Much Ado About “Much Ado”

Our last night in London could very easily have been a very depressing and melancholy affair. Instead, our class spent the night watching Much Ado About Nothing at the Globe Theater, and we were able to end our trip on a high note.

Much Ado lives and dies by its cast. The play itself is very strong, and finding the right chemistry amongst the actors is the key to making the text and language come alive. The Beatrice and Benedick we saw (played by Emma Pallant and Simon Bubb) were both especially charming in the performance. Bubb’s physical awkwardness and quirky habits made Benedick an endearing source of continual comedy. Meanwhile, Pallant was wonderfully snarky and incredibly likable as Beatrice. The pair had very good chemistry with each other, which made their long anticipated kiss at the end especially satisfying for the whole audience. Aside from the two leads, the other actors were good, but none were exceptional in my opinion. I was impressed, however, by the musical talent of the entire cast. The addition of music between scenes and during transitions helped liven the mood of the entire play even further. Musical segments were a good compliment to the overall energy of the play. The prominent use of an accordion (played the actress who was Hero) was a fun and quirky way to give the music a unique flair.

One other thing that I was especially struck by during the performance is how engaged the audience was in the play. The reactions from the audience and gallery were audible during key scenes of the play. For example, there were loud gasps when Claudio confronted Hero in the first wedding scene, nervous anticipation as Margaret and Hero approached the hiding Beatrice with a washbasin full of water, and cheers of approval when Beatrice and Benedick finally came together at the end of the play. The atmosphere inside the Globe last night was perfect, as everyone shared their enjoyment of the play together. In fact, the audience enjoyed the play so much that the actors were called back to the stage for a bow three additional times! That kind of atmosphere is unique to the Globe, and made it the perfect theater venue for Much Ado. The Royal Shakespeare Company theaters can be a bit too formal, and the National Theater seems to distance the performance from its audience, but the Globe welcomes its theatergoers into the same arena as the actors on-stage.

Overall, I think our whole class agreed that it was a very good performance and a great way to have spent our last night in London. I don’t know if this will be the final post on our blog or not, but in case it is, I will end with a section from the William Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

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A Day at the Museum

As a class, we’ve seen some pretty impressive sights during our stay in London. Hampton Court Palace, Westminster Abbey, the Globe Theater, Big Ben, Tower of London… The list goes on and on. We have travelled across the city (and some across the country) to see some of the most breath taking sights and remarkable experiences that England has to offer. In my personal opinion, one of the most exciting locations has also been the one that is closest to our flats: the British Museum.

The British Museum is an enormous collection of world history and culture, with exhibits representing various countries and civilizations throughout history. Each section is like a small snapshot of other places from around the globe (and I don’t mean the theater). I was especially struck by the enormous Egypt sections, which occupy several rooms across two different floors. The British Museum is home to an impressive collection of ancient tools and other curiosities, including the famous Rosetta Stone. There are also a number of mummies and skulls on display for visitors to observe. The thought of exhuming the long-buried body of a dead person for dissection and later public display is a morbid thought, but the knowledge that was gained by such practices is substantial.

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Along with the skulls and mummies, Egyptian art and architecture are well represented. In the downstairs section of the exhibit there are enormous monuments and sculptures evident of the civilization’s impressive artistic accomplishments. One particular object of note to me is a large stone sarcophagus covered in hieroglyphics. Detailed carvings cover every inch of the enormous stone slab. I can only imagine how much time it would have taken to complete such a marvelous piece. To that end, I also thought it quite ironic that many Egyptian workers must have spent their entire lives preparing for death, whether it was by carving sarcophagi, building tombs and pyramids, or taking care of other necessary preparations for ritual burials.

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It’s a shame that so many American museums charge admission fees, as free admittance to the British Museum greatly added to its appeal. Being able to walk down the street and walk right in made the museum a great way to spend free time on a lazy day in London. I also believe that items with great historical or cultural significance should be readily accessible and available to the public, and I think the British Museum is a wonderful collection of knowledge that is willing to share itself with society as a whole.

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A Wicked Woman in Titus Andronicus

When I first read Titus Andronicus, I pictured Tamora as a character whose actions were somewhat justified as a result of the suffering she had endured by the hands of Titus and his fellow Romans. After her pleas of mercy on behalf of her eldest son had fallen on deaf ears, she was emotionally hardened and became a cold-blood manipulator hell-bent on avenging both her murdered son and her people. This characterization of Tamora somewhat complicates the play, as the character who might be seen as a straightforward antagonist becomes a sympathetic character. However, a portrayal of Tamora within this framework would be extremely discordant with the over-the-top, Quentin Taratino-esque stylistic decisions made by director Lucy Bailey in the Globe Theater’s production of Titus Andronicus. The Tamora in this performance, played by Indira Varma, downplayed many of the sympathetic or positive attributes of her character to make Tamora more traditionally antangonistic. Varma’s Tamora is less of a cunning and manipulative woman filled with bloodlust, and could perhaps more accurately be described as an evil seductress who relishes in her own misdeeds.

