sábado, fevereiro 27, 2016

Beckettian Theatre: "O Relógio" by Flor na Boca Projectos

"O Relógio" = The Clock

Is there a way to objectively know what an art object is all about? Be it a book, an opera, a painting, a book, a poem, or a play? At least not in my mind.

When I attend a theatre performance, all I can ever do is say, or write, what I think I saw.

There are times when my mind conjures up things that aren’t there at all and there are times when I miss things that are definitely there. I can just try to grasp that indefinable feeling of "getting it". In this case, what "O Relógio" meant to me, what it felt like for me to be there and the effect it had on me, are something I'm still not prepared to talk about. I'm still thinking about it. I'm not even using the alibi of having read the book on which it was based on, because I haven't read it, and I don't plan on doing so, in case it destroys what I've just seen (instead I'll just read Samuel's Pimenta's other books).

I went to see this play with my eyes completely closed, i.e., I didn't have any kind of expectations on what I was about to watch. At the end of it, what was the play about? As a once regular theatregoer (now not so much due to my personal life), it's quite wonderful not to worry my pretty little head on working out exactly what the play was all about. I just let it flow.

That's also one of the reasons for loving to see Shakespeare performed on stage. At the best of times, even when I know the story inside out, as I always do, Shakespeare is at times extraordinarily abstract. Should we stop watching it? Nope. Theatre, when done right, has a unique capacity to bonk you in the head, heart and other innards all at once. There are some forms of theatre that are more difficult to relate to without a textual medium to be used as a crutch. When along comes a play where the content rather than the visceral experience is not as important, I just enjoy it to the fullest of my abilities and stay silent to enjoy the silences in the play.

Visually, the play works wonders. Light (or lack thereof) served to organize the various structural changes that underlay the performance. As in a Beckett play, where the beginnings and ends of plays derive from the intensity of light, or rather the variation between light and darkness, Vicente Morais' and Paulo Vaz's stage direction emphasized the juxtaposition between light and darkness. The effect was mesmerizing. If it were possible to "watch" this play without sound, I'd say I was watching a play from the Hammer Film Studios, where Paulo Vaz would be a Peter Cushing doppelganger. The fading-up and fading-out of the actor in terms of light and, shadow, and darkness, for me, visually, and in terms of (trying) to interpret the play, represented the focal points of dramatization against the spatially notions of presence and absence.

I don't know whether the intention of inserting a Beckett's play extract at the beginning and at the end of the play and the juxtaposition of light and darkness was an intentional move on the part of stage director and actor, but it worked like a charm.

Things I noticed. Once again the silence/pauses between lines of text is done masterfully and beautifully.

As in a Pinter play, we get to enjoy more, because what's beneath the text is more important than what I can see and hear. There were some parts in the play where I just wanted to close my eyes (I couldn't unfortunately) and "listen" to what was beating underneath. Without a full and well-done articulated pause/silence, I wouldn't have a certain amount of time, during which I could ponder on a single given utterance (be it text, or a pause) to the exclusion of anything else. I was able to do it. That's why the "Überschreitung" between the performer, Paulo Vaz, the stage, and me, as I said above, was achieved beautifully.

Theatre, much more than film, it's all in the hands of the stage director and the actor giving voice to the part.

I was not familiar with Samuel Pimenta's work. It bears digging deeper into (unfortunately the site is only available in Portuguese) ...

NB: Stage Director, Vicente Morais; Monologue, Paulo Vaz (literary persona Álvaro Cordeiro), based on a book by Samuel Pimenta at Sociedade Guilherme Cossoul.

domingo, fevereiro 21, 2016

The Burden of Being King: "The Hollow Crown" by Rupert Goold, Richard Eyre, and Thea Sharrock

One of the main objectives to make the Hollow Crown was to make an epic, large scale production of Shakespeare for TV with on location filming and authentic sets like in quality film/cinema. In addition to making Hollow Crown a high quality production, the BBC wanted it to be accessible to mainstream audiences. Some Shakespeare lovers had a problem with that, while others felt that this goal was very well realized for the small screen with all three plays. Some of this was achieved with the language not being too "Shakespearean" along with cutting down the plays for time and for the large sweeping battle and landscape scenes. So it really depends on what standard you're measuring each play by. Some people responded more to the traditionalist style of Richard II, while others found Henry IV and V more accessible and engaging.

