Category Archives: Roles

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 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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Kenneth Branagh’s New York stage debut as Macbeth

Last night, I found proof that the theatre gods exist. That’s a pretty big claim to make – what event could be so huge?? I’ll tell you: in June 2014, Kenneth Branagh is making his New York stage debut!!!

Why is this a big deal? For a number of reasons!

Branagh as Macbeth

–       First off, Branagh has brought so much to the world of Shakespeare in performance. He has directed a number of Shakespeare films, including As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing, and has performed some of the greatest Shakespearean roles, including Hamlet, Richard III, Iago, and Henry V. At the rate he’s going, it’s no surprise that people (myself included), consider him the Laurence Olivier of our generation.

–       He’s just getting off an eleven-year hiatus from the Shakespearean stage. He has spent the interim busying himself by directing small art house films like Thor, you’ve probably never heard of it.

–       Branagh’s initial return to the Shakespearean stage was this summer, where he co-directed, and delivered a critically acclaimed performance of Macbeth for the Manchester International Festival. The incredibly short run, only 18 performances, was fuelled by such high demand that it sold out instantly. I was so excited when I found out that he’d be performing in England at the same time that I was there, but no matter who I begged, what scalpers I Googled, or which favours I tried to call in, the response was the same: sold out.

–       Despite the demand, the audiences were limited to less than 300 viewers per performance. To appease disappointed Bardolators, the production was at one point relayed on giant screens outside the theatre in Manchester, bringing in no less than 5000 people!

–       For those of you who indulge in the “Mackers Myth” (the rubbish superstition that saying the name “Macbeth” will bring your production bad luck), according to some shady reports, one actor in Manchester was struck by Branagh’s sword, and needed to go to the hospital after final curtain.

–       In an age of unique Macbeths, this one made its presence known by being staged in a deconsecrated church in Manchester. And while I have every intention of dashing to the movie theatre on October 17 to catch National Theatre Live’s broadcast of the Manchester production, I am still going to jump on the opportunity to book tickets for the New York production. As opposed to making his New York stage debut on Broadway, Branagh’s Macbeth will be staged at the Park Avenue Armory. Rather than replicating the original production, it will be re-imagined to best suit the vast, 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall.

–       Although Branagh calls this setting “epic”, Charlotte Higgins of The Guardian teases us by saying that the space has a capacity for audiences sized anywhere between 200-5000! I can’t tell if I’d prefer the former or the latter, as long as I can be one of them!

So: where will you be in June 2014?

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Getting ready the the SAA and Celebrating hendiadys!

So it will come to nobody’s surprise that I’m exceptionally excited for the Shakespeare Association of America conference that’s taking place in my hometown, Toronto, later this week. I’m looking forward to using the hashtag, #shakeass13. I’m looking forward to meeting other people who care about what I care about and want to talk about it with no shame or self-deprecation. I also am ready to learn more about Shakespeare, more about how to talk about his work, and get a rush of creative energy that I can put into my dissertation, which I have really started to enjoy working on, and hope never to have it feel like a burden. Like any cat owner who hears the endless thunking sound of a cat’s head hitting a closed door, I like to think of it as another baby that I can nurture.

20130326-102723.jpg

So in the spirit of nurturing that baby with gusto, I decided to brush some of the dust off my Shakesmarts. I was thinking about Hamlet, not the person but the play, and rather uncle/father Claudius. I was thinking about what makes him so great and I forgot the word, and frantically emailed a friend in England to ask him what that word is…his signature rhetorical device and he reminded me : hendiadys! What an excellent word! Say it out loud! It sounds like a mountain range somewhere!

But what does he do? How does he use it? Claudius is a diplomat, which means that he understands the necessity for verbal economy, and tries to add that extra bit of detail, complexity, irony, sincerity…into that sentence.

20130326-102902.jpg

Take, for example: “But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son–“, he manages to link the two with that and, but also using that little ampersand to divide two things that aren’t one and the same. He embodies Facebook’s need for “It’s complicated” relationship statuses, as we can also see when he sums up the opening plot of the play in these two lines of hendiadys:

“With an auspicious, and a dropping eye,

With mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage…”

Wonderful. I love it. Here he adds an extra iamb for effect, but for the most part, Shakespeare fits these almost Mr. Collins-like additions into the iambic pentameter that his stage royalty speak. Claudius, of course, makes a big mistake in this sarcastically “gentle and unforc’d accord of Hamlet”, who then stays home from university long enough to kill his stepdad. Bad call, Claudius. Bad call.

