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.

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Book Review : Macdeath by Cindy Brown

I’m always torn when people offer to send me books for possible review.  If it’s not an audiobook or ebook, it goes on the bottom of the “get to when neither of those is available” list. That’s just the way my schedule works. As such, it takes me forever. Such is the case with Cindy Brown’s Macdeath, which I’ve had so long I can’t remember when I got my copy.  But I’m happy to say I finished it!

Book one of a series, Macdeath introduces us to Ivy Meadows, a struggling actress / part-time detective (thanks to her Uncle Bob, a full-time detective). Ivy’s been cast as one of the witches in Macbeth, and we all know that the Scottish play is cursed.  Sure enough, somebody winds up dead. Now Ivy can’t seem to stop investigating whodunnit, despite the pleas and flat-out demands of her coworkers, the police, and her detective uncle.

Maybe if I was a backstage theatre geek I would have liked this one more, since that’s where most of the action takes place. I just couldn’t get into any of the characters. None of them are around long enough or described deeply enough to care about. Which, granted, is part of the point of a murder mystery because you need to keep guessing about who the murderer is.  But without that, I was stuck in the head of our narrator, and as a 50yr old husband and father with stuff on my to-do list, I felt exactly as comfortable with that as I would have hanging out in real life with a 20something struggling actress :).  Oh, your costume is too tight in the crotch?  You’re not sure if you have enough money to get your car out of the parking lot?  The struggle is real, people.

There’s plenty of twists to the story, a couple of dead ends, and a reasonably satisfying ending (as these things go).  A cast of characters has been introduced, and there’s obvious room for a series.

Know what it reminded me of?  Once upon a time, there was a golden age of television where it seems like everything was a detective show.  Magnum P.I., Murder She Wrote, Matlock, Remington Steele, Hart to Hart, Miami Vice, Charlie’s Angels, Simon and Simon …  This book reminded me a great deal of those.  Imagine a Charlie’s Angels episode where one of the girls has to go undercover in a production of Macbeth.  You get a very brief glimpse at the cast of characters, she runs around trying to uncover clues even though everybody tells her not to (because she can’t blow her cover), and all the while she still has to remember her lines and go perform when her cue comes.  Then when their allotted hour of tv time is up the bad guy is revealed, the day is saved, and everything wraps up nicely until next week.

That’s not a bad thing. There’s a reason why they made so many of those shows, and some of them did very well (Murder She Wrote went for 12 seasons!)  But the strength of each of those shows was in the main character, and finding an audience that connected with that character.   Just because I’m not the audience for Ivy Meadows doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

P.S. Just one more thing before I go?  We all know that Shakespeare was a master of the dirty double entendre, whether Hamlet’s putting his head in Ophelia’s lap or Mercutio’s got his hands upon the very prick of noon.  I’ve got people regularly telling me that Shakespeare itself is a euphemism for something (as is “will”, come to think of it).  The author chose to have one of her characters named … are you ready for this?  Detective Pinkstaff.  Yikes.  Every time that character was in the scene I couldn’t take him seriously, not because he was a bad character, but because he was a walking phallic joke.  At least she didn’t make him the love interest.




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Commonwealth Shakespeare 2018 : Richard III on Boston Common

My streak continues!  I’ve not missed a Commonwealth Shakespeare in the Park performance since 2005.  This year I finally met Steven Maler, the artistic director since the beginning.  Immediately told him about missing Hamlet, and that I’d toughed out the rain and then stood there, hours late, watching them strike the stage and screaming, “I’M HERE!  BRING EVERYBODY BACK!”

Anyway, this year it was Richard III, and I was both excited – because I’ve never seen or really ever studied that one – but also a bit ambivalent, because I had no real stake in this one, you know?  I have no special love or hatred of the play, so if I missed it, would I care?  But I knew I’d care in the long run, especially about breaking my streak, so I’m happy to report we did not miss.

I tried to explain the general plot of Richard III to my ever patient wife who tolerates my addiction.  Coming from someone who’s not read the play my summary is not the greatest, but it went something like this:  “Think of it in terms of today’s royal family. Say that Prince Harry has decided he wants to be king.  But he’s way too far down the line to ever see the crown, unless he does something about it. So he kills his brother William.  Then he decides that he’d rather be married to Kate, but problem, he’s already married. So he kills his own wife, then convinces Kate to marry him, despite the fact that everybody knows he killed her husband. This is too much for Prince Charles’ heart, so he dies.  William’s son is in the way too, though, so he’s also got to die.  You get the idea.  It’s a blood bath.”  That’s not a 1-1 match but it gave her some context to work with.

Having never seen a different production I can’t really tell you if I saw a good one. I did not love their Richard.  Maybe it was early in the run (it opened on Wednesday, we went on Friday), but I felt like he was having trouble with his lines. His timing was off, and too often you could feel him take an extra pause like he was trying to remember the next word.  Once he spoke over another actor’s lines (which I’m pretty sure was not supposed to happen), and I may have imagined it but I thought I heard Clarence feed him a line right at the very beginning.

What I did like, and found quite surprising, was the strength of the female characters. Not surprising in the sense that I didn’t expect strong female characters from Shakespeare, but rather that in all the times we’ve had discussions about Shakespeare best female roles, I never hear this play mentioned.

