Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Katherine, Queen of England, come into the court!

During our recent reading of King Henry VIII, our president, Frances Dharmalingham, read the part of Queen Katherine with great sensitivity. She reports here on her experience and her "take" on the character of Katherine.

Knowing that it is a sought-after role, I was glad to be asked to take the part of Queen Katherine in the club's recent reading of King Henry VIII. Katherine appears in only four scenes of a long and complicated play, but still emerges as a fully rounded character, with strengths and frailties, and convincing indications of her background. Mulling over these qualities, I wondered how far they chimed with the historical person, so I referred to Antonia Fraser's thoroughly researched biography in her book, The Six Wives of Henry VIII. From this it was clear that the dramatic portrayal is remarkably faithful to the original.

Katherine of Aragon was the daughter of two royal personages, each a ruler in his or her own right. Ferdinand of Aragon had married Isabella, queen of Castile, and they reigned jointly, so inevitably Katherine from her earliest years was conscious of her heritage as a princess of a noble family. In the play there are frequent indications of this sense of the dignity of her position. Her upbringing was carefully supervised by her mother, who insisted on a broad education for all her children — academic, religious and (for the girls) domestic. Hence, Katherine was a competent linguist, who spoke Latin and French fluently, and after her marriage she learnt very good English. She could debate rationally with interlocutors of any standing, unintimidated by the trappings of power (as in her discussions with the great cardinals of the church). Although she was a devout Christian, she did not confuse religious dogma with the men who represented it; as she says in the play: ‘All hoods make not monks.’

Her beliefs required acts of charity for which she was much loved by the common people, who remembered particularly her donations on Maundy Thursday each year. We see in the play her concern also for her own attendants, when, for the second time in her life, she found herself husband-less and therefore poverty-stricken, unable to provide for her faithful women and servants. (The first such experience occurred in the seven years between the death of Prince Arthur and her eventual marriage to Henry.) Katherine was a skilled needlewoman and throughout her marriage sewed and embroidered Henry's fine linen shirts. Act III opens with a glimpse of Katherine and her women ‘at work’ sewing.

Her first appearance in the play reveals her strength, independence and awareness of the responsibilities of government. She is confident in her position as a loved wife and respected consort, daring to interrupt proceedings in the king's council chamber, to warn her husband of the common people's growing disaffection, thanks to the oppressive tax imposed by Wolsey. She is not afraid to imply some sympathy with Buckingham, despite the king's displeasure, and examines claims clear-eyed, without taking them on trust, as when she points out that Buckingham's surveyor had been dismissed from his post and therefore likely bore Buckingham a grudge.

In Act II, at her second appearance, Katherine's situation has changed and she is obliged to undergo the indignity of a trial, to determine grounds for a divorce. Given her upbringing, it is easy to believe that the idea of divorce is inconceivable to her, and she cannot agree to it, short of a direct order from the Pope. As well, she would no longer be queen if no longer married to Henry, but how can one who has been anointed in the eyes of God be ‘unqueened’, to use her own word? This scene contains the well-known appeal in which Katherine, dignified and articulate, puts her case before the king. It is an orderly and rational argument, presented without self-pity. Relevant points include the length of their marriage and her fidelity and loving devotion, and the fact that as a foreigner she is unlikely to find unprejudiced counsel. She refers also to their many children (although, sadly, only their daughter Mary had survived.) Her final point is a reminder that all due care had been taken prior to their wedding to ensure that it was legal.

As the scene continues, we have glimpses of anger, and she controls her temper with some difficulty as she makes perfectly clear her mistrust of Wolsey, the great prince of the church. ‘You are mine enemy, and (I) make my challenge / You shall not be my judge.’ This follows from ‘I am about to weep, but thinking that / We are a queen / (or long have dream'd so) certain / The daughter of a king, my drops of tears / I'll turn to sparks of fire.’

