Unseen Scenes

For reasons too complicated to mention I was fast forwarding through King Lear with the kids last night, jumping to the ending.  I knew it wouldn’t really capture their attention the way I hoped, and I’d have to explain 90% context, but I’m ok with that :).

Which gave me an idea, as I explained how Cordelia died.  Shakespeare gives us lots of action off stage, for whatever reason.  Sometimes modern directors will go ahead and add the scene to make things easier to follow – I’m thinking of Romeo and Juliet‘s wedding scene as an obvious example.  Many people will swear that they’ve seen Romeo and Juliet’s wedding and refuse to believe that Shakespeare never wrote that scene, because it was in the 1996 movie.

What other scenes fit the bill?  I’d love to see Lear’s last desperate act trying to protect his daughter.  I can see the whole thing quite clearly (having just watched Olivier’s version doesn’t hurt).  Cordelia and Lear are sitting happily in a cell.  Enter guard with a rope, who roughly pulls her away despite Lear’s protests. He tries to protect her but is no match for the guard who hurls him back to the ground. The guard struggles with Cordelia and drops his sword so he can use both hands (having been ordered to hang her, not stab her).  Behind his back Lear recovers the sword and does the scoundrel in, just as the messenger from Edmund (et al) arrives screaming for them to stop the execution.

What else?  Petruchio and Kate’s wedding scene writes itself, that’s an easy one.  Then you have Macduff beheading Macbeth, but I don’t think of that one as a really necessary scene, there’s just not much to it.

Which ones am I missing?

 

 

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A Shakespeare Framework

A coworker challenged me to participate in NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writer’s Month.  If you’re not familiar, this contest challenges writers to create a complete fifty thousand word novel in just thirty days. Technically November is past, but there’s no reason why you can’t attempt the challenge any month you like.

I’m not scared of word count. Most of the time you need me to cut words out.  What I can’t do is stream of consciousness for that long. I can’t just start writing and assume that a novel will plop out at the end.  I’m a computer programmer by trade, and you can’t just open up a text editor not knowing whether you’re going to end up with an ecommerce site or a mobile videogame.

What we do is start with a framework.  Just like a building has a floor, four walls and a roof, the same logic is true of software projects. A video game has backgrounds, sprites, controls, a scoreboard. An ecommerce site has navigation, a shopping cart, buy buttons.

So naturally before I’d attempt a novel I’d ask whether there’s a framework I can start with.  See where I’m going with this?  Whether it’s The Lion King, Forbidden Planet or West Side Story, there’s clear precedent for taking the minimal plot elements of a Shakespeare play and then rebuilding your own story. I immediately thought of doing something along the lines of The Tempest, although I’ll have to make it a point to stay out of Forbidden Planet territory.

What I was wondering, though, is whether we can make a framework out of all the plays. Everybody does Hamlet or King Lear or Romeo and Juliet. Could you use, say, Coriolanus as your starting point?  What would that look like?

Pick a play, and break it down to the minimal plot skeleton. Hamlet, Disney taught us, is any story where the uncle figure kills the king and the son has to take his rightful place on the throne. Romeo and Juliet has been reduced to “two groups of people don’t like each other, until one from each side falls in love.”

Pick a harder one. What’s the framework for A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

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Tae Kwon Ado About Nothing

A few years back I wrote about Decorating Your Life with Shakespeare.  I’ve never been the kind of outgoing personality that will walk up to somebody and make conversation (or even introduce myself).  But if I’m a walking billboard for Shakespeare, and people want to start the conversation by asking me something?  Then they’ll have a hard time shutting me up.

Saturday I’m at my son’s martial arts class waiting.  It’s one of the more informal classes, a glorified practice session. The head instructor isn’t even there, but his right hand man is.  And his right hand man has time to interact with the parents.  For my part, I bring my laptop and do stuff.  See earlier note about socializing. 🙂

“You got new stickers,” the instructor says to me.

“What?”

