Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Twelfth Night (Film review)

Our doughty president, Frances, reviews the filmed version of the Globe Theatre's production of Twelfth Night.

It is interesting that this was an ‘Original Practices’ production, and therefore had an all-male cast, and yet for me the main focus of attention was on the female characters. The skills and technique of the men en travestie, particularly Olivia and also Maria, were outstanding.
I read somewhere one critic’s opinion that ‘Stephen Fry was born to play Malvolio.’ And so it appeared, although it crossed my mind at intervals that perhaps he was playing Stephen Fry. Nevertheless he carried the character with easy authority, and with a fine vocal delivery in which every word was clear, every intonation right and pauses were used judiciously. It seemed a perfect match between actor and character. His final line, with the emphasis on ‘I‘ll’ rather than the usual stress on ‘revenged’, indicated his meticulous attention to every detail of the dialogue.  

There were many fine performances in this production: Sir Toby, short and very red-faced, Sir Andrew, long and thin with lank straw-like hair, made a fine trio with a very clever and subtle Maria. Maria, with minimal gestures and changes of facial expression, allowed us to follow ‘her’ every thought. This was notable in the carousing scene, after Malvolio’s exit, as the plan for revenge developed gradually, rather than appearing ready-prepared in her mind.  

The twins were almost perfectly matched – costumes, hair and make-up of course assisting. Viola’s performance, however, was the only one about which I had any reservations. ‘Her’ delivery was too constrained by the verse structure, and natural phrasing was often disrupted, obscuring the subtleties of meaning and mood. Viola lacked the many-layered personality which I expected, including vivacity and a sense of humour.  

Then there was the other female character: Olivia, played by Mark Rylance, long associated with the Globe. This was an Olivia unlike any I have ever seen before. I had never thought of this character as contributing to the comedy of the play: in fact, in most performances she has made little lasting impression on me. Here, however, Olivia was unforgettable: volatile, changeable, unpredictable and so funny. At her first appearance she was almost an automaton. A marvellous gliding walk as if on castors brought her to her table, where she sat with Malvolio to attend to the business of a large estate, signing letters, checking invoices, etc. This was a perfect way to establish the standing of both characters. Olivia was stiff, coldly going through the motions of daily life and the annoyance of unwanted attentions from her suitor and disruptive behaviour by her kinsman. Clearly looking for anything to relieve the dreary pattern of daily life, she allowed ‘Cesario’ to enter – and then, what a change! At times skittishly reviving long-unused tricks of seduction, and then at other times uncertain and losing confidence, she showed herself capable of bursts of angry petulance, uncaring that her erstwhile dignity had flown. Delicious highlights included the picnic planned for Cesario; the rush to defend him in the duel with Sir Andrew, bearing the longest battle-pike which she swung terrifyingly close to actors and scenery; and the kiss with which she proposed to Cesario (i.e. the real and completely uncomprehending Sebastian.)

The impact of Olivia’s characterisation changed the balance of the play. I had always thought of the action as centred upon Viola, with Olivia rather off to one side, but as I think over this production it is the Countess and her household who dominate, subordinating Orsino and his entourage. However, this accords with the play’s construction – Orsino lachrymose and self-indulgent, doing very little, while the action occurs at Olivia’s. The plotting, the letter scene, the yellow stockings, the duel and the final unravelling provided one delight after another, with very few shadows darkening the frivolity. Even the cruel treatment of Malvolio passed lightly.

The music was a charming accompaniment throughout in both the Fool’s attractive voice and the instrumentalists in the gallery. They contributed to the sunny warmth of a delightful performance.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A new home for the Shakespeare Club

Earlier this year, a local paper featured an interview with our president, Frances Dharmalingam, which created a lot of interest and as a result, we found ourselves inundated with new members! This is wonderful, because we'd been looking for 'new blood' for quite some time.

What we hadn't reckoned on was that with ten or twelve extra people, we could no longer meet at the State Library for reasons of health and safety - the room available to us is only allowed to hold 18 persons. So we had to look for a new home.

Frances spent many hours on foot and on the phone, but finally she found us what looks like a very satisfactory venue - the Citiplace Community Centre on the concourse of the Perth Railway Station. There is parking under the nearby State Art Gallery and of course the train could hardly be closer!