Several other short outbursts of temper, in all but the last scene, indicate Katherine's mettle, and prevent her from seeming implausibly good. She is basically so honest that she cannot lie, or sugar-coat her opinions, even when speaking of the dead. Her summary of Wolsey's character, on hearing of his death, is coolly exact and thoroughly unflattering, but immediately afterwards she is ready to allow Griffith to enumerate Wolsey's virtues.

Despite her reversals of fortune, she keeps up her courage to the end. She addresses one last letter to the king, seeking appropriate care for their daughter Mary, and for her attendants. The wording of this speech very closely echoes her actual last appeal to her ex-husband. Aware of her own impending death, she wishes to be buried ‘although unqueen'd, yet like a queen, and daughter of a king.’

I hope this is enough to indicate the rich depth of Katherine's character. For me, she emerges from the play convincing and thoroughly human, and someone with whom I can sympathise for her defenceless plight, while admiring her undaunted spirit.

The portrait of the young Katherine of Aragon, by Michel Sittow, is by courtesy of Wikimedia. This is a contemporary painting of the princess, created about the time she arrived in England. It can be found in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Bard Never Sleeps

There is always something Shakespearean going on somewhere in the world. At any hour of the day you may be sure that somewhere, people are reading, studying, watching, rehearsing or acting in some work of the Bard's.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has come up with a way for interested folk to get involved in this worldwide activity by instituting a free on-line Shakespeare course - Getting to Know Shakespeare. Lessons arrive via email and there are facinating online videos to watch, too.

Closer to home for those of us who live in Perth, Western Australia are two projected seasons of Shakespeare's plays. In January Shakespeare WA will present its annual Shakespeare in the Park season, with performances of The Tempest and A Comedy of Errors - with a bonus: that screamingly funny homage The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged)

Barely will that season end before the start of the Perth Festival, bringing performances of Henry V and A Winter's Tale by the all-male British company, Propeller.

Truly, we are much blessed! So much Bardic activity in an isolated city of only a million people demonstrates the amount of interest there is Shakespeare's work worldwide!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Jenny's report on the WA Opera Company's "Falstaff"

Visits to His Majesty’s Theatre in Hay Street, Perth for me are as rare as the proverbial hens’ teeth, so I was doubly delighted when Satima invited me to go there with her last Thursday for the WA Opera Chorus’s performance of Verdi’s Falstaff. (See her review, written as Carol Flavell Neist,on Artshub.) As I know little of opera – apart from enjoying the general public’s popular arias – I had nothing to compare this with and so went with a completely open mind, which could be an advantage of course.

Quite by a lucky coincidence, I had not long finished reading The Merry Wives of Windsor, and with it being a comedy as well, I knew we would be in for a happy evening. It was more than that, it was quite wonderful. From the moment in the opening tableau that we saw Sir John Falstaff himself, huge and gorgeously apparelled, carousing with his henchmen Pistol and Bardolph outside a wonderfully created old Garter Inn, we were hooked. From then on, we were taken on a giddy journey, exploring Shakespeare’s bawdy humour and sense of fun with clever costumes, sliding and revolving sets (including a snow machine for the magical Windsor Park setting at the end ),and tumbling athleticism as several of the characters ran up and down stairs, fell out of windows and in Falstaff’s case, got his great girth inside a laundry basket, to be lugged upstairs and tipped out of the window at the rear, presumably down into the canal beneath. All that and the glorious singing too! As Satima points out in her excellent review, there is hardly a word of Shakespeare himself to be found, but a very serviceable English translation of the Italian lyrics came up on two screens either side of the stage. My favourite was young Nannetta’s angry retort to the suggestion by her mother that the old French Dr Caius would be a good suitor for her: 'It is better to be stoned to death by a volley of cabbages than marry that fool'. (Shakespeare gives his English Anne the line, 'Alas! I had rather be set quick i’the earth, And bowl’d to death with turnips.')

