Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Shakespeare the Man from Stratford

Shakespeare the Man from Stratford
(to the tune of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer)

Shakespeare, the man from Stratford,
Wanted very much to write a play.
So he packed himself off to London,
Where theatre occupied his days.

All of the other playwrights,
used to laugh and call him names (like Upstart!)
They never let poor Shakespeare
Participate in all their fame.

Then one foggy London eve
Ben Jonson came to say,
"Marlowe lost his last knife fight.
Can you pen a play tonight?"

Then all the playwrights loved him,
(Excepting maybe Robert Greene!).
"Shakespeare, the man from Stratford,
You should play before the Queen!"

Another Victim..err, I Mean, Follower

I mentioned recently that I've been taking steps to decorate my life with Shakespeare.  By that I mean, not just keeping all my fun stuff piled in a corner at home, but having stuff about me that will allow strangers to strike up a conversation.

I know I posted this on Twitter, but can't remember if I updated you all with an image of what my computer looks like now:

(Yes, that is my daughter's Barbie hanging out next to it.) Two people have already asked whether I could have made the Hamlet work so that he was contemplating the Apple, but I think it's too big to make that effect work. Instead I positioned him to look like he'd just taken a chunk out of the Apple.  The real question is whether my ironic Lion King imagery comes through? :)

So this is the computer I carry around with me at the new office.  Today after a meeting, one of my coworkers who I have not really had a conversation with asked me if I was a fan of Shakespeare, which of course struck up the usual conversation.

Did I ever tell you my rule about asking me Shakespeare questions? I always tell new people, once you get me talking about Shakespeare, seriously, don't feel bad about just walking away. Because I will not stop.

In the span of the next maybe 3 minutes we covered Commonwealth Shakespeare in the Park, Twelfth Night, Lear, how they handled the nude scene (he asked), how they handled the storm, The Tempest, why it is first in the folio but pretty much the last thing he wrote and how depending on which angle you take it tells you entirely different things about the play and the playwright (which, by the way, I might have to make a blog post about because I never really considered that before), Anne Hathaway (both the actress and Shakespeare's wife), and Penn and Teller.

At this point the poor guy is sitting back down at his desk but I'm walking distance from him so I keep circling back to add something I just thought of.  After doing that two or three times I finally force myself to shut up because he probably doesn't care about half the stuff I'm telling him at this point.

In other words it was awesome and I would do that a dozen times a day if people approached me :).

I Know What I'm Getting For Christmas, Part 2 [ Another Geeklet Story ]

It's not that I snoop for my Christmas presents, my family just doesn't appreciate how generally overly aware I am of my surroundings. If you say something, or you leave something laying around, chances are I'm going to notice it and connect some dots.

I like taking my kids through Newbury Comics. It's a weird kind of, "Well yeah if I literally had money to burn, there's a bunch of stuff I'd buy here" shop. I believe the word "kitschy" could apply to much of it.  The kind of stuff you decorate your desk with at work.

One of the popular things you see there now, and really in lots of stores, is those "Pop" figurines? They're kind of like bobble heads, although I don't think they bobble. And they've clearly been licensed to everyone under the sun. Why oh why doesn't their marketing department understand public domain? Because every time I see them I look for a Shakespeare, and there simply isn't one.

So when my girls mentioned needing to go to Newbury Comics to shop for something, I didn't really connect the dots.  We found ourselves at a different mall that had a different, independent comic shop and one of my girls said, "We have to go in there!" but when I tried to follow she said, "Not you, Daddy! Mommy, come with us."  Again, I have no idea at this point. I know that there is no Shakespeare stuff in that store, though I've told them in the past generic things like, "Oh I like all this kind of stuff" so I'm sure they're running with that theme.

They leave the store with bags and command me not to look. My middle daughter then begins quizzing me on which Star Wars movie is my favorite, and how I feel about the Clone Wars.  When I tell her exactly how I feel about the prequels and she turns to my wife and says, "Mommy, oh no!" I figure out that I must be getting some sort of Star Wars prequel merchandise from her, and don't think about it again.

Except for the fact that my wife hides my presents in the same general place that we hide the kids' presents.  So that evening I stumble across.... a blank Pop figure. I didn't even know they made such a thing. I have no idea for sure if this is supposed to be for me or not, but I've got a hunch. Are they going to try to make me a Shakespeare pop figure from scratch?

Yes, that is exactly what they're doing. Being kids, not very sneaky kids at that, they left him half finished on the desk downstairs in my office (/ their playroom) which confirmed my suspicions. Right now he looks like something out of the Walking Dead, but whoever is making it really did nail the ruff/collar around his neck so it's obvious who he is, if you're looking for it.

 I can't wait to see how the finished product turns out! I'll be sure to post pictures.

I Should Have Expected This [ A Geeklet Story ]

Ok I'm totally blowing some family surprises here but I'm pretty sure my son doesn't read my blog.

Recently my son, who is only 9, participated in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's "Shakescraft" competition where participants were asked to build a presentation of New Place in the videogame Minecraft. Well on any given day I can't pry my son off of Minecraft, so this seemed like a no brainer. A contest? With educational content? That happens to be Shakespeare? Deal.

So he submits his entry, and we wait. The prize, by the way, is an iPad Air along with some Shakespeare merchandise from the store like a Shakespeare teddy bear. Of course, he spends the month hoping he's going to win an iPad Air and trying to decide what he'll do with it since he already has an iPad.

Meanwhile, being a dad I'm working the backup plan.  I contact the gift shop at the SBT and see that I can order one of the bears directly.  Hey, if he wins, great, but if he does not, I'll ship him a bear and let him think that he at least got a participation prize.

We have to wait forever for the results, but right around Thanksgiving we find out that no, he did not win, so I put my plan into action and order a teddy bear to be sent directly to him.  As Christmas approaches and packages start showing up every day I tell my wife, "Be on the lookout for one addressed to the boy from England." I explain the story, about how she has to be the one to find it because if I tell him he got something from England he's going to see right through the story. Also, when he finally opens it she should make sure to grab any sort of receipt in the box that would indicate that his dad paid for it.

Meanwhile, and I did not plan this timing, Christmas shopping season has begun. We encourage our kids to pick out gifts of their own for their siblings, grandparents, and yes mom and dad as well. Traditionally this has been just going down to the local $5 store since they'd insist on spending their own money, but this year as they've gotten older we let them exercise more variety in where they got the gifts.  That also made it chaos, because instead of one big shopping run where everybody gets something (albeit something junky :)), this year was multiple trips and multiple times asking, "Ok, now, does everybody have a present for everybody?"

Going into this week, my son informs me that he does not have presents for his grandparents, or me. Well, the grandparents are easy, because every year we make mugs and mouse pads with the kids' pictures on them. But me?

You see where this is going, right? I wasn't sure of what was about to happen, but I had a pretty good idea.

I'm driving home from  work yesterday, and we'd planned to take the kids out for a final run to the mall for last minute shopping. I call my wife to update her on when I'll be home, and she is in the car with the kids on speakerphone. "Daddy I got you a present!" my son calls out.

Yup. It makes sense, really, because he was never about "I hope I win *something*", he was only about the iPad.  A random Shakespeare bear wasn't going to put him over the moon. I don't care, I'm his dad, if there was any chance at all that seeing a "consolation" prize was going to make him feel a little bit better for having made the effort, I was going to take it.  But combining that with him being in the "I don't know what to get Daddy for Christmas" situation, the results were a foregone conclusion.

So now I have to play dumb.  "Huh?" I ask, pretending not to hear him on the speakerphone.

"I GOT YOUR PRESENT," he yells again.

"How can you have gotten me a present we didn't go shopping yet?" I play along.

You know that thing kids do when they have a long story to tell, so they pause every few words and make it a question like they're constantly checking to see if you're still with them? He tells me, "This package came? From England? And it said for participation? But I didn't want it, so I'm giving it to you for Christmas!"

Well that's just adorable, but my wife and I are both driving cars so I tell him I don't understand what he's saying and can it wait until we get home.  I like that my wife came through on the "Oh this must be a participation prize" thing, since clearly it did not say participation anywhere on it. I notice at one point in the conversation he said something about feeling guilty, and I'm honestly not sure whether he means feeling guilty that he does not want to prize, or that he would feel guilty keeping a Shakespeare bear for himself.  I think it's probably the latter.

