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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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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

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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National Theatre Live: Othello

England’s National Theatre has undertaken a project very, very dear to my heart: screening the very best NT productions, live, to cinemas worldwide! I’m very excited about this, and always feel butterflies in my stomach when I enter the Canadian movie theatre but hear the murmurs of the live audience at the National in London.

images-4Last week, I had the privilege of seeing National Theatre Live’s production of Othello, starring theatrical heavy-hitters Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear, and directed by NT Artistic Director extraordinaire, Nicholas Hytner. The result was outstanding. Before the play, emcee Emma Freud interviewed Hytner about his dramatic vision, and he explained that Shakespeare’s Venice, in which the text begins, is not culturally important in itself as much as it’s a byword for bustling commercial centre. To Hytner, the play could just as easily begin in central London, which we see in the when the play begins with Iago and Roderigo shooting the shit on a set made to look like a generic English pub. Kinnear puts on a working-class accent, which helps us understand why Iago is so frustrated when Othello chooses the young, Cassio over himself for the post of second-in-command, even though Iago is an experienced officer and Cassio has “never set a squadron in the field.”

This play revolves around the theme of truth, the tales people tell, and what listeners trust as truth. Lester appears onstage as Othello, and instantly I trusted him as leader of the Venetian military. Why did he deserve my trust? It probably had a lot to do with the fact that Lester looks a lot like another “O”, Barack Obama! He’s handsome, but his graying temples only add to his sexual allure; we can see why Desdemona is so attracted to him, despite the age difference. Hytner doesn’t overdo the Obama parallels, but when Lester sits at the head of a boardroom table with reading classes on, I can see how Othello claims the respect of his fellow statesmen.

When Desdemona’s father storms into the war council after finding out that she’s eloped with the Moor, Othello welcomes Brabantio’s rebukes with an offer to tell the “round unvarnish’d tale” of his courtship with Desdemona. By saying “unvarnish’d”, Shakespeare calls up the black/white imagery that haunts the play, and shows that these colours extend beyond questions of race to questions of morality and truth. When he says that his tale will be “unvarnish’d”, Othello means that his story will be one of truth, dignity, and propriety. He wins over the council, and Brabantio storms off, warning the Moor that “She has deceived her father, and may thee,” the first of many foreshadowings of the couple’s ultimate doom.

Othello1_610_407shar_s_c1Soon after a plan is devised for the military to head to Cyprus, Iago reveals his plan to drive Othello mad with jealousy. Critics like Samuel Taylor Coleridge believe that Iago is a villain of “motiveless malignity” – that he doesn’t have a reason to wreak emotional havoc. I disagree. His first motive is being overlooked for promotion. He tells us of the second during one of his many soliloquies (speeches made alone onstage, directed to the audience):

I hate the Moor:
And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety.

Iago has heard rumours that Othello is sleeping with his wife; he doesn’t know the rumours to be true, but decides to take his revenge without of seeking official confirmation. Tales run rampant in this play, and the fatal flaw of almost every character is that they refuse to communicate directly with their spouse. Iago plans to cure his jealousy by fighting fire with fire: just as the rumours of Othello sleeping with his wife drive Iago mad with jealousy, so Iago will drive a rift between Othello and Desdemona. Iago plans to “put the Moor / At least into a jealousy so strong / That judgment cannot cure.”

While the war with the Turks that brought the Venetians to Cyprus ends almost before it even begins, Iago intends to fill their time in Cyprus with other types of fighting. First, Iago gets the recovering alcoholic Cassio drunk, and Cassio brawls with another commander. Othello is upset and disappointed when he finds out, and Cassio sees this moment as his own personal tragedy. He cries: “O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.” Like Othello, Cassio’s sense of self comes from a sense of duty, and the respect of those around him. Without his title, Cassio is left with the shame of his indiscretion and calls himself “bestial”, driven by his animal spirits and the opposite of his best, most civilized self.

othello23april2013twoOnce Cassio is out of the Moor’s favour, Iago steals Desdemona’s handkerchief, a token of love from the Moor, and tells Othello that Desdemona betrayed him by giving the token to Cassio. The beauty of this production is that Iago’s moment of greatest triumph happens in a washroom! A washroom of all places! But it’s perfect: for once, washrooms aren’t just for places for women to gossip, but for men, once again, to shoot the shit! Othello attempts to take Iago’s words as nothing but idle washroom gossip, saying, “It is not words that shake me thus.” In moments, his words fall as flat as he does; Iago has tormented the Moor so far that falls into a seizure on the bathroom floor. Kicking his prostrate commander with his boot, Iago tells the audience:

The Moor already changes with my poison:
Dangerous conceits are, in their natures, poisons.
Which at the first are scarce found to distaste,
But with a little act upon the blood.
Burn like the mines of Sulphur.

