Thursday, October 29, 2009

shakespeare alive

Some of us live in places where we can see Shakespeare performed live on stage, others of us don't. Even if we do live in areas where we can see Shakespeare live it still usually means we won't see him more than once or twice a year - unless there's a Shakespearean summer festival going on or we live in Stratford-on-Avon, England (where the Royal Shakespeare Company performs). So what to do if we want to see Shakespeare acted out, the way it was meant to be seen and the way it should be seen - as opposed to simply seeing it printed on the page of a book?

The world of the dvd, fortunately, gives us many options, and if readers want to send in their favourite choices, I'll be happy to post them. In the meantime, I'm going to make a list - and check it twice - of the dvds I've seen and which I think bring Shakespeare alive. My main goal in doing this is to get persons who have been slain by Shakespeare in school to come back from the dead, like Juliet, and enjoy a world in which Shakespeare's plays add a certain depth and lustre to their lives.

I should say that some of the Shakespeare productions on dvd are done like movies - without a stage - and others are films of a stage presentation. In most cases, all of the dialogue is subtitled, enormously helpful if you are trying to get the hang of Elizabethan English. But there's nothing like the thrill of realizing you understand what's going on without using close captioning. The great benefit is you can concentrate on the faces and the acting and not the printed word. This can happen more quickly than you think for I have seen it happen with both my children, while watching a Shakespeare dvd, in no very great amount of time.



This is kind of a warm up piece that showcases the enduring power of Shakespeare when it's done right. It's something of a reality TV piece. A young actor returns to a poor district of London and literally plucks people off the street, including a lot of youth, holds auditions and forms a cast of non-actors and non-English majors in order to perform a modern dress version of Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). How they get there - learning to act for the first time in their lives and memorizing Shakespeare for the first time in their lives - is simply an incredible story to watch unfold. It transforms the lives of the young men and women involved in the production quite literally.


You gotta love this. A three man team does all of Shakespeare's plays in 90 minutes and they do it with a huge dose of humour. Every play gets mentioned or touched on. Some get more air time than others, but it's a great introduction to The World of William especially for those who have never been interested in anything to do with Shakespeare before. Hilarious.


*Hamlet with Mel Gibson and Glenn Close - gorgeous sets and excellent acting, a crisp pace that never allows the great play to flag - directed by Franco Zeffirelli

*Hamlet with Kenneth Branagh as actor and director - a longer version but utterly superb - perhaps start with Zeffirelli's take and return later to Branagh's


*Romeo and Juliet directed by Franco Zeffirelli - beautiful sets and cinematography, as per usual with Zeffirelli - the best historical version of the play

*Romeo and Juliet directed by Baz Luhrmann - a superb modern dress gangsta version of the play - all the Elizabethan script is there but the setting is urban 21st century and the colours are uber vivid


*Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare's comedy about how friends conspire to make two enemies, a man and a woman, fall in love - Kenneth Branagh acts and directs - Denzel Washington is in on this one and so is Keanu Reeves - excellent


*Henry V, the Battle of Agincourt, Kenneth Branagh once more doing a magnificent job acting and directing - simply one of the greatest performances of ANYTHING - how's this for a cast? Paul Scofield, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, Ian Holm, Christian Bale - unbelievable


*Macbeth, the dark and powerful tragedy - the only dvd worth getting is done in a Braveheart and Rob Roy style, where the Scots actually look like medieval Scots - the version you want has Sean Connery's son Jason in the lead role doing an excellent job - it was the winner of the Silver Screen Award at the 30th US International Film Festival (1997) - forget Polanski's blood bath - this is the one to watch until Kenneth Branagh gives us a version - or Sir Ian McKellen


*King Lear set in medieval Japan and directed by Akira Kurosawa - entitled RAN - totally absorbing

This is enough to start with, especially if you're trying to seriously cuddle up with William for the first time. Best of luck and I hope you find some joy and entertainment - and truth.

killing shakespeare

Imagine going to the cinema, getting your ticket, buying some popcorn and a Coke, then being given a big thick spiral-bound notebook as you go to take your seat. All around you people are munching and guzzling and reading from the notebook. There's some music being filtered into the theatre that's supposed to go along with what you're reading and there you sit, reading voraciously like everyone else. And what are you reading? Why, the movie script, of course. Why else would you go to the movies?

