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.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Shakespeare in Star Trek: Beyond

Star Trek: Beyond. Dir. Justin Lin. Perf. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Karl Urban. 2016. DVD. Paramount, 2016.

Just when you think you've assembled every single Shakespeare reference, allusion, and quote in all of canonical Star Trek, they release a new film with a new quote.

This time, it's quite a good one, though it is obscure.

First, the scene. Reboot Spock has been injured. Reboot Kirk is worried. Reboot McCoy has found some ancient medical equipment that he hopes will help.

The word hope is the cue for Reboot Spock to quote some Shakespeare:

The quote Reboot Spock chooses is one Measure for Measure's Claudio delivers while he is under sentence of death: "The miserable have no other medicine / But only hope" (III.i.2-3). If Reboot Spock had had the strength, he doubtless would have concluded the line: "I have hope to live, and am prepar'd to die" (III.i.4).

Reboot Bones is nonplussed, but only for a moment. Either he recognizes the quote or he figures that Reboot Spock is more likely to quote Shakespeare than . . . say . . . Dryden.

I'd like to read more into the quote than the surface connection of hope and medicine. In the film, Reboot Spock and Reboot Uhura have decided not to pursue a romantic relationship; Claudio and Juliet have had the decision not to pursue a romantic relationship thrust upon them. Claudio without Juliet is as miserable as Reboot Spock without Reboot Uhura. 


Links: The Film at IMDB.

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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Gerard Manley Hopkins and Shakespeare

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Ed. W. H Gardner and N. H. MacKenzie. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970. 

I recently had occasion to dip into my volume of Gerard Manley Hopkins poems. As I searched for the poem I had in mind ("Spelt from Sybil's Leaves," to those who have a keen interest in the minutiae), I started to wonder whether Hopkins had written any reflections on Shakespeare.

Hopkins was certainly a well-educated man, and Shakespeare was undoubtedly a part of that.

Indeed, I learn from an article entitled "Hopkins, Hamlet, and the Victorians: Carrion Comfort?" that "Hopkins' notebooks are littered with obscure and disjointed notes, lines, and phrases from Shakespeare which he seems to regard less as integral parts of a particular play's meaning or insights about experience and more as fodder for specific passions" (414).

What I found in the volume was unexpected. Hopkins spent some time working with songs from Shakespeare, rewriting them . . . in Latin and Greek.

As I have small Latin and less Greek, this was a bit disappointing. It's more academic. Still, there's an interest and a beauty to the songs he translated from The Tempest, though I'm not sure where the Hecuba comes in to "Come unto these yellow sands"—what's Hecuba to Ariel or Ariel to Hecuba? And something is lost from "Full Fathom Five"—and not just the alliteration—when it's translated into Greek.

Here are three of the songs for those who have additional interest. In the meantime, I've found a number of articles about Hopkins and Shakespeare, and I'll be glancing at those in my copious free time over the next few months.

Works Cited

Wormald, Mark. "Hopkins, Hamlet, and the Victorians: Carrion Comfort?" Victorian Poetry 40.4 (2002): 409-31.

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Monday, June 26, 2017

King Lear at the Guthrie in 2017

King Lear. Dir. Joseph Haj. Perf. Nathan Barlow, Thomas Brazzle, Shá Cage, Sun Mee Chomet, J. C. Cutler, and Nathaniel Fuller. Guthrie Theatre Company. Minneapolis. 11 February—2 April 2017.

What better day could there be to see a production of King Lear than April 1?

The only problem is that it was the penultimate day of the show's run, so I didn't feel much pressure to review the play right away.  Still, now that I'm able to catch up on some missed opportunities, I'd like to make a few notes on the show.

First, the most impressive part of the production—indeed, of any production I've seen at the Guthrie thus far—was the lighting. I don't always notice the lighting (which may be the point of a subtle lighting design), but this one was transcendent. The stage was also the largest I've seen—a huge expanse of what is usually backstage space was opened up, and the lighting filled it in a number of fascinating and fabulous ways. Transitions were masterful; shadows were dramatic and purposeful; colors matched moods exquisitely.