I loved Queen Margaret, thought she was great.  Just this kind of crazy old lady who’s all, “Yup, I know I’m not supposed to be here, but I’m old and I don’t care, I’m going to say whatever I want to say to whoever I want.”  I did particularly like when Buckingham recalls her curse just before his death as if to say “Well, I guess the crazy old broad was right.  Ok boys, let’s go.”

Special appreciation, though, for Queen Elizabeth.  I lost track of how many of her family members were killed during the course of the play. But when Richard stands in front of her and says he wants her daughter, the Queen took the insanity of the situation to a whole other level.  The best way I can describe it is if you found yourself in one of those Friday the Thirteenth serial killer movies where almost everyone you know and love has been brutally murdered, only now the guy that’s been doing it isn’t a silent unstoppable monster, he’s here trying to have a conversation with you. And he wants one of your remaining daughters.

This was probably my favorite scene, because on the one side you’ve got Richard who is just so calm in what he’s asking, completely in control of the situation. He doesn’t just want to take the daughter, he wants her mother to thank him for the favor that he’s doing for them.  She on the other hand is on the edge of insane at the whole situation.

I think that if I watch more productions (and I plan to), I’ll better understand all the players and how they move about the game.  I was trying to stay ahead, including having the script loaded up in my app and following along at some parts.  It just wasn’t what I expected. Scenes I thought might have played more humorous did not get laughs.  The few laughs that it did get seemed more slapstick, with Buckingham cavorting about the stage and yelling “Boo!” to the children, or Richard doubling over slapping his knee laughing at just how evil he is.

This year they did a thrust(?) stage? Am I using that term right?  Basically it came straight out into the audience so most of us were wrapped around the edges. We spoke with one photographer right at the edge of the stage, he was getting some great shots.

The “there’s only one man at this table who isn’t loyal” scene has been done many different times and I knew it was coming but I still loved it.
I have to admit I did like his look. He doesn’t look very deformed here.
I like the conspiratorial “over the shoulder” look I caught here.

Paper Shakespeare : To Date Or Not To Date

Whenever I see a reference to a Shakespeare inspired video game it immediately catches my attention.  Shakespeare’s works are one of the great places to start for public domain stories, after all.

So when I spotted Paper Shakespeare: To Date Or Not To Date  I had to check it out. In fact, I literally sought out the developers to have a conversation on the topic.  It turns out that they’re planning video games based on thirty-seven of the plays?!  I love that idea.  As a cynical old man I don’t expect to ever see it, but hey, as they crank them out I’ll be sure to post about them here.

How is Paper Shakespeare? I wish I could say I liked it, I really do. It’s apparently supposed to be some kind of dating simulator, whatever that means.  From my angle (that of a fifty-year-old married father of three) it resembles a choose your own adventure book, offering me a few sentences of text at a time, leaving me to just press the space bar over and over again. I meet the characters, all sporting Shakespearean names and high school personalities – Tybalt the bully, Othello the football star, and so on.  Every now and then I get a choice to make – which class should I take? Who should I pass a note to, and what should it be about?

I just don’t know what to do with it at all. There’s a counter in the corner that’s keeping tracking of some sort of interaction I have with the characters, and I get the feeling there’s a goal, I just can’t get into it.  Sorry, developers. Maybe I’ll enjoy the next one more.


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Pre-Review : Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

When I first heard about the Hogarth Series that would product “modern novelizations” of Shakespeare’s work I thought, “Eh.  So what.  If you rewrite Shakespeare it’s not Shakespeare, it’s yours, and it’s just like any other novel.”  As such I’ve avoided them all to date.

I decided to change that because we’ve got a book club at work and I wanted an excuse to read something of at least passing interest to me. When multiple people told me that Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest, was the best one to come out so far,  was hooked.  If I’m going to give the series I try I might as well start with my favorite play.

So glad I did! I’m just about halfway finished with it but I’m very excited to get out a review (and, who we kidding, it gives me another post for Shakspeare Day).

Felix, our director, is in the middle of what’s to be his masterpiece, a production of The Tempest.  He likes this play so much he even named his daughter Miranda.  Unlike Shakespeare’s story, however, both Felix’s wife and daughter have passed away before the story takes off. But the next part plays out like you’d expect — control of the group is usurped by Tony and Sal, and Felix is “banished” from the theatre scene until he gets a job teaching Shakespeare to prisoners. He even uses the pseudonym “Mr. Duke”, an amusing callback to Prospero as Duke of Milan.

The plot is following along close enough to the original that you have some idea what’s going to happen. Tony and Sal are going to end up in the prison where Mr. Duke will make his triumphant return. I just have no idea what’s going to happen other than that.  Our Prospero has no Miranda. This one seems to be all about revenge.  What would Prospero have been like if everything else had gone the same, except Miranda had not survived? I think we might have seen the full scope and scale of his power.

While retelling The Tempest this book is also a lesson in The Tempest as Felix walks his prisoners through the finer points of the play.  He makes them re-envision Ariel as something other than just “a fairy”.  He asks them to find all the “prisons” in the play (apparently there are nine?) and they discuss what form each prison takes, who is imprisoned, and who has captured them.  I’m learning lots of new things.  I hope she gets back to the question of “is the island by itself magic” because I’ve often wondered about that myself.

I don’t want to spoil much more of the book so I’ll stop here.  Suffice to say I’m loving it, and when I’m done with this one I’m going to dig into Jo Nesbo’s new Macbeth next. Definitely recommended.