In the past, I’ve heard critics make much of the “ocular proof” that Othello asks for to back up Iago’s claims of Desdemona’s infidelity. After seeing this production, I’m not convinced. Iago shows that Desdemona doesn’t even need to cheat on Othello: his words are all Iago needs to turn the Moor against his wife. Because everyone trusts him, calling him “Honest Iago”, Iago is able to spread his “poisonous” rumour and let it fester until Othello ultimately murders his wife.

Iago’s dark genius lies in his knowledge that Othello is just like him. As such, he knows that all Othello needs is to hear a rumour to make him unsure of his wife and unsettled in his rule as leader. If he can’t prevent his wife from cheating, if he can’t prevent his second in command from getting drunk, or sleeping in his wife, what can he do? Like Cassio who fears the “bestial” in himself, Othello tells us that without these cornerstones of his identity, “Chaos is come again.”

And chaos does, indeed, come to Cyprus. The council that had trusted Othello at the beginning of the play arrive on the scene to see Othello a fraction of the man he was: paranoid, inarticulate, and above all, violent to his wife. Hytner’s contemporary military backdrop at no point overshadows, but rather compliments this story, showing that although Shakespeare’s great tragedies tell tales on a national scale, the real tragedies are domestic.

 

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My trip to England, Part 2 + Review: Oxford Shakespeare Company’s The Merry Wives of Windsor

Shakespeare’s comedies leave themselves wide open for exhibitions of sexuality, nowhere more so than The Merry Wives of Windsor. Legend has it that after seeing I Henry IV, Queen Elizabeth commissioned Shakespeare to write a play in which Falstaff falls in love. A creature of such loose morals, though, cannot just fall in love.

Mistress Page, Mistress Ford, and Mr. Page

Can you imagine these women as gangsters?

The result is a play in which Sir John tries to convince two married women to forsake their husbands by sleeping with him, while these wives end up leading Falstaff on in order to take revenge on their husbands, who believe that if their wives remain “merry”, they cannot possibly be chaste.

Ali G, bruv.

Ali G: Note the chav’s range of postures

While I didn’t make it to Shakespeare’s Globe or to see the Royal Shakespeare Company while I was in England, I saw two fantastic productions by local theatre companies in Cambridge and Oxford. Yesterday, I posted on Cambridge Shakespeare Festival‘s The Comedy of Errors, and below is a review of Oxford Shakespeare Company’s spectacular outdoor production of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

The most impressive part of this production was the actor doubling: the ladies playing Mistress Page and Mistress Ford (the merry wives) also played the roles of Falstaff’s henchmen, Bardolph and Pistol! The director chose to make these characters chavs: think silly English “gangstas” like Ali G. They wore low-waisted pants and never stood straight: they were constantly moving as they spoke, which makes more sense when you see it yourself, but also reminds me of hype men at rap concerts. These performances were impressive on their own, but the director amped up the comedy by having these actresses then portray respectable housewives, one dressed in Hunter Boots and a handkerchief in her hair like the Queen at Balmoral, and the other in hot pink high heels. It took me a couple of acts to realize that the same women played such different characters; such a transformation just didn’t seem possible!

The Queen as inspiration for Mistress Page

The Queen as inspiration for Mistress Page

This play, like so many Shakespearean comedies, revolves around mistaken appearances. Mr. Ford catches onto Falstaff’s lechery, and decides to disguise himself as “Mr. Brook” in order to get Falstaff to inadvertently assist in his own plot to prove that his wife is indeed unchaste. To do so, he pretends to be a Texan, but in the most parodied way possible. “Brook” walks like a bow-legged cowboy, and every time his mustache threatened to fall off, the audience awarded him with laughs.

A horn-y Falstaff in Oxford

A horn-y Falstaff in Oxford

Smaller outdoor productions also necessitate smaller casts. In order to circumvent child labour laws, for instance, this company got audience members themselves to act as the children who dress like woodland nymphs and scare Falstaff into admitting his misdeeds. As much as I’ve been known to mutter at my paperback copies of Shakespeare’s plays, there was something much more fulfilling about wearing a child’s mask and getting to hiss at Falstaff myself!

