Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Book Note: Nutshell

McEwan, Ian. Nutshell: A Novel. New York: Doubleday, 2016.

Whole handfuls of Hamlets have filled bookshelves and DVD racks around the world. There's even a collective noun for a bunch of Hamlets.

It's "a vengeance of Hamlets" for those of you keeping score (for which, q.v.).

Productions of and retellings of Hamlet fill every genre out there: tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited.

There are male Hamlets and female Hamlets, truly insane Hamlets and cagey Hamlets, skeptical Hamlets and religious Hamlets, old Hamlets and young Hamlets.

Speaking of young Hamlets, Ian McEwan retells the story of Hamlet from a record-breakingly young Hamlet. His Hamlet has not yet been born—though he's very nearly ready to do so.

The epigraph for the book is, perhaps unsurprisingly, from Hamlet: "Oh, God—I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space" (II.ii.254-55). That's our narrator—bounded in the womb, he thinks and plans and schemes . . . but cannot act—or can he?

That's a clever device, but McEwan makes more of it than just a passing, fleeting idea. Our narrator overhears the plots his mother and uncle concoct—in this modern setting, juice of cursed hebenon in a vial has been replaced by antifreeze in a smoothie (and it's ingested rather than poured in the ear)—and contemplates the fate that awaits them all

I found it to be a compelling novel, providing an interesting reading of Hamlet's helplessness. Let me give you a sample of the narrator's voice. At the beginning of Chapter Nine, he imagines what he might say to his father (who's a published poet rather than a king)—and contemplates the fallen world:

I've done some preliminary searching to see if anyone has taken a stance on just which Shakespeare sonnet Hamlet alludes to, but I'm not finding anything definitive. It does sound like an awful lot of them, but I wonder if it's Sonnet 74 ("But be contented: when that fell arrest / Without all bail shall carry me away . . ."). If you have another suggestion, please leave a comment!

The novel may not become a mainstay of my modern Shakespearean fiction class, but it's important to know and pretty amusing.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Book Note: Tom Jones

Fielding, Henry. The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling. New York: Modern Library, n.d.

I've been reading a lot of modern Shakespearean fiction recently—and also Tom Jones, which is really just one of those three. But it does have a lot of Shakespeare in it (by way of quotations or allusions), and some of the comic scenes (particularly those involving exasperating servants) have a Shakespearean flavor to them.

But there's also a scene where some of our main characters head off to the theatre. The summary of Book XVI, chapter v is a beginning:  "In which Jones receives a letter from Sophia, and goes to a play with Mrs Miller and Partridge." But when we get there, we learn not only that they're seeing a production of Hamlet, but they're seeing David Garrick in the title role!

Garrick is known for his tireless promotion of Shakespeare, including his organization of the 1769 Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford.

In any case, the scene in Tom Jones brings to mind the Shakespeare scenes from Huckleberry Finn (for which, q.v.). Partridge, Tom's loyal traveling companion, doesn't think much of the play—and is particularly scornful of the Ghost, saying, "Though I can’t say I ever actually saw a ghost in my life, yet I am certain I should know one, if I saw him, better than that comes to. No, no, sir, ghosts don’t appear in such dresses as that, neither" (737).

All that changes when he sees how Garrick reacts to the ghost. But I'll let you read it yourself. Note: The full text of the novel is readily-available, but I'm providing images from my copy for your edification. The section in question begins at the second full paragraph on page 737:

It's a fascinating fictional account of a trip to the playhouse in the middle of the 1700s. Would that we had been there. It would have much amazed us.

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Monday, February 19, 2018

Book Note: Dunbar

St. Aubyn, Edward. Dunbar. London: Hogarth Shakespeare, 2017.

While we seem to be on the general subject of King Lear, we might consider one of the recent additions to the Hogarth Shakespeare series.

Dunbar is a retelling of King Lear that has some wonderful moments but is also largely unsuccessful.

The best thing about the novel is its starting point. St. Aubyn takes King Lear and begins in medias res. Henry Dunbar, our Lear analogue, is on the point of escaping from a sanitarium into which he's been confined by his greedy, horrible daughters who have an insider trading scheme for taking over his vast media and investment enterprise. He's made an alliance with a deeply-alchoholic retired comedian named Peter Walker to escape and to gain some sort of revenge on his daughters Abby and Megan. In the meantime, Florence (our Cordelia), aided by Wilson (Kent) is on her way to rescue him.

Dunbar's decision to leave the Fool and to try to make his way to London—and his subsequent descent into madness with the elements—is very moving. I'd like to provide an extract from Chapter Seven to illustrate the powerful reimagining of Shakespeare's Lear on the Blasted Heath scenes:

St. Aubyn gives us some tremendous character development and psychological insight in those few pages.

The novel's reimagining of Regan and Goneril are not so subtle. Not to put too fine a point on it, they are sexual deviants (one of them nearly bites off the nipple of Dr. Bob—our Edmund figure—early in the novel, and things go downhill from there).

The conclusion of the novel also leaves much to be desired. St. Aubyn throws a number of balls in the air—particularly in the last twenty percent of the novel—and then walks away, leaving them to fall where they will.