Katie: Did you know her? I mean, was she a friend or what?

Bob: I don't know how to answer that.

[music thread begins]

[cut to memory shot - Bob with Alice in Warsaw just after the Second World War]

Alice: So now that the war is over, what are we to each other? Who are you to me?

[close-up of Bob's younger but war-torn face]

Bob: I don't know how to answer that.

[cut to plane droning overhead]

[cut to Alice staring at Bob]

[cut to Katie staring at Bob]

[cut to Bob staring at a boy on a tricycle in Warsaw]

After reading the movie you take the script home with you and add it to your collection of movie scripts. Then you turn on the TV to watch CSI:Miami. It consists of a script being scrolled up from the bottom of the screen (in colour).

Suspect: I didn't do it, I wasn't there.

Horatio: Are you sure about that?

Suspect: Of course, I'm sure. I know where I was the night Johnson got his head caved in by a Mercury speedboat motor.

[cut to close-up of Horatio Gates tilting his upper body and head and almost hissing at the suspect]

Horatio: Who told you it was a Mercury? That information hasn't been made public.

Suspect: [shrugging and stuttering] Just guessing . . . I guess . . .

[cut to Horatio pulling off his sunglasses]

Horatio: Well, Mr. Hendricks, we'll see how your DNA matches up with the saliva we pulled off the motorboat's propeller . . .

Suspect: Ok, Ok, yeah, I was there, but only for a minute . . .

[cut to screeching tires, a gunshot, and a woman screaming]

And so it goes till you've watched another great episode of CSI. What could be more fun than exercising your imagination in this way?

If we did movies and TV like this, just reading the scripts, no actors, no FX, no sets, no action, no nothing . . . well, you can guess how unpopular TV and movies would suddenly become. We watch movies and TV dramas because we want to see a show, a performance, we want to be entertained and even enlightened, we want some excellence, some great shots, some great acting.

So why do we kill Shakespeare for people by doing it the wrong way?

Why do we give them movie scripts to read and wonder why they don't get excited?

The scripts are for the actors and the sound crews and the lighting and the stunt team so that they can put on a show that we sit back and watch. The scripts are not for us. We want the finished product, we want the performance, we want the whole gleaming structure - not the scaffolding and the cranes and the blueprints.

Shakespeare's plays are the movies of Elizabethan England. You enjoy them by watching them. Not reading them.

That's where English Lit courses have always gotten it wrong. For centuries. And that's why too many people hate Shakespeare. Go read a movie script sometime and see if it holds your attention, especially if you don't have a part in the film. BORRRRRRING!

The only reason I can see for reading Shakespeare is in preparation for watching a performance of Shakespeare. That's it. As prep for a show so that you can understand the language and the plot better (after all, it is Elizabethan English, and that was 400 years ago). Otherwise, unless you're an actor or director or you're reading the sonnets, leave the scripts alone.

Can you imagine taking a course on film in high school or university and never watching a film, just reading the scripts? Absurd. So why do we approach Shakespeare as if we're reading a novel or a short story or a poem? We're not reading novels or short fiction or poetry - we've come to watch a play being performed. Studying Shakespeare - or any playwright and their plays for that matter - should be about watching the plays being staged.

In case you think it won't work, my son watched a series of Shakespeare dvds when he was 15. He did not sit and read the scripts, he watched the plays being performed on film, ones like Hamlet and King Lear and As You Like It. Sometimes we used subtitles and sometimes we didn't. To my surprise, in no time at all, he developed an ear for the language, understood what was going on, laughed at the jokes without prompting, and got into both traditional and modern dress Shakespeare. He got into Shakespeare in the same way we get into Clint Eastwood or Francis Ford Coppola - by watching it. Which, incidentally, was the same way the men and women and children of England got into it way back when. It's still the best way and beats reading movie scripts by a hundred to one.

If you were turned off of Shakespeare in school, try the performance approach. Trust me, the difference between printed page and powerful performance will astonish you.

[Thanks to Ron Reed, founding Artistic Director of Pacific Theatre in Vancouver, BC, Canada, for the germ of the idea for this blog.]

