A Shakespeare Trio, The Fifth!
by Kristin Battestella
Spring is upon Stratford-upon-Avon, so it's time for another trio of tragedy, shrews, and Shakespearean documentary. Huzzah!
King Lear - Ian McKellan (Richard III), Romola Garai (Angel), Sylvester McCoy (Doctor Who), and Frances Barber (Silk) anchor this 2008 two and half hour PBS television presentation based on the cast's previous stage performance also directed by Trevor Nunn. Although such small scale stage design and up close cameras may seem congested at times, other frames are well done with a deceitful daughter in the foreground looking over her shoulder at the angry father questioning which child will prove her love and earn her inheritance. Colorful gowns, regal red robes, and strategic lighting invoke a fifteenth century abstract meets anachronistic Cossack look while frenetic organ music parallels the titular senility. Our seated king is an indulged old man, fickle, and vain. He's pushing for more flattery but exiles his favorite over a blunt opinion when such honesty doesn't glorify him. Rival duchies toe their positions while everyone wants a piece of the king's power but not his affection, and several soliloquies almost break the fourth wall as viewers understand the illegitimate son looking for an angle. Between brotherly coups and dukes in disguise, our regal dad bounces from daughter to daughter – neither want him there and we understand that, too. Lear has no one to blame but himself as he descends from the gilded seat to dark brawls and jester humor, snapping and shouting amid angry gesturing and out of control tears. This ornery old man is surrounded, not with feigned love and regal safety but a rainy wilderness of fools and madmen. In such squalor, one might even suspect he is imagining his jester on the moor as his spiral spreads to the aristocracy with hangings, eyes gouged, and armies approaching. The barren outdoors stir an overcast purgatory for this near biblical reform as blind fathers meet lost sons and the women's costumes likewise darken to match their jealousy and power through their weak or lusty men. The older dog may learn the error of his ways, but there is a higher cost for such late education. Where Lear once reigned from a bright court on high, now the bleak swords and battle planning happen within the hedge hogs. Is it better to be crazy and blissfully unaware or do you realize your humility too late and pay the terrible price? This turmoil could have been prevented, and as much as we feel the family emotion, the tearful reunions and brief moments of clarity only lead to more poisons, duels, suicide, and executions. Without subtitles or name tags for all the dukedoms, the intrigue may be confusing if you don't know who is who. Time away from the eponymous circumspection lags a little and this is too long for a younger classroom. However, this play isn't meant to be Bard for the youthful audience either. One has to be in the mood for such depressing, but this is a well played take on the enduring tragedy.
The Taming of the Shrew – After the bitterness of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for their fifth collaboration producers Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton starred in this 1967 feature comedy debut from Franco Zeffirelli. Pleasant countrysides, rainbows, sing songs, carnivals, and cobblestone set the bemusing scene while big plumes, jumbo sleeves, and velvet galore invoke a colorful sixties meets medieval jovial. Some of the crowd scenes are, well, crowded, but the wide camera captures both the stage action and all the movement within alongside creative up close angles. We know that's Liz's violet eye spying through the shutter before we even meet her! The viewer is smitten by her huffing, puffing, and wild hair amid laugh out loud rough and tumble chases, Kate sitting on a trap door to prevent Petruchio from entering, and his swinging across the loft a la Tarzan to reach her. Beautiful and talented as she is, however, Taylor doesn't quite have that effortlessly iambic Bard rhythm. She plays her dialogue seriously against gruff Dick's larger than life wink but that contrast does match the shrewish behavior. The leads may be a little old for these roles, too, but the battle of the sexes ruses and boys will be boys disguises aren't meant to be taken at face value. Subtitles are still a must, yet the trimmed dialogue is less about the younger daughter with multiple beaus and more about getting the bawdy done with her older eponymous sister. Framing elements and side characters are excised for these two hours, emphasizing this wooing with peacock feathers on full display. Despite a very misogynist subject with men making all the plans and never considering the women's input, part of the charm here is in seeing a strong woman like Kate clap back at such brash male thinking when Petruchio takes her over his knee. This lady peering through the window pane is well aware of the fronting – Kate's having none of it, he likes it that way, and our leads' off screen turbulence adds to the je ne sais quoi. Why must the woman who can take ownership of herself cower so the man can claim her? Does he test her spirit so she'll keep him on his toes? This couple balks at courtship while celebrating why love is worth it, and it's interesting to pro/con or compare and contrast the then versus now innocence, rowdy, and acrimonious here, with Woolf prior, and Zeffirelli's subsequent Romeo & Juliet. Is it better when the woman won't come when called or does so but steals his thunder? Taylor's Kate becomes a refined woman that makes her husband look good, and here I'd like to think of her final speech as the orgasm restaurant scene in When Harry Met Sally. Whether the woman is tamed or pretending, the man may never know.
