Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Excellent Shakespeare Exhibit at the Newberry Library in Chicago

Creating Shakespeare. Shakespeare 400 Chicago. Sponsored by Rosemary J. Schnell, Exelon, the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation, the Paul M. Angell Family Foundation, and Paul C. Gignilliat. The Newberry. Chicago. 23 September 2016-31 December 2016.

I was privileged to be able to see the Creating Shakespeare exhibit at the Newberry a few weeks ago. Two huge exhibition halls are filled with remarkable Shakespeare-related material. Once side is devoted to telling the story of how Shakespeare became Shakespeare; the other concentrates on what happened to Shakespeare when he got to the United States of America.

You only have a month left to see this exhibit—and I only have a few minutes to tell you about it (before I plunge back into the grading that was the reason I didn't tell you about this immediately after I went to the Newberry).

Let me give you some of the highlights—and you can get there to see the rest for yourself.

First, it's free. That is, in itself, pretty astonishing, considering what you'll find there. But when you actually consider what you'll find there, you'll be even more amazed at that fact.

There are quartos and folios aplenty. True, some of the folios are second and third folios, but there is at least one first folio in the exhibit. There's also a quarto of Much Ado About Nothing—printed in 1600—and . . . are you ready for this?

They currently have the first folio of Hamlet (printed in 1603). That's right. Q1 of Hamlet. The bad quarto. The quarto so bad it's good. One of only two extant first quartos known. It's there. Right there. It's the first time it's travelled across the Atlantic, finding itself within a stone's throw of the only other Q1 of Hamlet in existence. Well, that assumes you can throw a stone from downtown Chicago to San Marino, but they're much closer than they've been in a long time. It was a thrill to see it, and utterly amazing that the Newberry convinced the British Library to let them borrow it (along with many other things).

They have some early examples of the "book of the play"—handwritten copies of the play for the propter to use during a particular production of the play.

They have some early diaries related to Shakespeare performance.

There are postage stamps and songs ("Caliban's Jig," anyone?), modern artistic printings of the plays, a copy of a poem written by James Boswell during the Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769, and a vast array of Shakespeare miscellanea.

In the "Shakespeare in America" section, an array of early advertisements featuring Shakespeare were on display. I wasn't allowed to take pictures, but the Newberry kindly supplied me with some images of the ads. One of them heads this page: it details how Libby, McNeill, & Libby's Cooked Corned Beef will help us have men about us who are fat.

Since I'm from St. Louis, I have to include this advertisement from Anheuser-Busch. Note: Bardfilm does not thereby condone the drinking of alcoholic beverages or of this particular brand of alcoholic beverage.

I find that fascinating, though I'm not sure why they claim that Shakespeare's "favorite eating place in London was the celebrated Falcon tavern." Perhaps the Mermaid didn't serve Budweiser.

We're also shown how "The gravedigger with his meal of canned meat pauses at his task and listens" while "Hamlet moralizes o'er the death of Yorick." He seems to be about to eat the best ox tongues—making us wonder why the can isn't printed with the line "That skull had a tongue in it once."

And a joke on whether wherefore means where or why is never out of place:

There was talk of Shakespeare and film in the exhibit, but only one video clip on display—but that one was a rare doozy! Ruth Page, the famous ballet dancer, put together modern dance choreography to provide the sense of three Shakespeare heroines in what might be called interpretative dance. The Newberry has provided a bit of that on YouTube (see below), but you'll have to get to the exhibit to see the full thing:

All of this—and a series of tremendously informative charts, labels, and explanations—like the one below, which takes us on a tour of Shakespeare in America:

The long and the short is that this exhibit is not to be missed. Get there before time (and 2016) runs out! 

Links: The Exhibition at the Newberry.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

Hamlet. Dir. Robin Lough. Perf. Benedict Cumberbatch, Sian Brooke, Leo Bill, CiarĂ¡n Hinds, Anastasia Hille, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Jim Norton, Karl Johnson, Matthew Steer, Rudi Dharmalingam, and Ruairi Monaghan. 2015. Simulcast. National Theatre Live, 15 October 2016 and 15 November 2016.

I wish I had a lot more time at my disposal to tease out my thoughts on this production more fully. While we're at it, I wish that a DVD release of this film were coming soon.

Instead, I have a backlog of rough drafts to get back to students . . . and I'm not sure that the National Theatre Live is prioritizing getting its holdings out on DVD.

Therefore, I'd just like to get a few thoughts out there–and please feel free to join the conversation.

