Staging King Lear

Guest blogger, Jonny Patrick, writes…

My favourite moment in Shakespeare is the scene in King Lear where the blind Gloucester is led by his son Edgar to the cliffs of Dover, where he intends to commit suicide. Gloucester does not know that his guide is Edgar, who has taken on the disguise of the madman Poor Tom.

Gloucester has lost his sight; we have ours. However, what we are about to see will make us question its reliability, morality, even its desirability. We watch as Edgar leads his father forward, telling him that he is now “within a foot / Of th’extreme verge” (IV, vi). He gives a dizzying verbal picture of the view from the precipice. Gloucester tells him to leave and Edgar does so. What, we ask ourselves, is Edgar playing at? Will he really let his father jump? Is this some kind of revenge for Gloucester’s earlier injustices towards him? In an aside, Edgar addresses the question, but tells us merely “Why I do trifle thus with his despair / Is done to cure it”. In this play about eyes, where should we look: at the man about to leap or at his son, who must surely stop this from happening?

Then Gloucester jumps. He falls, and is prostrate onstage. So he’s dead? Have we really just watched a man leap to his death? Edgar himself is unsure and runs up to Gloucester. Assuming a new accent and persona, he shouts to Gloucester, who wakes up. Once again, Shakespeare pitches us into confusion. Have we just watched a man jump from a cliff and survive? Or have we just seen him die then rise from the dead? Gloucester himself is unsure: “But have I fallen or no?” Ultimately, we can work out that this is an elaborate ruse by Edgar, designed to trick his father out of his suicidal despair by convincing him that he has been miraculously preserved. Gloucester’s leap landed him on the ground before him; Edgar never took him to the edge. But Edgar/Shakespeare is toying with us too: was that really what we saw?

I can think of nothing more purely theatrical than this scene. On the radio or on film, it just can’t work in the same way. It has to be done on a bare stage; make the staging realistic and you give away that Gloucester hasn’t jumped at all. It’s a soul-saving experience for Gloucester and a theatrical miracle.

Jonny Patrick
Head of English, St Paul’s Girls’ School

A Production of Many Colours: RSC’s Glistering King John

Guest blogger, Annie Martirosyan, writes…

RSC is always a treat when I am in fair Stratford-upon-Avon. I have seen performances I adored and performances I disliked. I could not predict what I would make of King John. I am mostly a purist when it comes to adapting Shakespeare and I heard King John was very modernized.

It was raining as I left the Shakespeare Institute. I intentionally forgot the umbrella at the guest house as I did not want to shun the English rain. I had little time for usual pottering in the foyer, so I grabbed my RSC Key ticket and ran to the Gallery.

There were balloons! They must burst onto the stage at some point, I thought. Something splendid seemed to be unfolding…

RSC's King John

Photo: Annie Martirosyan

Pippa Nixon appeared – in colourful tights, with bright red lipstick and a guitar. She was loud, modern-Englished, talking to us randomly and playing the guitar accompanied with her high-spirited singing. I laughed. I definitely was not in the early 13th century – but whatever it was, it looked like it was going to be a blast!

…The lights lit up, the cast rushed in, loud, colourful, fidgety. Blanche, blonde, and excellently portrayed by Natalie Klamar. Did Shakespeare conceive of Blanche as a modern stereotypical silly blonde? And so perfectly modern did Shakespearean English sound from the mouth of the Spanish princess!

Blanche and Dauphin’s wedding was the most hilarious I have ever witnessed, on and off stage. How naturally gifted a non-native director must be to combine modern posh pomp and Shakespeare’s tongue so gracefully and fluently! And all was to such a very appropriate music that the audience laughed themselves into stitches with delight at this musical comedy, while not hating this unimaginable interpretation of King John – indeed, nodding at the very wild and brilliant adaptation. This is what the Swedish director Maria Aberg achieved.

Alex Waldmann played King John – so young and yet so worthy to stand on RSC’s stage as an English king. Susie Trayling as a mad Constance, in a vibrant purple dress and with reddish curls, was noisy and chilling. Paola Dionisotti as a female Pandulph looked smart. John Stahl as Philip of France, in a trim aquamarine suit, was funny and appropriate. Sandra Duncan was hilarity itself as a motorcycling Lady Faulconbridge!  Strangely, the boy playing Arthur is not mentioned in the “King John cast and creative” on RSC’s website – he was apt and voiced, so young and so talented! They were all excellent.

