Friday, August 11, 2017

Book Note: The Labrador Pact

Haig, Matt. The Labrador Pact. New York: Viking, 2004.

Matt Haig's The Dead Father's Club (for which, q.v.) revisited Shakespeare's Hamlet, and I enjoyed it quite a lot. When my students told me that he had written another book—this one grappling with 1 and 2 Henry IV, I was intrigued.

Having read the book, I'll admit to being a bit disappointed. My complaint is the same as always: Not enough Shakespeare! I thought the novel might retell the plays—or, if not the plays, at least elements in them.

Instead, the novel is a clever account of a dog named Prince, who, in an attempt to care for his family, ends us breaking the Labrador Pact, the most sacred rule of that particular breed of dogs:  Duty over all.

The opposing breed is the Springer spaniel, whose motto is "Pleasure not duty."

In terms of Shakespeare allusions, the boy of the house is named Hal; another character is called Simon Hotspur. There's also a foul-mouthed bully of a dog whose name is Lear. And the mother of the family is called Kate, but I don't see the relevance of that choice.

The main Shakespearean part is, I suppose, the relationship between Prince, our Labrador protagonist, and Falstaff, the fun-loving dog of a woman who has recently moved in to the neighborhood. The pages below provide the first time Adam, the father of the family and Prince's master, and Emily, the new woman, meet. It's also Prince and Falstaff encounter each other.

The long and short is that there's not much Shakespeare here—apart from names and personality traits. As a side note, be aware that this is not a young adult novel—the foul-mouthed Rottweiler is only one aspect that may be inappropriate for younger readers.

Click below to purchase the book from
(and to support Bardfilm as you do so).

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Richard III at the Great River Shakespeare Festival

Richard III. Dir. Doug Scholz-Carlson. Perf. Caroline Amos, Benjamin Boucvalt, Christopher Gerson, Alex Givens, Stephanie Lambourn, Katie LeSuer, Melissa Maxwell, Duncan McIntyre, Christopher Peltier, Silas Sellnow, Jason Michael Spelbring, Emma Bucknam, and Adeline Matthees. Great River Shakespeare Festival. Winona, Minnesota. 2017. 

This year's Richard III was one of the best plays I've seen at the Great River Shakespeare Festival—and you know that I've seen a lot of great plays there over the years.

Unfortunately, there's not a lot of season left to see the show—and there's not a lot of time in my schedule to tell you everything you should know about the production. This post, therefore, will have to consist of a few highlights or points of note.


First, the lighting was superb. Take a look at the image above. That's from the opening of the second half. The brightly-lit spheres on sticks are wire skull-like structures that were gradually added to the back of the playing space and donned with hats whenever characters died in the course of the play. Later, they were brought forward to represent the ghosts cursing Richard to "Despair and Die" and Richmond to have victory. The silhouette is Richard, replete with forearm crutches, creeping creepily forward like some kind of bottled spider. The screen at the back changed color and had horizontal lighting effects that were extraordinarily effective. Below is another shot to show the change in lighting:


That image can lead us to talk about the set design. R. Eric Stone has done a marvelous job keeping the staging simple but having it hold significance and weight. The branches on the left of the image could swing like a door. I think both it and the screen of vertical branches at the back (which could be raised and lowered) are a visual representation of a speech given by Richard in 1 Henry VI—one that is often imported into productions of Richard III (though not, interestingly enough, this one):
And I—like one lost in a thorny wood,
That rents the thorns, and is rent with the thorns,
Seeking a way, and straying from the way;
Not knowing how to find the open air,
But toiling desperately to find it out⎯
Torment myself to catch the English crown;
And from that torment I will free myself,
Or hew my way out with a bloody axe. (3 Henry VI, III.ii.174-81)
It was beautifully done.


The GRSF takes the text of Shakespeare seriously, and this play was no exception. We got the entirety of Act I, scene iv—the two murderers meeting Clarance—played for its full comic effect. At first, it made the audience uneasy, but then they started to roll with the comic, clownish, almost slapstick characters . . . which made their sudden and dramatic murder of Clarence all the more unnerving. We also got the Three Citizens discussing the affairs of state, which is usually cut. Since these were not excised, the production had a roundedness others sometimes lack.


Related to the above, the play retained its remarkable and macabre humor. The production had a lot of fun with Richard and his play, both on and off stage. For example, here's a video they produced about Richard's intended rise to the throne:

They also supplied this program note—a genealogical table with Richard's notes and to-do list included:

There's a lot of good fun there.

