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Friday, August 12, 2016

Ralph Fiennes as Richard III


I just saw Richard III starring Ralph Fiennes last night.

It’s an incredible production, and you should go see it.


This production, which just completed its run at the Almeida Theatre in London, is being distributed around the world in cinemas.

You can find showtimes and tickets here:


I am not a professional theatre critic, but I want to share with you some of my thoughts about this great production.

I have never seen a more complete and balanced production of Richard III. The acting is superb, there is not a weak link in the acting ensemble, and they explored the characters more fully than the productions I have seen before.


I must give particular credit to the actresses - to Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Margaret, Susan Engel as Richard’s mother the Duchess of York, Aislín McGuckin as Elizabeth Woodville, and Joanna Vanderham as Anne Neville.

I have never seen a production that gave as much emphasis to these characters, and the actresses all rose to the occasion. Each of them had moments that just about stopped the show, and stole the scene away from every other actor, even Mr. Fiennes. As a result, they provided a much-needed emotional counterbalance to all of the evil that these men do. 

Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Margaret
Susan Engel, on the left, as Duchess of York
Aislín McGuckin as Elizabeth Woodville
Joanna Vanderham as Anne Woodville
But of course, the play belongs to King Richard III, and Ralph Fiennes did not disappoint at all. He was marvelous.

There are precious few actors who understand how to make you believe that they are evil.

Mr. Fiennes really specializes in this, what with his roles in Schindler’s List, as Voldemort in the Harry Potter movies, and even as Hades in the Clash/Wrath of the Titans movies.

But I have never seen him more evil before. He was truly scary.





I think this is his greatest performance by far. He wasn’t just camping it up as some sort of preening villain, twirling his mustache.

He was charismatic, and funny, very funny in fact, and that made the evil within the character come out even more.

The Richard III character is one of the most fully dimensional characters in world literature/theatre. He has so many sides, it is hard to grasp him. He is so slippery, like an eel (or a toad) that you can’t catch him.

Ralph Fiennes clearly understands this very thoroughly. He embraces the character so fully, without any reservation. Most actors pull punches when performing the crookback King Richard. Not Mr. Fiennes — he throws his punches fast and hard.

As great as his performance is — truly a historic accomplishment for him, for theatre, and especially for the greater history of Shakespeare in general — it cannot be accomplished alone. He must have great actors to play onstage with him.

And in that respect, Rupert Goold found and directed an all-star team of actors.

James Garnon, on the left, as Hastings
James Garnon was the most moving and compelling Hastings I have ever seen. Mr. Garnon has made a real name for himself, especially at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. I saw him as Caliban in their production of The Tempest, and he really redefined the role.

Finbar Lynch as Buckingham

Finbar Lynch is a wonderful Buckingham. He was equally good (meaning despicable) as one of Richard’s most willing co-conspirators, as he was when he finds himself somehow growing a conscience. 

Scott Handy as Clarence

Scott Handy is one of the best Clarences I have seen. He is suitably pathetic. Clarence’s murder is meant to shock our conscience, and the murder in this production is the most frightening I can recall.

I do think it is a mistake to cut out what I think is Clarence’s most important line. When his murderers come to kill him, he insults them by saying that he is royal and they are not. Shakespeare’s original lines are meant to make us, the audience, dislike him. As odd as it may seem, we are supposed to want him to die, and enjoy watching his murder.

This gets to the heart of the play. We are supposed to sympathise with Richard III and enjoy watching him kill off his enemies, and the obstacles in his path to the throne.

For an otherwise very balanced and faithful production of the play, Mr. Goold put his thumb on the scale too heavily with this one edit.

The tone of the play was excellent, and while at times it was dark and gloomy, it was also funny more than I expected.

I have written quite a lot about how Richard III should be classified as a comedy rather than a tragedy. It is a very funny play, and it has never been performed with as much humour as it should.

Mr. Fiennes brought out much of the humour, and he could have gone much further with it. But what he did do, in exchange for more comedy, was to add a level of malevolence that is extraordinary. This production is not for anyone who needs safe spaces, and whose emotions are too easily triggered.

I don’t want to give anything away, but this Richard preys as much on the women as he does on the men.

It is always a pleasure when the actors in modern productions of Shakespeare break the fourth wall, and speak to the audience, and involve the audience. It is all too rare, especially when you consider that all of Shakespeare’s plays, especially when he wrote soliloquies, are really conversations with the audience.

I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but there is a fantastic moment where Mr. Fiennes engages the audience. The choice of moment is brilliant.


I strongly recommend this production. If you can find it at a cinema near you, you should not miss it. I doubt you will see a better version, or a more nightmare-inducing King Richard.

Cheers,



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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Shakespeare's Crimes


Did Shakespeare ever go to jail?

Did he ever do hard time?