Benedict Cumberbatch was quite a marvelous Hamlet. His Hamlet is intelligent and immature, capricious and calculating, lucid and incomprehensible. He delivers the lines exceedingly well—having just thought of them, he delivers them to us. His is a very in-the-moment Hamlet, and that brings out a great deal in the play.

The production itself made a lot of interesting choices—many of which succeed admirably and many of which fall flat.

The overarching impression I took away from the play was that its stagecraft was marvelous. The production's greatest strength, in fact, is not Cumberbatch but the stagecraft. It was tight and fast and meticulous and gigantic.

The acting of the rest of the cast was very uneven. Indeed, I learned that a truly remarkable Hamlet can't make a production successful overall. It enabled me to realize that one of the great things about the Kevin Kline Hamlet is that every single person in the cast is at the very top of the game.

Those generalizations arise out of these specific points:
  • The opening is intriguing. We skip the usual opening with the soldiers' (and Horatio) viewing of the ghost, but we get the lines. Hamlet is listening to an LP of Nat King Cole (a theme that comes back periodically through the film) when he hears a noise. "Who's there?" he cries.
    "Nay, answer me," he demands. A bit later, Horatio enters and they have an exchange about Horatio coming back from Wittenberg (but not a conversation about any ghosts that might be in the offing). The effect of this is to give us a Hamlet that is almost exclusively from Hamlet's perspective.
  • During a couple of soliloquies, this Hamletcentric theme is developed; the rest of the cast goes into slow motion while Hamlet tells us his thoughts. It was an effective device, not overused.
  • The ghost was quite tremendous. He sounded a lot like Lawrence Olivier—the same catches in his voice from time to time. The actor doubled as the gravedigger, and gave us a marvelously funny performance there.
  • Claudius and Gertrude were not very good. Indeed, I was quite struck with Claudius' one-level ranting at one particular point in the play. Hamlet had just said to the players, "suit the action to the word, the word to the action" and "O, there be players that I have seen play, and heard others praise, and that highly, not to speak it profanely, that, neither having the accent of Christians nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of nature's journeymen had made men and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably." Enter Claudius who does just that.
  • We don't get to know Ophelia too well—I think primarily because the play centers on Hamlet's perspective.
  • Horatio is played as an outsider—something of a hipster, I suppose.  At one point, he comes in complaining about people buying commemorative plates with Claudius' picture on them (while obviously having bought one himself.  I guess he bought his ironically, so that makes it okay.
  • Polonius and Ophelia have no sympathy. I wondered why she would be upset at the death of someone so distant—but it made me wonder if she was upset because she felt such relief and freedom at her father's death—and if guilt from that was part of what drove her mad.
  • The text was modernized here and there, and some lines were simply added to it. When they did that, they did try to make the lines iambic. Some modernization made sense, but others did not. Why would Gertrude need to say "cast thy nightly color off" instead of "nighted color"? And, in all my years of teaching Hamlet, I've never had a student ask, "What do they mean by 'jump at this dead hour?'" Does it need changing to "just at this dead hour" for clarity?
  • Ophelia starts to write a note to Hamlet in the middle of the nunnery scene. Great choice—but there was no follow-through. I was hoping Hamlet or Claudius would chance upon the note and know that Ophelia is either more (in the first case) or less (in the second) to be trusted.
  • Hamlet's madness was played as a person trying to act like a comedy would think lunatic would act. Cumberbatch played it well, but it wasn't a subtle choice, and I'm not sure it worked.
  • Ophelia's madness scenes contained snatches from dialogue in the rest of the play (as well as some of the traditional songs). That worked marvelously well.
  • The part after intermission was generally very bad. The palace had been filled with charred bits of wood and other rubble—knee-deep or higher in some places—without much preparation. It was a neat idea, but it didn't organically fit the rest of the vision of the production. Additionally, that part was extremely rushed and didn't always make a lot of sense. Claudius suddenly says, "Do not drink, Gertrude" after Hamlet chases Laertes down and stabs him back. She's choosing that moment to have a quick nip of wine?
  • Speaking of wine, we do not have a Claudius who drinks very much. We do have a Hamlet who's often polishing off a goblet of wine. It's a nice touch—his complaints about "We'll teach you to drink deep" are then transferred from his own problem to Claudius'.
  • "To be or not to be" is placed extremely early. I think that's a good choice. We're not building up to it and preparing to judge it by the others that we have heard. It seems more spontaneous and straightforward. I think they followed Q1's placement of the speech there.
All in all, the production gives us lots to think about. But if I owned a DVD (which I will—if you release it, O National Theatre Live—and please do), it would not become my stand-by full Hamlet for students to watch in their entirety. Cumberbatch is brilliant, but he can't hold up the production on his own.

Links: The Film at IMDB.
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