Tag Archives: Shakespeare

On Hamlet…84/100

cofI  have loved Hamlet for a long time. Correction. I have loved a passage from Hamlet for a long time. Though I had no idea it was Hamlet. Because I thought it was a song. From the Hair soundtrack. Boy oh boy did I love that soundtrack. I discovered it in my parents collection when I was about 10. I played it constantly. I knew all the words to all the songs, especially that one that is just a list of naughty things. I could probably sing the album today. It is skill I  share with my best friend from university, Abby. She too spent hours of childhood entranced by Hair. Fast forward many decades. Imagine my surprise when I heard “what a piece of work is man, how noble in reason…” spoken, not sung, by Hamlet. Well no wonder it is a song I remember, it is lyrical, pure poetry.  Words that stick on your soul. Hamlet itself is a little harder to love.

I know it is one of Shakespeare’s greats, if not his greatest. It is supposedly the most performed play in the world. Apparently Hamlets are taking place all over all the time. But it isn’t an easy play. The characters aren’t all that likeable. Their motives aren’t always clear. It is confusing at best. And the end is a proper bloodbath. I have seen 5 productions of Hamlet, all in London. By the standards of my British friends, this is a paltry number of shows. But remember, I wasn’t educated in all things Shakespeare like they were, like my children are. I am a newcomer to the Shakespeare cult. Enthusiastic, certainly, but uneducated.

The first Hamlet I saw was dreadful. Starring the usually incredible Michael Sheen, it was set in a pyschiatrict hospital, which immediately undercut Hamlet’s own madness as everyone was mad. Loudly, ragingly, incoherently mad. And poor Ophelia was reduced to a shrieking wreck throwing pills around for what seemed like forever. Relentless misery. I couldn’t make any sense of it at all. By the end, I think there were only 10 of us left in the audience. We had stayed only because my friend was so heavily pregnant she felt too tired to move. At one point we both stared hopefully off to the side of the stage, wishing a crisp packet or sweet wrapper to roll by and distract us from the main action. I didn’t enjoy it, but I wasn’t  giving up.

A few years later the Globe announced their Hamlet world tour. Their plan to take a production of Hamlet all round the world and in 2 years try, as best as geo-political situations would allow, to perform in every country in the world. My daughter and I attended the first show, at Middle Temple. A simple stage, a clothes line and a few hats, the production was funny and rich and reverant in its understanding that the words are what matter. This one I enjoyed. A lot. The production really did tour the world, acting in theatres, villages squares, studio spaces, outdoor stadiums, and a tent in a refugee camp.  Two years on, the same daughter and I enjoyed the penultimate performance, back at the Globe. With the same cast now fully engrossed in their roles. I admired what I saw, but still found the play difficult.

Then came the famous Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet. Of course I went. My friend Mini managed incredible tickets in about the 3rd row. It was lavish. Magnificent. A triumph. Yet, I still cringed when Ophelia set about shrieking in the usual way, a way I don’t find at all convincing for what she is supposedly enduring. Hamlet the man stayed a mystery, why does he do what he does and why? Is he mad? Is he not? Does he mean what he is saying? Is there some essential sub-text I am missing? And what are all these other peole doing? But of course I enjoyed it. I went with the plot and let the gorgeous words flow over me. Flow over, but not through.

Friday night. Andrew Scott’s Hamlet. Suddenly, like a bolt out of the sky the words didn’t wash by, they penetrated. Deeply. I was transfixed. For almost 4 hours. This production, directed by Robert Icke, moved after spectacular reviews from the Almedia to the West End is sleek and modern, but without gimmick. The words still matter. In fact they matter even more, because I got them. Andrew Scott’s interpretation is so good he effortlessly bridges the gap between Shakespearen language and modern sensibilities. No longer was he some maybe mad man-child making lots of speeches, he became a fully formed human whose decisions, while not always good, made sense, and his self-expression personal, timely, vivid. It was as though he had written the words for himself, by himself.  In fact, all the characters made sense, even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  And Ophelia didn’t shriek. Her grief was tangible. And understandable. And quietly heartbreaking.  My brain was on fire. My soul filled. My eyes wet. Now  I get it, why it is that  this play written more than 400 years ago still resonants. Why it is the most performed play in the world. It captures so much of the human condition. That vengeful bloodbath at the end? Sadly,  that is pretty accurate as well. Now, I too am a Hamlet groupie. Thank you London. It took a while, but you have given me yet something else to love.

 

On Shakespeare 400….50/100

IMG_20160422_163427April 23, 2016,  St George’s Day, marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. And the 452nd anniversary of his birth. Because Shakespeare was clever enough to be born and die on the same day, that being the same day that honours the patron saint of England. Can’t make this stuff up. Being a Shakespeare devotee, but no scholar, I was excited to join in as many celebrations as logistically possible. In fact, I made it a long weekend of Shakespeare mania. But being me, it became a bit more.