Our new home. To the left is the footbridge to the Cultural Centre and almost opposite are the railway platforms

Last meeting and next - on 20 July at 2.00pm - we're reading Volpone by Ben Jonson, a contemporary of our beloved Bard, then in August we shall have the first of two meetings devoted to the perennial favourite, Romeo and Juliet. This might be a good opportunity for more newcomers to 'try us out' by listening to a reading and perhaps repairing to the neighbouring Art Gallery Cafe for a beverage and a chat afterwards.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Henry V

Frances, our president, gives us her impressions of a film of a staged version of this much-loved play.
I saw the 2012 Shakespeare’s Globe production of Henry V the other day. Although we in the antipodes have to watch it on film, the effect is as good as if we were in the audience for the live performance. And what an exciting experience it was!

Having seen the play only in films (Olivier and Branagh) I wondered particularly about the staging of scenes of war. How could even quite a large cast convince us that we were observing battle? Well, very cleverly! The charge against Harfleur’s defences was preceded by a fine ‘Once more unto the breach….’ King Henry addressed the audience directly, as the English army, in a rousing call, building to a fitting climax as it ended with the entire packed crowd at the Globe joining in the cry, ‘God for Harry, England and St. George’ as the cast members charged forward from amongst them on to the stage and through the ‘breach’ at the back. It was electrifying, and one could well have believed that the numbers were far greater than they really were.

Later, of course, there was the stirring speech for St. Crispin’s Day – delivered quietly and persuasively rather than dramatically. It gave the sense of a necessary pause for reflection before the heat of the battle of Agincourt. Here a quite different method proved equally powerful: stylised, almost balletic, movements emphasised, first, the role of the archers and then the brutal close fighting with swords and axes.

Henry V’s character is sometimes said to be inaccessible, but in this production the actor, Jamie Parker, had decided exactly who and what he was portraying. This Henry was evidently a grown-up (Prince Hal long gone), a king not necessarily keen to conquer France, but intelligently and carefully weighing the legalities of his claim and considering his advisors’ counsel. Nonetheless he was hot-tempered, roused by the Dauphin’s insulting present, and shown powerfully later, after the slaughter of the baggage boys, with the order to kill all prisoners. This was a rounded character, comradely with his nobles, and talking easily with the men on the night watch; able to enjoy the humour of the gloves episode and his dealings with Fluellen; and slipping smoothly into the full comedy (as it was played) of Katharine’s wooing. This scene gave us the necessary joyous conclusion after the tensions of the war.

There were some beautiful and subtle details in this performance. Henry was revealed as a leader who very reluctantly adopted harsh measures. The speech to the citizens of Harfleur was spoken as by a battle-weary soldier who appeared to hate the horrifying threats he uttered, and was reciting them as the required formula, the routine procedure in this (unbroken siege) situation. There was a striking divide between the dreadful images of violence to the civilian population in his words, and the exhaustion and revulsion of his manner.

Yet another facet of his personality showed in his prayer before Agincourt, kneeling before his sword raised as a cross. The words had an extraordinary intensity and took the listener right back to Richard and Bolingbroke and the shadow of the usurpation of a rightful king. Earlier in the play, the death of Falstaff harked back to the preceding plays. Just as Pistol and company were leaving for the wars, Falstaff’s corpse, swathed in winding sheets, was lowered from the upper storey of the inn and carried away in silence. This seemed to me an ingenious way to complete his story and further preserve the continuity through the tetralogy.

The tangible realism of the war scenes came, of course, primarily from the fine acting of every member of the cast; also from the spattered mud and blood on their faces; and from the awareness of the technicalities of mediaeval warfare, with a marvellous detail in the emergence of the miners (via the trap-door) covered in mire and sweat.

Clearly, Henry dominated the whole play, but it was a fine ensemble performance, with every character sharply distinguishable and individual. Many, of course, played more than one role, but with effortless differentiation. I was also struck by the balance between comedy and the more serious scenes, and the easy transitions from one to the other – needless to say thanks, of course, to Shakespeare’s writing, but still great credit to the director and actors!

I could go on much longer. There was so much to notice and to think long about, but I hope I have at least shown some of the reasons why I so admired (and will remember) this show.