“Your laptop.  I noticed you’ve got a new Shakespeare sticker on your laptop.” My laptop has a Chandos picture and the “Some achieve greatness…” quote, a gift from my kids last year. That’s my personal laptop.


I laugh.  “Nope,” I say, reaching into my backpack to pull out a second laptop, that also has Shakespeare stickers on it.  That’s my business laptop, and it has silhouette characters of Shakespeare and Hamlet .

The other parents move to see, so I turn around and show them off, one in each hand, feeling especially geeky.

“Speaking of which,” my son says, “How did your Shakespeare costume do at work?”  Spoiler alert – I dressed as the Chandos Portrait for my work’s Halloween party. But you have to wait for tomorrow’s post to see pictures 🙂

This leads to the instructor asking if I have pictures, which I do, and of course now all the parents are interested.  Long story short, instructor ends up putting RSC’s “Hamlet Abridged” on the television (where they normally just run a slide show of advertisements).  I get into a conversation with one of the parents, who happens to be a high school English teacher.  She tells me about how she shows her kids the Leonardo diCaprio version of Romeo and Juliet as well as Zeffirelli, but she has a special love for Gnomeo and Juliet.  I introduce her to Sealed with a Kiss, a movie that most people outside of this blog will have never heard of.  I hope she manages to find a copy!

We only just have time to get into the, “So, how did you get into Shakespeare?” conversation, which has no short answer :), but maybe next time.

 

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Why Some Scholars Hate Romeo and Juliet

or, What Play Can You Just Not Even?

Our pal Bardfilm is mad as hell, and he’s not gonna take it anymore!

He is so over Romeo and Juliet, that he’s decided no more productions for him. It has been plumbed to its depths, we have wrung all possible angles and meaning from it, it has been set in every possible time and space in the continuum. He’s seen enough, he can’t see any more.  In fact, he wants to eradicate it completely. Sort of.

Here’s his proposal. We keep the text, and we can read it whenever (if ever) we want. But if we elected some crazy dictator who’d been horribly bullied in high school for being a theatre geek and takes out his emotional issues by banning Romeo and Juliet from ever being produced again … Bardfilm’s totally ok with that.

Which of the works brings out similar resentment for you?  You’re in charge, you get to declare a complete moratorium on one Shakespeare play never to be performed again.

What’s it going to be? Shall it be Merchant of Venice, so people can stop arguing with you whether Shakespeare was anti-Semitic? Comedy of Errors, so directors can stop worrying where they’re supposed to find two sets of identical twins?  Maybe A Midsummer Night’s Dream so we can stop having kindergarten productions with five-year-old butterfly-looking fairies?

I’m totally going to take the easy road and pick Merry Wives of Windsor. I’ve literally never seen it, nor even read it (except during my brief “read them all” period in college).  But I also don’t know how much it “makes life better,” otherwise it probably would have hit my radar by now.  So, having never missed it, I figure I won’t miss it going forward.

 

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This Is Gonna Get Ugly

For my day job we have a very large email marketing business.  It’s normal conversation to talk about what others are doing, so when I got the following subject line in an email I laughed and showed it to my coworkers:

Make someone ugly cry. Adobe can help.

What I wrong as a comment was, “I know what they meant, but that’s the worst subject line I’ve ever seen.”  It sounds like Adobe’s offering to help you chase ugly kids around the playground and make them cry.

A couple days after that post, a coworker calls me over and says, “You posted something the other day and I’ve been meaning to ask you about it…I don’t get it?  You wrote, I know what they mean … but I don’t.  I don’t know what they mean? Is it like the optical illusion with the old woman and the young woman and I can only see the old woman?”

