Shakespeare Solved® versions of these plays solve the mysteries surrounding them by taking us back in time to see the plays as they were performed for the first time in history.


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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Julie Taymor Smithsonian Interview & Midsummer Pictures

Here is an interesting interview with Julie Taymor in Smithsonian.

I enjoy reading what she has to say about Shakespeare. She has a very unique perspective into his plays. I even went to hear her speak a few months ago in NYC at the Pearl Theatre -- I wrote about it here.





In the article she mentions that her favorite Shakespeare play is Titus Andronicus, which was the first film she directed -- Titus in 1999, starring Anthony Hopkins.


I find that very interesting, because while I like her film version of the play, Titus Andronicus is far from my favorite Shakespeare play.

My favorite Shakespeare play is The Merchant of Venice. It was the first Shakespeare play that I solved, and it set me on a path to solve other plays by Shakespeare. 

Also, for far too long it has been misunderstood as a tragicomedy, when in fact it is a very funny bawdy farce. It is Shakespeare's funniest play.

As I explored Shakespeare's plays, I discovered that Titus Andronicus is a lot funnier than we think. I think that Shakespeare's Elizabethan audience laughed at the excessive violence on the stage rather than was horrified by it.

I wonder if Ms. Taymor has ever considered reading and interpreting Titus Andronicus as a comedy. She might be surprised.

The article covers much of her career, up to and including her current production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Theatre For A New Audience in Brooklyn, NY.

I saw the production and it is wonderful. It runs through January 12, 2014.

You can get more information and buy tickets here:

Here are some new pictures I found online, if you want to get a good look at the marvelous production design and costume design.
















Cheers,


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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Mark Rylance in New York Times



There is a great article in the New York Times about actors who perform Shakespeare, and it highlights the current productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III with Mark Rylance.

Mark Rylance

I saw both plays recently, and you can follow these links to read what I thought of them: Twelfth Night & Richard III.
In the article, I especially liked what the critic wrote about how Mark Rylance “always seems to be breathing the same air we do.” He is making these characters less remote, and more immediate and real.
The other part of the article I liked was about the “English style” of acting Shakespeare, the formal Shakespearean style of acting in the manner of Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. 
That style of acting is on the “wane” and actors like Mark Rylance represent a rebellion against it. His career at Shakespeare’s Globe has been an effort to “shake things up.”
When I began the research for my versions of Shakespeare’s plays, I realized that Shakespeare and his fellow actors performed the plays for the Elizabethan audiences without any style. They didn’t act. 
They just performed them as enthusiastically and energetically as possible. They tried to keep their audiences as entertained as possible at all times.
I think the great actors of Shakespeare’s time didn’t rise to the top because of the school they went to. They were the best actors of the time because they were the most ruthlessly entertaining players around. They knew how to work an audience and keep your attention riveted on them. 
If they acted in the “English Style” they would have been booed off the stage. 
With all due respect to Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Kenneth Branagh and many other very fine actors (whose work I greatly admire and appreciate) I don’t think Shakespeare would understand what they were doing. Their style of acting would confuse him.
When I saw Mark Rylance as Olivia and Richard III, I saw one of the very few current actors who understands how to work an audience in the same way as the Elizabethan actors. I thought he did a fantastic job, but I also think he didn’t go far enough. 
The New York Times article  also mentions Mark Rylance's “animal cunning” as an actor. 
This is very funny, because one of Shakespeare greatest challenges as a playwright was to compete for audiences with the bear-baiting rings. 



The audiences in the Elizabethan era loved watching a real bear get mauled to death by hounds, or watch the bear destroy the hounds. 



These kinds of matches still exist today -- just think of cock fights, or dog fighting, or bull fights. Pakistan has bear-baiting to this day.
So, when Shakespeare wrote a play, he had to satisfy an audience that could just as easily go see animals kill each other. 
Imagine you are an Elizabethan merchant, with your spouse, walking on the streets of Bankside London, in 1599.
Your spouse wants to see Romeo and Juliet, but you want to go see a bear get killed.
Where did you go -- to the Beare Howse or the Play Howse?



