Tag Archives: Shakespeare

The Roughly Chronological Re-Read Week 3: Henry VI (Part 2)

Date: Probably 1591.

 

First read: 2005-ish.

 

Productions seen: No full productions, just scenes at drama school.

 

Productions worked on: As above.

 

Edition I’m using: Signet Classics. I don’t think I’ve ever had a Signet before.

 

Cheating by having one book for all three plays. Don't tell anyone.

 

Observations:

 

  • There are people who believe that this is Shakespeare’s very first play. While it’s clearly an early work, I find it hard to believe that it could be the first. The language and characterisation are much better developed than Comedy of Errors or Two Gents.
  • It was suggested to me when I started this project that the Henry VIs should be read in story order, but in light of the argument mentioned above I preferred to go 2-3-1. I’ve tried to put Part 1 out of my mind for the purposes of the Re-read.
  • Back when I first started reading Shakespeare I assumed that as I grew more familiar with his work I would be able to keep track of which geographically-titled nobleman was which without any problems. Twelve years later and much more familiar with his works, I still get mixed up and have to go back and remind myself which Poles and post-Plantagenets are which.  I am seriously considering pressing all my ornaments into service for Part 3.
  • Bloody hell Shakespeare, we’re not hanging about, are we? By the end of Act 1, Scene 1 we’ve got the meeting of the royal spouses, Suffolk going from marquess to duke, strops thrown about the king’s marriage and the loss of Anjou and Maine, the Cardinal throwing shade at Gloucester, Somerset throwing shade at the Cardinal, Buckingham and Somerset plotting for one of them to be Protector, Warwick plotting to get Maine back, and York soliloquising at great length about how he’s going to be king. That’s one scene.
  • This pattern of characters bitching about each other and plotting everyone else’s downfall continues for the rest of the play (with an odd diversion in Act 4, of which more in a moment). Some absolutely beautiful smack is talked, which was a breath of fresh air after Comedy of Errors. But it’s somewhat hard going, with very little breathing space between events and length speeches. Shakespeare still isn’t on top of his pacing at this point.
  • Speaking of which, can we talk about Act 4? Imagine if Game of Thrones had decided to show nothing but the Faith Militant causing trouble in King’s Landing for a season, with only a couple of brief appearances from the characters in whom you’ve already become interested. It’s not without merit, it’s still entertaining stuff and piqued my interest in historical terms, it’s just… couldn’t we have built up to this? Structurally, I feel the lack of an introductory scene for Cade. We’re told in Act 3, Scene 1 that York has Cade on his side, and I find myself wishing that this had been shown.
  • Characterisation is starting to get interesting. Not universally so, but to a greater extent than in the last two plays. I found myself quite attached to Gloucester, and the scene where he parts with his wife was surprisingly touching, especially in view of their proto-Macbeth first scene together. I also thought that the writing of Henry struck a delicate balance between capturing his weakness as a monarch and his strength as a man of faith. I’m fond of characters who may be hopeless cases within their worlds but who clearly could have thrived in a different environment.
  • I tried hard to forget having read Part 1 before. I’m convinced that if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have picked up on the relationship between Margaret and Suffolk until quite late on. Their affair has always appealed to the teen-goth-in-search-of-heartache in me, and I think I’d mentally filled in more romantic/lustful intrigue than they actually have. Nevertheless, the scene where they part gave me a little pang of sadness, even though they’re both pretty terrible people. (I don’t care how terrible she is. I will love Queen Margaret in all her incarnations until I die. But I will save my remarks on her until we’re done with the Henry VIs and I’m free to comment on her entire arc.)
  • While I knew that there was witchcraft/necromancy in this play, I’d never really taken note of the date before – if it was first performed in 1591, that puts it smack in the middle of the North Berwick witch trials. I don’t know how aware a London audience would have been of the trials, but since Newes from Scotland, the contemporary account of the “witches”, was printed in London it doesn’t seem terribly unlikely that they were. I wonder whether it might have added a certain immediacy, more than a century after the real Margery Jourdemayne’s death.
  • Lots of differences between the editions on this one – I had the Signet, Mark had the Arden, and we found quite a few inverted lines, different attributions and a couple of characters with slightly altered names.
  • To sum up, this is far from a perfect play but I’m certainly happy to have moved on to the sometimes unnecessarily loquacious and unambiguously stabby. Since next week is Part 3 and we’ve got Titus Andronicus coming up after that, I should be kept happy for a little while.

