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!