For me, the value of a work of Shakespearean fiction is at least partially found in what it enables us to think about Shakespeare's play. Dunbar makes me want to re-examine the character of King Lear, but it doesn't invite much else.

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Friday, February 16, 2018

Lear's Shadow: Coming Soon to a Festival Near You

Lear's Shadow. Dir. Brian Elerding. Perf. David Blue, Fred Cross, and  Katie Peabody. 2018. For Film Festival Release. 

Lear's Shadow will soon be making the tour of the film festivals, starting with the Pasadena International Film Festival on March 11. In the meantime, special screenings are making the tour of the Shakespeare blogs.

The film is a stripped-down, bare bones show, all the more impressive for how much it accomplishes.

The premise gradually unfolds in a single setting—a theatre's rehearsal space. A somewhat-confused director—Jack—makes his way in, followed by an actor—Stephen. Jack starts complaining about the scripts and the other actors who haven't shown up. We start to realize that Jack has some sort of short-term memory loss and he's just been released from the hospital.

Stephen, at first as a delaying tactic, starts to talk about King Lear. That's the launching pad for a number of discussions of the play—how it ought to be acted, how it has been acted, what significance it has—as well as a number of performances of key scenes. It becomes something of a mirror movie at that point, the two men working out some longstanding disagreements as well as the recent events that have brought them to such a state.

And that's all I'm going to tell you about the plot. I hope the film will do well on the festival circuit and that it will eventually achieve larger distribution. I hope that because it's good.  It's quite good.

First, I was impressed by the acting. I'm privileged to see a lot of work that hasn't made it to a theatrical release, and a good premise is sometimes played out in a less-than-satisfying manner. That's not the case here. Both in acting their roles and in their roles acting parts of King Lear, David Blue and Fred Cross do magnificent work.

Second, the use of Shakespeare is fascinating here. The writer isn't setting out to make Shakespeare relevant—I get them impression that he knows that Shakespeare is already relevant. Instead, Lear's Shadow reveals Shakespeare's relevance. Parts of King Lear are carefully, organically crafted in to the film, and we're shown one way the suffering of King Lear becomes significant, meaningful, and healing to other sufferers in the world.

If you're able to catch this at a film festival, do so. It's a powerful piece where writing, acting, and concept come together to produce a significant reflection on Shakespeare that stands on its own as well.

Note: I can't provide a clip of the film or a trailer for it at this point, though I will try to add those in a future update. In the meantime, here are a few additional stills from the film.

Links: The Film at IMDB. The Film's Official Website.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Book Note: Performing King Lear: Gielgud to Russell Beale

Croall, Jonathan. Performing King Lear: Gielgud to Russell Beale. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Jonathan Croall provides the world with an invaluable resource for thinking about King Lear in performance. This book covers dozens of stage performances of the play from 1931 (John Gielgud's first Lear—he was twenty-seven—directed by Harcourt Williams) to 2014 (Simon Russell Beale, directed by Sam Mendes).

The research is intricate and careful, providing contemporary reviews, interviews with actors and directors, and (to a lesser degree) critical commentary on the productions.

The book is organized by performance, which means that readers can either read the work straight through and get a sense of the development of the modern stage by means of how one one play has been staged or pick and choose to read about particular productions / actors / directors that interest them.

Want to know how Peter Brook's production with Paul Scofield influenced nearly every production that followed it?  You'll find that here.  Want to learn how they got a good Lear out of Nicol Williamson? It's here. Want to think about how Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen, Richard Briers, Christopher Plummer, or Peter Ustinov approached the role? This is every inch the book.

Let me provide a sample page and a sample image from the book. First, here's a bit of the section on richard Briers' performance (directed by Kenneth Branagh):

Next, here's one of an unfortunately-limited selection of images—Joseph Marcell (directed by Bill Buckhurst in 2014):

Croall mentions film versions of King Lear in passing, and the ones he mentions are usually film versions of the stage plays he's detailing. Bardfilm would like to suggest a sequel that covers the films more fully.

But that isn't a weakness. Croall is writing about stage productions that can no longer be seen. We can watch and re-watch a huge number of film versions of Lear, but we can't get a ticket to any of John Gielgud's Lears—not even on StubHub. The only production Croall writes about that I saw is the 2007 Ian McKellen King Lear directed by Trevor Nunn, and Croall provides tremendous insight into that show.

Performing King Lear is an incredibly valuable and utterly fascinating text that gives its readers a detailed sense of the scope and depth of modern productions of King Lear

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Bardfilm is normally written as one word, though it can also be found under a search for "Bard Film Blog." Bardfilm is a Shakespeare blog (admittedly, one of many Shakespeare blogs), and it is dedicated to commentary on films (Shakespeare movies, The Shakespeare Movie, Shakespeare on television, Shakespeare at the cinema), plays, and other matter related to Shakespeare (allusions to Shakespeare in pop culture, quotes from Shakespeare in popular culture, quotations that come from Shakespeare, et cetera).

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
All material original to this blog is copyrighted: Copyright 2008-2016 (and into perpetuity thereafter) by Keith Jones.

The very instant that I saw you did / My heart fly to your service; there resides, / To make me slave to it; and, for your sake, / Am I this patient [b]log-man.

—The Tempest