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The Hollow Crown: Henry IV part 1

One way to fight the winter blues is to accept that it’s too cold for any sane person to leave the house. Instead, we must find ways to enjoy the great indoors. My proposed solution is twofold: the first is the miracle of slow-cooked applesauce. While you don’t get the pleasure of licking the tinfoil lid off the childhood favorite, eating it warm, straight out of the slow cooker, will change your life forever. The second part of the solution is to get into your jam-jams and comfiest robe, and watch lots and lots of movies.

Jeremy Irons as Henry IV

Jeremy Irons as Henry IV

…Shakespeare movies, that is! I’ve been downloading way too many BBC adaptations and watching too few, so last night I decided to change that. I’ve been on a little Tom Hiddleston kick lately (can you blame me?), so I started with 1 Henry IV. I consider this the most unfortunately-named Shakespeare play, as its boring title doesn’t signify its compelling main character (Prince Hal), the fun he has with Shakespeare’s most comic character (Falstaff), and coming of age that Prince experiences in this play.

Michelle Dockery as Lady Percy

Michelle Dockery as Lady Percy

This production is certainly well cast. Few actors make better brooding, guilt-ridden rulers than Jeremy Irons, slightly less lecherous than in his role as Rodrigo Borgia, and Hiddleston plays a bright-eyed mischievous Prince Hal. Michelle Dockery, fresh from Downton Abbey, glows, alabaster as ever, and I really enjoyed the way Richard Eyre amped up the flirtiness between Kate and Hotspur, who is often portrayed as loving his horse more than his wife.

Prince Hal and Falstaff

Prince Hal and Falstaff, besties for life?

Simon Russell Beale, who has been treading the boards of the English stage nonstop for the past couple of years, was a good Falstaff. Good, not great, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on why. I love the character, an irresponsible, lecherous, glutton who leeches off friends both high and low, yet his true devotion to Hal peeks through. What I don’t appreciate is that Richard Eyre thought it necessary to back each of Falstaff’s sympathetic speeches with an affecting violin track. I recognize that medium of film allows for certain enhancements to the text that the stage does not, but that does not mean that Shakespeare’s words themselves need more enhancing than an actor’s clear voice. Take, for example, the following speech:

Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is honour? a word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no. Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism.

This is one of the most profound speeches in the Shakespearean canon. Honour inspires me to fight, by why should I, when I might just die? What is the value of dying in the name of honour? Will honour heal my bloody wounds? Will honour take care of my family when I’m gone? The dead man can find few, if any, practical applications for honour, so why pursue it? Falstaff asks these rhetorical questions, offering a catechism in the name of the Abbot of Unreason, all the while showing just exactly how reasonable he is. Falstaff is the one to make us question the nature of heroism: is the king heroic for forcing his army to fight and kill a hundred thousand “rebels”, who on any other day would be counted as fellow countrymen? Is Hal heroic for leaving the tavern in order to aid the King in a war that was only brought on after his father took the crown from Richard II? Falstaff may be a leech on society, but Shakespeare’s words show he is the one shrewd enough to know the finality of death, a truth that need no violins to prove it.

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The Tempest and Revenge

You know what’s interesting about The Tempest? What’s interesting is that even though the play’s rising action indicates that Prospero seeks vengeance against his deposers, it’s not a revenge tragedy. The play’s trajectory seems to turn upon itself when Prospero says “the rarer action is / in virtue than in vengeance,” but why, then, has he shipwrecked the King of Naples, the Duke of Milan, and their whole surly entourage on this island, yet “Not a hair perish’d” (which the Bard reiterates many times, indicating deeper significance when one mention would have sufficed).

"No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be"

The Tempest was possibly the final play that Shakespeare wrote independently and, fittingly, it’s a more intellectual drama that privileges reunion and reconciliation over the “murder most foul” of the campy revenge tragedies (that I admittedly favour) of the late sixteenth century. To Prospero, the best revenge is living well… and making his enemies watch. Although the audience does not get to experience the ‘happily ever after’ of their return to Naples, regaining his position as Duke must provide Prospero with sweeter schadenfreude than could be achieved in being a vengeful killer, which, 9 times out of ten Shakespeare plays, would otherwise leave the elderly mage as but one in a heap of dead bodies on the stage with a helpless sidekick praying that “flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

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