Siobhan Redmond, in a long emerald silky dress and with her fiery head, a gift from nature – slightly incestuous, slightly silly but snobbish – was almost an ideal grandmother to Arthur.

The Bastard: you would not make much of the character, would you, other than term him a slimy, insolent illegitimate social climber or some such? Maria Aberg unsexed him, made her a central character and what’s more – had Pippa Nixon cope with this. And cope she did, top-drawer. She sprang onto stage as if from the street, with the casualness of her outfit, the resonant powerful voice spontaneously spitting Shakespeare’s lines from her throat and her being – this slim young actress besieged the audience. If Pippa Nixon can make so much out of such an unpleasing, neglected character and give shape to a plot Shakespeare cared not to define, I don’t doubt I’ll see her doing King Lear and Falstaff one day with similar dazzle!

…The lights went out, there was confetti in the air, Pippa Nixon was singing…

With balloons, hoops, pomp, a silly blonde, slight incest and comedy, RSC’s King John was an absolute delight. In a mingled play of mixed feelings and a plot that baffles a single-sentence definition, Maria Aberg’s exquisite production attempted not to confirm it as a black-and-white historical trauma, but succeeded in accentuating the jumbled plot with physical colours and emphasized characters, turning King John into a glittering show that was incredibly likeable! Indeed, the production deserves as many stars as there were balloons! Shakespeare would have been entertained.

The RSC’s King John was on at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon from April to September 2012.

You can read the longer review and the full writ on Avon’s stages on Talk Like Shakespeare website.

Annie Martirosyan
PhD Shakespeare researcher, linguist, English Language Lecturer
www.talklikeshakespeare.gobsplat.com

Apropos Macbeth

Guest blogger, Ligia Luckhurst, writes…

In the winter of 1980, I saw Peter O’Toole as Macbeth at the Old Vic. Yes, that production, and for all the wrong reasons: at that time, aged 28, I was, as I still am at age of 60, in love with O’Toole.

On the evening, my normal reasoning and perceiving faculties were cancelled out. I started getting ready hours before the show, and only minutes later discovered that I had half an hour left to traverse London from north to south, find the Old Vic theatre, present my ticket and take my seat.

Sean Feeney was already on the stage when I got in. He was grey-haired and spectral, speaking the verses in that peculiar staccato way that is uniquely his. I was full of awe. I felt I was in the presence of a being who knew everything and who had experienced everything.

And that is what is wrong with most productions of Macbeth: Macbeth is wise, doomed and despairing from the start, whilst the play is in fact about acquiring pointless wisdom at a terrible price.

Years later, I saw Sam Walters’ production at The Orange tree in Richmond. It was an eye-opener.

Who is Macbeth, really? A soldier, a Joe Bloggs inhabiting a clean-cut world of dos and don’ts, who suddenly receives notification of having won the Reader’s Digest Prize Draw, provided he returns his lucky numbers in the envelope labelled ‘Yes’?

When he does, he wades through rivers of blood to learn that the world is a tale told by an idiot, with sound and fury.

At that stage, of course, he is no longer Joe Bloggs, nor is there anything left for him to do but to die: the whole of his life’s potential has been used up as payment for this obscene knowledge.

And why was he chosen as winner of the Prize Draw? Because Macbeth is the sort of bloke who can be depended upon to return his lucky numbers. Blokes who return their numbers make the tale told by an idiot go round. That is Macbeth in a nutshell.

Joe Bloggs, however, is one thing O’Toole could not be and he was right not to have tried to. He was grand and extravagant; he made us sit up and listen, whether we liked it or not. And that was good and as it should be.

Ligia Luckhurst

Malleable Shakespeare

Guest blogger, Jakub Boguszak, writes…

What surprises me again and again each time I get to perform in a Shakespeare play is how malleable one’s own reading of a play can become once the rehearsal process begins.

There are so many inflections the text acquires only when a situation is physically enacted, when one is forced to respond to other people’s ideas of what their characters and scenes are about; one can look forward to playing the solemn, magisterial and cool Prospero only to discover that he can be actually quite funny in front of an audience (The Tempest); apparently routine lines can gain profound significance when spoken out loud to somebody else (as in Antony and Cleopatra, when Charmian responds with her dying breath: “Ah, soldier!”); the presence of silent characters on stage can turn out to be essential for the architecture of a scene.