The relationship between Tamora and Matthew Needham’s Saturninus in the play reflects many of the attributes of the characters that were simplified for this more comedic production. For example, Tamora does not control Saturninus using superior intellect or cunning, but simply her feminine charms. Needham’s Saturninus is an arrogant, immature emperor who seeks approval for his own actions. On several occasions, he laughs at his own jokes, or even gestures for the audience/other characters around him to also appreciate his humor. Saturninus is an arrogant playboy who seems quite full of himself. This portrayal enables the character of Saturninus to seem even more easily manipulated by Tamora than in the text. She does not need superior logic or reason to appeal to his senses, but simply must use her charm to appeal to him physically and emotionally. Varma’s Tamora does so, by embracing Saturninus or kissing him when trying to convince him that she is right. Tamora’s status as a seductress and evil empress is also further emphasized when she meets up with Aaron in the forest. The display of affection between the two downplays respect and emotional love between the two characters in favor of physical desire and lust. The two take turns lying on top of one another and engaging in sexual behavior.

TITUS ANDRONICUS, Shakespeare's Globe, Bankside, London, UK.

Much like her husband, Tamora at times seems to relish her own perceived cleverness. After the body of Satruninus’s brother Bassanianus is discovered, Tamora delivers the lines “What, are they in this pit? O wondrous thing! How easily murder is discovered” in total mock surprise. More importantly, Tamora is confident and bragging about her ability to control Saturninus in several asides to the audience. These addresses lack the venom that one would expect from someone who is desperately seeking revenge and has been forced to marry the emperor of the Romans who slaughtered her own people and son. The delivery suggests that Tamora seems to relish her evil deeds rather than carrying them out with the sole justification of revenge. Tamora’s most heinous and unjustifiable of these evil deeds in the play occurs when she demands that her sons Demetrius (Samuel Edward-Cook) and Chiron (Brian Martin) carry out the rape and dismemberment of Titus’s daughter Lavinia (Flora Spencer-Longhurst). The delivery of the repeated line “away with her” several times in this scene reflects an adamant desire to inflict as much suffering on Lavinia as possible. However, based on her body language while Lavinia pleas with her, it seems that Tamora does have an underlying sense of guilt. This guilt almost seems to make the character seem more malicious, as it suggests that she has not been blinded by revenge enough to believe that such a crime would be justified.

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In addition to the displays of self-satisfaction and feminine sexuality, director Lucy Bailey also seemed to emphasize another aspect of Tamora’s character. Despite praising her own “high-wit,” many of Tamora’s decisions seem to be made hastily and as a result of emotion rather than her cunning and logical planning. For example, the order she gave to the nurse to kill her child seems to have been a desperate and emotional decision. Although Tamora herself is not seen on-stage, the nurse’s own panic suggests that Tamora was in a similar state of distress. The utter fear of having her affair discovered (and thereby putting herself in danger) caused her to make a rash decision without actually conferring with Aaron himself about the matter. Tamora’s planning seems to be equally flimsy towards the end of the play when she decides to haunt Titus as the spirit of Revenge, along with her sons dressed as Rape and Murder. In the text, Tamora declares that she has no plan to take advantage of Lucius being invited to a dinner, by saying that she will simply “find some cunning practice out of hand.” The comedic portrayal of the haunting scene and the lack of composure by Tamora and her sons during it highlight the ridiculousness of the plan itself. Such a decision would seem out of character for someone who is a ruthless and cunning manipulator our for revenge, but the scene feels more in-line with the rest of the play’s characterization of Tamora as an almost arrogant and comedic woman.

Despite my initial perceptions and desires for the character of Tamora, Indira Varma’s version of the character still had her own unique charm. Her confidence and wicked delight in the pursuit of vengeance gave her an appeal similar to that of a Disney villainess. Ultimately, downplaying Tamora’s character had not effect on the overall reception of the Titus Andronicus itself. The performance managed to be just as full of violence, bloodshed, and revenge as any theater-goer would expect.

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“This charm dissolves aspace.” -Tempest, 5.1.64

Yesterday afternoon Annie and I went to the Warner Brothers Studio for The Making of Harry Potter Tour. Before we got to the studio, I was actually a little bit nervous that the tour would ruin the magic of Harry Potter. Instead, it more than doubled my respect for the film versions of Harry Potter. I was always one of the die hard J.K. Rowling fans. No one else will ever experience the Harry Potter books the same way that we did, waiting for each one to be released and growing up with Harry, Ron, and Hermione. I can distinctly remember having the newest book delivered to my door from Amazon the morning it was released and spending the next three days reading nonstop. I can remember going through the initial phase in second grade when I did not know how to pronounce Hermione’s name because the world didn’t know yet. I cannot imagine growing up in a world where the secrets have been revealed. Since I have such a strong alliance to the books, obviously I tended to enjoy the movies but never quite as much as the books. They often left out important sections and they got some of the details wrong (I distinctly remember reading about a tall skinny Uncle Vernon in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone). Heading into the studio tour, Annie and I worried that the knowledge would ruin the magic for us, ruin the secrets of how they faked the magic and make Hogwarts seem less real.