And Then There's Richard

Christopher Gerson's Richard is mesmerizing. He's funny, engaging, charismatic, and utterly repulsive and horrifying. 

He uses arm crutches, making me think of Anthony Sher's portrayal, described in his The Year of the King (for which, q.v.). As a result, he spends nearly the entire play at a seventy- to eighty-five-degree angle. And he uses it effectively. Here's an image that shows the general angle well:

And here's an image that shows him using that angle to get in, in this case, Elizabeth's face:

It's threatening and unsettling, intimate and horrific in equal measures. I loved it. And it also gives him both the suggestion of a bunch-backed toad and a bottled spider—creeping along the outskirts of the stage and suddenly pouncing at various characters.

Gerson's range is delightful. He's pathetic and romantic, furious and insane, and conflicted and confident. This image is from his "I am not in the vein," delivered to Buckingham:

If you didn't know that you don't want to be Buckingham before, you know it then. Even Buckingham knows it then!

Gerson pointed out to me that Richard seldom speaks in straight blank verse after his encounter with Elizabeth in IV.iv. He used that to play Richard's deterioration through the end of the play. The night I watched, the audience seemed to be generally complicitous with Richard in the jocular, humorous opening scenes. But by the time the verse starts to break down, they had turned against him.

And the Rest

The rest of the cast was also tremendous. Margaret was vindictive and great. Anne was regretful and great. Stanley was awkward and great. Buckingham was conspiratorial and great. Clarence was fearful and guilt-ridden and great. I wish I had time and space to detail the way this show gave every role—each one would stand up to close scrutiny.

The Play as a Whole

The production had great unity, passion, and force. The Great River Shakespeare Festival has, once again, provided exceptional theatre to its audiences.

Links:  The Great River Shakespeare Festival. An album of photos from the show.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A Masterful Comedy of Errors at the Great River Shakespeare Festival

Comedy of Errors. Dir. Melissa Rain Anderson. Perf. Alex Givens, Maya Jackson, Stephanie Lambourn, Katie LeSuer, Melissa Maxwell, Duncan McIntyre, Chris Mixon, Christopher Peltier, Silas Sellnow, Jason Michael Spelbring, and James Queen. Great River Shakespeare Festival. Winona, Minnesota. 2016. 

The Great River Shakespeare Festival provided a fast-paced, farcical Comedy of Errors this season. It differed greatly from the 2010 production (for which, q.v.), which was presented more seriously. This show was all about the ridiculous, the ludicrous, and the farce.

The setting is something of a mix of 1920s flapper parties, Chicago-style underworld, and vaudeville. Before the show, we were treated to a piano, string bass, and vocal trio who were singing sultry songs that seemed to have the theme of magic: "Witchcraft," "I Put a Spell on you," "(You Give me) Fever"—perhaps included for its references to Romeo and Juliet ("Thou givest me fever . . . Fever, yea, I burn, forsooth"), and others.

The characters were straight out of the commedia delle'arte tradition. The two Dromios are prefect clowns, with ridiculous outfits—complete with enormous shoes. Their clowning was perfectly timed and impressively physical. Their confusion at, wonder about, and childlike admiration of the chaos unfolding around them was hilarious, and they worked very well with their respective Antipholuses (Antipholii?). The speech about the kitchen wench Nell was particularly stunning in that regard. Tarah Gerson as Dromio of Syracuse delivered the line "She is spherical" with a kind of overwhelmed awe that brought the image of the off-stage Nell before us all and made her a figure of majesty and amazement.

We also have the henpecked husband, the shrewish wife, the lovelorn sister all filling their places in the play—which doesn't mean they stay there. Shakespeare provides depth and roundedness even to characters that might otherwise be merely stock characters, and the actors play the roles with a healthy sense of that three-dimentionality.

The Great River Shakespeare Festival never fails to please—and it does so at the highest level, with the highest level of professionalism and production values.

And I'm off to see what they're going to do with Richard III . . .

Links: The Great River Shakespeare FestivalAn album of photos from the show.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Will on TNT

“The Play's the Thing.” Perf. Laurie Davidson, Olivia DeJonge, and Reid Anderson. Dir. Shekhar Kapur. Will. Season 1, episode 1. TNT. 10 July 2017.