So I told him, “Claire Danes in the Leonardo DiCaprio Romeo+Juliet.”Clare Danes cry faceTurns out there’s actually several blogs and tumblrs dedicated to her cry face in particular, and she’s even been asked about it in interviews 🙂

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Romeo and Juliet Die in a Gunfight

I’m not sure how much Shakespeare we’re going to get in this one, but the coming action film starring Kaya Scoldelario and Josh Hutcherson is being billed that way:

The Mark Gordon Company has set Kaya Scodelario (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales), Josh Hutcherson (The Hunger Games), Olivia Munn (X-Men: Apocalypse) and Helen Hunt (As Good as It Gets) to star in the action romance Die in a Gunfight, a modern update on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

More specifically the film, “will see Hutcherson and Scodelario as two star-crossed lovers Ben and Mary. Set against a backdrop of corporate espionage, revenge, and a long-standing feud between their families.”

If we hold this one to the same standard as Lion King, I wonder how well it would fare?  I’ve often said that the only way we can call “brother kills brother and son takes revenge” a Hamlet story is if we count all “lovers can’t be together because their groups hate each other” a Romeo and Juliet story.

Maybe we need to come up with a metric for how much Shakespeare something has to have in it before they get to use the name?

Let’s predict, shall we?  This will be fun.  For us to consider this a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet it should ideally have …

  • Two warring families (or other social groups) who hate each other just because.  They always have.  Maybe there’s backstory, maybe not, we don’t need one.
  • One representative from each family, who would like to see the families reconcile so they can be together.
  • A best friend / confidant for each.
  • One representative on each side (a Mercutio and a Tybalt) who are quite fine with them continuing to try to kill each other, thank you.
  • Some sort of time element driving the plot, such as Juliet’s marriage to Paris.  Something to keep it moving.
  • A Friar Laurence character to come up with a crazy “this’ll never work, but it’s our only hope!” plan.

You’ll notice I did not say “They have to end up dead.”  I’m actually quite ok with flipping to a happier ending, because if you don’t then you really do just rule out the possibility of any Disney or kid-friendly adaptations.

What do you think?  Something I missed? Something I put on my list that you can live without?

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Is Romeo and Juliet an Anti-Irish Rant?

There’s not much Shakespeare content in Neal Stephenson’s The Rise And Fall of D.O.D.O, much to my dismay. But there is a bit that’s new to me and worthy of discussion.  The story is a time travel one, and when our hero is transported back to Elizabethan England to hang out with an Irish prostitute, he wants to talk about Shakespeare. He notices that Romeo and Juliet is currently playing.

“It’s a shite play,” she responds, “Just a court sponsored rant against the Irish.”

She then cites her evidence:

  • the “villain” is a Catholic friar, and “everybody knows” Catholic is code for Irish.
  • his meddling is the cause of all suffering and the reason why the play is  tragedy and not a comedy
  • the friar’s name is Lawrence, obviously named for St. Labhras, who was martyred by a poison of his own concoction.

Is this a well known conspiracy theory, or did Stephenson make it up?  He’s got other examples, less specific – the one about the “terrible drunk Irish character staggering about the stage wailing about how all the Irish are villains and bastards and knaves” or the “English king who went to conquer Ireland, and he said the Irish live like venom.”

So, did Shakespeare hate the Irish?

 

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Safe for Shakespeare

On the common message board at work I posted quick thoughts on the local Romeo and Juliet this weekend, where I called it (among other things), “safe.”

“I’m curious what exactly a safe production of Romeo and Juliet is,” said a coworker in person.  “Do they not die in the end?”  Laughter from random overhearing coworkers.

“Nope, they definitely still die.”

“Is there still an implied teenage sex scene?”

“Yup, definitely has that.”

“And they still murder people?”

“Yes, yes they do.”

“And you call that safe? As a parent?”

“Fair point.  My kids definitely gave me the, ‘Seriously, Daddy?’ look when Mercutio was writhing and grinding on the floor a few times. But everybody knows the story, it’s not like anything was a surprise.  By safe I meant it was a traditional, expected interpretation.  At no point did I think, “Whoa, hey, that’s different! I’ve never seen that particular interpretation of that moment before!”

“Ohhhh,” said he, “You meant it wasn’t avant-garde.”

So I immediately sent him this picture from Slings & Arrows as the first thing that comes to mind when somebody mentions an avant-garde Romeo and Juliet:

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A Three Hour Shakespeare, A Three Hour Shakespeare

Tis now the very witching time of night, plus about three hours.