some original costumes for a few professors

some original costumes for a few professors

We were happily surprised. In fact, the tour only confirmed the incredible work that Warner Brothers achieved when they produced an entire world around Harry Potter after the one created by J.K. Rowling. Seeing interviews with the producer who first decided she loved the first book, the one who made the decision that it should become a movie was very powerful. The thing that struck me the most about the studio tour was that all of the magical elements: the numbers of wands in Ollivander’s, the basilisk, the dragons in the Goblet of Fire all seemed like computer generated effects. For some reason I always just assumed that modern technology created all of these things. In reality, the majority of them were actually created, by hand, by the members of the crew working on the films. They actually built a basilisk. The door that opens the Gringotts vault is a functioning, mechanical door. The art department made 2,500 individual copies of the Quibbler with unique titles. All of the portraits in Hogwarts were painted by artists specifically for these films (many of which feature members of the film crew, the director’s family, etc.) and they are enhanced by CGI. Each of the vials in the Potions classroom were made individually, by hand, labeled by hand, and filled with substances by hand (some of which had to be created specifically for this movie). In Dumbledore’s office, all of the strange gadgets were created for these films. We learned that the films used over 100,000 individual props. There really is a world behind Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling created it in a beautifully genius way and Warner Brothers produced this world with integrity and care. The movie industry should be this way. The productions should be organic, individual, personal. Warner Brothers got it right.

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The Door to the Chamber of Secrets

The Door to the Chamber of Secrets

 

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The Performance Review That I Didn’t Write

So, because I did two character studies for my first two performance reviews, I decided to branch out and do something different for the third. That one being posted, I wanted to point out a few things I thought about Kate Fleetwood’s Goneril.

  1. A really, really great performance
  2. Interestingly, in the interview in the program, SRB says (paraphrasing here) once Lear rejects Goneril and she rejects him, she is on the path to suicide. I hadn’t really thought about her arc in the text, but that’s just all kinds of interesting, to make that statement.
  3. That hair and wardrobe
  4. Apparently, Mary Cattermole has daddy issues that her new husband doesn’t know about

I generally like Goneril anyway, but I definitely had more sympathy for her than I did for, say, Regan or Cordelia. One choice that I didn’t agree with, however, was the decision to have Albany choke her in the 4.2 fight. I felt like that was inconsistent with his pacifist, slightly wimpy character, especially because Goneril calls him out for being “milk-livered”. Still, I thought Albany was well played as well. (He can get a little too bland and ineffective in some productions. In this one, though, I felt like I could respect him but also understand why his relationship with Goneril had broken down, and even comprehend some of his blindness and the bad decisions he makes.)

I think my main problem with Lear (I’ve expressed this to several people before) was not that any of the individual performances were bad (though I do think Cordelia was a little weak), but that the sum of the parts added up to less than the whole. I just felt “whelmed” about the play, and so, ironically, my favorite play of the lot that we’ve seen (barring an amazing Much Ado tomorrow) is Titus, even though I couldn’t even watch the entire play.

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“It is a damned and bloody work; The graceless action of a heavy hand.” -King John, 4.3.57-8

The Globe’s performance of Titus Andronicus certainly opens up a lot of questions about society, especially war and violence. However, it also emphasized violence against and their reactions to this violence, which brought out important aspects of the role of women in Titus Andronicus. I found the role of women particularly important and extremely shocking in this production. Women in this production are almost always victims of violence, sometimes participate in violence, and are almost always sexualized in Titus Andronicus. Although several women are tortured violently and cruelly sexually assaulted, the actors playing these women do not play them as hopeless victims. Indira Varma, who played Tamora, developed the complexities of her character’s emotions and actions in her reaction to the violence incurred against her son. Although she is certainly exploited as a mother, she does not become a victim. She channels her victimization into action, becoming an assaulter and a violent character herself. Indira’s performance did not do this in a way that abandoned Tamora’s womanhood, however, a dichotomy difficult to achieve when portraying a villainous woman. In contrast to this portrayal of women, Flora Spencer-Longhurst’s impactful performance as Lavinia successfully reveals the emotional and physical destruction that results from the gruesome violence against women in Titus Andronicus without uttering a word.