I get home, walk through the door where the kids are having dinner, and he explains again, "Ok, Daddy, listen. This package came today, from England, and it was for participation. It had a big PARTICIPATION sign with it." The embellishment is amusing, because of course it didn't say that.

"Wait wait wait," I said, "Participation for what? What are we talking about? Oh wait is this from the Shakespeare Minecraft people? That's cool that you got something, though, isn't it? You don't want to keep it for yourself?"

"I like that I got something, but you like Shakespeare more than me," he says.

To which he oldest sister pipes up, "Ya think?"

And my middle darling offers, "Daddy *loves* Shakespeare."

So I know what I'm getting for Christmas :)

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Are We Really Going To Get Three Romeo and Juliet TV Shows?

Is it too much to hope that just one of them is any good?

I knew about Shonda Rhimes getting into the act with Still Star-Crossed, based on a young adult novel that picks up where Romeo and Juliet left off. The Prince has decided to unite the families by force, and orders Benvolio to marry Rosaline.

ABC is putting a Muslim spin on their version with Indivisible, where a New Yorker develops a friendship with her (his?) Muslim neighbor, and then all proverbial hell breaks loose when their kids fall in love. I wonder if this one is going to have some sort of ancient grudge? If the parents are friends, does that fundamentally change the original story?

Lastly we have Fox's Latino version, set against a music backdrop in Los Angeles.  The rumors say it's hoping to jump on the Empire bandwagon, but from the description is sounds an awful lot like the 1996 Romeo+Juliet Luhrman / DiCaprio version.

I have no idea if all or any of these will see the light of day. At least they're all backed by one of the major networks. I'm pretty sure that the CW tried some sort of Romeo and Juliet thing (a science fiction thing, maybe?) that I never even saw. I have no idea if it ever even came out.

What do you think, do we want a series based on Shakespeare?  I suppose we should give credit to Sons of Anarchy here, which was always understood to be a version of Hamlet. Never watched it, but I hear it was quite good.

Review : Kurzel Macbeth (2015)

How long have we been waiting for this movie?  I first wrote about it (when it was rumored that Natalie Portman would play Lady Macbeth) in April 2013, two and a half years ago. Was it worth the wait?

I think it's difficult to review movie versions of Shakespeare plays, because there's the inevitable clash of expectations between what the viewer wants to see, and the story the director wants to tell. When we go see a staged Shakespeare, we pretty much always get the story we expected, with the only real room for interpretation coming in the characters, rather than the action.  Moviemakers seem far more likely to say "Ok, I'm going to take the Shakespeare story up to this point, but then I'm going to do my own thing."

This version is definitely one of those. While watching there were at least three instances where I made this face:

(* Yes I know precisely the context for that original image, that's why it's funny ;)

I don't really want to give spoilers, but let me put it this way - this Macbeth likes to kill people in front of other people. It's not just that there are witnesses, either. At one point he makes it a public spectacle.  Yeah.  The film clearly goes right for the "Macbeth is crazy and everybody knows it, but he's also the king now so what are ya gonna do?" vibe pretty much immediately.  I suppose it's a way to go, but it was certainly different from what I'm used to seeing.

I'm not a fan of the directorial style, either, which has got a lot of 300 going for it, if you remember that movie.  When a sword hits a body, expect to switch to slow motion so you can watch the blood fly.  Then switch back to fast forward to get the audience nauseous.  I could actually live with the nauseating camera work, especially during the battle scenes, because isn't chaos kind of the point?  I don't really go to movies to say, "Oh, cool, look what the director chose to do there."  It's like special effects - the best choices are the ones that make you forget you're watching a movie at all, rather than reminding you of it.

Speaking quickly about special effects - there are none. In this movie about witches and ghosts, there are no sudden apparitions, appearances or disappearances. The witches just kind of wander in, say their thing, then wander out. Which is a way to go,  I suppose, but then we cut to Macbeth running down a hill saying, "DID YOU SEE WHERE THEY WENT? THEY JUST VANISHED!"  Really? You lost them that fast? It was almost a weird throwback to what you might see on stage where the actors really do have to exit the old fashioned way.  Only ... have you seen Teller's Macbeth? I've seen witches disappear on stage. It's pretty cool.

There's also no ghosts to speak of.  I mean, they're there, but they're just played by the exact same actors with no change in physical appearance.  Again, it's an interesting way to go - I guess it's supposed to reinforce the idea that, to Macbeth, they're real? But for a movie that's ok with all the slow motion / fast forward / blood spattery things, it just felt lazy to me that they didn't do *something* with the idea. Are we supposed to be seeing the world as Macbeth sees it? Or seeing Macbeth as the world sees him?  I don't think you can have both at the same time.

Ok, let's get to some good stuff, because there is some.

There's children everywhere. You've probably read in other reviews that the movie opens (as do many interpretations) with the funeral for the Macbeths' child. We then switch over to a scene that I thought was something right out of Henry V as Macbeth and his battle-hardened warriors (who have been so made up with injury that they look like orcs out of a Lord of the Rings movie, by the way) come to meet the reinforcements that Duncan has sent them ... and they're all pretty much children. So Macbeth and the others prepare the new soldiers for battle, teaching them how to properly prepare their weapons, painting their faces with war paint, and you and Macbeth know full well that most of these kids are about to die really badly. This bookends nicely at the end of the movie when Macbeth sees the progression of ghosts - the same children that he took into battle at the beginning.

But that's not all. We see Banquo with Fleance (obviously), but we also see Macduff with his children on several occasions. There's even one scene where Macbeth wanders through camp and stops to interact with some children playing.  Maybe it was a bit heavy handed, but I liked it.

Now let's talk about the Macbeths. They've been called one of the greatest couples in all of Shakespeare's works. Just watching the two of them can be fascinating, and we can let all the other weirdness with changing the plot slide.

It took about two sentences for me to think, "Ok, Lady Macbeth is nuts."  Seriously. I don't have the original text memorized to the point where I know how much was cut, she goes from zero to sixty in a single scene:
Macbeth:  "Honey, I'm home from battle. The king's coming to dinner."
Lady M: "Let's kill him."
Macbeth: "WTF?"
I'm being a bit facetious there obviously, but only a bit. The pacing feels like it's been sped up, and it works.  Everything in the first half moves very quickly, and Lady M is the driving force. They don't cut Macbeth's uncertainty, or his wife's "Are you a man?" speech.

Here's where it gets really interesting, though. After "it's done," Lady M seems satisfied. So when her husband tells her that Banquo has to go, she starts to worry, and keeps trying to tell him that it's over, it's done, they got what they wanted. But she realizes quickly that she's created a monster that she cannot control. She's completely helpless in the second part of the movie, and can really do no more than beg her husband to leave well enough alone, but he doesn't listen to her.  The line "What's done is done" is repeated several times, to emphasize the point. She started it, she wanted it over, but she could not be the one to say when it would be over. So when she loses her mind, we understand why.

Let's talk a bit about the ending. I've always thought the end is one of the best parts. How will the "Lay on, Macduff" line play out? Is Macbeth still trying to win? Has he resigned himself to the inevitable? I've often wondered, does he truly believe he's immortal at this point? If so, that makes his "at least we'll die with harness on our back" line a little unusual.  Unless you figure that he's just saying that to motivate his troops.

True to the rest of the movie, the final battle is over the top violent. There's no old fashioned "run through with a sword" move. It's all a slice here and a gash there, and you wonder when one of them is just going to fall down from blood loss. That detracts from the scene in my opinion, because as the climax of the movie the director wants to make it last, but the longer it lasts the less realistic it looks.

I won't spoil how it goes down, but I will say that I was ok with it. It's different. Didn't love it, but I get it.

Speaking of which ... there's an entirely separate ending that the director adds to this one, that Shakespeare did not write. So when you think it's done, there's still a few more minutes.  Eh. Nice touch, I suppose, but I found it completely unnecessary unless we should expect Macbeth 2 next summer.

I'll end with two trivial things that drove me a little crazy.  First, the porter scene is cut, but this makes sense based on how they set the play. What annoyed me is that later in the play, Lady M still has her, "There's a knocking at the gate!" line. Sure, she's crazy, she's hallucinating. But when you've made it a point to give us a setting where the whole idea of "gate" is not relevant, why leave that line in there? Maybe we can shrug and say it's supposed to be some sort of "knocking at the gates of hell" thing.