What is Shakespeare’s fascination with three hours?  I was at Romeo and Juliet this weekend and this stood out to me:

Ah, poor my lord, what tongue shall smooth thy name,
When I, thy three-hours wife, have mangled it?

Because I thought, “Hmm, that’s interesting, because clearly they’ve been married more than three hours so it’s like she’s using that as just a generic term for some length of time. Kind of like how Hamlet does it, doesn’t he?” Actually I was off on that one:

how cheerfully my mother looks, and father died within these two hours.

But then I thought about that one about, “Better three hours too soon than a minute too late,” from Merry Wives of Windsor.  I got to wondering just how often he used this expression. Turns out, quite a lot. Some of them could even be literal (such as “the length of time after supper and before bed time”) but surely not all of them.

All’s Well That Ends Well

Ten o’clock: within these three hours ’twill be
time enough to go home.

Coriolanus

Within these three hours, Tullus,
Alone I fought in your Corioli walls,
And made what work I pleased:

Cymbeline

I have read three hours then: mine eyes are weak:

Henry VI Part 1

More than three hours the fight continued;
Where valiant Talbot above human thought
Enacted wonders with his sword and lance:

Love’s Labour’s Lost

And then, to sleep but three hours in the night,
And not be seen to wink of all the day—

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

what dances shall we have,
To wear away this long age of three hours
Between our after-supper and bed-time?

Romeo and Juliet (again)

Now must I to the monument alone;
Within three hours will fair Juliet wake:

The Tempest

My father
Is hard at study; pray now, rest yourself;
He’s safe for these three hours.

How thou hast met us here, who three hours since
Were wreck’d upon this shore;

What is this maid with whom thou wast at play?
Your eld’st acquaintance cannot be three hours:

Twelfth Night

Ay, madam, well; for I was bred and born
Not three hours travel from this very place.

 

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Commonwealth Shakespeare 2017 : Romeo and Juliet on Boston Common

I haven’t missed a Commonwealth Shakespeare performance on Boston common since the infamous Hamlet incident in 2005. Every year I wait to see what they’ll play, every year I tell friends and family and coworkers for weeks leading up that I’ll be going.  It’s something of a holiday for me.

This year is Romeo and Juliet. Or, like I told everybody, “The one everybody knows!” I could not say that about Love’s Labours Lost or Two Gentlemen of Verona :). Better, I could at last take the kids. People might think that my kids have grown up with Shakespeare, and they have. But that doesn’t mean that at under ten years old they can sit through an actual 2-3 hour Shakespeare performance in the original text.  They’ve seen movie versions, clips, kids versions, modern versions – but this would be the first time they would sit through a “real” show.

This was a very traditional interpretation, which made it even more perfect.  Period scenery, with a balcony dominating the stage.  Period costumes, with the Montagues in one color and the Capulets in another (and Mercutio in a third).

All in all I liked it, and I’m glad my kids – who also liked it – got to see this one. But I didn’t love it. My oldest, who just finished the play in high school, spent the play explaining things to her sister, and occasionally turning around to me when they chose a particularly interesting interpretation, or altered a more obvious line. My middle, who is fascinated primarily with story, wanted me to tell her the plots of basically all the Shakespeare stories. At one point she apparently realized that Shakespeare collaborated (when I called The Tempest his last solo effort) and she got all bent out of shape over that, declaring that she never knew Shakespeare was a fake, and that she’d have to seriously think about this. My youngest did his best to piece together everything he knew about the story, coupled with what he could skim in the program, with what he was seeing on the stage.  Of course that led to moments like the early scene where Benvolio is explaining to Lord Montague where Romeo has been, and my son explains to me, “That’s Tybalt talking.”  In this particular cast, both Benvolio and Tybalt were two African American gentlemen, and from our seats I’m sure they looked very similar to him.