Shakespeare Uncovered – Season One of this 2013 six episode PBS series opens with Ethan Hawke exploring the serial killer line between man and monster in “Macbeth.” Archival Orson Welles, Sean Connery, and Patrick Stewart clips compare the Thane's capacity for violence and a king's ambition versus an actor's drive for success amid psychiatrist input, ballet interpretations, and body language cues breaking down The Bard syntax. Scholars discuss the historical sources and Scottish locations as well as witchcraft and politics in Shakespeare's time, yet the superstition and recognizable evils almost place the ruthless circumstances and self-fulfilling prophecy in modern horror terms. Joely Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, and Helen Mirren study the more lighthearted but multi dimensional female roles of As You Like It and Twelfth Night in “The Comedies” with Old Vic tours and insights on Bill's early, ordinary life shaping his relatable characters in an era when the parts couldn't even be played by women. 1910 silent films and Alec Guinness footage accent the liberating disguises despite the problems they cause – like falling in love with the wrong person. Gender subtext and stage cross dressing present more about what's inside thanks to paired androgyny or twins lost and found. Ganymede terms and mistaken identities further push the sexual innuendo, letting the audience in on the layered gender studies of this four hundred year old play. Westminster Abbey graves, poetic verse, and prophetic warnings for leaders who believe in their own invincibility anchor “Richard II” with Derek Jacobi and Ben Whishaw comparing their own interpretations alongside Ian McKellan and John Gielgud performances. Professors study the gilded artwork reflecting Richard's divine influence amid regime changes then and now, Thatcher history, Elizabeth I coups, and de Vere authorship possibilities. Can a king separate the man from the duty and go out on his own terms? Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston, and Simon Russell Beale tackle the patriotic rousing of “Henry IV and V” with Laurence Olivier highlights, The Hollow Crown behind the scenes, Shrewsbury locales, and play with in a play revelations. Shakespeare took historic license to heighten his drama – unafraid to get brutal with famous speeches, noble ambiguity, and dark consequences on fathers, sons, and the inescapable mortality we bear. David Tennant and Jude Law test that most celebrated very definition of theatre “Hamlet” by choosing a version in the video store – Mel Gibson, Kevin Kline, or Monty Python. Bad Quarto and First Folio side by sides strip down the grief, anger, and revenge, exposing an actor's personal retrospection and raw performance with the audience inside his state of mind as Hamlet famously asks what's the point of it all. Shakespeare's own ill father and dying son influenced this writing of ghostly specters versus imaginative excuses and righting wrongs at the expense of the son, however later Freudian interpretations add to the poisons and maternal taboos. Episode Six “The Temptest” has directors Trevor Nunn and Julie Taymor end discussing the ambitious fantasy of Will's last complete play and whether or not he himself played Prospero in this semi autobiographical text with experimental stage directions, Bermuda shipwreck inspirations, and colonialism suggestions. Early candlelit presentations, Christopher Plummer footage, and today's inventive storm on stage effects recount the stranded father cum unforgiving alchemist unable to keep his daughter away from new princely influences. Was art imitating life for The Bard? The more he tries, the more Prospero looses control as his beastly servants deliver beautiful speeches on good versus evil duplicity and nature versus nurture choices. Lofty soliloquies ponder the celestial and life itself using puns on the globe – both theatre and world must face that inevitable final frailty. Although thoroughly British with a certain pretentious formality at times, more often than not this personal per hour remains educational with densely packed information and analysis to pick and choose a discussion.