Next, the rest of the production, which was underwhelming in the extreme. Some people reported to me that it was the worst Shakespeare play they'd ever seen—but it wasn't as abysmal as that. All the same, it wasn't good. The acting from all parties lacked backbone. There was no verve. Most of the players had a distinct two-volume delivery: Audible and Shouting.

Haj made some interesting individual directorial decisions, but they didn't every coalesce into a whole. If any of these decisions had been built into themes, provided supporting decisions, or made integral to the characters, they would have done something to the play. As it was, they seemed like notes from a preliminary brainstorming session. "What if . . . ?" "How about having . . . ?" "Oh, we could . . ."

Let me give you a few examples.

For the blinding scene, Cornwall spooned out Gloucester's first eyeball and dropped it in a cocktail glass—I think it was a highball glass.

Say it with a Cockney accent, and you'll get the joke.

Not unexpectedly, it turned the blinding of Gloucester into a joke as well. There is admittedly a fine line between horror and humor in this scene in many productions, but it was an unworthy choice.

Next, after Cornwall was hurt by his servant, Regan took off her high-heeled shoe and poked out the other eye of Gloucester. With a stronger Regan, that might have been brilliant. Diana Rigg (for whom, q.v.) could have carried it off with the right mood of cool calculation. But this Regan had been giggly and shouty by turns, and there's no way it could have been anything but ridiculous.

The Fool in Lear disappears after Act III, scene vi. Any given production can provide an explanation for that disappearance or provide the explanation the text gives: None. Trevor's Nunn's production, for example, shows its Fool captured and hung by the soldiers of Lear's enemies.

In this production, Lear, in his madness, stabs the Fool during the trial scene, killing him.

That's an interesting choice. But the production does nothing with it. And nothing will come of nothing. Not only does the Fool's murder / homicide under insanity not make its way into the rest of the play, it barely registers in the scene itself! The text, of course, doesn't allow for reflection on the Fool's murder, but the production could have found a way to bring it back in—presenting Lear with a bloodstained fool's cap during his recovery, for example. As it is, it was a scattered, unconnected idea in a scattered, unconnected play.

The play at the Guthrie's website.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Book Note: Year of the King

Sher, Antony. Year of the King: An Actor's Diary and SketchbookLondon: Nick Hern, 2004.

I've had this book around for awhile, but I only got around to it recently. It's Antony Sher's account of his being offered the role of Richard III in the 1984 Royal Shakespeare Company production.

Actors and theatre lovers will find this fascinating. The thought processes, the planning, the drama within the drama, the errors in rehearsal, the terror of opening night—it's all here. And Sher was, by most accounts, brilliant in the role in this brilliant production.

I found the work to be a bit solipsistic, but it is a diary, after all. The author may be expected to be self-centered and a bit pedantic.

Here are a couple sample pages. They'll give you an idea of the sketches and the revelatory nature of the prose.

Does the second sample provide some nascent thoughts about the Ian McKellen production and later film?

I haven't been able to track down any video of Sher's Richard III, but YouTube has provided an audio recording of Act I, scene ii of the play:

Actors, I'm especially interested in knowing what you think. Is Sher's book an accurate account of what you go through when contemplating and executing a role?  Chris Gerson, is this the kind of thing that's been going through your mind as you prepare for the Great River Shakespeare Festival Richard III?

Sher has also written on his playing Falstaff in Year of the Fat Knight. It will soon appear on my bookshelf, eventually to be read. 

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Thursday, June 22, 2017

Public Service Announcement: Do Not Attend 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. 

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. 

Normally, I would be the first to tell you to go to the Great River Shakespeare Festival. For example, look here . . . or here . . . or even here.

Not this year.

The extremely detrimental effects Shakespeare can have, especially on the youth of a community, has made it impossible for me to recommend the festival.

Indeed, I've created this Public Service Announcement that details the reasons a community should avoid Shakespeare. It's what Doug Scholz-Carlson, pictured above, would surely say in his saner moments.

Watch, learn, and avoid the Great River Shakespeare Festival.