The second one is just lazy in my view. We know that Banquo's going to die and Fleance escapes, right? That's not a spoiler. Ok, here's the thing. Banquo goes down via crossbow.  And Fleance runs away.

Banquo goes down via crossbow, and Fleance runs away.

That bug anybody else? Hey, assassins, you've got a long range weapon and have just demonstrated your accuracy with it. How about shooting at the fleeing enemy, instead of chasing and losing him? At least shoot and miss, to let the audience know that you didn't forget you have it.  I said before that I don't like when the director reminds me I'm watching a movie, and this is one of those examples. They clearly went with the arrow so we could get a jump scare rather than a confrontation. But if you're going to establish that the bad guys have that weapon, you have to be consistent!

Ok, I'm done. As with any Shakespeare there were parts I liked, but in general I can't say I loved it. I'm glad I did not bring my wife. It's not the kind of thing that I'll show the kids when it comes out on DVD (apparently they're already taking pre-orders).  Years down the road when we compare notes about Shakespearean film adaptations and people talk about the McKellen/Dench Macbeth, or Patrick Stewart's, I don't think anybody's going to be talking about this one.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Emphasis on "Geek", Apparently

I mentioned last week in Decorating Your Life that I've got a new job, new desk new computer new office new people, and I've been paying more attention with adding some outward signs of Shakespeare.

Today I was looking at my screen saver. I don't usually bother with one, but I'm hooked up to a big monitor so you can see it from across the room. It's a brand new computer without much on it, so I defaulted to the usual floating picture slide show, using pictures from National Geographic.

Until today. Why can't I have Shakespeare images?

I have a Dropbox cloud account where I've collected all my images over the years.  Cartoons, original art, screen shots from my app, various headshots of Mr. Shakespeare, and so on.  The only problem with using that is that it's become a real catch-all for literally all Shakespeare-ish image content, and I have no true idea the extent of what's in there. It would be bad in a new office environment to flash up on the monitor something that could be considered offensive.  Better safe than sorry!

But!  I have a source of almost a thousand images, better known as the First Folio. I don't know about you, but I consider old literature to be very much like art, and I enjoy looking at HD images of book pages, especially the most beautiful book in the world.  I had a bookmark button to one of the searchable sites, because I went there so often to get screenshots and things whenever I needed an original FF reference. At one point I had managed to scrape it and make myself a directory of images, but alas I do not have that directory on this new machine.

Why should that stop me?

The site in question is SCETI. The interface is made to jump right to the work you want to look at, but if you look under the covers a bit you discover that the pages are sequentially numbered (even though the images are not).

Again, why should that stop me? This is my thing. This is what I do all day anyway. Heck, it's practically like work experience.  Keeping the skills sharp.

So I wrote a little scraper to hit that site and pull down 10 random images, which I then use as my screen saver (and, while I'm at it, desktop wallpaper).  There's 900+ pages, but you don't want to be a bad web neighbor and kill people's bandwidth.  Every time I run the script it'll just go grab me 10 more images. It's not like I need them all.  I was just looking for decorations.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Upstart Crow : A Shakespeare Sitcom?!

This sounds exciting, and I hope I can get access to it!

Upstart Crow is set in 1592, at the beginning of Shakespeare's extraordinary career, and suggests where he might have got his ideas from. 
Also announced in the cast today are Paula Wilcox as Will's mum; Liza Tarbuck as his wife Anne Hathaway; and Mark Heap as Sir Robert Greene, Will's nemesis. 
It also features some familiar names from the comedy circuit including Rob Rouse as Shakespeare's servant Bottom, The Herbert creator Spencer Jones as a thespian, and Gemma Whelan, who also plays Asha Greyly in Game of Thrones, as the writer's friend Kate.
I don't know any of those names. At all. But I'm always excited about the potential of original Shakespeare content with Shakespeare as an actual character.  Shakespeare in Love was pretty good, after all!

Harry Enfield joins Shakespeare comedy

Decorating Your Life

Here's a question that's on my mind lately, now that I've got a new office and all kinds of new people to meet.  How do you decorate your life with Shakespeare?  What I mean is, if somebody meets you for the first time, or comes into your space, what about you says Shakespeare?

I don't have much, surprisingly.  Downstairs I've got some nice framed One Page posters. Upstairs on a little wall shelf I've got a small bust of Shakespeare.  People who snoop around a bit will be sure to find my collection of action figures, wind-up toys and finger puppets. And then there's the books. I've deliberately limited myself to one shelf on the bookcase upstairs, so I pick carefully and showcase only my favorite editions.

I christened my new office with one of my action figures, but then bought myself a present to really set the tone properly.  Now I want to decorate my company computer, so a couple of these are already on the way from Amazon. know, when I list it like that I suppose I do have more than a little. I was going to say, "That's all in my home/work, I don't carry stuff around with me."  But then there's the Shakespeare air freshener in my car. :)

How about you? How can strangers tell you're a Shakespeare geek as soon as they see you?

Ever Met an Oxfordian?

Recently I started a new job. The last time I had a new job, the place was small enough at the next company meeting new hires were encouraged to stand up and be introduced and talk a little about themselves. Naturally, at the time, I talked about Shakespeare.

So I prepared myself for something similar here.  Only, it's a bigger company.  Call it maybe 50-100 people?  I wasn't sure if they still do such things. They are still small enough that the CEO calls together everybody for a quarterly update meeting, so who knew.  I imagined saying something about Shakespeare (since it came up in my interviews), and then anticipated what I would do if somebody asked me my opinion on authorship? Because, and I don't know about you, but I've found that it's often one of the first questions people ask (it's a tie with "What's your favorite play?")

I thought of all kinds of snappy answers.  Then I thought, "You will have just met these people, and you have no idea who you'll offend. For all you know there might actually be Oxfordians working here."  I decided that my answer would be, "I'd rather discuss politics or religion." And I'm completely serious about that.

At this particular time, however, nobody has asked. There is no "stand up and be introduced" moment, because they're simply hiring people too fast. Which is fine. It's more fun to meet people individually over time, anyway.

But it brings up an interesting question.  Have you ever met an Oxfordian (or other Shakespeare denier) in person?  How'd it go?  We all know that thing we do on the Internet where distance and anonymity make us bold, but honestly and truly if you found yourself in a situation where you were going to see a person on a regular basis (such as a new coworker), and discovered that this person has a deep and fundamental disagreement about something so important to you, what would you do? I wonder.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Wait, William The Conqueror Really Did Come First?

Many of the geeks out there have heard the old story about Richard Burbage (playing Richard III at the time) arranging a late night encounter with a female fan, only to have Shakespeare get there first and deliver the famous line, "William the Conqueror came before Richard III!"

I always assumed it was just an apocryphal story.  So I was surprised to see the story circulating this week, because apparently we've got a diary from 1602 that is the source of the story.

Really?  Things like this don't just pop up, so naturally I figured that this is a known document.  I wasn't too pleased with this "on display to the public for the first time ever" stuff.

The Diary of John Manningham  Page 39.  You're welcome.  I still figure it's an urban legend, but at least now I know that it comes from a source at the time and wasn't created a few hundred years after both men were dead.  Today I learned!

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Virtual Reality Shakespeare is Coming

I first heard the term "virtual reality" 30 years ago and oh mama look how far it's come.  I've got not one but two sweet looks into the future of Shakespeare performance for you, my geeks.

First is the Google Cultural Institute, who in partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company brings you a 360degree Henry V experience. You're placed right there on stage and you get to look around in all dimensions, just by dragging around the screen. Don't miss the numbered buttons at the bottom that will switch your camera view!  

That's neat and all, but I'm wondering if any of you are lucky enough to have gotten your hands on Google Cardboard? A couple of years ago everybody was coming out with these thousand dollar virtual reality headsets and Google being Google said, "You know what? There's enough power in your phone to do simple VR, all we need to do is give you a way to put a screen in front of each eye." 

Thus Cardboard was born.  You put your phone in it, get a Cardboard-ready app, and you're in virtual reality baby. It's really hard to explain until you try it.  You look left, the screen follows you. Look right, it follows. Look up, look down.  There's something there, in every direction. You keep thinking "I will reach the end of the screen" but you never do.  It really takes awhile to get used to.

Still, though, my kids and I played with the obvious roller coasters and things and got bored with it after awhile, and it sat in my gadget corner collecting dust.

