Thursday, September 13, 2007

Mental Blog Reviews Shakespeare

Jeez, they certainly do talk a lot. Talktalktalktalktalk. The first act is over before they've finished talking. And then they talk some more in the second act. On and off, they stab somebody or slash them with a sword. Sometimes they dance. Sometimes they even sing. Other times they make jokes at some buffoon's expense. Or the buffoon makes jokes at the king's expense. Oh yes, there are kings. Dukes. Senators. Earls. Barons. Generals. (It's starting to sound like a football league...) Noblemen. Noblewomen. Notsonoblemen and women. Anything you can think of. Dogs. Donkeys. Vipers and asps. Out damn Spots! Sleight of hand and mistaken identity. And through it all they talktalktalktalktalk. Someone always gets the last word.

In recent months I've attended three, count em three Shakespearean plays. An orgy. An over-indulgence of the theatrical kind. One, the last, was an authorized excursion outside the gates of the Yoni School. The other two were clandestine, in which Suzy Homemaker and I were obliged to slip Nurse Ratchet and assorted attendants a mickey. Mickey Mouse for one. Mickey Finn for another. Mickey Dolenz for a third. Mickey Rooney held in abeyance until the moment that Judy Garland appears wanting to create summer theatre in a barn.

The first play was Othello. Someone asked me who played Othello. Can't remember his name. Some black guy. It had been some time since I'd seen one of those Shakespearean adventures in modern thespianism. I enjoyed it, yes, but was disappointed. Spoiled by the graphic nature of contemporary film. Towards the end, Othello throttles the life out of Desdemona. I wasn't at all convinced. She barely struggled. Not what I would call a realistic scene. She barely wrinkled Othello's shirt. But maybe I expect too much.

Furthermore, I'm not versed in the Shakespeare canon. Is Othello one of his more renowned plays? If so, I'm still not convinced. Shakespeare did not persuade me that Othello's jealousy was even remotely justified. Othello comes across as an utter fool, which seems impossible somehow, since he's a well-respected general who could not be a fool. As to the acting, there are moments when Othello appears quite authentic, but at crucial moments he seems to lack the necessary depth. Meanwhile, the gentleman who played Iago tended to play up the comic in many of his asides to the audience at the expense of the venom he acts out in the play against both Cassio and Othello and, indeed, expresses in his first speeches: "O, sir, content you" he says, "I follow him to serve my turn upon him..."

So, in the end, I inveigh against both the production and the playwright. Both come up short. I don't care what the Avonic scholars say. Shakespeare is having us on. He's pretending to profundity and we, poor under-employed potes that we are, slavishly follow the dictates of literary criticism and cast laurels at his feet. Nay, nay, I say! Prove your mettle, William!

Which he does, sort of, in the next play Suzy and I saw. King Lear. Brian Bedford played Lear, a role for which he has trained his whole life. And how does Lear start off? Talktalktalktalktalk. What else? But even here, the premise seems stretched. Lear decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. No apparent reason why. OK, maybe he's getting a little old, maybe he's a little tired. But he seems to want to hold on to his power, exercising influence in the back rooms. And then, in spite of the evidence of his eyes and ears, he gets himself into a snit because Cordelia, plain-spoken girl that she is, will not flatter him with honeyed words like her two wicked step-sisters. (Sorry, I'm getting mixed up with Cinderella. Cinderella! Cordelia! Same story, different country.)

Let's face it. Lear is a loon. Cared for by a buffoon. Or rather a fool. And withal it would seem that the fool is the wisest of them. But we all know that fools may spout wisdom through the teeth of their impudence. Lear is lucky to have him. Lucky also that his fool is such a well-tempered actor, for fools may sometimes be required to act out roles which in their foolishness they see to be wiser than the fools they serve. And Shakespeare was wise enough to make Lear a king, so that he could name the play King Lear, rather than Lear the Lucky Loon!

The acting in this play was better than in Othello. Lucky, I guess. Well, no, not mere luck, because Brian Bedford is accomplished. Maybe he doesn't match Olivier. I don't know, I never saw Olivier. But he was pretty damn good. And Cordelia too. The wicked step-sisters would certainly have shone in any production of Cinderella.