That was Shakespeare's challenge. He had to make Romeo and Juliet, and every other play he wrote, as entertaining as animals killing each other. 
He could put a duel in the play, or some sword battle scenes like in Henry V.
Not every Shakespeare play has battles and duels, but he did have to write stories that were as entertaining and as full of twists and surprises as a match between a bear and hounds.
When I watched Mark Rylance perform, he did have an animal cunning. He understood that sometimes he was the hound, ripping apart a bear -- like when he played Richard III looking at the young Princes as if they didn't have long to live. And then he later understood that he is the bear, ripped apart by the hounds -- when Richard III is killed at the end.
I am excited to see this newer style of acting, and less of the formal “English Style.” 
With your support of this blog, hopefully one day soon we will get to see Shakespeare’s plays performed in the way that he originally intended -- fast, funny, and ruthlessly entertaining.

Cheers,
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Thursday, November 14, 2013

David Tennant as Richard II


The Royal Shakespeare Company is showing their current stage production of Richard II starring David Tennant in movie theatres around the world.


So, even if you can’t get to Stratford-upon-Avon, or you can’t get tickets to the live show, you can see it broadcast on screen. 


For more information and tickets, you should check out their website here: http://onscreen.rsc.org.uk/cinemas-and-tickets/


The show is getting great reviews, like this one from the UK Daily Mail:


And there are other reviews collected here:



Cheers,
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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Shakespeare In Love, On Stage?


A new stage version of 1996 film Shakespeare In Love is coming to London’s West End next year.



As this article in The Hollywood Reporter says: “The plot follows Shakespeare as he grapples with writer's block while struggling to come up with an idea for his next play commission.”
It often seems to me that we all grapple with Shakespeare Block, meaning that we are struggling to come up with a new way to produce Shakespeare’s plays.
Don’t get me wrong. I liked the 1996 film with Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes. They were very good, and the film is very romantic. But it takes the life of and work of William Shakespeare and turns it into a Disney fantasy.
(Fun fact: the 1996 film was made by Miramax Films, which was owned by The Walt Disney Company at the time.)
I remember reading last year that Miramax Films still wants to make a sequel to Shakespeare In Love.
I think they should.
But I also asked when will William Shakespeare’s life and work get a serious treatment like Mozart got in the film Amadeus?

Shakespeare In Love is a light romantic drama. When will we get the real -- and much more compelling true story of William Shakespeare?

My versions of the plays not only solve the mysteries surrounding them, but also tell a much more truthful story of his life.

I hope this new stage version of Shakespeare In Love is successful, because as far as I’m concerned, there is no such thing as too much Shakespeare.
I am always eager to see a new production and version of his plays, whether it is on stage or screen.

In this new stage version, I don't envy the actress who plays Queen Elizabeth. Dame Judi Dench is a hard act to follow! 

What do you think?

Cheers,

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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Shakespeare's Rise and the Rising of the North


The Rising of the North began in November 1569, and would last until January of 1570.
It was a rebellion against Queen Elizabeth led by noble Catholic families in Northern England.