The character of Falstaff, played with such obvious enjoyment by James Clayton, was all we could have hoped for (although I must admit I had somehow expected him to have a deeper voice) with his mincing gait, his ginger wig and his hilarious, over-the-top egotism. We can’t help a sneaking liking for him and are even prepared to forgive him when he wobbles his rump at the ladies and pats his huge stomach in self-satisfaction. All this made his eventual cringing and abject fawning in front of the fairies and goblins, who abused and chastised him in the woods, all the more poignant. Perhaps this physical punishment of Falstaff went on a little too long and too enthusiastically for a modern audience, but that’s a very small criticism for what was a hugely successful evening.

For regular Perth opera goers and socialites, this is obviously an “Occasion” in the calendar not to be missed – and why wouldn’t you go if you get the chance to put on the glad rags and partake of fine Margaret River wines, proffered around the bar on silver salvers! Some of the fashions wouldn’t disgrace well-known opera houses: all around us there were smart dinner jackets, cocktail dresses, and stoles, even one long, strappy, black tulle creation that swept the ground at the back in a sort of mini train. But whatever we came in didn’t matter, as we were all swept up in this romp, this “flourish of frivolity” as one reviewer aptly described it. So take a bow, Shakespeare, (with a nod to Verdi, Simon Phillips et al). You’ve done it again!

As a footnote, I can’t resist mentioning that I gave Satima a lift afterwards to Lake Street, Northbridge, where she is currently house-sitting, and our rather fraught peregrinations at gone 11.00 pm through the one-way system, which neither of us knew nor could recognize at that time of night, would have made a mildly amusing video. At the time it didn’t seem that funny, but afterwards I think we laughed about the way I entered the one-way system on Williams Street, crossing from the Horseshoe Bridge going the wrong way, and had to reverse and swing left; I then executed several unscheduled U-turns and bumped over part of a pavement I hadn’t noticed – I hadn’t had any of that lovely wine either! Luckily, I can report that “All’s Well That Ends Well”.
Jenny Hine
6 November 2011

Monday, October 17, 2011

October Meeting

We enjoyed a well-attended meeting last Saturday, making a good start on Henry VIII. We also had a bit of a discussion on forthcoming events of a Shakespearean bent. Some shows to watch out for:
  • The North Sea Boat Terminals Theatre Company will present an experimental production of All's Well that Ends Well at the Old Mill Theatre, South Perth, from 23-28 October at 8.00 pm with a matinee at 2.00 pm on 29 October. The production includes much of the Shakepeare text but also features puppetry, animation and live music.
  • The WA Opera will present Verdi's Falstaff (basically the Merry Wives of Windsor!) at His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, on November 3, 5, 8, 10, 12 at 7.30 pm
  • Shakespeare WA’s 2012 season runs from 6 January to 4 February, with its annual "Shakespeare in the Park" season. Three plays will be presented: The Tempest, The Comedy of Errors and that screamingly funny send up The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) in conjunction with the Cut Snake Comedy Company. This will be a reprise of a 2011 success at the Subiaco Theatre Centre. (You can read the review I wrote for Artshub here. Other Shakespearean events I’ve reviewed recently include the Bell Company’s Julius Caesar and the WA Ballet’s The Taming of the Shrew.)
Next meeting: Saturday, 19 November at 2.00 pm at the State Library of WA. All welcome!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Shakespeare's nine lives

In mid-July, historians, theatre critics and scholars descended on Prague to attend the 9th World Shakespeare Congress, which is held every five years under the auspices of the International Shakespeare Association and the hosts for the year, this time the Faculty of Arts of Charles University in Prague along with the Czech National Theatre.

Seminars focussed on the revival of Shakespeare's plays in film, details from his life, his sonnets and the reception of his work in Asia, as well as presenting scholarship on Shakespeare's life and work. Cultural relations between the Czech lands and England and on the influence of English Renaissance on Czech and world culture also came under the spotlight. There were workshops, theatre performances and excursions as well as a photographic exhibition and outdoor film screenings.

Among the speakers were Charles University Rector Vaclav Hampl, Faculty of Arts Dean Michal Stehlik, Professor Martin Hilsky, translator of Shakespeare's dramas and sonnets and a renowned expert in his work, and Professor of English and American literature Zdenek Stribrny. Many other countries were represented, including Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Japan and the United States.