But I'm still up in the air. What is it that drives Lear mad? The fact that two of his daughters turned out to be greedy, spiteful, bitchy, quarrelsome women? Or that he turned away the one who truly loved him? Is that enough to bring on madness? Melancholy, perhaps. Or depression. But raving lunacy? Or was it that he simply retired too early? Lost his main purpose in life...his occupation as king...and succumbed to what we would now call the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

Hmmm. Isn't there a play called Alzheimer and Rosenkavalier Are Dead?


Which brings us to the last play in our Shakespearean adventure. That Jewish play. The Merchant of Venice. It might interest you to know that this play begins not with talktalktalktalktalk, but with a masque...music and dancing. The staging, costumes and incidental music are a mixture of contemporary -- disco and hip--hop -- and renaissance Venice. Interesting but disorienting.

But the masque does not last long. And then what do you get? Talktalktalktalktalk.

Here's something I found in each of the plays. It takes a few minutes for us 21st century humanoids to cotton on to the florid speech of the 16th. In the case of Merchant, it took even longer because the actor playing Antonio, who is there throughout the first scene (after the disco masque) seemed to be talking to himself. I think the others told him to get off the pot, because he did improve both his diction and his volume later on.

Graham Greene, on the other hand, who plays Shylock, is pretty damn good. You all remember Graham Greene, right? First came to our notice in Dances With Wolves, no? A native Indian ( is that the current politically correct appellation? Probably not...). Who better to understand the rage and resentment, the hunger for revenge, of a medieval Jewish moneylender?

As for the play, what can I say? It falls on the comedy side of Shakespeare's ledger, but if so, it's dark comedy indeed. Supposedly one of his more famous plays. The climactic scene is the trial before the Duke of Venice, in which Shylock makes his case for Antonio's flesh. But along comes Portia, disguised as a young lawyer from Padua (as if...) who demolishes his case and in fact turns it right around on him. Shylock's contract says he can have his pound of flesh, but not that he can shed blood to get it. And by conspiring to cause the death of a Venetian citizen, his goods are therefore forfeit.

I don't quite buy it, although the Duke of Venice does, cuz, after all, better to save the life of a white Venetian than cave in to a Jew, even if the Jew is right. But the way I see it, Antonio owed Shylock the pound of flesh. It was Antonio's problem how to get it without shedding blood.

Merchant of Venice has caused some controversy in recent years. The official Jewish establishment seems to think it puts them in a bad light, that it's racist. And I suppose, in a certain way it is. Because it's a play of its time...Elizabethan racist England. But the sense of oppression Shylock feels, the rage, the humiliation, and the greed too. They're timeless. That's why Graham Greene can do it so well. Ultimately, I feel a kind of sympathy or, let's say, compassion, for the suffering of Shylock.

So Antonio wins. Portia wins. Bassanio wins. Graziano wins. Nerissa wins. Portia's butler steals the show several times although he hardly speaks a word throughout the play. All's Well That Ends Well. Except for Shylock. And his daughter.

Anyway...I think Suzy liked Lear best of all, but I kind of go for Merchant. Maybe that's because I understand rage better than dividing up your kingdom for no good reason and then losing your marbles over it because you didn't really want to give up the power.

Or am I just reading it all wrong?

Postscript: Several years ago I saw a production of that jinxed play, Macbeth. Now there is a play! I can't think of any flaws in that plot. No place where you might say, "Hey wait a minute, what about this?..." Even Duncan's twist, that he was born of Caesarean section, doesn't put me off. I can buy that. I can even swallow the Wyrd Sisters. They used to live downstairs.

Digg! diigo it

8 comments:

X said...

You been reading all that fuss about who wrote Shakespeare's plays? (They wouldn't be Shakespeare's plays if he didn't right them, huh???).

The latest that I read - SEVERAL GUYS wrote them.

Now how could SEVERAL GUYS write them, and at least one of them not have spilt the beans somewhere along the way - say, in a personal diary, or a letter - that's a lot of writers keeping a lot of secrets...

Larry Keiler said...

Sort of reminds me of conspiracy theories about 9/11. That Bush & the boys arranged it! My same point...it would take a hell of a lot of organization, innumerable loose ends...somebody would have said something!

bobby bacon said...