In Act I Scene I of Titus Andronicus, the Romans sacrifice Tamora’s son’s life. Tamora, Queen of the Goths, begs Titus for mercy and pleads with him to spare her son’s life. Indira Varma’s performance in this role highlights the immense pain that haunts a mother after her son’s slaughter. In the Q&A session with Indira Varma after the performance, she explained that she hates when actors cry on stage. Indira argues that a successful performance should portray the emotions through the words themselves and the physical manifestations of those words, without the inclusion of fake crying. According to Indira, if you’re a good enough actor you do not need to resort to crying as a technique. This comment from Indira sums up her performance as Tamora very well. When the Romans are threatening her son’s life, she does not go into hysteria but the audience immediately understands the immediacy of her pain and sorrow. Tamora mourns her son’s death briefly, but instead of acting victimized she launches into a campaign for revenge against the Romans. Indira’s performance of Tamora highlights how the sacrifice of her son’s life fuels her revenge, but Indira does not play a sorrowful or weak woman. In this revival performance of Titus Andronicus, Tamora seems strong and powerful, a woman with a goal to achieve and a means to achieve it.

Lavinia represents a very different type of woman, Roman rather than a Gothic, and reveals an alternative reaction to the violence incurred against her in The Globe’s Titus Andronicus. At the start of the play, Lavinia’s life is essentially the antithesis of Tamora’s. Lavinia, the daughter of Titus Andronicus, initially requested to be the empress but saved, dwells in innocence. Instead, Tamora becomes empress in Lavinia’s place. Later in the play, however, Lavinia also becomes a victim of violence. Tamora’s sons, Demetrius and Chiron, attack and rape Lavinia. Following this act, the brothers cut off Lavinia’s hands and cut out her tongue so that she could not speak of her attackers. Flora Spencer-Longhurst’s performance as Lavinia was extremely traumatizing, but also moving. It was incredible how shattered Lavinia’s character seemed when she came out onto the stage, mutilated, unable to move, unable to speak. It was not even the blood coming from her body that disturbed me, but the pure emotional trauma that Lavinia endured. Her innocence destroyed, her body ravished. The physical manifestation of this pain was apparent, despite Lavinia’s inability to vocalize the brutality of it the way that Tamora does in the first scene. Flora embodied this representation of Lavinia extremely well, adding to the theme of violence against women that Tamora also endures. Although Tamora and Lavinia’s violent experiences are different, they both endure violent actions that stand out in the production. Many men are brutally murdered in Titus Andronicus, but the violence against these two women stands out in this production because of the exceptional performance of these two actors and the extreme brutality and cruelness of the violence they endure. Although they experience different types of violence and react alternatively, they are connected to each other because of the brutality they have experienced as women.

In the beginning of Titus Andronicus, Lavinia seems to be the complete antithesis of Tamora. These characters are really the only important female characters in the play. They live among men and they live among violence and murder, but they endure greater violence and brutality than any of the other characters. The violence against the women is more traumatic than the murdering of the men because it comes with disturbance and cruelty. Indira Varma and Flora Spencer-Longhurst display the reactions to this violence in their characters uniquely, but they remain connected to each other because of their endurance. In the Q&A session, I asked Indira Varma if she felt like her character, Tamora, had any remorse for the rape of Lavinia. Initially, it enraged me that a woman (even with a motive) could ever witness the gruesome rape and destruction of another woman. Indira’s answer shed immense light on the situation as she explained that after Tamora’s son is killed, she has only one goal in mind. She must avenge his death. She must destroy Titus and the Romans. In order to do this successfully, Tamora had to sacrifice Lavinia. This still does not seem morally acceptable, but Indira also revealed that during rehearsal she realized that Tamora repeats over and over “away with her” to her sons before they attack Lavinia. Indira felt that this was Tamora’s desperate attempt to just get her away and get it over with, because although she saw the grossness of the act her sons were about to perform she did not see another way to avenge her son’s death. Despite the many differences that Tamora and Lavinia’s characters grapple with, both women endure significant emotional trauma. They are both women who are targeted by society because of their position as women. They are sexualized (Lavinia by Tamora’s sons and Tamora by her relationship with Aaron) and they recognize each other’s pain in secret.

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Maturation instead of Manipulation

Critics remain unsure whether or not All’s Well That Ends Well can be categorized as a comedy due to the seemingly unhappy end for Bertram at the hands of the manipulative Helena. A director of this play can choose to create a production in which a genuine transformation occurs within the characters or create a rendition in which Bertram helplessly accepts his unwanted fate. Sunil Shanbag chooses to place All’s Well That Ends Well in Guajarati without subtitles, and the play effectively and impressively loses all of its ambiguity. While Shanbag possesses at least two greatly varying cultural audiences, both groups leave the theater believing in Bertram and Helena’s love because each character significantly changed throughout the course of the play. Because this plot would seem more culturally acceptable to his Indian audiences, he can guide them through the play using humor and music, but since many of the English seekers would still find the ending unsettling, Shanbag utilizes extremely simple plot explanations for each scene and portrays both characters as foolish, naïve, and in need of great personal growth. Ultimately, Shanbag glazes over the uncertainty in this play through manipulating the text so that each culturally distinct audience identifies Bharatram and Heli as naïve and disillusioned at the beginning of the play rather than the relatively flat characters which appear in Shakespeare’s text.