I was fortunate to perform in 4 Shakespeare plays produced by an experienced director who gave us the freedom to explore the text ourselves and find its meaning through dialogue – on stage and off. In this sense, the plays became ours as we had to negotiate the meaning of the scenes and the overall progress of the story, while at the beginning only some of us were acquainted with more than our own parts and the basic premise of the play (as indeed was the case with Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men).

A director can always explain what he or she thinks a particular situation is about and make the actors channel the idea, but I believe that Shakespeare in performance tends to be more rewarding when the actors themselves surprise and challenge one another: whenever the manner of an actor’s response prevents me from acting in the way I imagined my character to act when I was reading the play, I learn something new.

This process can be confusing and frustrating, as all sacrifices and compromises tend to be, but when a director can serve as a moderator of these exchanges, the chance that something both original and true emerges in the performance increases dramatically. If, in the end, the collective effort does not bring about a spectacular production rich with fresh insights, we can always return to the texts themselves and stage the plays in our minds the way we would like them to be staged. Pity we can then only bow to ourselves.

Jakub Boguszak

“The play’s the thing”

Guest blogger, Caroline Astley, writes…

This summer brought Shakespeare’s Globe’s performance of Hamlet to the Bodleian Library Quad. After a string of wet evenings, I ventured down to the open-air Old Schools Quadrangle in the hope that, weather permitting, I would be in for an evening of theatre in classic Shakespearean style; given that Hamlet is considered the Bard’s most popular and performed play, and the Bodleian provided The Globe with a majestic, historical setting with which to bring it to life, I was not to be disappointed.

The Shakespeare’s Globe season at the Bodleian is a well-lived tradition, now in its fifth year. The Oxfordian location is ideal, almost rivalling The Globe’s own Elizabethan-style theatre, famously situated on London’s South Bank. Completed in 1619, three years after Shakespeare’s death, the Bodleian Library’s Old Schools Quadrangle is a suitably epic setting for a production of the well-known tragedy. Hamlet‘s touring set was similarly designed to feel contemporary with a seventeenth-century aesthetic; although more bare and stripped-down in appearance than the decadent Globe, the modest staging served as a perfect backdrop to the dramatic performance of a play which, as the Globe’s own flyer puts it, is “the fullest expression of Shakespeare’s genius”.

As seats filled and the sun remained out, the players gathered on stage in true Globeian style, with a handful of instruments, and began to strum a simple tune. Tom Lawrence (Horatio) came forward, introducing the play with a cry of “we have played a rainy Portsmouth, a wet and windy Poole and a stormy Cambridge: and, now, here we are in sunny Oxford!” The relief among audience and actors was unanimous.

Yet, regardless of the miraculous sunshine, Dominic Dromgoole and Bill Buckhurst’s direction would have withstood any weather: fresh and fast-paced, it made the two-and-a-half-hour performance fly by, despite dropping temperatures as the evening wore on. Michael Benz was raw yet dynamic as Hamlet, perfectly capturing the frantic paranoia of the Danish prince. Refreshingly youthful, Benz sold the angst and insecurity of his character, exposing his vulnerability beneath a carefully-constructed veneer of bravado. Treading the line between madness and sanity, Benz agitatedly dramatized the grief, frustration, anger and hysteria of the young prince.

A tragedy in the traditional sense, the production remained light in the first half through plenty of witty humour; lines delivered in a smart, subtle fashion from Benz and Christopher Saul (Polonius) kept the audience laughing. A comic interpretation of the play within the play, The Murder of Gonzalo, saw the end of the first half and, also, an end to the humour. After a brief interval, in which members of the audience could peruse the Bodleian’s Hamlet display in the Proscholium (as well as a warm bar set up in the stunning Divinity School), the production turned into a spiralling descent of tragic death and despair. In quick succession, Polonius’s murder, Ophelia’s madness (played with poignancy by Carlyss Peer), and the demise of Hamlet himself were executed with a deft handling of the catastrophic drama.

In a perfect kick-off to the summer of Sprint for Shakespeare, Dromgoole and Buckhurst’s Hamlet did not fail to meet expectations of the much-anticipated performance at the Bodleian Library. An exciting rendition of a traditional classic, The Globe managed to breathe new life into Shakespeare’s most popular play while remaining stripped down to its bare essentials. Not to be missed.

Shakespeare’s Globe is on tour with Hamlet until 1 September 2012.