The Roughly Chronological Re-read Week 2: The Comedy of Errors

Date: Around 1594.

 

First read: In 2007. I don’t think I ever re-read it.

 

Productions seen: One at the Edinburgh Fringe, some time around 2003/4 (I think). I’m fairly sure it was a student production.

 

Productions worked on: None.

 

Edition I’m using: An elderly Arden.

comedy-of-errors

 

 

Observations:

 

Couplets. COUPLETS. Good god, Shakespeare, what are you doing to me? Why must everything rhyme? (All right, not everything. Not quite. Just most of the first three acts.) Why do you hate me, Shakespeare?

 

I’m not inherently anti-couplet. Used sparingly and judiciously they can be effective. Great at the end of sonnets, for instance. Useful for comic purposes, in their right place. But there’s such a thing as excess, and I think we hit that point about three pages into The Comedy of Errors.

 

I remember not being mad keen on this play when I first saw it back in 200…3, perhaps? When I read it a couple of years later I struggled to finish it. Back then, with less developed critical faculties and a lot less confidence in myself, I assumed the failing was mine. Shakespeare is Shakespeare, right? Every word is golden, each play’s structure exquisite, right? Right?

 

Realising that it was permissible to critique Shakespeare (and that I had developed the necessary skills to do so) was an important part of my development both as a reader and as a writer. So let me apply my learning and state my considered opinion – The Comedy of Errors is not a very good play.

 

I can imagine that a really well-done production could be really funny. Given a handful of highly-skilled physical comedians with exquisite timing, the weaknesses of the script could be obscured. Perhaps with a handful of careful cuts, the opening scene could be made to feel like less of an info-dump. As it stands, it’s not exactly elegant.

 

The heavy reliance on dramatic irony irked me, too. As with the couplets, it’s a device I enjoy in moderation but found overwhelming here. I found myself longing for something more than just yet another mistaken identity – give me some depth in the characters, or even some wordplay on a par with what was on offer in Two Gents!

 

Actually, I found myself missing Two Gentlemen while I was reading this one. While I wasn’t exactly bowled over, at least there were some hints at the complexity of characterisation that’s to come in Proteus’ soliloquies, and although the structure was messy and the narrative rushed it was less repetitive than this. Again, I wonder whether that repetition could be made to look like cumulative effect by particularly adept performers, but as a director and dramaturg I still find my fingers itching to cut, restructure and ask for greater depth.

 

As with Two Gents, it’s interesting to see the clear Commedia influences on Shakespeare’s work and I’m glad to have revisited it, but I doubt this play will ever be particularly dear to my heart. I’d close with some favourite lines, but three days after reading the script I’m struggling to call any to mind, so… not this week. Onward to the Henriad. In the meantime, please do share your thoughts and I’ll get on with answering comments from the last week.


Roughly Chronological Re-read Week 1: The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Date: Between 1589 and 1592.

 

First read: In 200…5, I think? At some point in my early 20s I read my Arden Complete Works cover to cover. Then I re-read it in 2011 when I worked on a couple of scenes from it at Mountview.

 

Productions seen: None – just that couple of scenes at drama school.

 

Productions worked on: As above.

 

Edition I’m using: Good old Dover Thrift.

She's just not that into you, Pro

 

Observations:

 