The eminent Shakespeare scholar, Jonathan Bate once wrote that “Unlike nearly all his contemporaries, Shakespeare never wrote plays that put him on the wrong side of the law.”

I have read this claim quite often as I read books about Shakespeare.

It begs the question: did the Bard ever go to the big house?

I think it is quite possible that he did. In fact, I think it was almost inevitable for a playwright to face some kind of incarceration, or at least be detained in prison, during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James.

Ben Jonson was the most famous repeat offender of them all. I think he prided himself on being a scofflaw and jailbird.

Ben Jonson
The Most Wanted playwright/criminal 

He was put in prison for his controversial Isle of Dogs play in 1597. Two of the actors were put in prison, too. Thomas Nashe, who co-wrote the play, skipped town. 

But Nashe was no stranger to jail, having been sent to Newgate prison in 1593 for an offensive pamphlet he wrote.

The next year, Jonson killed an actor in a duel, and was thrown back in prison.

Ben Jonson's duel

During the reign of King James, Jonson’s play Sejanus landed him in jail again.

Only days before the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, he had party with some of the conspirators!

There is no record of his being imprisoned again, but I think it is highly likely that he was put in jail, or at least detained for questioning.

It is important to understand that Jonson’s plays were often performed by Shakespeare and his fellow actors. 

Shakespeare and the King’s Men performed the controversial Sejanus play, for example. So, it is hard to believe that only Jonson would be punished. Shakespeare and the actors were all complicit in the act of performing the play.

In other words, if Shakespeare was so famously cautious, if he was so good at behaving and never offending the authorities, why would he perform Sejanus? He must have known that the play would provoke a reaction.

Other playwrights had spells in prison, especially Christopher Marlowe. In 1593, he was interrogated and died soon after.


Christopher Marlowe
playwright / spy / repeat offender

His flatmate, Thomas Kyd, was imprisoned and tortured during the same period. He died a year later, probably due to his injuries.

Thomas Dekker was in prison twice. The second time, he was there for seven years!

So, it is entirely likely that Shakespeare could have been thrown in jail, for owing money, or for having offended someone in his plays.

There are some specific moments in Shakespeare’s biography where he could have been imprisoned.

In the 1590’s, Shakespeare created a farcical character named Sir John Oldcastle. 

William Brooke, 10th Baron Cobham, was very offended by this character because that was the name of his very real ancestor.

Cobham was a member of the Queen’s Privy Council, and with his kind of power, Shakespeare could have faced severe punishment.

Shakespeare changed the name of the character to Falstaff.

Falstaff could have landed Shakespeare in jail

Shakespeare’s 1595 Richard II play was censored. 

The scene in which King Richard II is deposed had been cut out of the printed quarto versions. It was not until 1608 that the deposition scene appeared in print. We don’t know if the deposition scene was performed on stage.

If there was ever a moment when Shakespeare could have been put in The Tower, or Newgate prison, or Marshalsea, it was this one scene in this Richard II play. 

It might be considered the most controversial scene in any one of his plays. Even if he did not face prison, he would have been watched very closely by the authorities and the censors.

During the reign of King James, it is quite likely that Shakespeare could have been punished with jail time after the controversial play, The Tragedie of Gowrie.

The play was based on the real-life events of King James, who was kidnapped, and who was rescued in a big brawl. It had been a big scandal in Scotland, and the 1604 play was even more scandalous.

King James rescued from his kidnappers

The play was banned after only a couple of performances, and the play has been lost to history. It is very possible that it was destroyed.

We don’t know who wrote the play, but it is very improbable that anyone other than Shakespeare would have even dared to write a play about King James.

So, here are three very good examples of how Shakespeare could have faced prison time.

But let’s look at it another way.

Knowing that he wrote controversial plays, and was a known associate and colloborator with controversial playwrights like Jonson, let us assume that he never went to jail.

If that is true, that he was never punished for his plays, then that leads to other questions, questions that are never explored.

 How is it conceivable that he did not get punished?

I think the only answer to that question is that he had some very powerful artistic patrons. These patrons blocked him from any and all threats by the monarch, or by disgruntled and offended men like Lord Cobham.

Lord Strange
Shakespeare's first patron

Shakespeare had many patrons in his life, including Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange and Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton.

I have written about these men quite often in this blog. The one point I want to make here is that if Shakespeare was never punished for his plays it was because he was protected by men who had real power.

Most Shakespeare scholars are reluctant and or unwilling to connect Shakespeare to men like these, and do not understand how intimately connected Shakespeare was to the royal courts of Queen Elizabeth and King James.

Shakespeare was not some jobbing playwright who sat around in taverns and cheated on his wife with pretty women, even if they were as alluring as Gwyneth Paltrow.

He was as much a part of the royal court as the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Steward, and Lord Admiral.  

So, did Shakespeare go to prison?

I think he did.

But if he didn’t, then it was because his power was greater than we have been taught.

Cheers,



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