It’s that lightheartedness that I’ve been missing over the past year. Going to England, for me, is always a mix of business and pleasure. I always make time to return to England because these trips are even more important as opportunities to study on my feet. No matter how much of a bibliophile I insist to be, by returning to England and watching these productions, I’m reminded to enjoy the wider world of Shakespeare that exists off the page.

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My trip to England, Part 1 + Review: Cambridge Shakespeare Festival’s The Comedy of Errors

So I’m a year into my time as an “All but dissertation” PhD candidate. Yay! I’ve spent a year reading and writing without the threat of comprehensive exams, which has been a pleasure, and even though I can’t say that I’ve put a complete chapter “to bed”, I’m proud of my work-in-progress. The most cohesive section that I’ve written so far is a piece on The Comedy of Errors, which, in its most primitive iteration, was an exercise to put into practice the research that I compiled on early modern medical tracts earlier this year.

The humours

The humours

I submitted the idea in abstract to The Symposium on Reading and Health in Early Modern Europe at Newcastle University, and was invited to give the paper in person. I reworked and refined the paper to argue that in Shakespeare’s comedies, the playwright shows individuals as inextricably social figures and that, consequently, their humours cannot exist in a vacuum. I discussed how Shakespeare depicts humoural shifts as the result of interpersonal interaction, and that the bodies of the individual and those interacting with him/her can be close-read like texts for evidence of these shifts. The paper was more esoteric than I’d like my critical style to be, but has been excellent practice and really helpful in getting my mind around bigger ideas that I’ll be tackling throughout my dissertation.

Cambridge: It's kind of a big deal.

Cambridge: It’s kind of a big deal.

After visiting Newcastle for the first time, and trying to understand the Geordies, I headed to Cambridge to catch up with my dear friend Charlotte Ellen, who was in rehearsals to play the role of Dromio of Ephesus in The Comedy of Errors at the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival. Seeing the wonderfully lighthearted production, I found truth in Wordsworth’s words: “We murder to dissect”. Spending the past year close-reading passages to explore the darker side of affect in Shakespeare’s comedies and this one in particular, I realized that I had lost sight of the lighter, brighter tones that dominate the comedies as a whole. As an homage to the genre that I’ve been “murdering” in order to fulfil the tall order of producing an original piece of Shakespeare criticism, I’d like to offer reviews of the CSF’s Comedy of Errors, as well as another post reviewing  Oxford Shakespeare Company’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. Going against my usual darker readings of the plays, these reviews will focus on the lighter side of Shakespearean comedy in performance.

I’ve been quite outspoken in my belief that we should not subordinate Shakespeare’s text to performance, because only by reading the text can we unfold Shakespeare’s countless potential meanings at once. On paper, I can mull over a word or phrase for hours but by contrast, I can’t press pause on live performance, and a director must confine his or her production to one interpretation at a time: Does the ghost of Banquo sit at Macbeth’s table, or should the seat be left empty to imply Macbeth’s insanity? Should Perdita depict a shadow of the dead Mamillius, or should the characters remain separate, played by separate actors? Is it Lear’s fool, or strictly his endeared “fool”, Cordelia, who is hanged?). Despite my bias for Shakespeare on the page, I have to admit that what I miss out on in only reading the plays is the physical act of performance. The two productions that I watched in England have reminded me how physicality is such an invaluable tool for bringing Shakespeare’s comedies to life.

posterIn Cambridge, Charlotte brought this physicality to life in her role as Dromio. In one scene, she performed acrobatic feats off the wooden slats at the back of the stage in order to hide in plain view from Antipholus who, upon finding his servant, would most certainly beat her. The trauma scholar in me tends to focus on Dromio’s fear of beating, but the Bardolator on vacation was just happy to be part of the happy audience, laughing in appreciation of the dramatic irony. Charlotte’s fellow Dromio kept this physicality going, and the two actresses, upon their characters reuniting at the end of the play, crossed the stage by cartwheeling over each other’s bodies. Because the two actresses didn’t look alike, the audience spent the earlier part of the play suspending their disbelief that these two were twins. This cartwheel action, though, made their twinship believable, and in a flurry of burgundy costumes, the two embodied the play’s spirit of mistaken identities by blurring the line where one Dromio ended and the other began.

The production was full of such physicality, bringing the text to life. For instance, they had Luciana, singleton sister to Adriana, binge-eating cupcakes while her sister droned on about her troubles as a married woman. Luciana took such refuge in those dainty cupcakes, and the frustrated Adriana closed the scene while stamping all over them. I derived special pleasure out of this moment, having seen the tech rehearsal the day before, in which there was much discussion over what baked good would provide the most laughs when stepped on.

Codpieces: they're just better in person!