I like the comedies..the only one besides the comedies I liked was Julius Ceasar

Anonymous said...

Guess which one is Wild Thing's favourite. Can you guess? Midsummer's Night Dream. Saw it on my birthday, in the Victoria Park Pavilion, years ago. An amateur group. What a birthday present! It was so well played. The Pavilion and the stage were decorated with tree branches. It was like walking into the woods.Puck was whimsical and fun.

I have a marvelous edition of Midsummer Night's dream in book form. Beautifully illustrated. When I read the paperback, I couldn't comprehend it. The above mentioned book made me love the play. The perormance on my birthday crowned my appreciation.

Read MacBeth in school. Liked it well enough. "Out out damned spot", and "e-tu Brute..'the witches predictions and the outcomes, like the woods walking... oops is that still the right play? Maybe that was Julius Ceasar? Oh well...

Saw some Shakespearian plays in the Humanity Theatre. Hamlet was one. I'm getting too old to remember the names of the others. But I was always sitting under the roof, far away from the stage and blamed that for not understanding the speech. Poor hearing and so. But I bet even close up the language would've defeated me. Still I can't think of Shakespearian plays in today's language.

I admit, I'm not craving to go see Shakespaerian plays. And trying to have them explained... too much analizing.

Last night I was invited to come to a performance of the Symphony. Had a bit of a problem with the modern music, but loved the way they did Beethoven's fifth, and an extra, The Carmen suite. It was great! I do always have a bit of a problem sitting still so long. And always feel that instead of just listening to music, I would like to see it staged at the same time.

The funny part was that I mentioned to the woman who I was with that my friend had been so fortunate as to see most of the concert of Genesis, in Toronto, for free, and that I was jealous. I met with a blank look. Either she didn't know who Genesis is or I spoke blasphemy. Likely both.

w.t.

Anonymous said...

Talking about who wrote Shakespeare. Why do people go on so much. I think in those days artists borrowed from each other. As I said to Matt, after he installed my computer and we talked over pizza, new artists to learn, copied the Masters. I've seen in books identical pictures from different artists. In music, Bach, borrowed from other musicians, used old hymns in his St. Matthew Passion. I don't think plagiate was really frowned upon then. And when you come to think of it, if the end result is magical, what does it matter how it was arrived at?

Totally different topic. In my option it stinks how Mulroney decided to write a book and drag Trudeau's name through the mud. The man is dead. How utterly unethical. I never liked Mulroney.Yuch!!!

Are you al glad Wild thing is back? Ha, ha. You can't shut her up again.

w.t.

Larry Keiler said...

W.T. Re: Genesis
Gian Gomeshi, who now has a daily show on CBC called Q, interviewed Genesis last week before their concert. After they left, he mentioned to the next person on that he had given a talk at U of T, (I think) and did a straw poll. He asked how many had heard of Genesis. (Young...university students) Hardly anyone knew who they were.

Sign of the times. 20 years ago, they were all over the radio. You couldn't escape. Now, young people don't know them.

A bit of a loss in some ways. They had a lot of interesting music (though not all of it was) and a lost of music these days seems vapid and empty. We are in a decadent "pop" phase I think, at least on commercial radio. Maybe sort of like the late 50s and early 60s pre-Beatles and Stones.

Anonymous said...

I'm not even sure that I heard them a lot. Phil Collins is with them, right? There is something about Phil that catches my attention. I heard his music in a store, some years ago, and I asked what was playing. I liked it. Bought the album. Wasn't sure I liked all the songs. But then again that's normal on an album with a collection of songs.

I wouldn't have complained though if I had blundered into that concert in Toronto, listening on the outside, and being offered tickets to go in, like what happened to Nigel, because of driving people there in the taxi.

You are right about nowadays music. It's like before the Beatles and Rolling Stones and so. Blah.

Thing is that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are still popular. University students and even Public School students do know them and their music. And they like them. They struck a universal note, I guess.

In spite of the new computer, I still cannot publish under Wild Thing. Like before, only anonymous works.

w.t.

Anonymous said...

The tickets to the concert were free. A couple was going home early.

w.t.

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