Queen Elizabeth
from the frontispiece of her personal prayerbook, 1569


The goal of the rebellion was to depose the Protestant Elizabeth and replace her with the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots.
In November 1569, William Shakespeare only 5 years old. 
He was too young to have anything to say about the rebellion, but old enough to remember what was being said.
This would arguably have been one of the memorable times in Shakespeare’s youth, and it must have fired his imagination.
He would have heard stories about Elizabeth, Mary and even Mary’s son, James -- who would of course later become King James VI of Scotland and I of England.
If young William Shakespeare did not yet understand what religion was, or how men and women could and would die fighting about it, this would have been a fascinating, and probably very frightening episode in his life.
It is impossible to know when Shakespeare realized that he was born into an England, and a Europe for that matter, that was going through one of the greatest upheavals in history. 
The Protestant Reformation was the greatest issue of the period, and the clashes between Catholics and Protestants in the English Reformation were a very common occurrence.
This may in fact have been one of the most important moments in Shakespeare's early life. It may have inspired him to be the playwright he would become.
In fact, this Rising of the North was just one of a series of clashes -- there was the Lincolnshire Rising and the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, there was Bigod’s Revolt and the Cumberland Rising in 1537.
So, the Rising of the North was not the first time that Queen Elizabeth’s life was threatened, and it would not be the last.
To a young boy like Shakespeare, it must have been awfully exciting,  but also quite frightening. He must have felt that the violence around him could sweep him up and kill him. 
But as each threat faded, and Queen Elizabeth survived, Shakespeare must have felt like he lived in the most fascinating time of all.
Of all the people involved in the Rising, Shakespeare must have focused on one of the leaders, Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland. 

Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland, 1566

His nephew, Thomas Percy, was one of the leaders of the Gunpowder Plot against King James in 1605. 

Thomas Percy, ca 1605

He is also descended from the same Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland and his son “Harry Hotspur” Percy that helped Henry IV seize the throne against King Richard II.

Rory Kinnear as Henry IV in the Hollow Crown series

The Percy family has quite a colorful history. A history that Shakespeare must have heard his whole life and he would make the most of it when he wrote his plays.
In 1595, Shakespeare wrote Richard II, a play about how Henry IV deposed and later killed King Richard II. Naturally, Henry Percy is featured in the play.

King Richard II

In about 1596, Shakespeare wrote Henry IV, Part 1 and then wrote Part 2 a year or so later. Naturally, it featured Henry again, with his son “Harry Hotspur.”

Joe Armstrong as Hotspur in the Hollow Crown series

Shakespeare famously depicts the fight to the death between “Hotspur” and Prince Hal, later King Henry V, at the Battle of Shrewsbury.

Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal in the Hollow Crown series

In 1601, Shakespeare’s Richard II play was performed on February 7, the day before the Essex Rebellion.
This play, about how King Richard II was deposed and later killed, served as inspiration for the conspirators of this failed Rebellion, led by the Earl of Essex.
Essex had wanted to depose Queen Elizabeth in 1601, much like Henry IV deposed Richard II. We don’t know if he intended to kill her.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

Queen Elizabeth understood what Essex was up to, and how she was perceived by the conspirators as no better than Richard II. She is reported to have said “I am Richard, no ye not that?”
Shakespeare was not implicated in the Essex Rebellion, but I explore his connection to that failed conspiracy in my version of Hamlet.
In 1605, after the failed Gunpowder Plot,  when the conspirators were identified, Shakespeare would have recognized Thomas Percy’s name right away.
Shakespeare would probably not have been surprised that Percy was part of such a plot. His family was famous for such plots.
Shakespeare was not implicated in the Gunpowder Plot, nor do I think he had anything to do with it.
But in his lifetime, the stories he had heard about famous plots, probably starting with the Rising of the North, had fed his imagination. 
His imagination led Shakespeare to write plays that dealt with such conspiracies and rebellions. 
His plays directly influenced such plots, like the Essex Rebellion.
By 1601, Shakespeare was no longer apart from history. He was part of history. He was shaping it.
It is impossible for me to imagine that Shakespeare was ignorant of this. He must have understood what effect his plays were having, and could have.
I like to think that he would have looked back at his life and understood that events like the Rising of the North were the beginning of his personal voyage from Stratford to London, from being a glovemaker's apprentice to the most famous playwright of them all.

Cheers,
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Thursday, November 7, 2013

Shakespeare and Henry, Prince of Wales


401 years ago, on 6 November 1612, King James’s son Henry died of typhoid fever.
Heir to the throne, Henry Frederick Stuart, Prince of Wales was only 18 years old when he died.