Stuff I Liked

One particularly fascinating moment came during the “pre-show” of sorts. The troupe put on a stage combat demonstration. No explanation or narration, just an opportunity for the audience to get a sneak preview at the fight scenes.  I watch two guys go at it and tell my kids, “That must be Romeo and Tybalt, because that’s not how Mercutio gets it.”  My attention drifts, because in a few minutes I realize there’s about twenty people all battling and I think, “Oh, cool!  The opening scene!”  When suddenly this tall, athletically built woman, in a dress, leaps into the fray with sword drawn and parts two warring men.  It was actually pretty cool, and looked like something out of a movie fight scene. I had no idea what was going on.  My brain immediately flipped through the script trying to figure out what I’m watching.  “Wait,” I say out loud, “Are they going gender blind for this?  Cool.”  I ask my oldest to look her up in the program, and without looking (because apparently she already had), all I hear her say is the word “princess” because now there’s some other noise, I think the director had come out to talk.  I still don’t get it, and I think that this is the actress’ name.

Nope – that’s Princess Escalus.  They have gone gender flipped for that particular role, and I’m totally ok with it because she was seriously badass. When this Princess said to knock it off, people took her seriously.  (What I did not like is that they put her in a dress but still left her lines calling herself Prince.  Can’t we just pick one?  Either you’ve got a woman playing a man, or else you’ve flipped the gender of the character.  It’s jarring to me when they play it from both angles.)

Love Mercutio.  I tell my kids, “The trick with Mercutio is, the minute you see him, you have to like him.  He’s the cool guy that everybody wants at the party.  He’s the one where you’re invited to hang out and you’re all, Oh, Mercutio’s gonna be there?  Dude, absolutely, let’s go!”  And this Mercutio (who was giving off a strange Key and Peele vibe) crushed it there.  During the Queen Mab speech all of the other masqueraders are hanging on his every word.  But he can just as easily flip and talk one on one with his pal Romeo.  I find myself looking sadly forward to watching him die because I already like him.

Commonwealth Shakespeare 2017 Romeo and JulietRomeo and Juliet are … well, annoying. Overacting every word.  And I’m totally ok with that.  I am of the “Romeo and Juliet are two stupid kids who think the world is ending around them” school, and kids in that situation *are* annoying, even if it’s Shakespeare they’re reciting.

The soundtrack. I don’t know how to explain it, it just worked.  The party scene was hopping.  The fight scenes were ominous.  With my kids at this one I was especially aware of anything happening that would help make it obvious what is happening on stage, and when the music suddenly switches when Tybalt walks in, you know something’s about to go down.

There were also bits of interaction with the audience that were pretty cool, and kept my kids entertained.  Several times the Friar actually motioned to the audience to complete his lines.  Granted this had the effect of really killing the mood because he was enunciating the first part like Inigo Montoya playing rhyming games with Andre the Giant’s Fezzick the giant (“You have a great gift for ….rhyme…”) but hey, it was fun.  I’m not holding this production up to any high standard.

There’s also a funny bit in the beginning where Romeo and Benvolio are arguing about Rosaline, and Romeo’s got his line, “Show me a mistress that is passing fair,” so Benvolio hops down into the audience, picks out a woman to stand and show off for comparison to Rosaline.

It was little stuff, but it worked.  The party scene at the Capulets had the dancers all come through the audience to enter, but then back out into the audience to dance.  There were even these little mini stages set up around the edges that they made their way toward, which I even commented at the time seemed like a lot of effort because they were there for just that scene, and delivered no lines (just regular dancer/partygoers).  Strange amount of extra effort for that little effect.

A word, too, for the overall visual presentation of this production. I thought it was absolutely beautiful. Totally traditional, but that’s fine, there’s a reason why it’s iconic.  There’s a moment when Juliet’s up on the balcony in her nightclothes and the wind is blowing them just ever so slightly, I found it quite near perfect.

