Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Tale of Two Macbeths

Last year The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater (PST) presented a production of Macbeth. This fall, Wilma Theater is doing their own version. Both productions were excellent in terms of acting and directing, but completely different. This is one of the things I love best about Shakespeare--unlike Beckett or Shaw, directors and actors can play with the Shakespearean text and provide radically different experiences for their audiences. So I thought I'd compare a few key moments in the two productions. One note: the night I attended the Wilma's production Ed Swidey played Macbeth. His performance was quite extraordinary, but since most people will not see him, I won't comment on or compare the Macbeths.

The Supernatural: PST had a much reduced cast overall, so instead of three witches they had one, Mary Tuomanen in a shapeless black robe, with a veil over her face and a rattling staff. In contrast the Wilma's production (which was all in modern dress) featured witches dressed as homeless women, in rags and bruised faces.

The PST used a light hand with the supernatural elements--Banquo's ghost was not on stage and the apparitions were represented by flashpaper bursts. Instead, the focus was on Macbeth's reactions, and Ron Heneghan was more than up to the task of creating the visions for the audience through his voice and body. The one special effect PST did use was one not called for in the play--the basin of water the Macbeths (and eventually others) used to wash their hands in had a second, hidden, bowl of stage blood, so that people could variously be seen as purified or corrupted.

Theater companies often go overboard with the special effects in Macbeth but the Wilma managed to be elaborate and innovative. Instead of Macbeth traveling to see the witches, they swarmed into the castle on the heel of the banquet scene, tossing dishes to the floor and turning the soup tureen into their cauldron. When Macbeth appeared, they dragged him to the upper level and the apparitions appeared below, each actor clad in black but with a blacklight mask so that they appeared to be floating heads. The effect, especially with the addition of multiple overlapping voices, was quite powerful.

Music: Here I have to give the nod to the PST--the use of live music and exotic instruments created an entire world for the audience and made the performance much more powerful and intimate since the actors provided the soundscape. The Wilma's music was generally effective, although the mass like song that greeted Duncan's entrance at the opening of 1.4 seemed excessive. At no point, however, was it as powerful as that produced by the PST.

The Macbeths' relationship: Here is a place where the two companies overlapped a great deal. In both productions the deep affection between husband and wife was obvious in the early scenes, and Lady Macbeth's devotion to her husband's career was clear. Both productions showed the first cracks in their relationship early on, even before Banquo's death, and both productions demonstrated the loss of love through physical separation of the actors at the end of the banquet scene.

Both productions received high praise from those I went with--in one case a number of colleagues who, while academics, were not English professors and in the other an Introduction to Shakespeare class. In both cases, everyone commented how much seeing the play added to the understanding and enjoyment of reading it. It's perhaps an obvious point (being made on a theater company's blog) but Shakespeare wrote his plays to be seen and  heard, not read, and they really come alive best with a talented company of actors. Even films are second best to a live performance, so everyone should see as much live theater as possible (not that I'm biased).

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Favorite Shakespeare Films

Out of the overwhelming number of Shakespearean films and adaptations, which are the best? This is, of course, a highly personal and idiosyncratic list, but I hope it spurs discussion and additions to Netflicks cues!

1. Ran (adaptation of King Lear): Kurosawa also directed an adaptation of Macbeth (Throne of Blood) that is better known, but I'm choosing this one because of the staggeringly beautiful cinematography, the amazing battle scene and the depth of emotion Kurosawa creates.

2. Kenneth Branagh's Henry V, . As a Shakespeare scholar I'm supposed to prefer the Olivier version, but I absolutely think this one is better. I think Branagh's attempt to make a post-Vietnam, post-Falkland Islands, dark version of the play, and the fact that Henry still ends up admirable and heroic, exactly catches the complexity of Shakespeare's original (Norman's article "Rabbits, Ducks and Henry V" admirably explores how the play is both a heroic epic and a cynical expose, depending on where the viewer looks). Emma Thompson is adorable as Princess Katherine and Brian Blessed is having way too much fun. This is the film that rescued Shakespeare from the perception of being box office poison and created the 90s boom of Shakespeare films. Plus, it has the St. Crispian's Day speech.

3. Orson Welles' Othello. This highly personal, deeply interpretive view of the play does suffer from Welles playing Othello in blackface, but I still marvel at the surreal direction. This clip from the final scene demonstrates this--much of it is just Othello's face, emerging from the darkness, and there is no shot of him killing himself, just bodies falling. Mirror and reflections abound and this is one of the few films that I think finds a visual language as rich and complex as Shakespeare's textual one.

4. Michael Almereyda's Hamlet. Like Welles, Almeryda finds a visual language and symbolism that works with instead of against Shakespeare's text. The film is not just a modernized version of the play we all know too well; it's a thoughtful investigation on how media influences our reactions to events, even personal ones. Everyone is always watching, filming, reviewing and editing their experiences, unable to simply live them. Brilliant.

5. Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet. Okay, this is a sentimental pick! More than 50% of the verse is cut. It's hokey. It's got a ridiculous love song. No one can speak the lines. But it's so pretty! Everyone is beautiful, Italy is beautiful, the costumes are beautiful, and sometimes you just need to sit back and soak up some pure and unalloyed schmaltz. And if you're only up for five minutes of schmaltz, this Youtube video gives you all of the pretty and non of the mangling of Shakespeare's language.

So those are my top 5. Today at least. What are yours?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Some thoughts on Macbeth

This weekend I was at Fairleigh Dickinson University taking part in a day long colloquium on Macbeth. There were four talks given and I thought I would summarize and highlight some of the most interesting points.

The first paper, by Arthur Kinney, grappled with the question of why Macbeth remains appealing to audiences as a character, despite his murders. Kinney's argument is that Macbeth has more interiority than almost any of Shakespeare's characters--we the audience know what Macbeth thinks, his doubts, hopes and struggles, and this bonds us to him.

I gave the second talk, and argued that the Weird Sisters (side note: did you realize that these characters are never called witches in the play?) embody a kind of ambiguous fluidity that is opposed to the masculine world of Macbeth, where everything is ordered, structured and clearly labeled (even murder). After all, the Weird Sisters win in the end--everything they prophesied comes true and they are never called to account.

The third talk, by Steve Mentz was, to my mind, the most fascinating. He is engaged in the newest form of literary criticism--ecocriticism. This is a way of examining works of art through the lens of humanity's engagement with the natural world. Mentz argued that there is a "green world" of forests, a world of stability that is supportive of humanity (think of Birnam Wood) and a "blue world" of water, a world of instability that is either hostile to or simply inhospitable for humans. When he first started speaking, I wasn't sold, but by the end I was. I had no idea how many metaphors of water there were in Macbeth, from the "two spent swimmers" in 1.2 to Macbeth's request that the Doctor "sound the waters" of Scotland. Very impressive.

The final speaker, Iska Alter, spoke about the movie Scotland PA which is a wonderful adaptation of Macbeth. If you haven't seen it, it is well worth watching--Shakespeare's play is set in the 1970s in a fast food restaurant. The witches are dope smoking hippies and Macduff is a vegetarian police detective. In case you haven't see the movie, here's the trailer to whet your appetite!

In all, it was a wonderful colloquium that gave me some new thoughts about Macbeth and also made me remember the fantastic performance The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater did last year. The Wilma has a production of the Scottish play running now and I'm going to see it this Friday, so I'll be able to write up a comparative review soon.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Shakespeare in Five Minutes

Just for fun: an almost wordless, five minute run down of all of Shakespeare's works? Can't be done? Watch and see:


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