Prince Henry, ca. 1610

At the time he died, there was a rumor that he was poisoned.
But who would want him dead?
Was King James, his own father, behind it?
For many years, Prince Henry was loved by the public in a way that his father was not. There is evidence that King James felt threatened by his son’s popularity.

Prince Henry, 1610

King James did not attend his son’s funeral at Westminster Abbey. This would have only increased suspicion that he killed his own son.

"The Hearse of Henry, Prince of Wales" by William Hole 1612

We may never know if King James killed Prince Henry, but at the time it would have been seriously considered.
What did Shakespeare think of all of this? He had known King James very well, serving him as a King’s Man, the official royal playwright.
Shakespeare also must have known Prince Henry. There is no evidence to suggest that he was close to Henry, or any of King James’s children for that matter, but he met them on many occasions, and would have had a good understanding of who they were.
It has been said, by Professor James Shapiro amongst others, that the last plays Shakespeare wrote -- like Cymbeline, A Winter’s Tale and The Tempest -- were written in a fairy-tale style because they were meant to appeal more to King James’s children than to King James himself.
Why would Shakespeare write for Prince Henry, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Charles instead of for their father?

Princess Elizabeth by Marcus Gheeraerts, 1612

The plays that Shakespeare had written earlier, like Macbeth, Othello and King Lear, were written entirely for King James.
Those plays were messages from Shakespeare to King James, and filled with lessons on the nature of power.
But it is clear that King James did not receive the messages, and the lessons that Shakespeare was teaching were falling on deaf ears.
In the early days of the reign of King James, there were assassination plots, a monkey trial against Sir Walter Raleigh which resulted in his life imprisonment in The Tower, and and of course, the Gunpowder Plot. 
The early days of King James's reign were very frightening, and Shakespeare's early plays were expressions of that fear, and warnings against any further violence.
If King James did not listen to Shakespeare’s message, then Shakespeare may have turned to the children instead.
Prince Henry was described as "Upright to the point of priggishness.” He also made people pay a fine if they cursed or sweared.
He did not swear and was upright probably in direct proportion to the degree that his father swore and was un-priggish, meaning crass and rude.
Prince Henry liked Sir Walter Raleigh, and tried to get his father to release him from The Tower. Henry also did not like his father’s string of male lovers, like Robert Carr.
During his short life, Prince Henry had attracted many artists and writers, who considered him to more enlightened than his father. 
Shakespeare could not, and would not have joined such gatherings, since he was in the service of King James. But it does not mean that Shakespeare did not share the view that Henry was a finer man than his father.
Had Prince Henry not died, it is unclear how he would have ruled as King of England. Arguably he would have been a good monarch, maybe better than his father, and most probably better than his brother, Charles, who was next in line to the throne.

Prince Charles by Robert Peake, 1613

Later, Charles succeeded King James, who died in 1625. King Charles I brought the country to civil war, and was executed.
It would seem that whatever lessons in humility and on the nature of power Shakespeare had tried to teach King James's children, including Charles, did not work.

Did Shakespeare believe that King James killed his son? There is no evidence to suggest it, but I do think that Shakespeare knew King James well enough to believe that he was capable of doing such a thing. If King Lear is any indication, Shakespeare had a dim view of King James as a father.
By 1612, Shakespeare was out of favor with King James, and was probably in retirement in Stratford for good.
I think he had lost favor with King James many years beforehand, which would also explain why his last plays were written for the children.
In the period after Prince Henry’s death, 32 of the greatest poets of the age wrote poems in his memory. But nothing from Shakespeare.
This may be further evidence of Shakespeare’s loss of status. 
For all his troubles, for the plays he had written for King James, and the later plays he wrote for the children, Shakespeare was all but thrown away and discarded by his King.