Through characterizing Bharatram as a young man who desires adventure rather than a man mourning his father who solemnly goes off to war, Shanbag creates a subtle plot switch which can be understood by both cultures. While at first this may seem like a relevant, modern alteration to send Bharatram to the city instead of war, this change is significant because it alters the textual understanding of Bertram as a brave and dutiful son. In the text, Bertram’s first words demonstrate his respectfulness and sense of responsibility because he decides to leave his mother in mourning in order to fulfill his duty to the king. He tells his mother, “And I am going, madam, weep o’er my father’s death anew; but I must attend his majesty’s command, to whom I am now in ward, evermore in subjection” (1.1 2-5). This speech demonstrates Bertram’s loyalty to both his family and king. Because Bertram says “evermore in subjection” he appears to completely accept his duty to the king. He fails to complain or protest as he informs his mother of his departure. Rather than have Bertram go off to war as in the text, Shanbag chooses to send him off to the big city. In this decision, Bharatram loses all of his maturity and instead becomes a selfish adolescent who desires to forge his own passage in life. This alteration in Bharatram’s character, in the beginning, sets the play up for his transformation and eventual unambiguous love for Heli.

In addition to the textual shift in Bertram’s character, the actor portrays Bertram as a foolish and selfish man who remains oblivious to the naïve Heli’s love through his theatricality. Rather than appear noble and brave, Bharatram exudes over-confidence and ignorance as he says good bye to Heli. He stands with his feet wide apart with his hands on his hips and chin up. He wears traditional Indian clothing and remains completely oblivious to Heli’s love. Her naivety can be understood through her clenched fists and the way she looks up at Bharatram as he discusses his departure. His eyes become comically big throughout the discussion while Heli appears pathetic and subservient as she watches him throughout the scene. The caption states, “she hopes he will come back” and eventually Heli allows her emotions to surface once she begins to cry. At this point, Bharatram angrily paces and walks around the stage while Heli eventually holds her head and gasps her throat as if extremely despondent due to his exit. Throughout the second portion of the scene, the caption reads, “he seems oblivious to her feelings of love.” The captions in this scene reduce Heli to a hopelessly love-struck girl and Bharatram to a stupid and oblivious boy. The Guajarati speakers in the audience laughed throughout the scene which confirmed Bharatram’s absurdity and Heli’s genuine efforts to reveal her love. Through using theatrical humor and simple subtitles, the Gujarati and English speaking audience viewed this couple as adolescent figures in need of experience and intellectual growth.

Similarly to Bertram’s character, Shanbag creates a textual and theatrical deviation from Shakespeare’s work through both the actress’s portrayal of Heli and the subtitles presented in her initial scenes. Rather than appear as a pragmatic heroine, Shanbag presents Heli as a wide-eyed virgin oblivious to the realities of love. In Shakespeare’s text, Helena and Parolles enter into a witty repartee about virginity after she declares her love for Bertram in a heart-felt soliloquy, but Shanbag chooses to turn this speech into a happy song. She appears the epitome of girlish love as she twirls around the stage, looks around longingly, and lies dreamily on the stage. Happy music prevails throughout this song while musicians sit on stage, also in traditional Indian attire, while Heli dances alone. The caption in this scene states, “Heli sings about the awakening of her heart to love.” This parallels the content of her speech in Shakespeare’s text, but the conversation which immediately ensues is extremely different.

In the production, the subtitle throughout the scene between Heli and Parolles reads, “Heli is offended by his insensitivity and crude views on love.” However, in the text, Heli candidly responds to Parolles and accepts his lewd comments through asserting that Bertram will take her virginity. She states, “Not my virginity yet…/There shall your master have a thousand loves,/ A mother, and a mistress, and a friend,/ a phoenix, captain, and an enemy,/ A guide, a goddess, and a sovereign,/ A counselor, a traitress, and a dear” (1.1 165-170). This is the first speech within the conversation between Parolles and Helena which is spoken in verse. This reflects Helena’s heightened sense of awareness and controlled use of her words. Unlike the hopelessly romantic girl Shanbag presents, Helena confidently asserts her plan to seduce Bertram through any means possible. Through stating “there shall your master have a thousand loves” in reference to her virginity, she accepts Parolles’s crude discussion and certainly fails to be offended by his insensitivity as described in the subtitle. If anything, Helena illustrates an insensitive character as she lists all the negative and positive relationships she will have with Bertram. The extensiveness of this list of roles represents her desire to gain Bertram through any means possible.

