Review : Pop-Up Shakespeare

A long, long time ago, when my kids were still in single digits, I had a pop-up book featuring Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. I used to take it in to their classrooms as a prop.  I knew it had made an impact when a few months ago, my oldest daughter – who is now driving, and looking at colleges – came to me and said, “Do we still have that pop up book? I want to bring it in to class.”

So when I heard about Candlewick Press’ Pop-Up Shakespeare (by Jennie Maizels and the Reduced Shakespeare Company) I reached out to see if I could review it. They were happy to oblige!

I admit that it’s been a little while since I’ve purchased pop up books for my kids, but I have to say that this is one of the best I’ve seen. Let’s start with the amount of information provided. It covers everything (*). I learned things. We get some bio on Shakespeare himself, we get all the plays – including the questionable authorship plays – and we get the long poems.

Surely for a book with that much information it must be densely packed, right? Right. In a fascinating way. Much of the book is “lift the flap” style, and each spread is dominated by a huge, two-page pop up feature. But ready for the twist? The text is on both sides of the pop up, rotated accordingly. It’s hard to explain, but the best way is to think of this as a book to put down on the table and have the kids gather around from all angles and take turns reading what they see, because there’s stuff about Shakespeare just literally all over the place.

This would have been a great prop for me back in my volunteering days. If you’re still in that place, where you’ve got an audience that will enthusiastically gather around to start exploring things that pop up and looking for flaps to lift, I think this one is an excellent choice. I really do love that they covered everything everything. It would have been so easy to consider the audience for a book like this as not being old enough for Titus Andronicus or Timon of Athens, and spend all of its time on Midsummer or Romeo and Juliet. If you believe that you’re never too young to learn about the whole breadth of Shakespeare’s work, these authors are on your side.

(*) “The gift is small, the will is all: Alexander Aspinall.”  I may have heard that once upon a time? But it was definitely a surprise to see it referenced in this book. Gives you just a little idea of how much information is hiding under those flaps.

POP-UP SHAKESPEARE. Text copyright © 2017 by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor. Illustrations copyright © 2017 by Jennie Maizels. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.
~ Leave a comment

Review : Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Retold

Translating Shakespeare’s plays into modern text is big business.  Personally I’m not a fan, it reads like one of those documents where somebody went through and hit “thesaurus” on every other word.  You get the gist of the moving the plot forward, but you lose the poetry.

So what about the sonnets? The rules are much more strict.  Keep the number of lines, keep the rhyme pattern, keep the number of syllables, keep it iambic. And keep the same meaning.  Could you do it? Could you do it 154 times?

James Anthony can, and I admit I’m pleasantly surprised and impressed. In Shakespeare’s Sonnets Retold he’s admirably taken up the challenge, and the finished product has the potential to be quite useful, and entertaining along the way.

Modern readers don’t just need help figuring out what Hamlet, Romeo, and Juliet are saying.  The sonnets aren’t exactly the most readable, either.  From fairest creatures we desire increase? What?

How about, “We strive to procreate with gorgeous folk?”

Sure, maybe some readers still have to run to the glossary for “procreate,” but the author’s got to keep it family friendly (and keep it three syllables). But the chances of the modern reader “getting it” just went up a hundredfold. Especially when you get a feel for the rest of sonnet number one:

We strive to procreate with gorgeous folk
So that our beauty won’t capitulate.
We reach a ripe old age; but then we croak.
Our memories live through offspring we create.
But you’re in love with you and you alone,
So self consumed your face is all you see
Depriving us of children of your own
And hence you are your own worst enemy.
Now you are young and walking in your prime
Well set to raise a daughter or a son
But you’re content to piss away your time
And — silly fool! — your days will soon be done.
Take pity on your world or go awry
Have children now for one day you will die.

Many times I (and I’m sure many others) have summarized the procreation sonnets (ha! I didn’t even get the connection in the first line!) as, “Hey dummy, blah blah blah you’re young and your beautiful, but you’re not going to live forever, so how about you get cracking and have some beautiful kids?” I get that message loud and clear in Anthony’s translation. The words jump out at you – children, daughter, son, offspring…ripe old age, croak, piss away your time, days are done, one day you’ll die.