  • I read the play aloud with Mark and Flavia. We noticed that the locations weren’t consistent across the editions – sometimes one of us had Milano and another Verona, sometimes one had Mantua and another Padua. I wish we’d actually noted the differences, but we didn’t… What I can tell you is that I was using the Dover Thrift pictured above, Mark had the Arden Complete Works and Flavia was using the text from shakespeare.mit.edu. Who knows where we were? All we know is that you’re unlikely to miss the tide in any of them. In your face, Oxfordians.
  • While this may or may not be Shakespeare’s first play, it definitely feels early. Not just because of the structural oddities and somewhat underdone characterisation, but because it’s packed with ideas and lines that turn up again in fuller form elsewhere in the canon – the business with the rings, the girl disguised as a boy, the fleeing lovers pursued into the forest, rope ladders a-go-go, even some shady friar with a familiar name doing penance for unspecified sins wandering the woods.
  • Between this and Romeo & Juliet, I get the impression that Elizabethan Mantua was quite the hive of scum and villainy.
  • Holy excessive wordplay, Batman! I’d forgotten how crazy the first few scenes are. It’s a much funnier play than I remembered, but the comedy sits oddly alongside the darkness of Proteus’ journey – to my mind, at least. I know that time changes the way we receive things and that humour changes over the years (the treatment of Malvolio in Twelfth Night, for example, strikes my 21st century sensibilities as ridiculously harsh). However, I struggle to believe that Proteus and Valentine’s reconciliation after the attempted (or at least considered) rape of Silvia is anything other than a rushed ending. It’s an extremely swift wrap-up, and a bit frustrating – Proteus comes across as a budding villain, and a very interesting one at that, yet the moment he’s challenged he does a swift volt-face, apologises and is forgiven. There’s the quality of mercy not only is not strained, it seems to gush from both Valentine and Julia in an unstoppable, ill-advised torrent. Then again, I suppose the same swiftness turns up in things like Measure for Measure, so perhaps it’s more a question of my expectations concerning ambiguous endings.
  • Having recently worked on Coriolanus, I found my attention caught by Proteus’ line in Act II Scene IV, “Even as one heat another heat expels/Or as one nail by strength drives out another/So the remembrance of my former love/Is by a newer object quite forgotten”. Check out one of my favourite lines of Aufidius’ from Act IV Scene VII – “One fire drives out one fire: one nail, one nail/Rights by rights falter: strengths by strengths do fail./Come, let’s away. When, Caius, Rome is thine/Thou art the poor’st of all: then shortly art thou mine.”

 

I’m trying not to get too wrapped up in comparing the plays at this stage, since the point is to see what observations are prompted by reading them in this order, so this isn’t a particularly long post. Expect them to increase in length and depth as we continue, and also as I get a sense of what kind of conversations might come up here.

 

Did you read along? Is there anything you’d like to say about this play? Any point I’ve made that you disagree with? Comments are open (they’re moderated, which is sadly necessary for personal reasons, but I’ve no plans to do anything other than approve all contributions to the discussion).


The Roughly Chronological Reread: The Chronology

As I launch into my first big personal project for 2017, the Roughly Chronological Re-read, I’d like to acknowledge the amount of guesswork that’s going into this. There is no clear chronology for Shakespeare’s plays. I don’t claim to have discovered one. What I have done is read a lot of other people’s suggestions and drawn up a reading order. I don’t claim that my decisions are anything other than arbitrary. You’re welcome to argue the toss with me. I’ll probably argue it with myself as I go.

So here’s the order I’m planning to use:

Week 1: Two Gentlemen of Verona

Week 2: The Comedy of Errors

Week 3: Henry VI Part II

Week 4: Henry VI Part III

Week 5: Titus Andronicus

Week 6: Richard III

Week 7: The Taming of the Shrew

Week 8: Henry VI Part 1

Week 9: Love’s Labours Lost

Week 10: Romeo & Juliet

Week 11: Richard II

Week 12: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Week 13: King John

Week 14: The Merchant of Venice

Week 15: The Merry Wives of Windsor

Week 16: Henry IV Part 1

Week 17: Henry IV Part 2

Week 18: Much Ado About Nothing

Week 19: As You Like It

Week 20: Henry V

Week: 21: Julius Caesar

Week 22: Hamlet

Week 23: Twelfth Night

Week 24: Troilus & Cressida

Week 25: All’s Well That Ends Well

Week 26: Othello

Week 27: Measure for Measure

Week 28: King Lear

Week 29: Timon of Athens

Week 30: Macbeth

Week 31: Anthony & Cleopatra

Week 32: Pericles

Week 33: Coriolanus

Week 34: Cymbeline

Week 35: A Winter’s Tale

Week 36: The Tempest

Week 37: Henry VIII

Week 38: The Two Noble Kinsmen


Writing Vox

Two months since my last blog post? Really? Busy times – busy and really exciting!

In April I was over in Milan for the opening of #SonsOfGod: Vox, the adaptation of Coriolanus that I wrote for Charioteer Theatre. I’ve been acquainted with Charioteer since I assisted on a show of theirs about eight years ago, and I was thrilled to be approached about the possibility of writing for them this time last year – even more so considering that Coriolanus is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays.

The process of creating Vox was longer and more complex than any show I’ve worked on before. The brief was quite specific, requiring me to include elements like rap music and social media and to find a treatment that would appeal to both young and fully-fledged adults, mostly non-native English speakers. I knew we would be working with the School of Cinema in Milan, so video would be integral to the piece. There was a lot to consider.