Then I met Vrideo.  Much like the Google experiment above they are offering 360degree videos.  Only these are immersive.

I fired up Macbeth and there I am on stage at the beginning of Act I Scene 7 (Macbeth is talking himself into killing Duncan in the "If it were done when tis done then twere well it were done quickly" speech).

It's neat, but neat in the same way Henry V is neat, above.  I'm watching.  I mean, I'm there on stage, but still.  It's not like he's looking right at me.
Then I hear, "He hath almost supp'd, why have you not left the chamber?" come from behind me.  I whip my head around to find that Lady Macbeth has entered, and I am standing right between them as they argue.  Ok, now I'm scared.

I love this stuff. I want more!  I'm not really sure that it's likely we'll ever see a full production like this, though. In both examples it's clear that these versions were not made during an actual production, but were specially created just for this purpose.  I wonder, then, how much effort it would take to show a real scene that goes beyond just one or two characters speaking? Could we see a VR scene from the inside of a battle scene? Could we see the same scene available from the point of view of one of the characters?  What if, instead of watching Macbeth deliver the speech, my view was Macbeth's point of view? The sound could still come through as if I'm doing the speaking, but now it would be up to the "user" to keep your eyes on the other characters while you're interacting. Although, I suppose, there wouldn't really be much of a penalty for not paying attention.  I'm still working on it.

Definitely check these out, if you can.  The Vrideo films are available in traditional format even if yu don't have Google Cardboard.  

This is the kind of stuff I was thinking of when I named this site Shakespeare Geek!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Sorry Gandalf, I'm Gonna Side With Hannibal On This One

Sir Ian McKellen doesn't think you should read Shakespeare.

Sir Anthony Hopkins does.

How great is it that we can actually have a conversation that starts this way? Both actors are starring in The Dresser, and there's plenty of articles coming out where both are interviewed.

McKellen: "I don’t think people should bother to read Shakespeare. They should see him in the theatre! Reading just reduces him to an examination subject.

In the joint interview, Sir Anthony urged actors to read “anything you can get your hands on” and took a less rose-tinted view of acting in the theatre.

Now, let's be clear. This is not a black and white topic.  I think that if someone has the option, then of course you need to go see live theatre every chance you get.  I've always taken issue with the idea that it has to be one or the other, as if there's teachers out there saying, "Well we have a chance to go see the Royal Shakespeare Company person Othello, but we're just going to read it instead." If you find those people, then absolutely, gouge out their eyes and read King Lear to them.

But if you see it, and you love it, and you say "I want to do everything I can to get closer to the material", then isn't reading it (and everything about it) the logical option?  In fact, say that the thing you want most is to perform Shakespeare. They're doing Macbeth next.  So what do you do, exactly? Do you run and watch every version of it you can find? Or do you, I it?

If you *want* to read Shakespeare, read Shakespeare. Anyone who tries to talk you out of it has missed the point. Period.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Failure Is Not An Option (A Geeklet Story)

My oldest has been distraught lately over her first C on a significant exam, and we've been discussing daily whether getting all A's is the most important thing in the world.  She seems to think I enjoy watching her get bad grades because it shows that she's finally working hard enough, but she feels that if those bad grades cause her to not get into college then what's the point.

"If I FAIL...." she starts.

"We fail?" I interjected, predictably.  "Screw your courage to the sticking place and we'!"

Blank stare. Open mouthed, speechless daughter.

"Lady Macbeth," I explain.

"That's not what I thought you were going to say," she countered.

"Also Beauty and the Beast," I said. "Gaston."

"That's what I thought you were going to say."

Friday, October 16, 2015

Six Degrees of Francis Bacon

Ok, this might be the geekiest thing you read all day.

You've probably heard of the game "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon", where you name an actor and then have to link him back to Kevin Bacon in less than six movies.  It's based on the "six degrees of separation" theory.

Well, I'm honestly surprised that it's taken this long for someone to think of Six Degrees of Francis Bacon.  What exactly was the original Bacon's social network, and were people like William Shakespeare on it?

Unfortunately it doesn't seem to have an easy "List two names and we'll tell you the connection" mode.  You enter a name and then get a very geeky map of nodes, and you have to explore it to find the connections you want.

My plan is to enter Edward de Vere and see if he shows up.  But company just came over and I must come back to it later!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

On Translating Shakespeare

Devil's advocate time here, people.

I've been avoiding all the discussion about Oregon Shakespeare Festival's plan to translate all the works into "contemporary modern English".  The general response seems to have been, "GAH! DON'T TOUCH IT!"

Personally, I agree.  Just...not enough to jump on my blog the very instant the news broke, and start a boycott.

Instead let me ask a question. Haven't the works of Shakespeare already been translated into, well, pretty much every language in existence? Including Klingon and Esperanto?  George R.R. Martin himself hopes that constructed Game of Thrones language "Dothraki" is next.

Did we grab the pitch forks for all those translations as well? Why not? Isn't it the exact same thing?

Earliest Known Draft of King James Bible Found?

Ok, this story isn't specifically about Shakespeare, but it's got some obvious parallels.

Scholars believe they've found a draft of the King James Bible dated somewhere between 1604 - 1608.

There's a popular story, which I'm sure most of you know, that says Shakespeare was not only one of the translators, but that he hid his name in Psalm 46.  Count 46 words in and you get the word "Shake", count 46 words backwards from the end and you get the word "spear".  Shakespeare would have been 46 years old in 1611 when the KJV was published (well, technically in 1610, when they were supposedly finishing the project). Boom. Mind==blown.

That story's great if you have absolutely no other details about how the KJV was created, and just assume that that's how it worked.  That a bunch of guys just banged it out in a year, and Shakespeare, being the biggest fish in that particular pond, helped himself to psalm 46 and slipped in his easter egg.

The great thing about today's news is that it brings the actual true details of the KJV into the spotlight.  Such as how the bulk of the work was really done 1604 -1608, which doesn't line up at all with the whole 46 thing. Or how there were actually six separate companies all working on the translation, and any one of them could have been responsible for psalm 46. Or how they submitted their work to the general committee in 1608, meaning that Shakespeare would have to have been so dedicated to making this happen that he planned ahead two years and said, "Yeah, I think we'll be done around 1610 when I'm 46."

Either that or it's one a big coincidence.

Honestly, scholars have been flat out proving it's not true for years. But sometimes it takes a mention in the NY Times for people to finally start paying attention.  No offense, scholars. ;)

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Best Movie Adaptations of All Time?

Whenever a new Shakespeare movie comes out, everybody does a list of movie adaptations.  But here's my problem.  Nobody seems to want to do the research.  Take this one, for example:

Are these the 10 best Shakespeare screen adaptations?

4 of the 10 are from the year 2000 or later (including Julie Taymor's Tempest.  Really?)

3 from the 1990's (including 10 Things I Hate About You, grrrrrrr.  Not the same thing!)

1 each from 1950's, 1960's and 1970's (including Brando's Julius Caesar, Peter Brooks' King Lear and Chimes at Midnight)

We've been filming Shakespeare for basically about one hundred years. So is it reasonable to believe that 70% of the best versions all come from the last 25 years?

What sort of criteria should we use?  You can't drop a 1936 Romeo and Juliet into a class full of high school English students alongside the 1996 Leonardo diCaprio version and ask them which one they like better.

The art of movie making, it would seem logical to assume, has gotten better over time. The quality of the equipment that goes into it, the special effects, the scope and budget.  So is it true, then, that the best movies in general have all been recent movies? When we speak of those older movies is there an implied, "...for its time" qualifier tacked onto the praise?

Does anybody have a favorite Shakespeare adaptation from before 1990 that they believe stands up to a more modern adaptation? If a friend asked you for a recommendation, would you dip into 100 years of Shakespeare movies or would you stick to the more modern stuff?

UPDATE : This guy gets it right.

Grok Learning and Shakespeare Bots

I was hoping this article would have more relevant content, given that it teases "fake Shakespeare sonnets" right in the title. But I found a gem of an idea that I love:

It’s called a Shakespeare-bot. A group of ten-year-olds have written a basic computer program based on language patterns. Plug hundreds of words into the program and it will begin to spit out fake Shakespeare sonnets. 
“The trick with teaching computer science is to integrate it with other curricular subjects,” says Nicky Ringland, co-founder of Grok Learning, a platform of online computer science courses teaching children to code and providing teachers with much-needed computer science support.
That's all we get for Shakespeare references.  I am currently looking for links to the project and will update the post if I find any.  Seriously, I'm thinking I'll try to contact them directly.

