engage with the material in whichever ways they can. I want to make these screenings a party- popcorn potlucks! I’ll know that it works if the students develop a course hashtag. I’ll be sure that it works if the students turn that hashtag into t-shirts – fingers crossed!

On the vein of performance, my goals for this coming year are, as always, to immerse myself in more Shakespeare! I’m particularly excited for what’s to come in Shakespeare performance this year. Much to my joy, the Stratford Festival is fulfilling one of my dreams: to stage more than one production of the same Shakespeare play to show the variety of interpretations that can spin out of one major dramaturgical difference. This year, they’re staging two productions of Midsummer Night’s Dream!

Benedict is primed for performance!

Benedict is primed for performance!

There is one production, though, that I’m more excited about than any other, excited enough to book another trip across the pond for it. What’s that? Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican, August 2015! It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve read or seen that play: I can’t wait to see how Olivier award-winning director Lyndsey Turner will spin it! Will Benedict act like Sherlock, or Kahn, or think outside of the box? We’ll have to wait and see! So what’s the plan till then? My plan is to use that trip as my brass ring, the goal that pushes me to finish my dissertation and then take a much-needed vacation!

And with that, let’s celebrate! Happy birthday, Mr. Shakespeare! To another 450 years!

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Filed under Current Events, National Theatre Live, Shakespeare, Stratford Festival

Shakespeare and Thor

Thor and Loki

Thor and Loki

I have a confession to make: I’m pretty obsessed with the Thor franchise. Of For some reason, watching the 2011 film and the 2013 sequel has become downright therapeutic; the end of the semester is hectic and stressful, but re-watching these movies for the fifth, eighth, tenth times just relaxes me. At first, I figured it was the lineup of sexy male leads: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba…but then I thought that it’s the rainbow runway known as the Bifrost that boosts my mood. But then today, I was IMDB-stalking this film that I mindlessly love, and it turned out that it might be more subconsciously mindful than I had thought: Thor is immensely Shakespearean!

Feore as Laufey the Frost Giant

Feore as Laufey the Frost Giant

Today’s initial curiosity was to check IMDB for who played King Laufey, King of the Frost Giants. I squealed with delight when I found out that under five hours’ worth of makeup is Colm Feore. Feore is American-born actor who gets mad props for choosing to be a Canadian one. He consistently performs in distinctly Canadian (re: lower-budget and publicity) drama, such as his recurring role in the second season of Paul Gross’s Slings and Arrows, or headlining as King Lear at this year’s Stratford Festival.

Falstaff in comic form: Volstagg the Voluminous

Falstaff in comic form: Volstagg the Voluminous

The main draw for me to start watching these films was that Kenneth Branagh, who is known for directing and starring in Shakespeare films, directed the first installment. The big question, then, is why, aside from obvious financial reasons, would a Shakespearean heavy-hitter devote his time to directing a superhero blockbuster? To Branagh, it seems, it all came down to the script. In an interview with daily science blog io9, Branagh discusses the similarities between Henry V, a character he had once played, and Thor. Branagh notes that both characters struggle with to prove themselves to their fathers as part of their coming of age, and suggests that Thor’s banishment and later redemption by his father Odin (Antony Hopkins! squee!) is not unlike the younger Prince Hal’s selfish, disrespectful self. Heck, Thor even has his own Falstaff! In a line that combines my research interests of affect and food, the distraught Volstagg defends his stress eating by shouting: “Do not mistake my appetite for apathy!”

And of course, we can’t forget Tom Hiddleston, whose performance trajectory suggests that he’s looking to fill (and dare I say, outgrow?) Branagh’s Shakespearean shoes. Hiddleston most recently received an Olivier Award nomination for his lead role in Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse in London, and got his professional Shakespearean beginnings at the same theatre, in the role of Cassio, next to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Othello and Ewan McGregor’s Iago. In the same year as he performed Othello, Hiddleston was also featured in the play Ivanov, starring Branagh. The two developed a strong working relationship and a short while later, Hiddleston auditioned for the movie’s lead role, but was cast as Loki instead.

Hiddleston developed his character based on his own Shakespearean influences. He tells GeekExchange.com:

When I created Loki with Ken Branagh (Director of Thor) we talked about Edmond the bastard son, someone who’s grown up in the shadow of another man. And in King Lear, Edgar is the legitimate son, the favored son. Edmond is the bastard, the illegitimate, the one who’s less loved… underloved, which feeds his lack of self-esteem.

Loki as part Frost Giant

Loki as part Frost Giant

Hiddleston sees much of Edmund in Loki, when his character learns that the reason why he is overshadowed by his blonder, handsomer brother is because he was cast-off as a baby Frost Giant, and Odin took pity on him, opting to raise Loki as his own back in Asgard. While Odin doesn’t follow Gloucester in taking liberties to rub his son’s bastardy in his face (which I’ll be blogging on in the coming month!), Loki nonetheless seethes with resentment because he thinks that he would be a better king than Thor.