I enjoyed this production of All’s Well That Ends Well because I believe it took a bold interpretation of the text which eliminated the ambiguity at the end. Bharatram and Heli developed into characters amidst the modern Indian back drop. The simple lighting and staging used throughout the production augmented the lighthearted approach to the play. The mixture in costumes between western and traditional Indian clothing seemed to mirror the transitions within the characters which Shanbag desired to present. Through simplifying the scenes to a couple of sentences, Shanbag guided the audience to see Heli and Bharatram as young and selfish characters who would grow to love each other in a less naïve way. While it might have been nice to have more of the script translated, the upbeat tone of the musical pieces accentuated the romantic comedy feel Shanbag sought out for the end of the play and he effectively turned a problem play into a romance between two selfish characters who matured and found love.

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A Case for a Minimal Lear

It is immediately apparent from the first scene of the National Theatre’s production of King Lear that the inspiration for the time period is the height of the Soviet era. There is a constant military presence: soldiers flank various scenes on all sides attired in modern military dress, and even carouse in Goneril’s hall. But most tellingly, Lear enters like a dictator; his request for flattery is apparently an official matter. He sits with his back to the audience and one reviewer likens him to a conductor, orchestrating the event that is the beginning of the end. Lear appears not so much as an aged, Shakespearean king, but a deranged leader straight from the annals of tyranny. However, the decision to reference such an epic time period, enhanced by epic set pieces and effects, detracts from the human heartbreaks and intricacies of the fall of Lear.

Lear’s madness is made all the more apparent through juxtaposition of his present madness with his former greatness. For example, when Kent is put in the stocks, he is actually chained to a Stalinist statue of Lear, immortalized in all his former glory. Even from the beginning Lear’s decline is very much a state matter, with his cavalry, family, and officials bearing witness to his initial breakdown. His dress is militaristic, echoing his past as a military leader, but his physicality is far less virile, and he looks more like Santa Claus than Stalin by this point. The staging is essential for imparting this impression. Lear faces his daughters, officials, and soldiers, his back to the audience. A microphone is placed redundantly (he obviously needs no volume enhancement) before him—the whole scene is reminiscent of a State-of-the-Union speech or press conference. However, he is also seated, placing him lower than the others and providing a visual reminder of his deterioration. At one point he very obviously sits in the midst of his rising anger, as if the exertion is too much. The second intriguing bit of staging is when he flips several tables and chairs. This temporarily restores some of his power (everyone flinches in fear) but this brief glimpse at a once fearsome leader is once again subverted when he makes Cordelia stand on a chair after her refusal to fawn. A reviewer likens this to a punishment for a naughty schoolgirl, and praises the absurdity of the juxtaposition. While the contrast certainly affirms the absurdities of Lear’s demands, the nature of juxtaposition means that the two elements—the epic and the intimate—are in conflict. While some may argue that this is the genius of King Lear, in this particular production one overshadows the other.

While the epic is present in the play, the frequency with which the production inserts it into the play undermines certain intimacies present in the text. The most prominent example is the score, which consists mostly of undulatory, screeching violins. While this is perfectly acceptable, the frequency is a problem. Almost every other scene is punctuated by a dramatic piece of music, taking away from its intended impact; other sounds also detract from the actors’ performances. Planes fly overhead, and along with sounds of thunder, drown out dialogue. The technical coup de grace, Lear and the fool’s ascent onto an elevated sliver of the stage, is astonishing due to its novelty—however, the mechanical clank when it comes down is not. The rotating stage, while symbolizing the constant machinations of fortune’s wheel, distracts, once again, with the frequency with which it turns. It happens so often that it seems there is a pattern, undermining the chaos and lack of divine justice present in Lear’s world. One instance of the mechanical stage being used effectively is the cliff scene. A portion of the stage is raised about a foot, a subtle utilization of technology that enhances the absurdity and heartbreak that underlies Edgar fooling his father. Technical fireworks overshadow emotional fireworks, effectively ridding the play of the cognitive dissonance between epic punishments for personal misdeeds.

The last insertion of the epic that misfires is the ending. When Lear brings in Cordelia’s body, it is essentially the final stroke in a deadly design that brings a king and his country to his knees. However, the stage is already littered with bodies, distracting from the heartbreak caused by Cordelia’s death. While this is arguably an attempt to show the magnitude of destruction, what should be a touching demonstration of their special bond is merely the centerpiece of a grisly tableau. This is the final break from the thread of familial drama that should run through King Lear.

I am incredibly biased in favor of the RSC, so this production of Lear was somewhat too much. It was incredibly entertaining, but theatre is a different medium from film for several important reasons. The lack of possible special effects allows the audience to use their imaginations, which are much more effective than any machinery. Actors also benefit because the lack of flash seems to allow them to access more fundamental depths of emotion. For example, Ian McKellan’s Lear gave his heath speech on a stage that was empty. There was no music, no flashing lightning—only a lack of sound; it seemed like the audience was holding its breath until he finished. Beale’s Lear seemed a little overwhelmed. Another thing that has been controversial is the death of the fool. While I find it an extremely inventive explanation for his disappearance, I was also heartily reminded of several Korean thrillers I’ve seen which seem to delight in devising the most violent, bloody ends for its characters. All said and done, the flashes and bangs distracted me too much from the family problems. The fact that the maiming of Gloucester takes place in a more minimal space than Cordelia’s death bothers me. However, my qualms could simply reflect a fault of my own—maybe I’m just not advanced enough to process so many stimuli on top of emotional wreckage. Finally, our seats could certainly have been a disadvantage. While I am grateful that we got them in the first place, being so far away was like being in an arena concert, expect the cast was no Journey. It couldn’t fill the space.