Also of note, Richard II was the first play filmed and had a full six weeks of rehearsing and running through the entire play before they even started filming. Then the BBC moved up the air dates for the whole series so it would be shown during the spring/summer right around (not necessarily during) the Olympics and 2012 Jubilee celebrations. This shortened the rehearsal time of Henry V to two weeks before filming which is one of the reasons I think it feels a little too truncated. Henry IV plays rehearsal time was also cut short cause filming was then on very tight schedule especially for the location battle scenes with horses and real snow.

For me, so far, the most amazing and extraordinary and defining Falstaff is Roger Allam in the Globe Theatre's production of Henry IV. It's on DVD, and I passionately urge every fan of Shakespeare to grab a copy. The cast is uniformly excellent -- and the curtain calls alone are worth the price of admission - but Allam is ... sublime. He does not put a foot wrong. His comic timing is exquisite and his dramatic chops are mighty.

As a whole, I really enjoyed the series.  We have such a talented group of Shakespearean actors working right now and it would be a crime to waste them.  More people should know Ben Whishaw because of Richard II than for a few minutes in Skyfall.

I wonder if more of effort should have been made to tie them all together.  There was such a shift between Richard and the Henrys, they never felt like a cohesive whole.  And you could argue that the emphasis on visual and symbolism works best for the former and the emphasis on gritty reality works best for the latter.  But it's still the production taking one approach to Richard II and a completely different one to the Henrys rather than one approach to The Hollow Crown.

The BBC could, perhaps, produce another, albeit far looser, series of the four Roman plays: Titus, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra. Bring in some US actors such as John Malkovich for example. They could call it the Hollow Laurels.

I liked Hiddleston's performance well enough, but never entirely bought him as the tough soldier-king. The end reveal of John Hurt actually worked for me - right up until they followed his lyrical final words with a caption explaining that HENRY DIED OF DYSENTERY. HE WAS THIRTY-FIVE YEARS OLD IT WAS SAD. Yeah, thanks caption.

My favourite moment of Branagh's Henry V has to be Brian Blessed clunking into the French court like an armoured battleship and laying down the law. He's just perfectly cast to be a walking threat - an actor best known for his bellowing, dialing it right down to a tone of quiet contempt.

Maybe I'm being overly critical (okay, I am), but this installment was particularly underwhelming, especially considering how strong the start to the series was. For instance, some of the battle scenes looked like they came from a second-rate action film, which, instead of contrasting the subdued sequences involving Hiddleston, disrupted the atmosphere and style of the show as a whole. What's worse, the emotional moments fell flat, mostly. The beginning shots don't feel justified, and when we see them again, the transition is rather awkward. Catharsis averted, I guess.

Regarding Hiddleston's performance (and Branagh's films, for that matter), I don’t think he seems right for the part due to his very nature. The effort is evident, and I salute him for it, but his performance doesn't suit the play. In this one he just seems like someone who got promoted because his dad owned the company. Granted, that's what happened, but when you're watching Henry V and thinking about Dubya, it's never a good thing. After having watched The Hollow Crown, it dawned on me how well (most of) Branagh's movies hold up. They are kind the standard now... at least for me.

I'm not saying they are the most accurate. The Hollow Crown shows are, from a Bardophile standpoint, far more accurate. But they frankly seem flat to me... especially Henry V. And I now find it hard to look at previous versions from even Olivier.

I think Branagh pretty much knocked it out of the park. His speeches and his choice of cuts are the essence of the play. It's a crowd pleaser; sort of a 'Green Berets' from 1600. Branagh’s version gets it. It doesn't try to be more than that. If it's not always 'faithful' to the text, it has the rare quality that it actually has a shot of appealing to non-Shakespeare types without some stupid gimmicks (rap music, resetting in the 20th century or some other such drivel).

