Thursday, February 23, 2017

Grade School Macbeth in Slings & Arrows

“Fallow Time.” By Susan Coyne and Bob Martin. Dir. Peter Wellington. Perf. Martha Burns, Paul Gross, Don McKellar, Mark McKinney, Oliver Dennis, Susan Coyne, Stephen Ouimette, Catherine Fitch, and Geraint Wyn Davies. Slings and Arrows. Season 2, episode 2. Movie Central: Canada. 4 July 2005. DVD. Acorn Media, 2006-2007.

I've recently had cause to go back to Slings and Arrows to have a look at the way they staged the Macbeth-within-the-Macbeth-related season of the series.

If you've never seen this show, stop now and go watch it in its entirety and then come back. A remarkable show in its own right, the fun it has with Shakespeare push it into entirely new categories.

If you've never seen the show but you're not obeying the command in the last paragraph, you'll need to know that the series is about a director who takes over as the artistic director of a Shakespeare festival when the previous director dies. That previous director's ghost (or is it just a hallucination?) returns from time to time to help (or to plague?) the new director. In the episode from which this clip is drawn, Jeffrey Tennant (the new director) goes to a local grade school to see its production of Macbeth (the grade school always puts on a version of whatever the festival is doing). As Jeffrey watches the show, he becomes more and more disturbed by the thought of having to direct the play himself—until Oliver, the previous director, shows up. Here's a compilation of all the scenes with the grade school Macbeth:


It's great stuff, particularly in the layering that gives us a director of Macbeth behaving like Macbeth when Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo.

Links: The Show at IMDB.


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Book Note: A Midsummer Night's Scream by R. L. Stein

Stein, R. L. A Midsummer Night's Scream. New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2013.

The description from Amazon will give you a pretty good idea of where this book is going:
In R.L. Stine's A Midsummer Night's Scream, the Master of Horror takes on the Master of Theatre!

Oh, what fools these actors be!
When I wrote on A Midsummer Night's Scream by David Bergantino, I noted that there were other books under that title. The pun must be irresistible for horror writers.

R. L. Stein's is better, but it's still not all that thrilling—and I mean that two ways (that pun must be irresistible for Shakespeare scholars): the horror is more unbelievable than horrific and there's not that much Shakespeare.

The novel does employ some plot elements of Shakespeare at least. There's a character named Mr. Puckerman (can you divine his role?) who has a bunch of different magic potions—love potions, hate potions, aging potions. And the characters in the novel have an awareness of Shakespeare that is gratifying.

That's the part I'll provide as a sample.  Here's our protagonist meeting Mr. Puckerman ("Everyone calls me Puck") for the first time and getting a flavor of his love potion:



Puckerman also has a forgetting potion, and he tries it on Claire, but she's able to remember the events of the meeting fairly completely.

Just like other characters remember Shakespeare fairly completely. Here's a quick reference from later in the book:


And that's about it. The love potions (and hate potions) are used from time to time, but not according to Shakespeare's script.

Still, this is better than the other horror novel—and now I just have two more books with this title to try!

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Monday, February 20, 2017

Upstart Crow: A Shakespearean Sit-Com

“Star Crossed Lovers.” By Ben Elton. Perf. David Mitchell, Liza Tarbuck, Paula Wilcox, Helen Monks, Harry Enfield, Gemma Whelan, Rob Rouse, Mark Heap, Dominic Coleman, Steve Speirs, and Spencer Jones. Dir. Matt Lipsey. Upstart Crow. Season 1, episode 1. ABC. 9 May 2016. DVD. Paramount, 2007. 

Alert reader and Shakespeare-related novel writer Jean Hegland (for whom, q.v.) pointed me toward Upstart Crow, a sit-com in the old style, complete with either live studio audience or a laugh track.

And it's brilliant.

The show is about Shakespeare trying to make a name for himself as a playwright. We're most often either in his house in Stratford or in his London lodgings. The scheme is for each episode to include a real-life event drawn from Shakespeare's fictional drama. For example, Shakespeare gets into debt to Robert Greene, with whom he's signed a "pound of flesh" agreement. Or he needs a potion to make it appear that someone is dead. Those episodes usually conclude with Anne telling Will that he should put something like that in the play he's working on—but Shakespeare usually discounts the idea, arguing that it would be too unbelievable.