The much-touted Will—early promotions alluded it it as Shakespeare with Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll—debuts tonight on TNT. But if you can't wait, you can watch it right here, right now. Note: You can watch the first of the two episodes that will debut tonight; you'll have to watch the other live.

I've been watching it in bits and pieces since early this morning. Without risking spoilers, here are some things the show made me think about.

Although the beginning seems to be the usual country-lad-comes-to-the-big-city narrative (one that's a bit heavy on crypto-Catholic plots), it still has some interest. First, there's more color in this than in most 1590s London recreations. And that first vision of London is accompanied by The Clash's "London Calling," a very effective choice for setting the stage.

A Sampling of the Colours of London in the 1590s

We also have a street urchin who offers to guide the Country Bumpkin Will around the city. He seems very much like a Puck figure.

The show gives us some lines from Edward III, a play by Thomas Kyd (with, quite conceivably, some help from Shakespeare) that was first published in 1596. Shakespeare declaims the lines to Burbage Senior's daughter:
So, John of France . . .
Had you done at first as now you do,
How many civil towns had stood untouched
That now are turned to ragged heaps of stones!
How many people's lives mightst thou have saved
That are untimely sunk into their graves!
We get some "upstart crow" and some "Shakeshaft," and, in a scene reminiscent of Shakespeare in Love, we get a scene where Burbage promises the audience a new play by Christopher Marlowe entitled Tamburlane's Ghost. We get Kit Marlowe, spy, searching for secret Catholics. And we get a poetry slam between Shakespeare and (I'm pretty sure) Greene.

There's also a scene where an actor keeps asking "What am I holding the mirror up to?" that becomes both comic and touching.

Will on Stage

The main artistic critique I have may just be in the nature of a first episode of a series: things wrap up too tidily. The poetry slam is won pretty handily; a play that is about to fail is rescued very neatly.

Additionally, historical accuracy is sacrificed for the sake of the drama. But it isn't as if Shakespeare didn't do that himself—constantly and continually!

All in all, it's an interesting show, well worth watching (though readers should note the rating). Give it a try tonight . . . or at the link above.

Note: More episodes have become available, and I'm less sanguine about the show. It's a very dark show, with an unseemly emphasis on torture. It also presents Kit Marlowe as increasingly weird and psychotic. Also, despite a good bit of Midsummer Night's Dream in a later episode, there's not enough Shakespeare!

Links: The Show at IMDB. A review by the New York Times. The show at TNT.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Questioning Heaven: A Bangzi Opera Version of King Lear

Questioning Heaven. Dir. Po-Shen Lu. Perf. Hailing Wang and the Taiwan Bangzi Company. 2015. 7 April 2017. Shakespeare Association of America Convention.

In 2011, the Shakespeare Association of America brought the Taiwan Bangzi Company to Bellevue to perform Bond, a Bangzi Opera version of Merchant of Venice (for which, q.v.). I was able to purchase a DVD of that performance (for which, q.v.).

This year, the SAA provided a screening of Questioning Heaven: A Bangzi Opera Version of King Lear by the same company. A commercially-available DVD—or, indeed, any YouTube clips of the performance—has proven elusive enough that it could currently be counted among the Shakespeare and Film Holy Grails. And that's a shame because the performance was both stunning and fascinating.

Questioning Heaven gives us a Queen Lear. She enters with pomp and music, singing about how she has ruled the land on her own for eighteen years.  “Unceasing wars have aged me, worn me down,” she sings.  Later, she adds, “And now, at last, the land is unified.” Everyone seems satisfied to join in these self-congratulatory speeches.

But when she sings the line “Xuanyuan Empire will cut in three,” everyone looks worried. It's an especially insightful moment—the singing to that point has celebrated unification; how can the Queen not see that she now intends disunity and division?

The plot runs along the lines of Shakespeare's play.  We learn that Wei, the third daughter, was born after her father died. Much dance and celebration with the “hundred knights” fill the opening scenes. The fool (who is quite brilliant) jokes about how the Queen should “Give me some land, too.” And we eventually get Edgar in disguise as a mendicant monk.

I wish I could provide a representative clip. Instead, I can only point you toward some photos of the set design; they provide a sense of the grandeur of the production.

That's all I can find for now, but I'll keep my radar scanning for a DVD release of this magisterial film.

Links: The Taiwan Bangzi Company.
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