Anyway, the final episode notwithstanding, the series is good, and like others, I can't help but hope BBC doesn't stop here.

Setting a work up to fail and designing a work to be inaccessible on the level of language are very different things. The inaccessibility of the language is part of the point--and the success--of the play. 

I feel like the Crispin's Day speech in the Hollow Crown version is fine in isolation.  It's a different take on what is traditionally a huge, rousing speech.  It manages to make what should be an epic moment seem small and inconsequential.

However, in context it didn't feel like an artistic choice at all, but a budgetary one.  It underscores the fact that the production only had a couple dozen extras with which to stage a major battle.  Had there been a moment or two of cinematic grandeur before that speech, something to sell the gathering of armies (even so outnumbered as the English were), then it would have really been an interesting choice for Henry to talk to his officers and friends as opposed to the troops. As it stands, it just reminds the viewer that the budget is kind of small.  You can do this kind of thing on stage, and people will accept that one doesn't have armies of extras (in a way, the audience stands in for the soldiers), but when filmed, you need to find a way to show scale in order to sell it and then to show a contrast with a small gathering of officers.

Of all the Hollow Crown, only Richard II seemed to have transcended its fiduciary limits.
Branagh's Henry is pretty much perfect and hits precisely the right notes: you can see the arrogant little shit that Hal must have been and why precisely those characteristics turn out to be perfect for a war leader. Whether they're Branagh's own characteristics or not, it's the smugness and the arrogance that binds the two sides of the character together, precisely the balance Hiddleston failed at.

I suspect that a lot of the hate directed at Branagh has to do with the man rather than the director/performer. For being the "cocky little shit" who dared to start his career by filming one of Olivier's self-directed Shakespeares, thus setting himself up in contention with the old man, declaring himself the Next Big Thing. (Never mind that the movie is damned near perfect, and that Branagh's performance as Henry is exactly the combination of humility, swaggering, terror and self-canonization that it needs to be, and that the supporting cast is Ian Holm, Brian Blessed, Robert Stephens, Paul Scofield, Judi Dench, Emma Thompson, Derek Jacobi--the list goes on forever, and they're all terrific. Also, I defy anyone to watch Branagh ordering and watching Bardolph's hanging and not weep.) And then later Branagh doubled-down on the self-importance, making movies that became more and more horribly self-indulgent, losing the "let's put on a show" story-telling that made his early work so engaging. Basically, you can chart his decline from his decision to cast Keanu Reeves in Much Ado About Nothing. From there it's a straight line down to LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST and Alicia Silverstone and just...ugh. So there's also a lot of hate for Branagh because of the director/performer he became. But Henry V caught him right at that "Welles-Directs-Citizen-Kane" sweet spot of "knows nothing about what not to do" and "has enough youthful arrogance to try." Result: one of the best non-Kurosawa-directed Shakespeare's on-film.

I wouldn't have disliked seeing Rickman play Richard II, but I don't actively want to, no (now more than ever for obvious reasons).  I pretty much worship that play and there are quite a few actors I'd like to see in that role before him.

My true dream for Richard II would be for Takeshi Kitano to follow Kurosawa's lead and make a film of it.  I feel the play wants the audience to make an abrupt change from enjoying Richard's villainy to being horrified by it when he kills the princes and I think Kitano's touch is what's needed to manage that.

Oh, and they did the Roman play thing back in the early Sixties, just like they did both Henriads as one long story arc. I don't think any of them survived, though. I only learned they existed through a biography of Peter Cushing. He played Cassius and you must admit he looked the part. The Henriad one is available on DVD as Shakespeare's An Age of Kings, and features Sean Connery as Hotspur. I bought it a few months back but only watched the second Henriad so far.