Wouldn’t you have loved to have been there?

One of the participants, Professor Graham Holderness of the University of Hertfordshire, has released a new book to coincide with the congress, Nine Lives of William Shakespeare. We know relatively little about Shakespeare's life, and yet it continues to fascinate us. This new biography offers nine possible short “lives” of Shakespeare, each based on specific known facts and traditions supported by a body of critical and biographical work. It takes a fresh look at the facts, the traditions, and the possible relations between his life and the works that life created.

Each chapter of Nine Lives of William Shakespeare is paired with an original work of fiction, exploring that particular life-context, employing a variety of literary and narrative styles. Some employ the form of an imaginary memoir. Some purport to be reconstructed historical documents, and some are best described as fables. In each case, the basic facts of the Shakespeare biography are worked up into a fictional composition that takes the argument of the chapter forward by alternative and overtly speculative methods.

The “nine lives” are presented under intriguing titles:
1. Shakespeare the Writer: Story: “The Shakespeare Code”
2. Shakespeare the Player: Memoir: “Master Shakespeare's Instructions to the Actors”
3. Shakespeare the Businessman: Story: “Best for Winter”
4. Shakespeare in Love: “Husband, I come”: Memoir: “Shakespeare’s Ring: First Circle”
5. Shakespeare in Love: “Fair Friend”: Story: “The Adventure of Shakespeare’s Ring”
6. Shakespeare in Love: “A Female Evil”: Story: “Full Circle”
7. Shakespeare the Butcher Boy: Memoir: “Some further account of the life &c. of Mr William Shakespear”
8. Shakespeare the Catholic: Story: “He dyed a papist”
9. Shakespeare’s Face: Fable: “An Account of a Voyage to Bardolo”

Graham Holderness is the author of numerous books on the bard and his work, including Gender and Power in Shrew-Taming Narratives, 1500-1700 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) and Cultural Shakespeare: Essays in the Shakespeare Myth (University of Hertfordshire Press, 2001). At the World Shakespeare Congress, he took part in a seminar on new approaches to Shakespeare biography. He has visited Australia a number of times, first to attend the world Shakespeare congress in Brisbane in 2006. He has since been back to lecture at the universities of Sydney and Queensland. He also undertook an academic review of arts provision at University of Queensland.

Bibliographic data for Nine Lives of William Shakespeare
Nine Lives of William Shakespeare
Authors and contributors
By (author) Graham Holderness
Physical properties
Format: Hardback
Number of pages: 256
Width: 156 mm
Height: 234 mm
College/higher education
ISBN 13: 9781441151858
ISBN 10: 1441151850
Continuum Publishing Corporation
Imprint name
Continuum Publishing Corporation
Publication date
01 September 2011
Publication City/Country
New York/US

The book is available in hardback from The Book Depository - http://www.bookdepository.com/Nine-Lives-William-Shakespeare-Graham-Holderness/9781441151858?b=-3&t=-20#Fulldescription-20

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin…..

Our August post is from another of our members, Jenny Hine, who recently came across an entertaining Shakespeare parody. Over to Jenny!

Shakespeare has a habit of turning up in the oddest, least expected places, doesn’t he, which I suppose only adds to his continuing fascination and delight for us all!

I was re-reading Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which has sat for years on my bookshelf, unopened, when there was this wonderful parody by one of my favourite American writers, which I don’t remember reading before – although I must have. I think it’s extraordinarily clever.

To set the context: Huck has recently met up with two loveable rogues, calling themselves the king and the duke, who travel the countryside along the Mississipi, making money out of gullible folks at country fairs, by staging various dramas of dubious origin. Shakespeare is a favourite and, looking to practise an encore, purportedly from Richard III, the duke comes up with the idea of the Hamlet soliloquy. The king, who is the chief actor, doesn’t know it, so the duke struggles to recall it word for word and teach the king.