What I love love love is the "integrate it with other curricular subjects" thing.  Amen to that.  That's the essence of STEM  (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) that's all the rage these days. But that's only one side of the equation.  All those words are really just variations of each other (what is science without math?  engineering without science?).  But unless somebody puts them together, nobody is going to connect math and Shakespeare or science and Shakespeare.

This is something I brought up several years ago ("Teaching With Shakespeare"). I'm glad to see I'm not the only crazy one.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Shakepeare on Unemployment?

For various reasons we don't need to go into, I am applying to jobs as of late (not much mirth involved).  One of the application web sites broke the monotony by asking specifically for me to "write something out of the ordinary that will get our attention." I wrote:

I've been building web sites since 1995, but my 8000 social media followers only want to talk about Shakespeare.
My coworkers (we're all looking, so we're all helping each other) liked the personal nature of the Shakespeare thing to me, and suggested I take it even farther by working some Shakespeare into my cover letter.

Hmmmm....but what?

Who's got good quotes related to unemployment?  Positive quotes, mind you.  Not about how much unemployment stinks.

I went with the following:

"To business that we love we rise betimes and go to ’t with delight."

Personally I believe that you do a better job when you love what you do. I've never been one to chase the money, or take a job that I would hate (or disagree with philosophically) just because it's a career move. So I get it out in the open early. I think it makes me a stronger candidate, honestly.

In case I get to pull that trick again, what other quotes do you have for me?

Introducing Macbeth

I bookmarked this article about The Riddles of the Witches thinking it would be something interesting, but it's really not. Looks like a high school student's homework.

However I did find one thing worth discussing:

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's shortest plays. There is no sub-plot. Shakespeare has constructed it with great structural economy even without introducing the main characters.
Without even...??

First scene : Witches.  What are the witches there for? They're there to meet with ... Macbeth!

Audience:  Ok, who the _____ is this Macbeth character? Sounds evil.

Second scene : A dying soldier describes in detail about how this Macbeth character hacks his way through enemy troops to come face with the leader of the rebellion, whom he then proceeds to "unseam him from the nave to the chop" and fix his head upon the battlements.

Audience:  Whoa.  Bad ass.

Third scene : Witches again.  A drum, a drum!  Macbeth doth come!

Audience:  Can't wait!  Bring him out here! Let's see what the big deal is all about!

In other words, I'd suggest that Macbeth has one of the best introductions Shakespeare gave any of his main characters.

Which of the other title characters get that kind of build up?

Why is Shakespeare Relevant ... to You?

I always bookmark and retweet articles like this one that offers Three Reasons Why Shakespeare Remains Relevant. I am unabashedly biased on this question, and as long as there are people asking *if* he is relevant, then I'll be there to post as many answers to the question as I can put my hands on.

But ... I don't like this lady's answers.  Her three reasons:

1) Adaptability.  Great so you're saying that his staying power comes from the fact that whatever parts we don't like, we can just change or omit? I guess I get the point, that there is an underlying foundation to Shakespeare's work that is not found in the details.  But, still ... it seems weird to say that he's still relevant because you can change the parts you don't think are relevant.

2) Popular Touch. This one I just flat out disagree with. I'd say that an equal number of people would cite to you all the kings and queens and royal courts and say, "People these days don't want to watch a play about that."  True, you can adapt a story by turning the king into a mob boss or family patriarch, but still, once again, you end up arguing that Shakespeare is relevant because of the parts that you can take it upon yourself to make up out of whole cloth.

3) Great Publicity.  Well, I mean, I suppose.  It's kind of weird that she uses the existence of the First Folio as the prime example, and doesn't really mention David Garrick.  Just the fact that Shakespeare's works were published in Folio was not enough by itself to catapult him to the godlike status he enjoys today.

So let me ask you, then - why is Shakespeare relevant to you? How do you, personally, answer the question?

For me it's more about the universality(?) of the work. By that I mean that all around the world, for the last several hundred years, most of the people on the planet have had something in common, whether they knew it or not. If I have seen Much Ado About Nothing, and you have seen Much Ado About Nothing, then there is a certain bond that exists between us that can be turned into something more. It does not matter if you live in the same country as I do, speak the same language, or if you're twenty years younger or older.  It's like a constant against which all things are relative. It's a building block.

Make sense? Back in high school I learned a bit of Esperanto.  Anybody familiar with it? Esperanto is a language invented by L.L. Zamenhoff around one hundred years ago.  He thought that if the entire world had a universal neutral language, that cultural boundaries would dissolve. You could start to share literature. You could travel all around the world, and always be able to speak the language. There would be no burden of "my country is more powerful, therefore if you expect to deal with me, you will learn to speak my language rather than me learning to speak yours" (I'm looking at you, english).

Shakespeare's like that.  Remember last year when The Globe did all the plays in all different languages? There you go.

P.S. - I also happen to own a copy of Hamlet translated into Esperanto by Doctor Zamenhoff himself.  Apparently he too believed that our beloved Shakespeare could serve as a Rosetta Stone for achieving his dream.

See Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet Live This Thursday!

This Thursday, October 15, you might be lucky enough to see Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet in your local theatre!

This is a Hamlet for a world on the edge: a warning from history, and a plea for new ideas from a new generation

A fresh, dynamic staging with a vivid, supple performance at its heart.
-Financial Times

Is anybody going to get to see this?  I have an event at my kids' school that night (and it may be with gritted teeth but kids come before Shakespeare), but the web site does say Encore Performances on Oct 22, so maybe I'll get lucky!

UPDATE : After relating this story to my kids they were all, "Daddy, of *course* you go see the Shakespeare.  This school thing happens every year, and you've already been to them the last couple of years anyway. Shakespeare over this."


I then discovered that all my local showings are sold out. :(

On the one hand I'm happy that there's this much interest in a Shakespeare event!  But, of course, bummed that I'm not going to be a part of it.  Hoping for a DVD release hot on the heels of the live show :)!

Thursday, October 08, 2015

And then, suddenly...Shakespeare!

My daughter is starting to look at private schools, and I'm trying very hard to let her drive it at her own pace and not be one of those dads that asks all the questions. So I'm picking my spots on when and how to bring up Shakespeare.

The typical pattern, for context, is that you're assigned a current student who shows you around campus and answers questions, both from the child as well as the parents. Then you sit down for a more formal interview -- first your child goes in, then the parents.

School #1:  One of the biggest and best in our area, and probably her first choice.  We're shown the theatre and are told that there's a fall musical, as well as a drama production. I scan the posters on the wall and see Midsummer Night's Dream.

I ask, "What sort of drama productions do you do?"

"Oh, all kinds," our guide tells me.

"Any Shakespeare?" I ask.  "I saw the Midsummer Night's Dream poster back there."

"Oh we do a whole variety of shows," she tells me.  "Most recently we did this one play called Columbina, I think it was?"

For a second I think she's actually trying to say "Coriolanus", which would have impressed the dickens out of me.  But alas she is not, she's talking about a modern piece that I have to assume was about the events of a post-Columbine world.

Afterward I learn that my daughter is even more forward that I am, and during her interview asked, "Do you have any Shakespeare classes?"  That's my girl!  She gets the answer that there will be some Shakespeare, yes. There are not dedicated classes, but it's covered in the English classes.  Which I guess is the best I can expect.

School #2: We're going around, I'm looking to pick my spot. I have learned from the first school the general pattern of how these things go and the terms to watch out for, so I'm waiting for her to bring up whatever performing arts programs they offer in case Shakespeare comes up organically.

We're walking through the visual arts area and the guide is going on about various offerings, and I'm only half paying attention when I hear "...blah blah blah, blah blah Shakespeare blah."  (She wasn't really saying blah, I just don't know the context of what she was saying.)

I lift up my head and it appears to me like my wife and daughter are now looking at me, to see if I caught the Shakespeare reference.  But the girl has not stopped talking, so I'm playing it all back in my head to figure out if I can guess.  I can't.

"Did you just say Shakespeare?" I ask.

She looks confused.  "I....don't think so," she says.

I look at my wife and daughter, who also look confused. I have apparently imagined this entire thing.