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Just Cut the D***ed Thing Already

King Lear is a long play. Because there are 300 lines cut from the Quarto to the Folio (with only 100 of those lines replaced), we know that even Shakespeare thought King Lear was too long. The best evidence for such a pronouncement, however, is in performance. The main drag on the narrative in the National Theatre’s production of King Lear is the strict fidelity to the conflated text, which is exasperated by the use of a proscenium stage and its associated acting tropes.

Act Four, scene three is a prime example of a scene that seems perfecting fine while reading but is lacking when it gets up on stage. In the quarto version of the play, there are several aside conversations between Kent and various messengers that remind the reader and the audience of the war at large, and that signal the return of Cordelia before she is seen again onstage. The largest meeting of this kind comes in the middle of Act Four, right after the fight between Albany and Goneril and Cordelia’s reentrance. This scene’s primary function in the narrative is to paint the political scenery of the play. For a play based on historical events, and one with significant levels of political intrigue besides, King Lear is surprisingly bereft of battles. We know that Cordelia’s French forces lose, but the only fights on stage are personal fights, mostly involving Edgar or Oswald (or both, in the case of the latter’s untimely death). In a production deeply focused on the way in which the political and the personal intertwine, such a lack is surely a sore spot. By keeping the scene in, Mendes adds in yet another reminder that there is a war going on amongst all this personal turmoil.

No doubt these were the original intentions of such a scene. Yet the scene undermines validity within the narrative because it offers very little to those personal details that are the lifeblood of the play. For as much as this production would like you to believe otherwise, King Lear is not a realistic play about a political reality that was or could someday be. It is a play that, much like the Elizabethan lack of elaborate staging, is much more about imagination and abstraction. The play does not present the warring armies on stage because they ultimately have only incidental relevance to the story. The scene ought to be cut because it draws the reader out of the individual storylines without offering much in return. The scene itself has no internal tension or conflict, making it uninteresting to watch. Even with good intentions, the conversation simply slows everything down too much, especially coming not too far after the intermission and two fascinating scenes. It even falls into the pitfall of telling the audience how a character behaves before that character appears on stage to show us.

This production also leaves intact the “trial” scene in Act three, scene ### (which, in this production, will probably be remembered more as the scene where Lear bludgeons the Fool to death). While I have several qualms about the scene and how it was presented in this production, I would like to again point out the difference between a scene that reads well and a scene that plays well. This trial is a mockery of the first scene, and it showcases nicely how far Lear has fallen and how emotionally and mentally distressed he is. In performance, it is a scene that showcases Lear yelling at a joint stool and not following the directions of people who have his best interests at heart but rather playing around with the “mad” Edgar. This right after a scene of Lear not listening to people who have his best interests at heart but rather being overly concerned with the “mad” Edgar, and that scene comes after a scene of Lear yelling at the weather. (Act three, in general, is very repetitive when it comes to the king on the heath. We get it. Lear has gone crazy. It’s almost as if the play has his name in the title or something.)

This production attempts to make the scene more relevant and therefore justified, but ultimately fails because the great act of violence, Lear in his madness killing the Fool, offers very little substantial change to the play because the action is not carried through the rest of the scene, let alone the rest of the play. Because there are no consequences at all for Lear’s actions, the violence seems gratuitous and senseless, more fitting for a production of Titus than of Lear.

The problems in pacing are made more apparent because the Olivier Theatre is a classic proscenium stage rather than a thrust one. This means that the audience is essentially separated from the action which creates a more passive viewing experience. In this case, this means that the play is divorced from the energy of the audience.  The pacing becomes more introspective, then, and, while this allows the actors to take more time to deliver their lines and ruminate in the meanings, it still extends the run time of the show significantly. Mendes seems to have made the stage choice consciously, as the program interview tells us, because he was looking to mirror the isolation that the characters in the play feel. While I certainly agree with that concept and find it a central theme in the play, I wonder if this relationship could be displayed in another way.

I love the Quarto. I think it’s much more interesting than the Folio, partially because of the politics, partially because I’m not the biggest fan of Lear himself and so I appreciate the focus on other characters, and partially because I like Albany better than Edgar. What this production proves, however, is that some scenes really are unperformable. Sometimes, strict fidelity must be cast aside in order to let the story shine through.