Themes of growing up and “manning up”; power hunger; the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil are not, of course, restricted to the fantasy realm. This is why Stuart Moore, co-author of the Marvel tie-in book The Art of Thor: The Dark World reminds us that “despite the low-culture trappings of comic book films, they’re the closest thing in modern entertainment to the kind of grand-scale melodrama that Shakespeare trafficked in.” He’s right. Just like Shakespeare wrote to put bums in seats, so did Branagh, in directing this blockbuster. And with that, I say: Go on, then! Bring on the third installment!

 

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Filed under Characters, Performances, Roles, Shakespeare

National Theatre Live: Macbeth

Last night, I had the privilege of seeing Kenneth Branagh star in Macbeth, the production that has brought him back to the Shakespearean stage after a decade. As I’ve mentioned before, this production was very sold out; before going to England this past summer, I tried to pull every Shakespearean string I had, and still no luck! No amount of Googling, even, could find me a scalper to sell me overpriced tickets to this hyped-up production. Lucky for me, the wonderful National Theatre Live screened a live[1] performance of the play. I got to pre-order my tickets without panic, all for the low cost of 23 bucks! Not surprisingly, it was well worth it.

Macbeth telling his wife to "Bring forth men-children only"

Macbeth telling his wife to “Bring forth men-children only”

Branagh has only gotten more attractive with age, and while he held his head high as a redheaded Scot, I respect his decision not to parrot Shakespeare’s words in a put-on Scottish accent. That being said, some of the characters stayed true to their authentic Scottish accents, and I have to say: iambic pentameter has never sounded so sexy!

The reason why I continue to see Shakespeare’s plays re-produced, after reading and seeing them so many times before, is because each production has the potential to open my mind to ideas within the play that I haven’t yet considered. Branagh’s performance was excellent, although I wouldn’t say it shed significant light on aspects of the character that I haven’t already thought about. He pronounced the speeches well, but sometimes a bit too quickly; I would have appreciated a pregnant pause here and there to allow the gravity of Macbeth’s thoughts and actions to set in. For example, when Macbeth ponders his prospective murder of Duncan, he says:

                                  I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other.

I would have loved it if he had paused at the expression “vaulting ambition”, providing maximum dramatic effect so that we knew that this is his ultimate reason for murdering the king.

Can Macbeth be redeemed for his crimes?

Branagh as a director, though, is another story. The production was exceptionally well directed. It was set in a deconsecrated church, which brought up some really interesting parallels between the cross, symbolizing redemption; swords, symbolizing the battles that bookend the domestic interior plot; and the dagger, that Macbeth uses to kill Duncan. One of the most impressive moments in the production was Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger which I see before me” soliloquy, when he begins to mentally unravel. This speech provides every director with a choice: do you show the dagger? Is the dagger real, hovering above Macbeth, or is it, as Macbeth says, “A dagger of the mind, a false creation, / Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?” The impressive moment came when Branagh began this speech, speaking to a beam of light that seemed to reflect from behind the church’s giant cross, onto the muddy battlefield that is stage floor. Never before did the notions of murder and redemption seem so…illuminated. This is the most literal manifestation of my notion of “shedding light” on different meanings within the play. Does Macbeth kill his king and curse himself forever? Or is eternal damnation worth it for the sake of becoming King himself? That being said, after this impressive sight, it seemed almost bathetic[2] when we finally did see a dagger, hovering from above on a not-so-invisible fishing wire.

Duncan in the mud, fighting for his against the initial uprising

Duncan in the mud, fighting against the initial uprising

All in all, the most impressive element of this production was the set. Rather than a stage at the front of the church, the action was set in the nave, the central aisle of the church, with the audience sitting in rows across from each other. The initial battle scene was set in the rain, and much of the killing was done up against the boards, providing a terrifying shock to the audience present in Manchester the night the performance was filmed.

What was really interesting was that they did not cover up this set when the plot turns to Macbeth’s castle at Inverness. Lady Macbeth is a domestic goddess; she plays the role of gracious hostess, all the while convincing her husband to kill the king. I got a new sense of her significant part in this treachery when Alex Kingston waded through the mud, saying: “The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements”; this castle is indeed Lady Macbeth’s battlement.

Malcolm fighting in the mud

Malcolm fighting in the mud

If I had to apply one adjective to this production, I’d use the word “raw.” When Macduff cried over the death of his wife and children, he cried from his eyes, nose, and mouth. With the help of filmed close-ups, I was able to see the tears and mucus flowing out of his twisted, grief-stricken face. When Banquo was stabbed (in the back, appropriately), we saw the blood flow out of his mouth. And when any character died in battle, they lay face-down in the mud for minutes on end, no matter how unpleasant it was for the actor himself.

All in all, this is a performance that you don’t want to miss. Luckily, you don’t have to! See your local cinema listings for the encore presentations of National Theatre Live’s presentation of the Manchester International Festival’s Macbeth.


[1] We watched it “as live” – the live performance was filmed over the summer.

[2] The tumbling of the profound into the absurd.

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