Fortunately I was allowed to be present at the auditions, so I had met the actors and got a sense of their qualities. I much prefer writing for specific actors to writing first and casting later – it means I can write for the actors’ less obvious qualities and hopefully offer them roles that will challenge and intrigue them. Sometimes I’ll see something in an actor that unlocks the character or completely changes my intention. Once I knew who would be in the production everything began to take shape – and you can see the results below.

What followed was a very generous development period, a ton of hard work from everyone involved, and a nerve-wracking flight to Italy – I’m a slightly nervous flyer at the best of times, and it turns out that flight nerves coupled with show nerves aren’t fun. But once I got there, remembered how beautiful Milan is, saw the incredible space that is the Studio Melato and watched the first performance… I won’t say I relaxed, because that’s definitely not the right word. I had a wonderful feeling of certainty that it was a good, strong show. The audience’s reaction was fantastic, so was the response from the Piccolo, and I felt truly happy with what we had made and my part in it.

I’m planning to write more about the process of writing for specific actors, about the comedown from Vox after my return to Scotland and about Unfinished Demon Play, the piece I’ve written during mentoring through  Playwrights’ Studio Scotland. I’ll get to those things, but in the meantime have some pictures from Vox (by kind permission of Trish Hamilton Photography):

Aufidius - Michael Cooke

Coriolanus - Daniel Hird

Apology


A long response to a short post about spoilers

Apparently I’m in the mood to respond to other people’s thoughts these days. It’s a bit of a post-Fringe thing – I spend August completely wrapped up in the Fringe, unable to conceive of a world outside of Edinburgh, then it ends and  I realise that there’s a month of non-Fringe content out there on the interwebs. September starts with a massive catch-up on what else has been happening out there.

Mark at Only the Sangfroid has written a really interesting post on spoilers. Can’t be bothered clicking links? Here’s my recap: People moan about reading/seeing spoilers for their favourite films and TV shows because apparently the plot twists are the things that keep them interested. Mark suggests that if the plot twists are all that’s keeping you engaged, there’s a problem – it should be possible to be gripped by a well-known story as long as the storytelling is sufficiently skilful. If we’re so caught up in plot twists and the etiquette of not spoiling them, discussion of the themes, issues and execution is curtailed.

The short response: I agree. I’ve never really understood people who believe that spoilers ruin everything. If you are someone who feels that way I’d be very happy to hear from you, because I’m always up for reading someone else’s insights – but be warned, there may be spoilers further on in this post. I don’t know what for, because I haven’t written the rest yet – check the tags if you’re bothered. What I do know is that they won’t be behind a cut.

Personally, I love spoilers. They let me know what I’ve got to look forward to. I’m perfectly happy to know what the plot twists will be, because what I don’t know is how they will be realised.

For example, I love watching Dexter. I watched the first three seasons, then while I was waiting for season 4 to come out on DVD I read a few spoilers so I knew that Rita gets killed by Trinity. (I did say there would be spoilers. If your life is now ruined, my sympathy is limited.) Later on I introduced my husband to the show. When we were halfway through season 4, season 5 came out on DVD… with the announcement of Rita’s death right there in the blurb on the back. So it’s a good thing that neither of us is that concerned about knowing the facts in advance.

However, as much as I love Dexter, it’s one of those programmes that I love for what it could be more than for what it is. When it’s good it’s bloody awesome. And when is it good? For my money, it’s good when it’s exploring the boundaries between right and wrong, testing the limits of the characters’ personal codes, challenging the viewer to think about how far they identify with different characters’ behaviour and what that says about them.

When it’s bad? Well, it’s not so much that it’s horrid. The production values are still high. It’s ok. But it deserves to be so much better than ok, because the potential is there. Dexter being ‘ok’ is like your highly intelligent child getting a C. Yet it frequently happens, because plot twists are prized higher than character development. Seriously, are LaGuerta and Angel married or not this week? Is anything actually going to happen with the trophy-collecting intern girl or are we done with that? Was it actually a storyline that I just don’t remember because I was too busy not giving a damn about peripheral characters that haven’t been developed in any way? Which personality will Deb be wearing today, now that the writers no longer seem to be concerned with her original character?