Tour guide takes a moment to run back in her head everything she did say, because now she's wondering why I would randomly have brought up Shakespeare in the middle of the visual arts building, but nope, Shakespeare apparently has not come up.  "We're big Shakespeare fans in my house," I tell her, trying to cover the awkwardness, "So whenever somebody mentions Shakespeare I tend to whip around and look to see where it came from. Guess it was a false alarm."

That was literally the only Shakespeare reference at this school. My daughter doesn't even remember if she asked about it.

School #3:  Big school, many buildings, lots of kids moving around in all directions.  We are in the arts building and walking up a flight of stairs when we pass two male students, one of whom is clearly carrying a jester's hat and a sword. A legit metal sword.

Wondering if it's perhaps a Renaissance Festival kind of thing, or maybe they have Society for Creative Anachronism on campus, I ask our guide, "Ok, are we going to find out why that guy's walking around with a sword? I have to know."

So she flags him down.  "David!  This gentleman wanted to know why you have a sword."

He says something to her that I don't hear because she's had to open a door and follow him into a hallway, but he's coming back with her when she returns.  "Performance project," she says.

One of the boys explains, "It's a great class. Our teacher Mr. <whatever> assigns parts and then you have to act them out in class."

"So," I ask, "What are you performing?"

"Hamlet," they say.

I turn to my daughter.  "We're done," I tell her.  "You're going here."  I explain that Shakespeare is huge in our house and we're very excited to hear them say that.  I ask what part specifically they'll be performing.

"Today," says one boy, "I will be killing Polonius," motioning to the other boy.

"Great scene," I tell them.

"Act 3," says Polonius, and I wonder whether he knows the scene number and has just forgotten it. That's ok because on the fly I'm not sure I'd remember the exact scene either.

I'm seriously tempted to sit and have a discussion with them, because honestly I think that the best part of that scene is Hamlet's confrontation with Gertrude, but they don't have a Gertrude with them so I'm temporarily at a loss as to what to say next.  "Break a leg," I say, and we carry on the scene.

Not ten seconds later I'm playing the scene in my head and decide that what I should have said was, "How now, a rat? Dead, for a ducat! Dead!"  Then that made me think of those episodes of the Cosby Show where Theo has to do his Shakespeare homework and magically all of the dinner guests his parents have invited over just happen to have the play memorized and begin reciting the big scenes.  In other words, cool in my head, but nerdy and embarrassing out loud. :)

Next time, though, for sure :)

Friday, September 18, 2015

Darkside : Tom Stoppard + Pink Floyd

I've long been a Pink Floyd fan. I may have mentioned that. My kids know Sonnet 18 because David Gilmour's solo version of that sonnet set to music used to be my ringtone.

So when Pink Floyd references show up in my Shakespeare feed I double check to see what's up. And then somebody says "Hey remember when Tom Stoppard wrote a play set to the music of Dark Side of the Moon?" and I'm all, "wait..what?" 

Anybody know this "Darkside" play?  I'm looking into it now. Never heard of it.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Which Play Is The Most Magical?

Raise your hands if you're familiar with the magical duo of Penn and Teller?

Prospero conjures a tempest while Ariel watches.
Now keep them up if you knew that Mr. Teller, the "quiet one" of the group, is an accomplished Shakespearean director?

A few years ago he did Macbeth, and now he's got a production of The Tempest touring the country. I've seen both, and trust me - when a professional stage magician does Shakespeare, you're gonna see some stuff. I don't think I'll ever forget the image of Ariel drowning Ferdinand center stage, while his father watched.  Granted a bit off book, but an amazing start to the show.

The other day I decided to Tweet to Mr. Teller asking if his Tempest would be made available on DVD (I have a copy of his Macbeth). He wrote back that he'd love to, but union rules make filming stage productions difficult and expensive.

That stinks. But! It started a conversation about what play he should do next?  The obvious choice would be Midsummer Night's Dream if you're going for the "plenty of magical stuff to play with" angle.  But if you've ever seen Penn and Teller's work, they do prefer to go dark. As in, open The Tempest by actually drowning Ferdinand even when you don't have to.  There's not a lot of blood in Tempest (none, really), but that's why he did Macbeth first :). So a Dream from Teller would be more like a nightmare.  A crazy awesome nightmare.

I suggested Richard III, which seemed to have a good combination of ghosts and gore. Hamlet and Julius Caesar would be two other pretty logical choices as well.

What other plays might lend themselves well to the magical treatment? Obviously we're picking all the easy ones where Shakespeare added a magical element, but that doesn't have to be the case. What about a magical King Lear? I'm thinking specifically about him hallucinating at the end, but as I type that I realize it's a bit too Jean Valjean from Les Mis.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

A Shakespearean Face Off

And by that I mean the SyFy Channel's reality show, Face Off. The latest episode (season 9, episode 7) is a Shakespeare challenge!  Apparently (I can't find the full episode online yet), the task is to make up male mannequins like female characters from Shakespeare.

Here's a sneak peek of the episode, and I'm excited that the first character we hear about is Sycorax.  Not Juliet, not Cleopatra...Sycorax. A character that most audiences won't even recognize, and for the record never actually appears in the play :).  What's interesting to me is that the contestant even describes her as ugly.  Given that she's pregnant when she arrives on the island, I always thought that at least in her younger years, she could have been quite the looker.  Prospero even describes her as having blue eyes, even after all those years.  Must have been memorable for him!

UPDATE: The show aired, so check out the recap. Some fascinating stuff here, like how one guy got Hippolyta and somebody else got Titania (will they end up looking at all similar?)  Or how somebody else gets Queen Mab, another character that technically doesn't show up in the play!  And let's not skip over the pregnant Hermione.  For 16 years? Really?

Pictures of Queen Mab and Ophelia included, and it's easy to see why the Ophelia guy goes home. She looks more like zombie Gertrude, at best.

The full episode is not yet online, but I'll try to update this post when I find it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Why King Lear Is Not One of the 101 Greatest Plays

Michael Billington, theater critic for The Guardian, is writing a book entitled The 101 Greatest Plays....and he comes right out and tells people, King Lear is not on the list. I encourage you to check out the article, as it does go into detail about a number of other non-Shakespeare works that he did choose to include.

But, of course, we need to know his argument against Lear, so we can discuss it.  Here you go:

I could offer a robust defence of my omission: the play touches great heights but is structurally unwieldy, shows a punishment disproportionate to the original sin and contains in Edgar one of Shakespeare’s most unfathomable characters.
What say ye, oh Shakespeare Geek readers?

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Well, I Fell Into That Trap. And I'm OK With It.

[Warning, salty language ahead.]

I've been reading James Altucher's Choose Yourself! lately because I could really get behind his "Idea Machine" philosophy that lately I'm seeing all over the place. On the one hand it's really just another self-help guide, but maybe because the guy is a computer science geek, I can relate.

Anyway, I'm into the chapter about why you shouldn't have an opinion (I think this one comes straight out of Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People), because you're never going to change anybody else's so why bother. You'll only get into an argument.

He cites examples:

"I may say something like "kids shouldn't go to college," and everyone either already agrees with me or disagrees with me.
"Fine," I think, "I understand this position, and that people have different opinions. Personally I wish there were more viable options than the ridiculously expensive traditional four year route."
"Buying a home is ALWAYS bad."
"Wellllll, I get where you're coming from I guess but I don't know if I'd use the word 'always'..."
"Voting is stupid."
"I think most people agree with you on this one, actually. It's always just voting for the guy you hate the least, and regardless of who you put in there you'll hate him and want him out by the time the next term rolls around. The Freakonomics guys kind of back you up on this one."
"Shakespeare is boring."
"Oh go to hell right now you asshole."