'Ah, it’s sublime, sublime! Always fetches the house. I haven’t got it in the book – I’ve only got one volume – but I reckon I can piece it out from memory. I’ll just walk up and down a minute, and see if I can call it back from recollection’s vaults.' This is what he came up with:

To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would fardels bear till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane,
But that the fear of something after death
Murders the innocent sleep,
Great nature’s second course,
And makes us rather sling the arrows of outrageous fortune
Than fly to others that we know not of.
There’s the respect must give us pause:
Wake Duncan with the knocking! I would thou couldst:
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The law’s delay, and the quietus which his pangs might take,
In the dead waste and middle of the night, when churchyards yawn
In customary suits of solemn black,
But that the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns,
Breathes forth contagion on the world,
And thus the native hue of resolution, like the poor cat i’ the adage,
Is sicklied o’er with care,
And all the clouds that lowered o’er our housetops,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. But soft you, the fair Ophelia:
Ope not thy ponderous and marble jaws,
But get thee to a nunnery – go!

Note from Satima: Isn't that a hoot? I’ve also come across a couple of Shakespeare parodies of late. The first was the delightful play, The Complete Works of Shakespeare (abridged), which was recently performed in Perth by one of our top comedy teams, The Big HOO-HAA. You can read my review on Artshub. If you ever get a chance to see Complete Works, don't miss it - it's a scream!

The other parody - also of That Speech from Hamlet, was a most amusing poem called To Word or not to Word, by Jack M. Lyon of the editing site http://www.editorium.com and quoted by permission in Catchword, the newsletter of the Tasmanian Society of Editors. I won’t break copyright by quoting it in full, but the first line “To Word, or not to Word: that is the question” will show you that is a sad complaint about Microsoft’s most popular and most frustrating bit of software!

Our next meeting is on Saturday 20 August at 2.00 pm, when we shall continue our study of Twelfth Night. (We meet on the third Saturday of each month – January excepted – at the State Library of South Australia, and new members are always welcome.)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Our very first post - from our president, Frances Dharmalingam

Welcome to our blog! Frances Dharmalingam, president of the Perth Shakespeare Club, has set the ball rolling with a post about our club's history and her own experiences of membership.  If you live in Perth and love Shakespeare, why not come along and join us?

Over to Frances now!

The Shakespeare Club of Western Australia was founded in 1930, which makes it probably one of the oldest cultural institutions still extant in Perth. In fact, we celebrated the Club's eightieth birthday last year. The founders intended to promote the reading, appreciation and performance of fine literature.

The membership in the early decades was large enough to justify fortnightly meetings, and doubtless more during rehearsal periods leading to the presentation of full theatrical productions of Shakespeare and other plays. These activities were led by such enthusiasts as Mrs. Anita LeTessier (nee Fitzgerald), a well-known exponent of elocution. Members were encouraged also to give recitals of poetry and to present papers on literary topics.

In its heyday the Club hosted many quite glittering social functions, including a soiree to welcome the then Poet Laureate, John Masefield, during his visit to Perth. By the 1960s, however, society was changing and there was a decline in numbers owing to competing interests and needs.

As the Club shrank, members' attention became more narrowly focussed. Meetings are now held monthly, and our studies are directed almost entirely to the works of Shakespeare. It is no longer possible to consider mounting public performances, but all members enjoy and give of their best in reading aloud the texts currently being looked at. We no longer hold lavish receptions, but take great pleasure in the social interaction with our fellow enthusiasts.

When I joined the Shakespeare Club it was with the idea that, at the very least, I would probably read three plays per year (rather than none most years!) and both revise and extend my acquaintance with Shakespeare. From that limited ambition I have gained so much more. Meaning is not only in the printed word, but also depends on and is enhanced by the speaking aloud. To examine a play in the company of friends with shared interests but varying backgrounds provides so many unexpected and valuable insights. The wider exploration of themes and ideas arising from the texts can expand our mental horizons indefinitely. These are just some of the reasons why I have continued to attend the meetings, and find so much pleasure in them.