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

far from the madding crowd

Hardy finally gave up, you know. His novels were so heavily criticized, so many different groups and individuals weighing in for one reason or another, that he threw in the towel and retreated into his poetry. And he wrote some good poems. One of my favourites is about the legend of the animals in the barns and stables going to their knees at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve. It is written in a wistful, plaintive tone, the poetry of a man who lost his faith along the way but who never really wanted to lose it and never found anything better to replace it.

But to return to the novels. The works of Thomas Hardy used to be a staple of high school English literature courses. Why they are not anymore is an issue for another blog: they are readable, highly dramatic and often keep the interest of a good number of teenage readers. If people have read anything by Hardy it will probably be Tess of the D'Urbervilles, commonly referred to as Tess. Or maybe they haven't read it, but recall the title because they saw a film version of it (the ill-starred Roman Polanski's being the best).

Hardy's novels can be grim fare. No one is spared the jarring, jagged blows of life. The novels are Shakespearean tragedies. The stage is littered with dead bodies or dead souls at the denouement. Yet this is too easy to say, true as it is. There are glimmers of redemption in many of his novels' final pages, far more glints of hope than William affords us at endings of Othello, King Lear or Hamlet. Without spoiling you with spoilers I shall mention a few (for I have no idea who has been reading Hardy these days of the Yorkshire moors when even the people who gave us Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Hopkins and Eliot and Tolkien have lost their literature and lost their fiction and so lost their way).

I might as well start with Tess. A tale that still haunts and hurts when I re-read it and re-live it. What horrific loss in the book, loss of all kinds, and the loss is relentless right up to the final paragraphs. Yet, there, just there, a shaft of light, a bright promise of new life, surprising, but there it is. (Read it for yourself - but please start at the beginning of the novel, not at the end, so that the proper impact may be most properly felt.)

Then there's The Return of the Native - I remember my older brother reading this in high school in the 1960s and all the mysterious books of those long lost days - including Pride and Prejudice and The Sun Also Rises - stirred a hope that I would one day get to open these intriguing volumes. (Alas, I was not to open them in high school literature courses, for by the 1970s they had vanished from the curriculum.)

Native has its share of tragedies and loss, just like Tess, and just like Tess the curtain closes not simply on bodies and broken lives but great promise and great hope, even a fledgling faith in a better world and a better God. The difference with the feel-good endings of the formula fiction of today is that the characters of Hardy's novels and the readers of those characters' pen and paper lives pay a price to get to the crack of sunlight and it's never a given. Tess and Native have those crinkles of the luminous, however brief, but Hardy's novel of Oxford the Cruel, Jude the Obscure, has none of it. Jude is, like all Hardy's novels and poems, beautifully written, but painful, oh so painful in its beauty. No dreaming spires here except ones that impale you.

But when Hardy does bring you into the light of a decent day, blinking furiously to take in the colours and sudden blessings, you know very well there has been no formula or fluff, you have lived and suffered real life just like your own real life and others' real lives. You have been somewhere in your imagination that matters and that can change your soul. I have yet to read a Hardy novel that does not turn me inside out and offer a form of catharsis or transformation, and that for the better, even though the pain may be razor sharp - not unlike the way in which the grace of God comes to us in the stone cold dark and cuts both dead and living flesh and dead and living spirit.

Yet, I confess here and now - for all blogging seems to me to be something of a confessional for all who strike the keys - that I have not read all Hardy's novels. But soft, before you howl foul, I am pretty sure my reading of the ones I've missed along the cobblestone years will bear me out, for Hardy is Hardy, yet I will submit to this - after I've read my missing links, I will return to blog about any theory of his art I must alter or any fresh insight I have threshed from the fields of Wessex (or that have threshed me). Surely that's fair.

And I will begin with Far From the Madding Crowd, a title that has always intrigued me. Following that I will delve into The Mayor of Casterbridge. Then I'll work my way through the others: Desperate Remedies, A Pair of Blue Eyes, The Woodlanders, Under the Greenwood Tree . . . and on and on until I find myself at his own end with his wonderful poems. Let us see if what I have written here holds up - a great adventure it will be to find out.

And if you haven't read any or much of Hardy, why not join me this autumn and see what you come across in his dark and leafy wood, infrequently ignited by vertical light so pure you can only shut your eyes and wish its illumination may be so, may truly be so.