Damnit!  Point to Mr. Altucher.  I freely admit, that is exactly the kind of visceral reaction his "opinion" evoked in me as soon as I read it. Couldn't help myself.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Trump on Shakespeare

Donald Trump on William Shakespeare (and His Works)

  • "He says he was born in Stratford. Where's his birth certificate? Why won't they show us his birth certificate?"
  • "I will build a great, great wall on Syracusa's border, and I will make Ephesus pay for that wall. Mark my words."
  • "I went to Fordham, I graduated from Wharton. Where'd he get his diploma? Case closed."
  • "Coriolanus is a hero, he's a hero - he's a hero because he got wounded 27 times. I like heroes that weren't wounded, OK? I hate to tell you."
  • "Look at my wife Melania, one of the most beautiful women in the world. And where's his wife? Anybody even got a picture of her? He left her at home because he's ashamed to be seen with her!"
  • "All the wives of Windsor flirted with me, consciously or subconsciously. But that's to be expected."
  • "This guy uses me for publicity just like they all do. Drops my name all over the place. Enter Talbot, with Trump and drum. Henry VI. Proclaim our honours with Trump. Titus Andronicus. When fame shall sound Trump. Troilus and Cressida. The only plays this guy's ever had any success with are the ones where he maliciously and illegally uses my name. I'll sue him for everything he's got and give it to my doorman for a tip."
  • “Sadly, because Othello has done such a poor job as general, you won’t see another black general for generations!”
  • "Stop calling him a gentleman, he's a gentleman because he bought his family a coat of arms because his criminal father couldn't get one on his own."
  • "Lavinia. Sadly, she's no longer a 10."

Monday, August 10, 2015

Review : Commonwealth Shakespeare's King Lear on Boston Common 2015 (Part 2)

[The tale begins here!]

Ok, where was I?  We did Goneril, right?  Regan.  Regan is just the right partner for Goneril. She's shorter (shorter hair as well, for what that matters) but manages to give off an older sister vibe, like she should be the one in charge. She comes off as smarter, definitely - but it's Goneril that you want to curb stomp at the end of the night.

What of the husbands? Just right. Albany is appropriately mousey in the beginning while Goneril walks all over him, but then has a change of heart and takes over in the later scenes. Cornwall is ... well, he's insane. Early on he needs to establish that he's the kind of guy that can rip another man's eyes out with his bare hands, and that's exactly what he does in spades. We're scared of him long before he learns about Gloucester, so not only do you know what's coming, you totally believe what's coming.

How was the scene, you ask?  Pretty gross. From our vantage point I unfortunately plainly saw Cornwall reach into his costume for a blood pellet, but man was there a lot of blood. He even whipped his hand back to get a nice spurting effect that you could see from a distance. When Gloucester's face can be seen again, half his face is covered in blood.

How was Gloucester? I liked him, but it's not like he drives the play. He was played by Fred Sullivan, the company's comedy star, so sometime's it's tricky to see him in a serious role. He even got the occasional laugh, even after he was blinded, if you can believe that. His exchanges with Tom/Edgar as he's being led to the cliff are funnier than I realized.  "Wait, didn't your voice change? It seems like you're speaking more normally now."

Edgar.  Much like the Fool, I haven't always understood half of what Poor Tom says.  But Edgar did a spectacular job of talking to the audience - doesn't he have a line of some sort that basically says, "If I cry to see what's become of the king I'm going to ruin my disguise"?  He plays off of Lear wonderfully, especially when he howls to the moon and Lear howls right along with him. I don't love the final battle with his brother Edmund, but that has more to do with what I've always considered relatively poor stage combat by this group.

That leaves Cordelia and Lear, who I can talk about together. The first scene, as I mentioned, isn't what I expected. Cordelia's been portrayed as the equal of her sisters, so when she says "Nothing" there doesn't seem to be much fear in it, like she's afraid to say it (although her lines indicate that this is what she's supposed to be thinking). Instead I felt like her response was more, "Nothing. There's my answer. I know you don't like it, but that's the way it is." She doesn't like that she has to say it, but she doesn't hesitate either, if that makes sense.

Which leads to another unfortunate problem.  Cordelia is a relatively big girl.  Not fat, but not a little waif, either.  So for the big climax? Lear can't carry her. As they enter he's only got one of her legs, and the other sort of drags along the ground as Lear walks. I don't really know what they were thinking there. I wonder if it would have worked to just have him dragging her body, like he is literally using the last energy in his body to do it? I don't know, it just didn't work. I did not get "This father is trying and failing to carry his daughter," I got "This actor can't carry this actress."

Now, Lear.

How do you explain Lear?  I could do a series of posts entirely on Lear.  I thought he was amazing. I loved him in the storm, I loved him interacting with Poor Tom, I loved his back and forth with the Fool. I think that my favorite scene is the "Why is my man in the stocks?" scene, whichever that is. The way he just has to confront, all at once, that he no longer has any power is ... well, amazing. In the early scenes when Lear had to repeat himself you definitely felt like heads were going to roll if somebody didn't jump (and people did jump). Now he's got nothing, He wants to speak with his daughter, but she won't come. He demands to know who put his man in the stocks, and no one will answer him. The way his voice changes during the scene as he asks this question again and again, how he wails in frustration that he cannot get a simple answer to his question, really drove the point home.  Then he has to go back and forth between his daughters with the math problem - "I can only have 50 followers with you? Fine, I'll go with her so I can have 100...I can't have 100 with you? I can only have 25? Fine, I'll go with her and take my 50...what, I can't have 50 either? I can't have any?" These are his daughters, and they just destroy him in this scene, all while telling themselves that they haven't done anything wrong. It's just spectacular all around.

(Funny story, if a bit non sequitur? My son is 9, my daughter 11. Well, my daughter had a friend over, and they were all playing nicely together. My son gets the idea that maybe they can walk down to the corner store and get a snack.  The girls agree that this is a good idea and they go to ask permission from my wife, who has to explain that while the 11yr olds are old enough to go, my son is too young and cannot (had my older daughter been home to chaperone they all could have gone). So to see him go from the joy of "I suggested something to do and everybody agreed it was a good idea" to "they can go but I am not allowed" just crushed him. The helplessness of the situation was radiating off of him.  I feel like that for Lear in this scene. Once upon a time he was the king, and everything he said was law. Now people are just plain ignoring what he says, and he can't comprehend what just happened.

For the record, when my oldest daughter returned from camp they did all go down to the store for a snack, so the situation was remedied a bit. Didn't want people to think this was an entirely sad story. :)  Anyway, back to Lear!)

What of his madness? It was hard to pity him because he was having so much fun, honestly. He howls at the moon with poor Tom, he passes out flowers, he makes the soldiers chase him. The characters around him of course watch his descent in horror and have no idea what to do with themselves. After the trial when they finally get him to sleep, only to wake him up and move him, you feel Kent's helplessness that they can't even give him that little comfort.

The big ending didn't move me as much as I'd hoped. I've mentioned before that I still can't really watch Olivier's version of this scene, especially when he gets to the "Cordelia?  Stay a little..." line. This wasn't that. When you've got a Cordelia that's basically the same size as you and you struggled to get her on stage, lines like "Her voice was ever soft, gentle and low..." just don't really work.

One thing seemed different, that I liked. Lear's actual last words are "Look, her lips, look there, look there" and I've always taken that to mean he is staring at her face, watching for signs of life, and convinces himself in the last moment that she still breathes.  That's not what they did here.  This time Lear is staring straight off in space (they may have even skipped the  "her lips" bit, I can't remember) so when he delivers the "look there" lines he's clearly looking at something none of the others can see. Is it Cordelia's spirit calling to him? I think it must have been. Either way his last thought is a happy one.

So I loved it, did I mention that? One last funny story. As we were leaving, somebody with a video camera asked if we'd be willing to do a quick video testimonial. Sure, why not? They shoved a microphone in my hand and I said something simple about having come for 12 years and this being the best show yet. Then they asked for more, and asked what I liked about it.  What I liked about it? That's like asking my favorite play, a question I used to refuse to answer. Ask me my favorite child next time. I could not think of a single specific example to give that did not trivialize other bits I equally loved. So what I ended up saying was, "'s King Lear, it's Shakespeare's masterpiece. It's perfection on the page and tonight was perfection on the stage."  I have no idea what happened to that video but if I find it I"ll post it.

Great show, Commonwealth Shakespeare! Happy 20th anniversary! I hope to continue my unbroken streak for many years to come.

Review : Commonwealth Shakespeare's King Lear on Boston Common 2015 (Part 1)

I once drove several hours to see a production of King Lear. It wasn't worth the trip. It might have been before I started this blog because I can't find where I wrote it down, but the thing I remember the most was the big moment, the storm on the heath, and Lear ... bargaining with the storm.  Timid.  Instead of "Come at me, give me everything you've got" I got a Lear that was more "I never did anything to you, please don't hurt me."