I think that’s where this book has value.  Do you feel intimidated by the sonnets? I do. I have several copies of the sonnets lying around the house, it’s the kind of gift people send me. But I wouldn’t say that I’m confident in my understanding of them. There’s a handful that I have studied. For the rest it’s more like, “I think I know what that means, but I’m not sure I could teach it to someone else. Sure sounds nice, though.” Anthony’s book is the first side by side modern translation I have, so it’ll be nice to have that, “Ohhhhh, that’s what that means!” moment of revelation from time to time.

Definitely a cool addition to the collection.

This month’s posts are sponsored by No Shave November. To help raise cancer prevention awareness, and some money along the way, all proceeds from this month’s advertising, merchandise and book sales are being donated.  If you’d like to support the site by supporting the cause, please consider visiting my personal fundraising page linked above, where you can make a direct donation.


~ Leave a comment

Book Review: Jo Nesbø’s Macbeth

Because I do love copying Bardfilm so much, and I saw that he published his review of Jo Nesbø’s Macbeth (for which, as he likes to say, q.v.), not only did I decide to publish mine, but I just went ahead and copy-pasted that ø character from his site instead of trying to figure out how to do it myself.

Seriously, though, I have been reading this one and did plan to review it this week, the timing is a coincidence. (The ø thing is totally real, though.)

This book is part of the Hogarth series of modern novelizations of Shakespeare. The only other one I’d read was Hag-seed (for which, q.v.!  it’s fun to say!) which I’d been told was the best of the bunch, and I didn’t love it.

I think Macbeth is a better book, but at the same time it left me very, “Meh.”

Continue reading “Book Review: Jo Nesbø’s Macbeth”

~ Leave a comment

Shakespeare Beer : Act One

The other day I told the story of multiple coworkers telling me about ShakesBeer, a Shakespeare Beer brewer that’s just near enough to me to be a temptation but far enough away that I thought it was, literally, out of my reach.  One coworker offered to get me some the next time he was able, but he doesn’t fully appreciate how much I love Shakespeare and beer.  Despite my local liquor store not being listed on the company website directory, I called them anyway, and they had it!

They have three types listed on their website: Act One, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I was only able to find the first two locally.  A 4pack of cans cost me about $14.

Let’s talk about Act One first.  Yes those are nachos and cheese and crackers in the background, I did my taste test during the Patriots game.  From the site:

A mild New England Style IPA with a hazy finish, a balanced level of bitterness and pronounced citrus aroma.  Easy drinking with a manageable 5.5% ABV.

The color’s not my usual style (though I realize it’s typical for this style). I tend to lean more toward the darker reds and browns.

I’m not usually an IPA drinker. Though I’ll have them on occasion when I’m out because I’m far more interested in always trying something new than I am in having a “favorite” beer.  Still, though, I’m surprised they called this one “mild” as I found it had a very strong flavor.  I tend to put these in the category of “I didn’t not like it.”  If I was out at a bar would I order another one? Sure. If I ever see it on a menu I’m ordering it, but I’ll admit that’s also motivated by a desire to support companies like this that do Shakespeare branded things.

The 5.5 ABV (alcohol by volume) I guess is average for IPA?  I’d never really paid much attention to it as a beer drinker but it’s apparently the thing to do now. All the beer drinkers at work compare notes and rate their favorites based on ABV (as in, “I’m not going to have 3 or 4 over 7’s and get wasted” or “Going to the extreme craft fest this weekend, nothing but 8 and over!”)

Definitely happy to have found it. Will drink again. If I have guests over who are up for a taste test, I’ll share.

Next post we’ll look at The Tempest, their “Imperial IPA”.


~ 1 Comment

Alexander Barnett’s King Lear

King Lear and GloucesterI first learned about Alexander Barnett’s King Lear back in 2015. I’m happy to report that the project is finished, and I got to see a screener of the final product.

I’ve seen a few Lears in my time – Sir Ian McKellen’s version (2008), and of course Sir Laurence Olivier (1983).  And I’ve seen it live twice. So I’ve got some amount of familiarity with the play. But let’s not kid ourselves, it’s King Lear, it is a monster. You could see it a dozen times and learn something new every time.

This is a pretty bare-bones production, almost a filmed stage performance. There’s minimal special effects to speak of, no soundtrack, and most of the action takes place in and around “the castle.”  Once I got used to it, I liked it. Because I don’t really want to review an entire movie, going into the costumes and scenery and cinematography. I’ve been saying it for years, I’m here for the Shakespeare. I care about how the characters build based on how they deliver the lines, and how it all comes together in the big picture.  (Compare the coming Anthony Hopkins version, which looks like it’s going to be all about everything but the text.)