But I digress as usual when I’m writing about one of my favourite topics. Coming back to the Hollow Crown, Henry V's wooing scene of the French princess has always been really awkward to stage considering how it was written.  I like how the previous scene with the French nobility was done in the large space symbolizing the large geographic areas represented by the characters in the scene, and also the psychological distances.  The wooing scene was like a speed bump, maybe they could have cast some bombshell French actress to play that role since it was love at first sight for Henry.

Regarding the Duke of York, I've never had any trouble with casting extra-racial characters in plays written by dead white guys.  However, this particular actor seemed to radiate a mismatched mood compared with the others characters on the screen. I thought he seemed much more upbeat than the other actors.  He didn't act with enough climate induced gloom and a fatalistic outlook that comes with a brief lifespan from living in that period.

I liked how they began this last play with Henry V lying in state.  It was a good job at hammering home the passage from Richard II: "Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings..."

Considering that I thought the decision to portray Falstaff as a completely repellent and pathetic loser was a disastrous mistake, I'd say this production was a step up from the Henry IV - though was still not very good.

IMO the director was put in the position of the English against the French, instead of a small army taking on a big one, it was someone with a small budget trying to take on a huge canvas of vast battles (being that these films were done 'realistically' instead of theatrically).

But unlike Henry V - the director lost. It seems God was not on her side.

All these 'intimate' speeches (St Crispin's Day, etc.) were clearly done that way for lack of a budget to show huge armies. It all just struck me as pretty lame. Even as a definite non-Laurence Olivier fan I thought even he did better by those speeches.

I saw the Branagh film last year once more and I remember liking it well enough. I seem to remember he was able to get across the reason that the English won - that they came equipped with a brand new tool of war (the Long Bow in the hands of commoners well-trained in their use) and that it had rained the night before which caused heavily armored French Knights to get stuck in the mud and therefore sitting ducks for the archers. I first saw it when it was in the theater (*creaks with agedness*) and knew nothing about him and it nearly made me take up arms and run off to war. It is rousing and exciting and brash in a good way and fully earns its reputation (though this is a later-acquired rep as I remember being completely baffled by how the old-schoolers said Olivier's Henry V was better when from my perspective even as someone who loved Shakespeare, it was very dull compared to Branagh's).

I thought Branagh's interpretation of the role was as a bit of an uncultured young man of action stifled by the restrictions of Court life coming into his element (the camaraderie and physicality of war) and embracing it. This worked really well in the way the final scene with Katherine played as the lines about not being suited for wooing are completely believable from Branagh's Henry whereas Hiddleston's Henry saying the same thing rings false -- as if he's pretending to be clumsy to put her at ease and to cover the language barrier more gracefully. Hiddleston's Henry V is certainly not someone who seems ill-at-ease with Court manners.

In any case, I thought this whole thing was a pretty bland affair. I do think Hiddleston was acceptably cast albeit misguidedly directed in the Henry IV films but did not at all have the aspect of a fearsome warrior as the part of Henry V seems to call for.

Coming bacj to "The Hollow Crown", While I did find it kind of moving that the Chorus turned out to be the Boy - I missed the figure being present in the proceedings. It really is the kind of thing best done in theater. It did sort of strike me though that given putting these plays under one heading of "The Hollow Crown" it would have been interesting to have Ben Whitshaw play the Chorus (though probably not in the aspect of Richard II).
I really enjoy the tricks that directors needed to use before CGI made it possible to put every single orc onscreen in glorious HD. As it stands with this TV film, the English really DID win for no apparent reason other than (again) God was on their side. I don't know that any filmed version of Agincourt wouldn't leave the audience scratching their heads when the final tally is revealed. "I just watched 20 minutes of people beating on each other with swords and massive clubs, and only 25 English were killed? Who were all those dead extras supposed to be? Were the French just attacking each other the whole time?" Shakespeare's choice of numbers might be inspirational on stage, but after watching a bloody battle scene they feel kind of goofy.

sábado, fevereiro 20, 2016

"Non-Macbeth" by Justin Kurzel

At the beginning of 2016, one of the plays I wanted to re-read was Macbeth, anticipating the arrival of this particular movie, but so much hype for so little gain. I did re-read the play.

