Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A New Musical Version of Merchant of Venice: Shylock Sings the Blues

Sokol, David. Lyrics. Shylock Sings the Blues. Music by Dennis Willmott. Perf. The Venetians. David-Sokol.com Productions, 2012. CD.

I get—or, rather, Bardfilm gets—a fair number of requests from people wanting their book, DVD, or other project reviewed or their Kickstarter project promoted. I'm often amenable, but I'm also often severely lacking in time. "Send it along," I say, "but I don't know when I'll get to it."

This is one project that I wish I had gotten to earlier. I'm a fan of Shakespeare, and I'm a fan of the blues, but I kept putting off listening to the CD Shylock Sings the Blues that David Sokol sent me.

I shouldn't have.

This CD is astonishing in its vision, its lyrics, and its music. The liner notes invite us to imagine a Merchant of Venice set in the gangster underworld of New Jersey in the 1950s. In it, we have a very sympathetic Shylock—one who doesn't desire revenge for the anti-Semitism he's faced as much as he desires to expose the other characters' hypocrisy. The songs roughly follow the plot of the play, taking us musically inside the minds of most of the main characters.

Honestly, I hope someone picks this album up and produces a full-scale Broadway musical out of it.

The music is well-performed, and the songs are well-sung. There's a rough edge to some of the numbers that is drawn from early blues performances. I hear a fair bit of Robert Johnson in the guitar work, and Etta James seems to be moving through the female vocals. And Big Bill Broonzy's sound is here, too. The music is great.

I also hear something of a song called "Dealin' with the Devil" as performed by James Cotton on the 1995 album Deep in the Blues, but more in terms of some of the themes of the album. One of the strongest pieces on the album is "The Devil Told Me." Not all the songs on the album are narrative in nature, but this one embodies Launcelot Gobbo's monologue about leaving Shylock's service. As such, it contains the anti-Semitism of Launcelot's speech (equating Shylock with the devil, for example) as well as Launcelot's hypocrisy (blaming Shylock for doing wrong while admitting his own wrongdoing).

I received permission to provide that track on this blog as a sample. I've done so by making it the soundtrack to part of the silent 1910 film version of Merchant (for which, q.v.). It seemed entirely appropriate to do so. That clip follows, and it is followed by the song's lyrics (taken from the album's website, but with slight alterations) and Launcelot's speech from Shakespeare's play.

The Devil Told Me

I had a conversation with the devil
It made a lot of sense
He visited me at my house and
that was no coincidence

I had to get out of the hole I was in
The devil said I could rely on him.

About the guy I work for
my conscience said I should stay
[That devil said I should just run away.]
And the angel told me
she said I should stay.

You tell her to shut her mouth
and go away

Yeah but doin’ the wrong thing can bring
so much guilt and shame

The person you wrong is
always the one you should blame

Run away from you
Run as if I flew
Gonna run away from you
Run as if I flew.

Take my advice or you’ll leave in a hearse.

I may be listenin’ to the devil but
What I runnin’ from is worse.

You guys make the money
and you guys got the fame
for all the world's problems
you guys got the blame.
You got greed and avarice
And world control
You got banks and TV and you
you got radio
You got media and expedia
and private jets abound
you got limos and Maseratis
and I take the bus to town.

Run away from you
Run as if I flew.

Oh my daddy told me
He said You will always be a slave.

I am telling you you don't have to behave.

Now I hate you and I love you
And I envy what you got
Your Caddy and your Lincoln
And your sunny beach spot.

You guys make all the money
and you pile it up around
You got the big old house
on the hillside of town.