I'm supremely pleased by David Mitchell's Will Shakespeare. He plays the character somewhere between Peter Bowles' Richard DeVere in To the Manor Born and Fawlty Towers' very own Basil Fawlty.

The writer of the show is Ben Elton, who wrote for Balack Adder. Some Shakespeare did make its way into Black Adder (for which, q.v.), but not nearly enough for my tastes. This show rectifies that, providing huge lashings of Shakespeare in every episode.

Other contemporaries of Shakespeare make their way into the show. Robert Greene is always trying to one-up the upstart; Henry Condell and Richard Burbage are constantly complaining about their parts; and Will Kempe is always looking down his nose at everyone else because he understands modern comedy and they don't. He's clearly a sixteenth-century equivalent to Ricky Gervais' David Brent in the BBC Office.

Let me give you a couple quick scenes as a sample. This first scene is the show's opening. Shakespeare is back at home in Stratford, working on Romeo and Juliet—and they work in some good material surrounding the perennial potential "wherefore" confusion. It moves from there to Shakespeare's London lodging, where we get him complaining about his journey in a very modern way. Finally, it cuts to part of the plot (a man in love with the wrong woman has been sent to Shakespeare's lodgings for safekeeping) that provides a callback to the wherefore material:


I'm very fond of the way the show slyly points out that the first name isn't actually the problem preventing Juliet and Romeo from getting married. And the line "If you do your research, my stuff is actually really funny" is genius of the highest order.

This next clip provides a bit of the players from episode five ("What Bloody Man is That?"). It gives us Kempe as David Brent, comedy mastermind:


And I can't resist giving one more in that vein. It's from episode six: "The Quality of Mercy," and it's clearly Kempe as both David Brent and Ricky Gervais when he proposes an entirely new kind of comedy for their proposed new theatre:


The more I dip into the show, the more I like it. It's currently only available in a Region 2 DVD, but I hope a US release is in the works. And I gather that there's a possibility of a second season for the show, so let's keep our eyes peeled for that.

Links: The Wikipedia Entry for the Show.


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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Return to Shakespearean Advertisements

More of the Bard on Madison Avenue. A Few Selected Advertisements. Various Years. Various Sources. Various Products.

One of my favorite parts of the Modern Shakespearean Fiction course I developed is the brief presentations students make throughout the course. Each day of class, two or three students present for five minutes on something Shakespearean that they've encountered. Their brief presentations always lead to creative and organic discussion. And I always learn a ton.

Occasionally, students bring in Shakespeare-related advertisements  (for which, q.v.). And they're usually fascinating.

Here are a few a student (a student majoring in marketing, as it happens) brought to the class's attention, supplemented by one of my own.

The first presents Shakespeare (the man) as utterly overly-dramatic:


The tagline "You don't want drama" sums it up. But it's just short for "Unless you are searching for drama, as when, for instance, you are going to see a Shakespeare play, you don't want drama."

I had seen the second advertisement before. Again, we have Shakespeare the man, and he starts with a distancing tone here . . .


. . . but he soon proves his relevance by dishing out hashtags. Intriguingly, this is more of a public service announcement than an advertisement pure and simple.

The third ad the student showed is my favorite of the set:


That one, too, is on the public service side.  With the usual "wherefore for where" substitution aside, we have an intriguing narrative about pickles of two different brands. I do somewhat resent the idea that the out-of-date fridge is called "Globe," but it's still a clever use of the trope of "Shakespeare Means Tragedy."

Finally, we have a return to cell phone ads that play with Romeo and Juliet:


While other ads used Romeo and Juliet as a touchstone for communication (either gone wrong without the right device or enhanced by the right device), this ad focuses on the video-making features. With the right phone, the cardboard sets and mediocre acting that stereotypes a grade school production (with the right director, of course, these stereotypes are broken even without an expensive phone) are turned into beautiful scenery and convincing acting.

I think that means that the new iPhone is capable of lying to us . . . or at least of spinning reality to suit us. 

Links: More Shakespearean Advertisements at Bardfilm.
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