Links:  The Great River Shakespeare Festival.

Note: In case the video above fails to embed properly, I'm attaching a blog-native version of the PSA here.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Holy Grail of Shakespeare and Film

Untitled. N.d. N.p. N.d. N.m. N.p., n.d.

You're interested in Shakespeare and film. That's why you're here. And you've been frustrated in your search for something in the Shakespeare and film world—I know you have. And I want to know what it is.

What is the "Holy Grail" of Shakespeare and film for you? What is too expensive, too rare, or too obscure? What is now unobtainable, though it once was available?

I have two lists that spring to mind.

Things that don't exist (though we wish they did):
  • A film version of Orson Welles' 1937 production of Julius Caesar.
  • A full film of Peter Brook's 1970 stage production of Midsummer Night's Dream. A few clips do exist (for which, q.v.), but the whole thing was never filmed.
  • Orson Welles' so-called Voodoo Macbeth. There's actually a lot of Orson Welles that could go on this list . . . his lost Merchant of Venice, for example (some footage here) . . . but it would be great to have more of his 1936 Macbeth than we do.
Things that exist, once existed, or were once promised (but that are hard to track down):
  • Johnny Hamlet. I did manage to find a copy, but that was after years of searching, and it was very expensive. I've never seen another copy for sale. Read about it in this post.
  • A fully-restored Prospero's Books. I've been hearing rumors one way or another about a quality DVD (or even Blu-Ray!) release of this film, but it's yet to come. The DVDs that are out there are largely transferred from VHS tapes. For a film that explored so many different media possibilities, it's distressing that it is so hard to track down. In the meantime . . . 
  • Prince of the Himalayas. We've been waiting for a US release of this film since at least 2011.
  • DVD releases of all thirty-eight of the plays produced in different languages in London in 2012 in conjunction with the Olympics. I'd like every one on the list, but the list particularly includes . . .
  • Othello: The Remix. I saw this for a limited time when it was available for streaming on-line. But I know this would be a big seller—consider Hamilton for just a moment!  People would snap this up—so do yourself and us a favor and make a DVD available, please!
  • Te Tangata Whai-Rawa o Weniti (the Maori Merchant of Venice). I once had hope that I would be able to see this, but that hope is starting to wane. There are rumors of warehouses full of this DVD in New Zealand . . . but that export has been forbidden.
  • Charles Warren's Macbeth with Michael Jayston and Barbara Leigh Hunt. I've been told that this is the best Macbeth ever. Though it's an HBO production, it's hard to find.
  • Celestino Coronado’s 1984 or 1985 film of a stage production of Midsummer Night’s Dream by Lindsay Kemp and David Haughton. This may have been broadcast on television; copies are not to be found.
Those are some of my holy grails. What are yours? Tell us about them in the comments!

Note: If you came here looking for the Shakespearean subtitles to Monty Python's film, try this post instead.

Links: The Monty Python Film at IMDB.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Shakespeare in Sherlock

"The Lying Detective." By Steven Moffat. Perf. Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, and Una Stubbs. Dir. Nick Hurran. Sherlock. Season 4, episode 2. DVD. BBC Home Entertainment, 2017.

One of Sherlock Holmes' catchphrases is "The game's afoot."

But the fact that he's quoting Shakespeare is not always recognized. It appears in Henry V—at III.i.32 to be precise. Henry uses it to urge his army to a renewed attack on the town of Harfleur.

One of my favorite instances is (as long-term readers of Bardfilm will know) when Data from Star Trek quotes it while pretending to be Sherlock Holmes (for which, q.v.).

More recently, Sherlock—the one with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman?—had its Sherlock Holmes deliver the phrase . . . but with a great deal of context—an edited-down version of "Once more unto the breech."

Without spoiling too much, Sherlock has gone a bit off his crumpet. His delivery of the speech is marked by mania (if not actual psychosis):

Thrilling, isn't it?

I mean the Shakespeare . . . but the Sherlock is pretty good, too.

In the episode immediately before that one ("The Six Thatchers"), there's a briefer reference to Shakespeare.  I provide it here as a bonus:

Bonus Video: A Brief Quotation from Macbeth in Season 4, episode 1.