Venerating all things plot-driven also leads to failure to appreciate character studies. What’s wrong with exploring a character in depth, learning what drives them, letting ourselves be affected and maybe unsettled by our commonalities with and differences from them? Really good writing creates layered, fascinating characters. There’s no reason why this can’t be coupled with excellent production values to create something compelling.

To me, this is one of the major differences between the flash-bang-wallop of entertainment and the complexity of art. I like to be entertained. I like art. I like things that do both. I don’t think I’m unique or even slightly unusual in this. Perhaps I’m just insanely optimistic, but I actually believe that audiences are capable of appreciating intelligent entertainment. Excellent ideas, insight and writing coupled with excellent performances – the ingredients for good art – combined with enough plot to make good entertainment.

It’s an obvious point to make, but it’s true – this is why we’re still doing Shakespeare all these centuries later. Macbeth? Plot-tastic. There’s plenty going on – chance (or maybe not) meetings with witches, more murders than you can shake a stick at, sticks being shaken at Dunsinane, climactic battles. It is the stuff of blockbusters.

It’s also a gorgeous study of the desire for power and its effects, of the destruction of a couple by a terrible secret, of a man who was one of the good guys and ends up a tyrant. It’s packed with subtle, psychologically layered characters, and they make it interesting. Without them, or at least without their depth and development, the story is just a sequence of events, many of which happen off stage.

Perhaps character development was originally necessary because locations shoots and CGI were beyond the budget of the King’s Men, but we shouldn’t consider them any less important now that we’re able to set Macbeth’s final battle against a backdrop of Dunsinane in flames and collapsing into a volcano while the earth gets sucked into a black hole. Isn’t there some room for car chases between soliloquies, or vice versa?

But I digress. The thing about Macbeth is that we all know how it ends (or at least we should). I don’t count it as a spoiler if I tell you that Lady Macbeth goes mad and dies or that Macduff eventually kills Macbeth himself. Does this make it any less compelling? It shouldn’t, if it’s being done well. If we trust the material to stand on its own two feet, trust the actors to do their job and explore the complexity of their character, trust the audience to follow lines that are more than three sentences long, it can still have you on the edge of your seat. You should still find yourself wanting to call out to Macbeth not to trust the witches or listen to his wife, just as much as you should want to yell at Ned Stark not to try the reasonable approach on Cersei Lannister. If the work has been done to get you to invest in the character, there doesn’t have to be a whole lot of action going on to make you care about what happens to them.

The reason I use Macbeth as an example is because he’s the protagonist in a tragedy, which means audiences went in knowing that things weren’t going to end well for him. I’m going to steer clear of calling him a tragic hero because I know it’s debatable whether he actually has a tragic flaw or not, but he’s definitely the protagonist and it’s definitely a tragedy. Original audiences, seeing Macbeth’s hands covered in Duncan’s blood, would not have supposed that the play would end with him and his wife gazing contentedly at their first grandchild. Macbeth is fucked. They knew it, we know it. The only questions are how it happens and what we learn along the way.

Nowadays it’s difficult to use dramatic inevitability without being accused of being formulaic. I think that’s often a mistake. Formulaic plots can provide an excellent structure within which to explore and/or subvert our expectations of characters. They allow developing writers to build up an understanding of how plot twists and moments of epiphany can be earned rather than shoehorned in as Deus ex Machina. Recognisable structures give audiences a familiar base which can be a stepping-off point for exploring the unfamiliar, which is why we continue to tell fairy tales and reinvent them as we get older.

“You have to learn the rules before you can break them” is a cliche that everyone who has ever been a young artist will have hated at some point. It’s all the more annoying for being true. That’s why I’m particularly curious about creative people who hate spoilers and won’t discuss films, books and TV shows for fear of them. I find myself wondering whether that’s reflected in their own work – do they then understand the structures they’re working within or against? Do they want to understand them, or is a refusal to embrace the spoilers indicative of a wider unwillingness to learn the rules? Or at least to identify them – I’ve never been a fan of ‘learning the rules’ but when it comes to narrative structure and storytelling it didn’t feel like that, it just felt like learning the names for things I’ve always understood intuitively.

I honestly don’t know. But I do agree with Mark that there are certain dangers in allowing other people’s wish to remain unspoiled to dominate discussions of arts and entertainment, and I know that I’d like to hear other people’s views on this. Do spoilers ruin things for you? Do you tune out if the plot twists aren’t coming thick and fast? Do character studies leave you cold? And if you’re an artist yourself, how does your attitude towards these things tie in with the work you create?