Caroline Astley

Remarkable Puck

Guest blogger, Jo Willcox, writes…

I’ll put a girdle round about the earth

In forty minutes.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, II i

I have an unforgettable memory from my schooldays of a remarkable Puck. We had an annual Shakespeare competition in which each House had to present a scene from Shakespeare without scenery, with minimal props and in school uniform. As a 12-year-old newcomer I watched entranced an amazing Puck who in due course made a most spectacular exit. With one enormous bound she leapt from the platform out of the side door of the Hall as she set out to put a girdle round the earth.

She was later to become one of our much loved thespian Dames.

I regret to say that I cannot remember which House won the competition that year, but I like to think it was ours.

Jo Willcox

A third more opulent

Guest blogger Robert Stagg writes…

what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters’?

(King Lear Folio I, i, 85-6)

In speaking, the actor playing Lear – let alone Cordelia – must consider not only “what” to say but how to say it. In offering “A third more opulent than your sisters’”, does he emphasise “more” or “opulent”? – that is to say, does Lear think Cordelia will be allured by sheer wealth or sororal competition? Two different stress-routes are offered through the lines.

Two months ago, I was experiencing another problem of stress. I was writing a 10,000-word Master’s dissertation while rehearsing to play Lear in a psychology experiment. Audiences would see two different versions of King Lear I, i and I, ii. One version presented an affable Lear ruined by Cordelia’s refusal to join in his joke. The other showed the audience a king leering at his daughter, managing the family succession with a thin-faced relish. The affable Lear stressed a “more opulent” third in a playful manner; the second Lear laid emphasis on “opulent”, his eyes shining at the spoken riches.

An actor’s decision to place stress on “opulent” seems to accord with expectations of an iambic line; the first syllable of “opulent” (“op”) acquires stress if we are to read the line iambically. But the “o” of “opulent” is helped and enabled by the previous “o” in “more”. There is almost an elision or slur between the o’s. So stressing “opulent” comes with the permission of, and certainly not at the expense of, “more” – an auxiliary disruption of the iambic pattern.

Shakespeare, then, does not exactly give advice to the players (as Peter Hall’s book title, drawing on Hamlet, misleadingly promises). Here, Shakespeare does the opposite; he plays with the iambic advice of the line, makes it more difficult than counting syllables on fingers. Instead, the players are given a possibility or possibilities. From this small matter of stress – “more” or “opulent”? – comes an impression of Lear’s attitude to Cordelia and, with it, our attitude towards her. Does he think her greedy or competitive, and how so? Does his voice command our confidence in that judgement, or judgements? In a stutter, or a stumble, or a stress, worlds of possibility loop out from individual lines – like the parallel worlds or universes of modern physics – and create a staging of the play. The actor cannot play all the worlds at once; but he can hear a glimpse of its aspects from the stresses and strains of Shakespeare’s lines.

Robert Stagg

Teach young babes

Guest blogger, Judith Siefring, writes…

Those that do teach young babes
Do it with gentle means and easy tasks

Othello, IV, ii

Like so many of us, I love reading and watching Shakespeare. And like many book-loving parents, I perhaps think a little too much about how to pass on my favourite works to my children. I’m a digital editor at the Bodleian and having had the good fortune to work on the Shakespeare Quartos Archive in 2009, when my son was only two years old, I pondered the question of when to introduce a child to Shakespeare rather earlier than most!

I would often sit at my laptop surrounded by different editions of Hamlet, while my son played happily on the floor beside me. I have a treasured photograph of him absorbed in a paperback Hamlet; any secret desires I may have had to circulate it as evidence of my son’s incipient genius were scuppered by the fact that the book is upside down.

When my son was four, I decided to dip our toes together into Shakespeare in performance by taking him to the wonderful Shakespeare4Kidz production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Any doubts I may have had about whether it is possible to make Shakespeare truly appealing for kids were quickly dispelled by a theatre full of children in hysterics at the antics of Puck and company. Well over a year later, my son still talks about “the funny fairy guy”. I must confess, too, to feeling just a tiny bit smug when my boy pointed excitedly at a theatre poster recently at a crowded traffic crossing and bellowed, “Look Mummy – Hamlet!!

