Thursday, January 29, 2009

Sonnet 94

Selected Sonnets. Dir. Kevin Billington. Perf. Michael Bryant and John Mortimer. Videocassette. Films for the Humanities, 1988.
You're apt to find some odd things when you wander around the videocassette section of a college library. Handbell care videos, advanced bowling seminars, cat show documentaries, and presentations of Shakespeare sonnets are among these oddities.

In the last category, I found a video with John Mortimer offering some explication of Sonnet 94: "They that have power to hurt, and yet do none." First, an actor reads (quite well, I think) the sonnet; then Mortimer offers some thoughts. I'm only offering a small but representative sample of his delightful ten-minute commentary:

There you have a slice of what is really quite an interesting video—though the commentators are far too inclined to state with absolute and reductive certainty which precise people Shakespeare had in mind while writing the sonnets. As an example of the limits and benefits of what is now called "Old Historicism," it works well.

And that final, stunning couplet keeps ringing in my ears:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Click below to purchase the film from Films for the Humanities and Sciences

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Shakespeare in Vietnam

A Dream in Hanoi: A True Story of Love, Stage Fright, and Noodle Soup. Dir. Tom Weidlinger. Perf. The Central Dramatic Company of Vietnam; Artists Repertory Theatre of Portland, Oregon; F. Murray Abraham. 2002. Videocassette. Bullfrog Films, 2002.
This magnificent documentary tells the story of a collaborative production of A Midsummer Night's Dream by two acting companies—one Vietnamese, one American. The entire process is fascinating beyond belief, especially when it centers on the places where the two cultures clash.

In this brief clip, we see the clash manifesting itself in the directors' visions of Puck:

These singing, laughing, drum-beating servants become the source of a number of conflicts throughout the rest of the rehearsals and the production run. Yet there is more at work here than two directors’ competing ideas of what constitutes a valid adaptation of a Shakespeare play. East and west are brought together, but the result is far from harmonious. The reason for the dissonance lies in the west—in its reluctance to collaborate, to compromise, to comprehend another culture, and to carry out its stated intentions consistently and conscientiously.

Doan's idea of adding servants for Puck seems to be the ideal place for a Vietnamese appropriation of Shakespeare (rather than the other way around). Doan is appealing to the Cheo drama itself. Cheo drama and Vietnamese water puppetry are two forms of dramatic entertainment that are uniquely Vietnamese. Each developed over several centuries, and each has its own conventional characters, stories, and songs. Cheo drama traditionally tells stories in an intensely lyrical manner, and these stories are nearly always humorous and quite frequently involve turning ordinary things inside out and upside down. They are always accompanied by song and dance and the characters are painted with broad, stereotypical brushes. If all that is reminiscent of the commedia d’elle arte, it should also sound like the Athenian actors in the forest—and like A Midsummer Night’s Dream itself.

At other parts of the documentary, one of the American producers describes Doan's efforts as “Broadway extravaganza” and mentions them in the same breath as “Disneyland and Peter Pan.” This seems profoundly layered—to bring typical American flamboyancy to describe a subtle, long-lasting Vietnamese tradition and to object to it because such things have no place in Shakespeare.
Links: The Film at IMDB.

Click below to purchase (or rent) the film from Bullfrog Films.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Non Nobis: Branagh's Henry V

Henry V. Dir. Kenneth Branagh. Perf. Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, and Judi Dench. 1989. DVD. MGM, 2000.

I've written about this scene before, but a comment from Alex Bledsoe made me revisit the scene.

Earlier, I was interested in the women who approach Henry in the middle of the scene; this time, I'm interested in the long, tracking shot that takes us over the exhausted battlefield (the movement from left to right after the battle is a mirror image of the movement from right to left in Olivier's Henry V before the battle) while the Non Nobis swells in the background. Take a look:

Now that you've seen that, think about the purpose(s) behind portraying the scene with that music and those words (Non nobis, Domine—Non nobis, sed nomine tuo de Gloriam:  "Not to us, O Lord, but to your name be glory") over it. Could it be that this Henry V is passing not only the responsibility of the victory to God—"Praised be God, and not our strength, for it" (IV.vii.86)—but also the blame of the battle's many dead—"Take it, God, / For it is none but thine" (IV.viii.112-13)?

Perhaps that case would be easier to make if they were singing Non nobis, sed nomine tuo de culpa, but I'd like everyone to consider the possibility at least.

Links: The Film at IMDB.

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

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Olivier's Richard III: The Image of the Crown

Richard III. Dir. Laurence Olivier. Perf. Laurence Olivier and Sir John Gielgud. 1955. DVD. Criterion, 2004.

I've been having some trouble uploading some interesting clips, but that's no reason you should suffer without a dose of Shakespeare and Film.

Our class watched parts of Olivier's Richard III in class this week. In that film, the crown becomes the image par excellence. In the image above, Richard has walked directly in a line from a giant crown hanging from the ceiling toward the camera—until the crown appears to be on his own head. Here's a close-up of that image for better viewing:

It's none too subtle, but it's interesting. It's also interesting to see, in the earlier image, how unlikely Richard is to fit into the crown. In this image, it looks completely unobtainable:

The closer Richard is to the audience, the more fitting the crown seems to be.  That's metaphorical, but it turns out to be metaphorical on a number of different levels.

Links: The Film at IMDB.

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


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

John Mortimer, RIP

Will Shakespeare [a.k.a. Life of Shakespeare]. By John Mortimer. Perf. Tim Curry and Ian McShane. Dir. Mark Cullingham and Robert Knights. 1978. DVD. A & E Home Video, 2008.

R.I.P. stands for Rumpole in Peace. Yesterday, the author of the Rumpole of the Bailey books, numerous telescripts, and the 1978 Will Shakespeare, which starred Tim Curry as Shakespeare, died at his home.

Bardfilm's interest in him lies mainly in his authoring Will Shakespeare. In his honor, let's look at a thought-provoking scene from that miniseries.

In this section, Tim Curry plays William Shakespeare playing George, Duke of Clarence in Richard III. The scene opens with Clarence's dream about his own death. Backstage, the mother of a young and aspiring actor is dying of plague. In order to cheer him up (and to prevent him from reporting the death by plague, which would close the theatre), the company offers him everything at their disposal. All he wants, however, is to play Lady Anne:

The metatheatrical element is hard to miss: Sir John Mortimer takes the speech Shakespeare gave to Clarence foreshadowing Clarence's death to a character called Will Shakespeare who has given them to the Clarence that he himself plays. While that Clarence speaks, mortality is heavy in the air.

Links: The Film at IMDB.
Click below to purchase the film from
(and to support Bardfilm as you do so).

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 2008-2039 (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