But his plays continued to play in London, and fortunately they have survived to remind us of what he witnessed.
Cheers,
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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Macbeth starring Ethan Hawke and Anne-Marie Duff


I went to see Macbeth starring Ethan Hawke and Anne-Marie Duff at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater.
It was very good show, but rather uneven.
If you are in or near New York City, I recommend it.
The production runs until 12 January, 2014. You can get more information and tickets here:


I am not a professional theatre critic, but I would like to share some of my thoughts about this production.
I was excited to see this because it is directed by Jack O’Brien, famous for having produced and directed many shows, including the original Broadway production of Hairspray. He has directed several of Shakespeare’s plays before, and he was the Artistic Director of the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, California. He is also working on a new musical about Harry Houdini, starring Hugh Jackman.

Brian d'Arcy James as Banquo and Ethan Hawke

I was also excited because I had never seen Ethan Hawke on stage before. I like his work in film, such as Gattaca, Training Day and especially the Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight series of films. I liked him as Hamlet, and I saw him in the Shakespeare Uncovered documentary -- both of which I should probably write about here on the blog sooner than later.

Anne-Marie Duff

But the chance to see Anne-Marie Duff on stage was what excited me the most. She is a spectacular actress and I couldn’t wait to see her as Lady Macbeth. 
She played John Lennon ‘s mother in the terrific film Nowhere Boy. Her performance will break your heart.
She played Queen Elizabeth I in the TV series The Virgin Queen, and it is the very best portrayal of Elizabeth I have ever seen. Truly incredible and brave acting. 

Anne-Marie Duff as Queen Elizabeth in The Virgin Queen

So, with this talented team, I was very eager to see the play.
Unfortunately, it was not as good as I had hoped. It was not bad, and I do think you should go see it. It is worth seeing.
But the production was too restrained. It was too polite.
Please understand me, I don’t need to see a Macbeth where the stage is soaked with blood to enjoy it. 
But what I do expect to see is a Macbeth and Lady Macbeth who are driven insane by their ambition and the evil forces surrounding them, and who commit acts of bloody murder. 
Mr. Hawke certainly looks like a Macbeth, and he seems very comfortable on stage. But his transformation from an ambitious man to a monster is not very convincing. He seemed tentative and too cautious.
I would like to see him in more Shakespeare, and I hope it is something that he continues to do for the rest of his career.
Ms. Duff also seemed to portray Lady Macbeth too cautiously, as if she had not committed to the role entirely yet. She is a very intelligent actress, and makes very good choices in her performances. But the role of Lady Macbeth demands more than just intelligence. It demands everything from the actress who portrays her.
Lady Macbeth reminds me of the role of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. It is an impossibly demanding role for an actress, and any actress who aspires to perform Blanche does so at her great peril.
Ms. Duff seemed to have kept that peril at an arm’s distance. 
I have to think that the size of the Vivian Beaumont Theater, which is very large, did not help. It seemed to swallow the play and players. It made the actors seem small.
It also seemed to me that Mr. Hawke’s voice was hoarser than I expected, and Ms. Duff seemed to strain her voice to be heard in the large theater.

Daniel Sunjata as Macduff

The rest of the cast was quite good. I especially liked Daniel Sunjata as Macduff. He is a very good actor, and he should definitely do more Shakespeare. I think he would be an excellent Coriolanus.
But the biggest surprise of the play was John Glover. He played one of the Witches and he also played the Porter.

Malcolm Gets, John Glover and Byron Jennings as the Three Witches

As a Witch, he was dressed in a very provocative way that helped to underscore the gender-bending nature of the weird sisters.
As the Porter, he was truly brilliant. He was so unexpectedly funny and so perfect. He played up the fact that Shakespeare is thought to have invented the “Knock Knock” joke, and he involved the audience in a way that is unforgettably funny.
Here was a performance that was not tentative and threw caution to the wind.
The entire production would benefit from more of this kind of energy.
I have to think that John Glover’s ease with Shakespeare may be ancestral. After all, Shakespeare was an apprentice to his father, who was a glove-maker. Perhaps their families knew each other!
Overall, the play was entertaining, and I do recommend it. 
Cheers,
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