Run away from you.
Run as if I flew.
Here's Launcelot Gobbo's speech:
Certainly my conscience will serve me to run from this Jew my master. The fiend is at mine elbow and tempts me, saying to me, “Gobbo, Launcelot Gobbo, good Launcelot,” or “Good Gobbo,” or “Good Launcelot Gobbo, use your legs, take the start, run away”. My conscience says “No; take heed, honest Launcelot; take heed, honest Gobbo,” or, as aforesaid, “honest Launcelot Gobbo; do not run; scorn running with thy heels.” Well, the most courageous fiend bids me pack: “Via!” says the fiend; “away!” says the fiend; “for the heavens, rouse up a brave mind,” says the fiend, “and run.” Well, my conscience, hanging about the neck of my heart, says very wisely to me “My honest friend Launcelot, being an honest man’s son,” or rather an honest woman’s son; for, indeed, my father did something smack, something grow to, he had a kind of taste; well, my conscience says, “Launcelot, budge not.” “Budge,” says the fiend. “Budge not,” says my conscience. “Conscience,” say I, “you counsel well;” “ Fiend,” say I, “you counsel well.” To be ruled by my conscience, I should stay with the Jew my master, who, God bless the mark, is a kind of devil; and, to run away from the Jew, I should be ruled by the fiend, who, saving your reverence, is the devil himself. Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnal; and, in my conscience, my conscience is but a kind of hard conscience, to offer to counsel me to stay with the Jew. The fiend gives the more friendly counsel: I will run, fiend; my heels are at your command; I will run. (II.ii.1-32)
Do yourself a favor and buy this album. It is simply remarkable.

Film clip from Merchant of Venice. Dir. Gerolamo Lo Savio. Perf. Ermete Novelli, Francesca Bertini, and Olga Giannini Novelli. 1910. DVD. Image Entertainment, 2000.

Links: The Album's Official Website.

Another Review of the Album.

Yet Another Review of the Album.

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Monday, July 30, 2012

The Tempest in the Opening Ceremony

Branagh, Kenneth. "Be not afeard." By William Shakespeare. Opening Ceremony. Olympics, London, 2012. Dir. Danny Boyle. 27 July 2012.

When you heard that the 2012 Olympic Games in London would be opened by the ringing of an enormous bell inscribed with a quotation from Shakespeare, each one of you had an idea of what it would be. Those who admire the equestrian events were hoping for "My kingdom for a horse" while soccer fans expected "You base football player," a quote from King Lear. I wished for "Your hands than mine are quicker for a fray, / My legs are longer though, to run away" from Midsummer Night's Dream—or even "[They] shall with speed to England" from Hamlet, but I thought it much more likely that the famous speech from Richard II would make the final cut:
This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England. (II.i.40-42, 50)
When I learned that it was from one of Caliban's speeches in The Tempest instead, I was a bit perplexed, especially considering the complicated ways in which Caliban's character has been read and the fact that the quote comes from a scene in which Caliban is urging the violent overthrow of Prospero. The line on the bell is short:
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises. (III.ii.135)
As inscribed, it has no context—not even the context of its author's name. All the same, it carries a calming sense.

In the opening ceremony, Kenneth Branagh delivered the speech in its entirety, re-contextualizing it as a speech of promise. The opening ceremony itself took a historical approach—and one that wasn't always sentimentalized. The opening song was the hymn "Jerusalem," its lyrics by William Blake. That song mentions "England's mountains green" and its "pleasant pastures" as well as the "dark Satanic Mills" usually read as the devastation of the Industrial Revolution. And the opening ceremony reflected both the joys of an English country green and the humble sports played upon it and the smokestacks and greed wrought by the Industrial Revolution. But the conclusion of the song points toward the hope of the redemption of the land and a determination to reverse the damage done to it.

Branagh's delivery of the speech from The Tempest similarly recognizes the ills done by the isle while hoping for a reversal of those ills.

Update: The BBC has released a six-disc set of the London 2012 Olympic Games; I was able to put together the following clip from it. I've left the two other permutations of the clip below.

Some kind soul operating under the on-line name Mikeatle captured Branagh's delivery of the speech. It is embedded below; below it is my own clip of the speech—in case Mikeatle's disappears; below that is the full text of the speech:

Note: The clip immediately above has been edited to bring the ringing of the bell closer to the delivery of the speech. I've also removed the commentary and extended both the ringing of the bell and the applause after the speech.
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices,
That if I then had wak'd after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I wak'd,
I cried to dream again. (III.ii.135-43)
What do you think? Is this an overly-optimistic reading of the speech? Does this address the issues of postcolonialism raised by the play itself? Does Kenneth Branagh always deliver speeches from Shakespeare in the voice of Henry V and with a matching soundtrack?

No one can emote awe and childlike wonder better than Kenneth Branagh.

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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 2008-2039 (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