(Taken from my A. L. Rowse edition)

Acting Shakespeare, in many ways, is no different than any other kind of movie. Nevertheless, because of the complexity and entanglement of the primary text it requires a more profound inspection by the director (and actor). It is almost another language, as I’ve stated many times. Yet it cannot be performed as such. The text on screen must fall onto the ears of the audience with absolute clarity. Meaning no mumbling and whispering please. I’ve been reading and studying Shakespeare for many years, and I think there is no definitive guide on how to act his texts. Shakespeare left us only his plays as a guide and so as I read (and see) more about Shakespeare, it’s fundamental for the actor to keep in mind his natural instincts. The struggle with Shakespeare is not just unpacking the language, but finding a compelling reason for performing him in the first place. While the finesse of the language is unique, his examination of the human condition and progressive understanding of gender and politics have made him just as relevant as when he began writing. I think if some directors and screen writers were made more aware of this, they would probably be less hesitant to put in the work required for really reading his plays.

(Taken from my A. L. Rowse edition)

(Taken from my A. L. Rowse edition)

First of all, Kurzel’s version is a botched up attempt at reinterpreting Macbeth. I’m not talking about beautiful views of locations, nice details of costume, or some analysis of the horrors of post-traumatic stress on soldiers. I’m talking about poor delivery of lines, jumbled direction of key scenes, and the almost cursory editing of some of the more thoughtful interludes of the play. The words are completely lost. The actors could have been reading the shopping list. It would've had the same emotional impact, which would be none. The actors. Marion Cotillard is simply awful. Fassbender is only marginally better. What’s with all the mumbling?? Clear delivery of lines if you please! Do people actually speak like this? Cut to the bone with virtually no emotional depth. Also most of the characters seem utterly interchangeable. I had never seen this kind of filming of a Shakespeare movie adaptation. Whispering in each actors’ faces?? When a movie like this resorts to almost exclusively to using slow-motion and CGI in the action scenes, something is deadly wrong. On top of that, the constant throb of dark morose music almost drove me mad…

At the end of the movie, in the credits part, I was surprised by the “based on a play by William Shakespeare”. Indeed. No Porter scene, virtually no witches, poor portrayal and changed sequence of apparitions, etc. When one is reluctant to let Shakespeare's words speak for themselves, invents text lines, withholds key speeches (presumably to allow more time for long-winded fight scenes), changes original “scenes” completely around, all is said and done as far as I’m concerned. Although spectacular in terms of the use of the gorgeous natural scenery, this movie is a sorry excuse for a Shakespeare adaptation. Right after watching this, I just had to re-watch Branagh’s version at the National Theatre in 2013 in Manchester, as well as spending a happy evening re-reading once again the original to get the taste of the film out of my mind.

Fortunately I didn't have to walk out of the movie theatre, but I was spitting mad nevertheless. How dare they produce such a mockery of such a brilliant play? Seldom have I come across such shockingly and dull Shakespeare direction and production. Please don't inflict this on your loved ones, friends or family unless they are suffering from wakefulness.

And the amazing thing about acting in a Shakespeare play, whatever part an actor plays, whether he's the nastiest guy in the world like Macbeth, he or she has to take his or her tiny self and make it big to match the character. The actor should feel himself inflating, because it's much bigger than anyone could ever have imagined. And it'll always be too big for the actors, as it’s the case here, but it's great trying to reach for the heights even when we don’t succeed.

NB: Compare the way the two versions depict the Duncan’s murder at the hands of Macbeth. I thought it was absolutely the right decision to show Macbeth murdering Duncan in both versions, but the way it’s done in Branagh’s versions is much more poignant: after Duncan awakes, he holds his hand out to Macbeth's cheek as if to touch it, showing the regard in which he holds him. Macbeth visibly hesitates for a moment, before realising he has to do it and plunge the blade in. The way it’s done in Kurzel’s version I thought for a moment that I was watching one of the Scream movies…

NB: For me, Macbeth without the porter scene is not really Macbeth. If I want to watch Macbeth, I want to watch the play, not something else. The porter scene, for me, is what defines Macbeth, but that’s for another post. Bottom-line:

sexta-feira, fevereiro 19, 2016

Married to the Gangster: "Macbeth" by William Shakespeare, A. L. Rowse

(My A. L. Rowse battered mammoth edition; too bad I can't take it along with me everywhere I go...)