Stuff Not So Much

The pacing of many scenes was off.  Fred Sullivan, the most senior actor of the group, plays Lord Capulet as I expected. I go into every show wondering what role Fred will play, because I know he brings everything he’s got.  Saw him as Nick Bottom years ago and never forgot him. But it felt like all of his scenes this year were this sort of zero to sixty ride where one moment he’s laughing and jovial and the next HE’S RANTING AND SCREAMING AT THE TOP OF HIS LUNGS LIKE HE’S GOING TO HAVE A STROKE and then he’s back to being his jolly old self.  This was true at the Capulet ball where he had to yell at Tybalt, but it was really obvious when Juliet tells him she doesn’t want to marry Paris.  He’s talking to her so softly and quietly that you barely realize he is…taking off his belt.  The next thing you know he’s chasing her around the scene trying to whip her with it, screaming the whole time.  It got so bad that when he finally delivers the “My fingers itch” line, with his hand poised above his head to strike, I’m thinking, “Dude, the belt was way scarier.” Later when she apologizes and he goes back to being the loving father. He basically seems bipolar.  Which I think is an oversimplification of his personality (seems to be a theme here).

Same with the opening scene.  I like the opening scene to build and be mostly comedy, so the audience can get into it and feel the transition between the humor and the violence at any time.  Not here, here it is all loud screamy violence all the time.  We all know the Baz Luhrmann version, right? The scene in the gas station with all the screaming?  I liked that one better. Here it just felt like the actors couldn’t bring any more depth to their roles than, “These guys just want to fight because they hate each other so much.”

Worse, though, was Mercutio’s death.  Above I said I sadly looked forward to it, because I liked the character, and I think that the whole mark of a tragedy is you can know what’s going to happen and still be sad about it because you feel something for the characters.  Here I didn’t get that.  First, it was over way too fast.  They fight, Romeo dives in, Mercutio is struck and then immediatelydelivershisnextthreelinessofastIwasn’tsurewhatwashappening.

I like a good dying Mercutio. I want him struggling for breath, on the ground, uttering his dying words like a curse. This Mercutio was running around the stage during the whole thing.  It wasn’t even obvious that there was any blood on him until the end of the scene, and if you didn’t know what was going on you might have missed it. He even walks out practically under his own power.

I did like (and I realize this should go in the section above but they go together) Romeo’s reaction.  I’ve always thought that his line about “Mercutio’s soul is little ways above our heads, and you, or I, or both must go with him” is underrated.  I like a Romeo that’s a combination of fire-eye’d furious and yet also terrified because he thinks there’s an equal chance that he’s going to die, too.  I got that.  That was cool.

Bonus?  The rest of the scene plays out, and at some point, as the lights go down, Tybalt’s body is borne off.  But not before Benvolio taps one of the Capulets on the shoulder and takes his spot, helping to carry him.  Loved the idea of that.  Easily went past many people – it was dark, they were getting focused on their intermission bathroom break, no words are even spoken.  But it shows that Benvolio, who just replayed the scene as “Romeo didn’t do anything wrong, he came here trying to make peace,” maybe realizes, unlike the parents, that this is an opportunity to bring the families closer, not farther apart.

Conclusion

I liked it, but I didn’t love it. I ended up describing it to a co-worker this way: “It’s way better than any school or community performance you’ll see, but at the same time, it didn’t feel like the professional standard you might expect. I’m glad it was a free show. If I’d paid fifty bucks to go see it, I think I would have come away disappointed. There were things I liked, a lot, but there were many things that I felt could have been done so much better.”

It disappoints me to say that, but I’m just being honest. I’ve seen more than a dozen of their shows, and I’m not going to say each one of them moved me to tears. They’re quite capable of it. I’ll never forget the image of Kent in the storm, calling out for King Lear.  I loved the play so much I wrote two posts about it- part one, part two.

Of course, everything I’ve said above – the traditional interpretation, the oversimplification of the characters, the over acting – all made it the perfect show to take my kids.  So there’s that!  I just hope that next year when it comes around again, whatever show they may choose – because I’m going! – that I bring it up to the kids and see whether they want to come with us again.

 

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