Codpieces: they’re just better in person!

The funniest use of physical comedy goes to Doctor Pinch and his codpiece. I’ll be honest, I thought Charlotte was crazy when I found her up at 7 am, sewing together primary-coloured felt; it looked more like a child’s toy than a body part! Let me tell you, though: it got laughs! The actor playing Pinch thrust his hips to the beat of a bongo, infusing the ridiculous character with sexuality, while bringing up one of the play’s central questions: who’s the crazy one? Who is the doctor, and who is the patient, or is Shakespeare teaching us to blur the line between caregivers and genuine quacks? As much as I’d love to get this production on DVD so I can relieve the moment that Pinch made his way into the audience, it’s impossible to relive that sense of pee-your-pants laughter I felt as the actor shook his money-maker!

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Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing

In early April, I had the privilege of watching an advance screening of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing at the annual conference of the Shakespeare Association of America. Needless to say, the two hundred Bardolators in the room were pretty darn excited to mouth the entire play in unison. We were even luckier because the director himself sent the film over with a special introduction for us. In it, he gave his answer to that frequently asked question, “Why Shakespeare?” His gleeful response: “Why cake?” Those words assured me that Shakespeare’s text was in good hands.

A black-and-white romantic comedy in 2013? Joss Whedon’s 2012 Much Ado About Nothing

Why do I say “text”? Isn’t the whole point of this film that it’s a play performed, and then edited for the screen? Let me explain. The earliest buzz around 2012’s Much Ado was that it was filmed in black-and-white. That’s a pretty risky decision for someone producing a play by a 400-year old writer, and in the wake of Kenneth Branagh’s colourful Hamlet and Baz Luhrmann’s tripped-out R+J. Those were both released in 1996, and we’ve only gone further down the rabbit hole of CGI and HD ever since. I’d like to suggest not the reason (because that’s Whedon’s job), but the effect of Whedon’s decision to go black-and-white, and that’s that it reduces distraction. The party that goes on in this film is but a smaller version than that in Luhrmann’s recent Gatsby, but the difference is that in this film, you can enjoy the spectacle while also being able to pay attention to the words of “Sigh no more (Hey nonny nonny)“. Instead of looking at what Beatrice is wearing, we can focus on the way she “speaks poniards and every word stabs”. As long as Benedick shaves his beard and Hero wears white on her wedding day, it’s all kosher to me.

Old-school Ken and Em in Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

The other question that people have asked me about this film is: “How does it compare to Branagh’s 1993 film?” Good question. I’m going to go right ahead and say this: Whedon’s is better. And that’s not to say that I don’t love watching “Ken and Em” fall in love, because I really, really do, but that film came out two decades ago and even though none of us have aged a single bit, the play has earned a touch-up. Branagh’s version was sentimental and set with lovely ladies in white dresses, frolicking in the Tuscan sun. The “merry war” took on a more literal resonance in Branagh’s film, as he and the Duke’s men appear in military uniforms. Whedon’s version, on the other hand, is set in his own LA mansion. Don Pedro’s men wear finely-tailored suits, and lacking the swagger or any sort of non-WASP ethnicity to pass for mobsters, they seem like movie producers with concealed weapons. That prompts me to ask what this mise-en-scene does to illuminate the play’s themes of honour, chastity, betrayal, and second chances. In this case, the question for me is as follows: where does honour stand in 2013 LA, where people party all night and go jogging at first light? My answer is that this modern revision of the play concerns itself with pride rather than honour. But Whedon complicates this notion of “rather than”: his production brings to light how honour and pride are two sides of the same coin. The currency? Vanity. This play revolves around appearances: was it Hero making love to another man on the night before her wedding? Can Beatrice and Benedick really trust each other until they read each others’ sonnets? Whedon accentuates this obsession with the visual through an omni-present camera-person, closed-circuit security cameras, and mirrors. Four hundred years old and still rife for adaptation, Shakespeare’s plays offer themselves up for this sort of filmic imagery.

"Forget not that I am an ass."

“Forget not that I am an ass.”

Alas, I cannot make any comment on how the cast fits in to the other television shows and movies of the Whedon-verse, and thus I can’t address Nathan Fillion’s performance, but people were really excited about it, and tickled by his role as Dogberry the malaproping constable. What I can say is that you don’t need to have watched Buffy and Angel in order to love this movie. This is a must-see in theaters, a must-buy when it comes out on DVD, and if you want to recreate that feeling of hot summer nights, drinking wine and flirting with the rich and handsome, pick up the soundtrack, too!

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