Published 1978.

Macbeth has always been one of my favourite Shakespeare plays (along with Hamlet). What has always fascinated me, however, is the fact that I have never seen a production of it that comes anywhere near invoking the terrors that you feel when you're reading it. I have seen it played by wonderful actors, such as Welles, Sher, Olivier, and many, many more, but they all failed horribly, and they knew, as actors, that they had failed. I think the reason that it is impossible to play the role convincingly, at least in this day and age, is the fact that every generation or so, we get a remarkable Hamlet, Lear or Othello, but unfortunately such a thing has never happened with Macbeth, because it is so much harder for an actor to really face up to the terrors that must invade the mind of a real murderer when he still possesses a conscience and a humanity within himself. The real tragedy of this play is that the actor (and the director) fixates everything upon the ordeal, not of the victim, but of the murderer himself. Macbeth is not the typical bad guy in the fashion of Iago, for example, but is actually a tragic figure who is undone by his faults. 

(Ann Todd as Lady Macbeth, Old Vic Theatre, London, 1934; taken from my A. L. Rowse edition)

With Hamlet I can quite easily imagine the sense of revenge that Hamlet himself goes through when he hears about the murder of his own father, or the rage of Lear when he has to deal with the rudeness of his own children, or the jealousy of Othello when he imagines another man possessing the woman he loves, but it’s another thing altogether to be able to really relate to what Macbeth experiences. We all have a Hamlet in us, a Lear and an Othello, but do we have a Macbeth for a soul? That, as an inner life, is simply too horrifying for us to be able to personally relate to and convincingly depict on screen. Once someone has committed murder, not out of vengeance, or resentment, or grudge, or self-preservation, but because of an overwhelming yearning to do so, even when he is conscious that what he is doing is purely evil, he must then be plunged into the depths of such terrors of which the average human being can scarcely imagine.  I’m curious to know how Kurzel and Fassbender were able to deal with this.

(Taken from my A. L. Rowse edition)

Suppose Shakespeare had gone to Oxford. Would we have Shakespeare's plays as they are, especially a text like Macbeth? I think we wouldn't, because I think the fact of not getting a very high level education kept Shakespeare grounded, kept him in touch with the voice of the ordinary person. In Shakespeare's time, the plays weren't for posh people - they were for everybody. He gave a voice to the common man even when that “common” man was a king. It's really interesting to find out that Shakespeare was an outsider and wasn't part of the academic elite, and that that gave him a better understanding of humanity. But today, his 400-year-old language stops most of us being able to relate to his work which is a pity. But to me, Shakespeare's incredibly violent. Very violent. In Titus Andronicus, a man getting carved up and put in a pie and fed to his parents. Do you understand that I'm saying? Lady Macbeth was a gangster. Really, when you look at it, Lady Macbeth and that whole:

 'Take my milk for gall.'
'Turn me into a man,' 

She's really saying:

'I wanna be bad.' And for me to be bad, is 'Unsex me here', i.e., 'I don't want to be a woman no more.’ Meaning, take all this female love and energy out of me and let me be a gangster. That's what Lady Macbeth's saying.

(The Weird Sisters, Engraving by Richard Westall; taken from my A. L. Rowse edition)

Everybody deserves to have some Shakespeare in their lives. It's for you.

NB:  Prior to watching Kurzel’s version with Fassbender in the lead role, I needed to get myself reacquainted with the text. That’s the main reason for this re-reading. I’ve been finding myself reading my favourite Shakespeare plays over and over again. I must come out of this “vicious” cycle, otherwise I’ll never complete my Shakespeare project (here, here, and here)

(Taken from my A. L. Rowse edition)