I apologize in advance for not doing a detailed breakdown of every character, there’s just too many. With Lear, as with most Shakespeare, I tend to focus on my favorite scenes and characters.

We open with Gloucester joking with Edmund. The two both laugh together, Gloucester even delivering some playful punches on the shoulder to his bastard son. That makes Edmund’s betrayal that much more brutal. When Gloucester later says that Edmund will save him it’s not just “Edmund’s my new favorite now because Edgar betrayed me,” there’s actually a relationship there. It’s easy to hate Edmund.  He’s got that constant smile that, once you learn to see right through it, makes you want to just knock it right off his face.

Later we’ll hear (but not see) Gloucester’s eyes being gouged out.  The scene cuts to Goneril and Edmund in another part of the castle. Goneril is startled and pauses at the noise, but Edmund just looks at her impatiently as if to say, “Yes, and?  Let’s go!” while his father is tortured.

I don’t know what to make of the Fool. He makes me uncomfortable. He’s got this kind of hyperactive thing going where he never stops moving, keeps focusing his attention on different things while he talks.  I feel like I could watch the whole thing again just paying attention to him. Does he love the old man, or is he mocking him? Is he confidently commanding the scene when he tells his jokes and pokes fun at the king, or does he fear the whip?

Interesting decision – there’s a little moment where it appears clear that Fool recognizes Kent, who gives him the finger to the lips “Shhhhhh” gesture. I like that. Makes me think that Fool is smarter than he appears, and that the two are now a team, loyal to the king.

Shall we talk about Barnett’s Lear?  Visually I really like what he’s done. The wild hair, the big bushy beard.  From the minute he enters he looks…well, old. Not skeletal and frail, like Olivier did. He looks like an angry old man. There’s something in his eyes that is … elsewhere. Sometimes he loses his train of thought. He’s got a temper and is quick to anger. It’s no surprise that Regan and Goneril look like they’ve been planning for this day for a long time and are happy it has finally come.

I think the scene with Kent in the stocks is everything. Lear enters the scene thinking he has it all, and he leaves with nothing. Lear loses all control, bouncing back and forth between rage, confusion, bargaining. I like his interaction with Gloucester, how it’s laid out so plainly:

Why, Gloucester, Gloucester,
I’ld speak with the Duke of Cornwall and his wife.

Well, my good lord, I have inform’d them so.

Inform’d them! Dost thou understand me, man?

Ay, my good lord.

The king would speak with Cornwall; the dear father
Would with his daughter speak, commands her service:
Are they inform’d of this?

It takes him so long to understand this idea of “the king said he wants this” and not have people jump to make it happen.  He tries to contain his rage, but doesn’t succeed. Gloucester is the poor middleman who agrees completely that what’s happening is an outrage, but can’t do anything about it.

How’s the big final scene? Very interesting. Lear chooses to carry Cordelia on his back for much of it – right up to “Stay a little” (a line which they actually appear to have cut). It’s almost as if he’s so far gone at this point he forgets that he’s even got her physical body with him. There is no looking glass or feather, he imagines all of that.

Honestly I could write twice this amount and still find details I feel like I’m missing. I watched the whole thing, and then as I wrote this I went back through and paid closer attention to some key scenes.  I also did my “speed reading” trick, leaving closed captions on so I had the text right there in front of me.

At the end of it all this is almost a one-man show.  The other actors do an admirable job, but all of it is just there to move Lear’s story along. There’s not much direction to speak of beyond when and how to move the camera. As I mentioned there’s nothing additional added that’s not in Shakespeare’s text (something we’ll discuss in an upcoming post regarding the Anthony Hopkins version). That makes for a particular type of movie.  Would I invite family and friends to sit down and watch this? Would we have gone to see it in a theatre?  No. But as a student and admirer of Shakespeare will I go back over this multiple times, paying close attention to the performance of individual characters? Absolutely. I already have.

The full movie is available on Amazon Prime.  It is also available to stream On Demand from Vimeo as a 12-part series.

Alexander Barnett is a highly acclaimed American theatre and film actor, director and writer.  He founded Classic Theatre International and toured Europe for 18 years with the greatest Shakespearean tragedies and American classics.  Returning to the States, he wrote and directed his first screenplay, The Eyes of Van Gogh.  He is currently writing a new screenplay.

~ Leave a comment