I started the extravaganza with a day long course at the Victoria & Albert Museum, devoted (mostly) to the study of The Tempest, arguably one of the strangest and most difficult of plays. My children refer to it as “the weird one,” which is an ok description. I have NO formal Shakespeare education whatsoever. I rely on Google, Wikipedia, the knowledge of my English educated children and my own instinct when it comes to understanding the work of the world’s most famous playwright. Turns out, that isn’t always enough. The morning started well with none other than Dame Harriet Walter (saw her in a fantastic all female Henry IV) delivering a great Prospero-esque monologue. She was followed by Dr. Bridget Escolme who spoke eloquently on objects and costumes and sets in various Tempest productions, including the wacky film version starring (then) teenage pop star Toyah Willcox. She used lots of big words I didn’t understand, but her passion was infectious. After her came the American poet AE Stallings. Whose mind is so nimble she can flit from Shakespeare to Ovid to Virgil to Dido to Prospero to Lucretius to the tv show Lost and back again. As someone with NO background in the classics I could only sit in dizzy awe, and feel very uneducated, but in a lovely “tell me more, tell me more,” kind of way. I was mesmerized by them both.

High on these new crushes I wafted off to lunch in the gorgeous William Morris decorated V&A café, where, it being a rainy day, every tabled was packed. So I plunked myself down with two strangers….who were having the most marvelous conversation. I didn’t even try to hide my eavesdropping…. until I could take it no longer and just butted in. Fortunately one was American, so not offended, and the other was British, so too polite to admit offense. A costume historian/ripperologist from Chicago and an English writer. I was in heaven. Serious heaven. Especially when the chat moved to Deadwood, the best television after The Wire. With sadness I left my new best friends and returned to the lectures. I should have stayed and  joined them on their pub crawl.

The afternoon was so over my head I took to scrawling “I have no idea what they are talking about” in my notebook, only to be followed with “now I REALLY have no idea what they are talking about” over and over again. Enthusiasm and a will to learn can only take you so far. Sometimes you do need the basic knowledge. And I didn’t have it. The final presentation was  a Q&A with Toyah herself. As I didn’t grow up with her, I couldn’t join in the giddy excitement of my fellow attendees. That said, she looked great, wore a fabulous skirt and was very funny about the filming of the movie. On balance not a bad day. Actually, my new friends made it a great day. Thank you Alan and Karen.

IMG_20160423_161112Saturday was the Sonnet Walk. I wrote last year of my love for this event (post #24 Reveling with Shakespeare,) walking round London, clutching a rose, waiting for strangers to jump out and quote Shakespeare. This year they held to the name and the actors mostly, but not always, delivered sonnets. The hilarious set up of the play within a play from Midsummer Night’s Dream and a gorgeously sung rendition IMG_20160423_173323of Double, Double, Toil & Trouble (Macbeth) from The Paddock Singers out of East Sussex  being the exceptions.

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But never mind all of that. Because. At Middle Temple. Dressed as a barrister. MARK RYLANCE. The Oscar and BAFTA award winning actor. Former Artistic Director of The Globe. Mastermind of the sonnet walks. Yes, that man. Quoted Sonnet 46 and 47. “Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war….” We were like well behaved, non-screaming girls at a 1D concert….just shaking on the inside. With joy.

I have saved the best for last. Sunday. Hamlet. 2 years ago my daughter and I attended the premiere of the Hamlet that was to become Globe-to-Globe Hamlet at Middle Temple. It IMG_20160424_145856_editwas tremendous. What we said at the time is that it proved that Shakespeare doesn’t need updating or fancy sets or gimmicks. A couple of trunks, a clothes line and a few hats is enough. The words. THE WORDS (and some great acting) do the rest. We followed their travels on line. The quest to visit every country was foiled by N Korea. And some of the others had to be accomplished with a degree of inventiveness, if not outright moxy. Theatres, town squares, refugee camp tents….what an adventure. What an experience.

And two years on from our evening at Middle Temple we attended the penultimate Globe-to-Globe performance at, well…. The Globe. Happy for us, the cast was almost exactly the same as the previous. But what a difference. This was a performance that had become more than second nature, it had become owned. It was part of their very being. No lineIMG_20160423_180414_edit_edit didn’t have relevance. No phrase wasn’t wise or funny or thought provoking or advancing. These were words spoken by true believers. Who had been round the world and back. And brought all that beautiful baggage and wisdom and experience with them. Does it get better than this? I don’t know. Does it matter? No. Because, because, because it proves that words matter. They matter very much indeed. And our ability to use these words to reach out over time and culture and language and make a connection….that is certainly something to celebrate!

Is there a lesson to be learned from this weekend! Yes. Yes there is. And here it is: Travel, enjoy Shakespeare (even if you don’t understand it all) and always talk to strangers. Because, to quote the great man himself, “The world is your oyster.”