Links: The Episode at IMDB.

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Bonus Image: The Game's Afoot

Monday, June 19, 2017

Book Note: Desdemona: A Play about a Handkerchief

Vogel, Paula. Desdemona: A Play about a Handkerchief. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1994.

I came across this play only recently, but it's been around for a while.

It's a retelling of Othello with only three roles: Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca.

It's also a retelling in which Desdemona has been unfaithful to Othello—and with a large number of men (though possibly not with Cassio). She has had affairs here and there, but she also has an arrangement with the prostitute Bianca to take her place occasionally without anyone being the wiser. By that means, she's also slept with Iago.

I don't know quite what to make of the play. Is Desdemona's "free love—exceptionally free love" approach to sex and marriage meant to empower her? Is this an attempt to avoid the quasi-virginal placement of Desdemona provided by many productions of Othello? Is this a humorous re-imagining of what Othello is afraid Desdemona actually is, as in "I had been happy, if the general camp, / Pioners and all, had tasted her sweet body, / So I had nothing known" (III.iii.397-99)? 

My own sense is that it's humorous, but it's also quite Desdemeaning. 

[Sorry.  I should have resisted.]

It does seem to be demeaning rather than empowering. I'll give you a quick sample from Scenes 9, 10, and 11. Scene 11 is the most clearly connected to Shakespeare's play: it's a reversal of IV.iii, with Desdemona taking on some of Emilia’s positions and vice versa:

The play is interesting, though crude at a number of points.

Can anyone out there help us better understand the play as a whole?

Note: Elizabeth R provided a link to this New York Times review of a production.  Thanks!

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Monday, June 12, 2017

Book Note: Thirteenth Night

Gordon, Alan. Thirteenth Night. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Thirteenth Night is the first book in the Fool's Guild Mysteries, of which there are currently eight. I'm not quite sure where I stumbled upon this, but I enjoyed it as much as—and possibly even more than—the Smythe and Shakespeare books (for the first of which, q.v.).

This book imagines something of a shadow government run by the fools of the world—Feste included. The plot takes place some years after Shakespeare's Twelfth Night ended. Feste has to head back to investigate a murder . . . committed, perchance, by the vengeful Malvolio.

The plot is intricate but not overwhelmingly complex, and it cleverly worked in a number of characters from Twelfth Night, seen after many years.

And, of course, there's always the possibility that Malvolio is behind all the trouble . . . but you'll have to read it yourself to find out if that's the case.

I will provide you with this sample from late in the book. The "calling card" planted in Feste's room suggests that Malvolio knows who he is and is threatening his life:

The other books in the series involve Feste, but only one—An Antic Disposition—seems to have a fairly-direct Shakespearean connection.

I can't wait to try it.

Bonus image: The way the first photocopy turned out.

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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Book Note: Still Star-Crossed

Taub, Melinda. Still Star-Crossed. New York: Delacorte Press, 2013.

The new show on ABC called Still Star-Crossed is based on a novel of the same title by Melinda Taub.  I couldn't be around for the premire of the show, so I thought I'd try the novel first (which is generally my modus operandi in any case).

Readers of Bardfilm have heard me say that something "isn't my cup of tea" but that I could recognize its merits for the intended audience.

This novel just isn't my cup of tea.

[By the way, if Shakespeare Geek is to be trusted (and he generally is), the show will likewise not be my cup of tea.]

The setting is Shakespeare-y, and some of the dialogue tries to be Shakespeare-esque as well, but aside from a few flashbacks, we don't get much Romeo and Juliet or Romeo or Juliet. Nor is there much character development along the lines of the characters in Shakespeare's play.  Rosaline is our female lead; she and Benvolio utterly hate each other at the beginning of the novel (can you imagine what might happen by the end of the book?). But Rosaline, of course, never actually appears in Shakespeare's play, and this Benvolio isn't much like that Benvolio.

For those of you who may find this more like the tea you keep in cups, here are the opening two pages:

And here's a sample of the Shakespeare-ish style:

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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