This weekend I saw Commonwealth Shakespeare's production of King Lear on Boston Common. This is their 20th year, and I've been to 12 of them.  This is, without doubt, the greatest thing I've seen them do.  (To be fair, we're talking about Lear here.  Shakespeare's masterpiece. It's not like a Comedy of Errors or a Two Gents, no matter how good, is even going to be in the same conversation.)

The staging is interesting this year, showing just a backdrop of curtains (arrases?) that leave enough space for random exits and entrances, if that's what they're planning.  I think this is oddly basic, but I like it. In the past there's almost always been two levels to the stage, as well as a great deal of scenery (such as a crashed airplane for As You Like It, or neon signs for Two Gentlemen of Verona).

The play starts with an interpretive dance between Lear and his daughters.  Right away I'm struck by something I did not expect -- I cannot tell which daughter is which. I am fully expecting Cordelia to stand out from her sisters like black and white, but as they start I realize that any of them could be Cordelia. Soon the dance splits, however, and Lear clearly spends more enjoyable time with one of the girls while the other two plot and scheme to work together. They have a scarf that they are dancing with, and use it to get between Lear and Cordelia, dragging him away from her, wrapping him up, and so on.  Then it gets crazy dark as they pull the scarf up over his eyes and a mob comes out to torment him, before finally dragging him offstage.  Wow.

I can't begin to describe the play in detail, because my post will be longer than the script. Instead, let's talk about characters.

Fool.  When I first tried to read and understand King Lear, I didn't really get the Fool.  Were his jokes supposed to be funny? Or profound? Does he love the king, or mock him? Or rather, since the answer is obviously "both", is the line between the two? He clearly tries to show him, repeatedly, the folly of giving away his kingdom.  But to what end? It's too late to do anything about it. If he's just taunting the poor man, that's hardly what I'd call love.

I liked this Fool a lot. From the minute he dances in and jumps up on the table, I knew I liked him. The way he just keeps hammering Lear over the head with variations of "Who's the bigger idiot? I'm not the one who gave away my kingdom" despite Lear's half-hearted warnings for him to stop really made me appreciate the scene more than I ever had. What exactly is that relationship? Is Lear even listening to what he's saying? When he says "Careful sirrah, the whip" (or whatever the line is), it's not delivered like an actual threat, more like a joke between them, like never in a million years would that be a possibility.

As the play progresses he has less and less to do, until he literally just stops showing up. Unlike some productions, there is no death for the Fool added in.  He just stops appearing. But two scenes really make his presence felt.  First when they come upon Kent in the stocks. Kent asks him why Lear is going around with so few followers, and we learn that his 100 knights, that magical number that is so important to him to retain his pride, have been deserting him.  All except poor Fool, who will be faithful quite literally for the rest of their lives.

The second is the storm.  Oh, the storm.  Massive wind machines appear, the dry ice / smoke starts to swirl, and here comes the rain.  It is a full on tempest right there on stage. We can feel ourselves getting colder in our seats.  Act 3, Scene 1, the storm is in full swing as a minor character forces his way on stage against the wind.  Kent, from above in a scaffolding, calls down to him - yells, to be heard over the storm, "WHERE IS THE KING?" Then, when told that he is out in the storm, "BUT WHO IS WITH HIM?" and we learn that dear Fool is the only one left to follow him.

I tell you, it's the scenes like those that are the ones that get me all misty (and not just because of the dry ice machine!).  Kent is no fool, in a number of meanings of the word. He's not stupid. He's disguised himself and gotten into Lear's ranks so that he can continue on his one mission - protect the king. All the smart characters are taking shelter from the storm. Not Kent.  Kent's about to run right out into the middle of it. How could he do any different?

So let's talk about Kent.  I didn't really get him at first because in the opening scene he's wearing glasses and a fake beard that may have interfered with his ability to deliver his lines. Or maybe it's just that he was putting on an accent early, so that he could spent the rest of the play without it. Either way, I didn't fully understand much of his delivery, but he certainly got his point across. He was right up in Lear's face, letting him know exactly how stupid he was being. When Lear draws a sword and threatens to cut Kent down, Kent doesn't back down in the slightest - instead he bares his neck and points at it, calling Lear's bluff.

What was wonderful about his performance, though, was that in Lear's presence he was often left having no idea what to do.  He had a plan - be near the king. Check. But when the king will not come out of the storm, how can Kent force him? When Lear ultimately carries in Cordelia's dead body and will not let her go, what is Kent to do? Often he is left doing what appears to be cowering, stuck in this "Should I go to him? But what would I do once I got there? I have no idea what to do next" limbo that, once I recognized it, fit his character perfectly. When it comes to his final line, though, there is no hesitation in his voice. He is not merely calm and resolute in his response to Albany, he is ... I'm trying to find the word. At peace? He knows exactly what comes next, and the way he delivers his last line is almost pitying, like, "Oh you silly man, don't you see what happens next? I follow my master."   (Reminds me of the Lord of the Rings line,  “Don't leave me here alone! It's your Sam calling. Don't go where I can't follow! Wake up, Mr. Frodo!” If it had been Kent mourning over Lear's body, this is exactly what he would have said. And you know what? If Fool was on stage at the same time I bet he would have said the same thing.)

I'm going to have to split this post into parts because it's getting too long.  Before we go let's talk about Edmund.

When we talk about villains sometimes it's easy to get caught up in seeing them as the start of the show.  Consider Iago, after all. Othello is practically The Iago Show. He is so charismatic in everything he does and says that half the time the audience is left waiting impatiently for when he'll come back.

You can kind of imagine Edmund like this. He goes from Gloucester's bastard son to the romantic interest of both Goneril and Regan, so he's got something going for him. He manipulates everyone around him.

But the play is not about him.  This is Lear's play.  Edmund is what Edmund's supposed to be - a bastard, in multiple senses of the word. His own father gives him a note detailing the enemy's plans and says, "Whatever you do, don't show this to Cornwall." So of course he runs to Cornwall and says "Look what I have!'  Bastard. I didn't spend any time at all admiring the personality that Edmund manages to convey.  There are none of those "Ooooo, that's so evil it's just brilliant" moments you get with Iago.  You just spend all your time with Edmund thinking, "I hope that son of a b*tch gets what's coming to him." Perfect.

Wait, before I go!  Goneril.  Oh dear god in heaven did I want to see her die on stage. She played her role so perfectly that, had I come with rotten tomatoes, they would have been flying in her direction. Which is exactly how it was supposed to be. Even just standing there she could put an expression on her face that made you want to wipe it off with a length of barbed wire.  Great job.

Ok, to be continued.  Otherwise I'm never going to get this posted!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Hamlet Didn't Have A Tragic Flaw, He Just Had Bad Luck

At any point during a Shakespeare tragedy should we just kind of look at it and think, "Dang, you know, that was just really unlucky"?  How about Polonius being behind the arras in the first place? Sure, it was pretty impulsive of Hamlet to just go all stabby all of a sudden, if he'd done that literally any other time when somebody wasn't back there, the play would go totally differently.

The article linked above asks why we feel obliged to pretend luck doesn't play a factor.  Luck suggests that even if you don't do the right things, you can still come out ahead (people like to cite Bill Gates, college drop out, as a great example here). Or, that you can do everything right and still one day tragedy strikes and you lose everything. It's hard to accept that sort of randomness, because it acknowledges a complete lack of control.  If I choose a certain path, I want to expect that certain things will happen. If an unexpected thing happens, my brain wants to go back and create a new path that I must have taken to get myself to that spot.

Personally I believe in the theory that says, "At any given time, you are the sum total of your experiences and decisions up to that point."  I always take issue when people say something like, "I'm happy with my life, I just wish that X had been different."  You can't have it that way, because if X had been different, then everything that came after X would also be different.

Luck, therefore, is part of the definition -- a thing happened at a certain time because of conditions that all your previous decisions got you into. Luck is basically the uncontrollable bit.  Sure, Hamlet decided to go to his mother's room, get all upset, and murder the tapestry.  But nothing he did was responsible for putting Polonius back there. Sure, sure, you could argue that the whole play-within-a-play, which deliberately pissed off Claudius, set Polonius into action, but ultimately Polonius has free will as well that Hamlet does not control.

I guess the whole point is, does the tragic flaw exist? Or is it just a construct we put in place after the fact, to rationalize what is ultimately just a series of uncontrollable events, making your choices like waltzing through a mine field and hoping your next one doesn't blow up in your face.