Instagram & Twitter:  @mylondonpassion

 

On Malvolio in the museum….More Shakespeare fun 41/100

IMG_20160414_102504_edit_editApril has arrived and with it the start of what is going to be a London love-in of all things Shakespeare. This month marks the 400th anniversary of his death, and it isn’t just The Globe ready to remind us why we love this man so so much. My London Passion has plenty of plans as well, all over the city. As I wrote in my last post, I started with a super special screening of R+J, thanks to Backyard Cinema. Today, something a little funnier, but equally as clever, at the V&A. Malvolio’s Misorder. A delightful spin-off from Twelfth Night, written by Dominic Gerrard. The British galleries, 1500-1760 are now the interior of Olivia’s home. And lucky guests, we have been invited on a tour. Malvolio (Alasdair Craig) is our host, as his lady is indisposed, with lady’s maid Maria (Lotte Allan) as assistant. It all starts off well. Pompous but well meaning Malvolio shows us a bust of Henry VII, admits to being baffled at his a lady’s interest in these English things, but he does a stellar job at presentation never the less. Next, a terrible copy of the famous Holbein portrait Henry VIII on copper….and then, poor Malvolio, drunken Sir Toby (Nick Haverson) begins bellowing from the next room. Dear Maria tries to take over. We see the “deliberately damaged” 15th c panel of the Annunciation, the violence done in the heady, early days of the split from Rome. Then the Bed of Ware. IMG_2102So large it could hold 4 couples at the same time. A faded painting on the headboard suggests what all those bodies could have been up to…coitus interruptus by means of Malvolio. He is horrified Maria is discussing this racy item and hurries us into yet another room, to show off a fireplace and a ceiling. But we don’t really get to admire these blander fixtures as immediately he is overtaken by Toby. And then the fun starts. A back and forth and round again between all 3 characters. A song. More badinage. The famous yellow stockings. No, they didn’t speak Shakespeare’s words, Yes, you needed to know the play to appreciate all the jokes, but it is such a playful and fast romp it didn’t require any in depth knowledge. Why do you tease me so, whinges Malvolio. Because “you delight in others misfortunes.” And this afternoon we also delighted in Malvolio’s misfortune. After being invited to join a lovely rendition of With Hey, Ho, the wind and the rain (a familiar ditty to any as dedicated to the Globe as me), Malvolio staggers off. Howling. In self-pity. A thoroughly entertaining 35 minutes. If only all museum tours could be so engaging. Shakespeare and the V&A. Great combination.

Instagram: @mylondonpassion

On R+J with choir…Shakespeare anniversary begins 40/100

IMG_20160409_193023Some of the best ideas are the simple ones. Want to share a fav film with friends?   Tack up a sheet in a London garden, crack open some beers and let Backyard Cinema be born. 4 years on, these are the perfect people to host Shakespeare’s classic tale reworked for the MTV generation. This spring not only marks the 20th anniversary of Baz Juhrmann’s Romeo+Juliet…how can it have been that long! It is also the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. And London has great plans in store. So what better way to start my own Shakespeare-adoring fest than here, on a comfy couch, generously poured G&T in hand, in the beautiful St Mary’s Church in Marylebone, which has been decorated to resemble the church in the film. And a choir. A real choir. IMG_20160409_194744Some Voices Sing Choir.  Oooh what a choir. Backyard Cinema, you are genius. But then you are London.

I am not one for the cinema. And I know nothing of films; I leave it to my film friend aficionados to let me know which are good and which aren’t, and then I never see either. Except in a few cases, and those I love beyond sense. And this is one of them. R+J. Loud, brash and at times ridiculous, but so is this story of self-obsessed, indulgent, impulsive teenage lovers of the foolish grand gesture. And Leo and Claire are just so young and beautiful. It is, of course, Mercutio, who is the star of this tale, charming, witty, braggart and in this instance, in drag. Fabulously in drag. It’s pretty short too, even some of the more famous speeches have been cut. But that is the prerogative of every director of Shakespeare throughout the ages, and it is the breakneck speed of this production, accompanied by an often throbbing soundtrack that reminds us that this is less a story of romance than one of pointless brutality and mindless violence.IMG_20160409_203025_edit And tonight we get it all, with a choir. As the previously boisterous crowd quiets, and the newscaster explains “In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…..a pair of star cross’d lovers take their life,” the choir, in red robes, holding candles, processes, and in full operatic voice begin “Oh Verona.” Mesmerizing.

They didn’t accompany the entire soundtrack, only featured in few of the favourites. Sadly, this didn’t include “When Doves Cry,” which I really would have loved to hear sung live. And then, in the final moments, as the lovers end their lives, his with poison, hers with gunshot to the head, the choir begins a slow, thoughtful version of Radiohead’s Creep.

Not in the original film, (orchestral music fills the silence) but WOW did it work. “You are special, so fucking special, I wish I were special…” I felt chills that were more than just the melancholy of watching a well know tragedy. Suddenly, this film wasn’t just about the waste of this young couple, but the waste of human life throughout the world…such is the power of words. Such is the power of song. Sung by a choir. I think Mr. S would have loved it.