Now with the fantastic Sprint for Shakespeare initiative for inspiration, the time might be right to get to work on my two-year-old daughter…

 Judith Siefring

My Relevant Shakespeare

Guest blogger, Celia Smith, writes…

November 2008 is a significant date for me for two reasons: it was the first time I sought literary theory outside the classroom, and the first time I saw a Shakespeare play that was not in the rotation of classics with which I was familiar. The literary comment was a defence of T.S. Eliot’s anti-semitism by Jeanette Winterson.  The play was Tim Caroll’s 2008 The Merchant of Venice at the Royal Shakespeare Company, with Angus Wright as Shylock. I remember the two together because both were moments that offered ambivalent representations of the Jewish faith; something which interests me.

The set production of Merchant stood out to me in a way I hadn’t previously considered a Shakespearean performance. The floors, walls and furniture props took on hues of a musty, heat-burnt red – it reminded me of the Mediterranean marketplace setting and the gory blood money theme.  The experience marked a departure from the way I had watched Shakespeare plays as a child. When I was at school I had been used to uncritically sitting through versions of the plays you might typically be taken to see at that age (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet). I think the teachers hoped the trips would sow a seed of intellectual curiosity about the writer’s more obscure gold. Yet it’s a mark of my irrepressible juvenilia that plays like Henry VIII or The Winter’s Tale or Pericles will always exist for me outside the well-established set of Shakespeare texts that are – as they are for so many – imprinted permanently on my adolescent brain. It’s the language from the grand plays that have stayed with me all these years; the cadences of the lines that I have hung my heart on year after years of growing up.

I remember at university, the finalists in the years above me used Antony and Cleopatra and Henry V as they slogged through their exams. One girl wrote on Facebook as she approached the first night of her exams: “the bright day is done / And we are for the dark”. I remember when they were nearly done too because she wrote: “once more unto the breach dear friends!” Those lines returned to me as spurs of encouragement by the time I was doing my own finals. At that time I was comforted by the melodrama I could call on. When I felt like a misery-guts and I could see younger students still having fun, I would grumble: “I have of late – but wherefore I know not – lost all my mirth”. I would later eventually drop off after a sleepless night with grouchy resolve: “put out the light, and then put out the light”.

Nowadays working in my graduate job, I still find Shakespeare quotations lift my spirits. After a month working for Nightingale House (a Jewish care home for the elderly), and after a month waiting for social care reforms to come from the House of Commons, I was suddenly struck by how close the company’s talk of quality of care was making me think of Merchant’s speech on quality of mercy.

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest:

The Merchant of Venice, IV, i

In the light of the challenging future that faces the elderly community in Britain today, I feel that Shakespeare writes about care (or rather mercy) with a moral fibre that would make me gibber with guilt were I in Government. And that reminder of Merchant brings me back to that date of November 2008, when I was first exploring the world of literary theory. I came across this apologia for poetry in Winterson’s feature in The Guardian. Her argument for the relevance of T.S. Eliot is exactly how I feel about the relevance of Shakespeare:

So when people say that poetry is merely a luxury for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read much at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is.

 

Celia Smith

Digital Globe

This week, The Economist‘s A.C. writes about the digital reinvention of Shakespeare, and opens by describing this year’s staging of 37 plays in 37 different languages at Shakespeare’s Globe. Today we are delighted to publish a guest post by the Globe’s Ruth Frendo and Jordan Landes, who write…

Digital technology intersects Shakespeare studies in many different ways. The digitization of the Bodleian’s First Folio is a brilliant example of how digital media can enhance access to Shakespeare.

The Library and Archive at Shakespeare’s Globe are pursuing another route: the digital capture of performances. Capturing the ephemeral, preserving it and making it available for current and future audiences, has always challenged performance archives. At the Globe, where performance and research combine to explore Shakespeare’s texts in a unique and exciting way, capture and preservation are crucial.

Performances at the Globe have been recorded since the very first productions in 1997. Technology has transformed since then, and we recently installed a capture system which records at a far higher quality than previously used. Capturing more data provides the recordings with more visible data, and facilitates their preservation.

Our next step will be to upgrade our cameras and cabling to produce and transmit high definition television signals. New cameras will give us greater control of light and focus settings, providing higher tolerance of changing environmental conditions – an important consideration for recording in an outdoor theatre during a typical British summer!

Today’s information professionals are pioneers in the untamed landscape of digital preservation, a terrain whose boundaries and pitfalls shift with each new technological development. The prospect is as exhilarating as it is daunting. The more digital resources that libraries and archives can provide for researchers, the more useful we will remain.

Ruth Frendo, Archivist and Jordan Landes, former Librarian
Shakespeare’s Globe