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Edmund’s Villainy in King Lear

Even during the interval of King Lear, I knew that I would be writing my performance review about Edmund. His character interested me the most; largely because the production’s interpretation of him was so different from what I’d anticipated. My expectations chiefly came from a workshop in Stratford-upon-Avon with director Gemma Fairlie. With her we looked at Edmund’s first monologue extensively, so we discussed his character as well. She told us that when casting Edmund, directors tend to choose an actor who’s “proper hot” – someone appealing that the audience can connect with, and to some extent, want to root for. Often there’s a turning point when he takes his villainy too far and the audience loses all sympathy for him.

The Edmund in Sam Mendes’s production, however, is entirely different – a villain through and through from beginning to end who never connects with the audience. Edmund appears in the first scene, and even before he speaks, his style of dress alone creates distance between him and everyone else, including the audience. He’s dressed perfectly in a very proper, conservative suit with slicked back hair and glasses, holding a briefcase, and standing stiffly upright. His brief, polite, but guarded answers to Kent forestall any human connection, and he’s so self-contained that even his hair is carefully controlled. Wearing glasses, while making him look intelligent, also indicates that he’s hiding his eyes, those windows to his true nature, from those around him.

His manner of dressing suggests a disguise – but what is he like when he’s alone? He’s not asking for sympathy from other characters, but he might yet in his monologue. However, Sam Troughton’s delivery of Edmund’s monologue doesn’t bring this extra dimension to his character. Although Edmund is now being open about his motivations and intentions, he still comes across as cold and reserved.

There’s potential for a wide range of emotion in the text, from jocularity to grief, but Troughton only portrays negative ones – anger, bitterness, and contempt. His volume and anger escalate as he asks, “Why brand they us / With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?” (1.2). But he’s a man who keeps himself under tight control, even when alone – he quickly recovers himself and delivers the next line more quietly and calmly. Instead of the monologue working to humanize Edmund, it shows his wicked nature. In fact, Edmund comes across as more human and likable when he’s deceiving his father and brother than when he speaks to the audience. He expresses doubt, reassures, speaks kindly – but it’s all an act. His coldness is his true identity.

Shortly after, his mockery of his father’s belief in astrology, while still funny, comes across as cruel, too. There’s so little warmth and humanity in him. It’s interesting that the production chose to so thoroughly vilify Edmund, particularly as the portrayal of Edgar would have made it so easy to sympathize with the bastard brother. I didn’t recognize Edgar as himself when he first enters; he looks almost homeless – slovenly dressed, unshaven, smoking, and carrying a bottle of wine. The contrast between him and the sharply-dressed, proper Edmund is all too apparent, and in this context, Edmund’s desire to usurp his brother makes perfect sense. On appearances alone, the audience would certainly side with Edmund. But the production doesn’t develop this comparison as much as they could; while Edgar eventually shapes up and pulls through as a hero, Edmund simply remains a villain from beginning to end.

Edmund’s costume evolves over the course of the play. He loses the glasses as he stops trying to hide his villainous nature. During his romantic interlude with Goneril, he wears an overcoat but no suit jacket or tie – no longer as strictly contained as he once was. Later he adds a secret police-style coat, as seen here with Regan, which rather neatly encapsulates his journey from only wanting the inheritance from his father, to his entanglements in politics and war with Goneril and Regan. His ambitions increase, but otherwise his character undergoes less of a journey than his wardrobe. This Edmund doesn’t change over the course of the play.

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Edmund’s death reveals how he remains fundamentally the same over the course of this production of King Lear, which simplifies his character from the text. Edmund’s final lines in which he tries to save Lear and Cordelia are cut; Sam Troughton’s thoroughly villainous Edmund never says the words, “Some good I mean to do” (5.3). It seems as though this production tries to minimize Edmund’s importance, as Edgar kills him quickly and without ceremony, even though their final fight has the dramatic potential of the confrontation between Hal and Hotspur.

In fact, if I could describe the characterization of Edmund in this production in two words, they would be “lost potential.” The text provides so many opportunities for Edmund’s character to be developed in interesting and complicated ways, but this production ignores them all, in some cases even cutting dialogue, to make him one-dimensional and uninteresting. Edmund could have easily been portrayed as a sympathetic underdog who only wants what he knows he deserves, his father’s inheritance, which, if he doesn’t receive, would go to his plainly irresponsible brother. The audience would start out on his side, if disapproving of his methods, and would slowly feel distanced from him as he begins to make more and more questionable decisions. There’s potential for a major turning point in his character when he decides to leave his father to be tortured by Cornwall. It would be much more powerful if he struggled and felt conflicted; he would be making the choice that puts him past the point of no return. Instead, this Edmund has no qualms making the decision and immediately exits, apparently without any conscience that could be troubled.

Perhaps Sam Mendes simply didn’t want to focus on Edmund; perhaps he felt that his character distracted from other, more important parts of King Lear. I just think it’s a shame that a character with such potential for rich and interesting development is simply written off as a villain all the way through.

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