Henry V

For my Great Books Book Club, I read and watched Shakespeare’s Henry V. I saw the 1989 film directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also adapted the play and starred in it.

Filled with intrigue, camaraderie, betrayal, battles and even wooing, Henry V is compelling. The best speech is this “We few, we happy few” band of brothers speech. It’s right at the climax of the film as the Brits are about to battle the French who far outnumber them. Like many speeches in Shakespeare it’s stirring and wise.

I did fast-forward through much of the battle scenes because they were authentically brutal, but at the same time true to life. While the film doesn’t contain every line from the play, it’s a faithful version and still packs a wallop and ends with a cute flirtation between Henry and the French princess. The end does have a very different tone than the main part of the film. Is that an error?

If so, I’ll forgive it because it gave another facet of Hennry’s personality.

The Book of Will

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What a fun play! Written by Lauren Gunderson, The Book of Will at the Northlight Theater till December 17th tells the story of how without the effort of his friends, we wouldn’t have an authentic collection of William Shakespeare’s plays. In 1620 after Will had passed on, his friends were fed up with bad Shakespearean plays. Some were bad versions patched up with garbled versions of the plays made from copyists in the audience who tried to take down everything that was said. Some were just plays written by hacks who tried to copy Shakespeare’s style.

The play begins in a pub near The Globe theater where three of Shakespeare’s friends Richard Burbage, John Heminges, Henry Condell, actors from the King’s Men’s troupe and Condell’s daughter Elizabeth bemoan the horrible fakery that passes for Shakespeare. When Burbage dies suddenly they realize the only chance for passing these masterpiece plays down to posterity is to collect and publish a folio. It’s an expensive undertaking that is complicated by the lack of a full set of originals. A few plays are here, another bunch are with a scrivener, most actors only got their part, not the full play so some had to be carefully put together. No respectable printer wanted to touch the project so Heminges and Condell had to settle for a slimy, greedy cheat.

The play is delightful as it weaves memorable passaged of the Bard’s work throughout the story, which is well paced. The characters include Shakespeare’s wife, daughter and mistress, and Heminges’ and Condell’s wives and and so there is some female influence supporting the impossible project. The Northlight’s set and costumes were perfect. I’m tempted to go again.

What’s great about the Northlight is free parking and every seat has a clear view.

Antony and Cleopatra

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After reading the play for my book club, I watched the 1971 Antony and Cleopatra film starring, written and directed by Charlton Heston. It was a grand epic and I think today a director would be more naturalistic, which isn’t necessarily bad. I did appreciate the grandeur and pretty much expected that in a Heston production.

I was surprised by the amount of skin shown. We see Charlton Heston in a thong-like loin cloth and some women’s bare backsides. It was the early 70s and Antony and Cleopatra were led by their desires and Cleopatra’s court was hedonistic in Shakespeare. (Earlier Chaucer wrote about Cleopatra and she was more of a “good wife,” more nurturing and romantic.)

The film did make parts of the play, which I read for my online book club, clearer.

The film was able to show the scale of the battles and their brutality, which was quite gory, but how things would have been. While it wasn’t perfect, I got the sense that the film did include authentic aspects of the Ancient World.

It reinforced my attitudes toward the characters–they weren’t at all admirable, but they were compelling as great people who suffered great falls.

As I watched I wondered why Shakespeare had all three servants–Iras, Charmian, and Eros–commit suicide for their masters. Such blind loyalty. I wondered how Shakespeare’s contemporaries thought of that. I wondered why no one went on to move on with their lives. Two women killed themselves for Cleopatra. Wow. Was she worth dying for? Ladies, you could have had a better life post-Cleopatra.

There was a scene in the film that really struck me. In Act 2, Scene 2 when Caesar and Lepidus are conferring Caesar’s watching two gladiators spar. Then Antony walks in and he and Caesar . All the while the gladiators spar and are quite violent. Therefore there was a good tension between the veiled, polite language Antony and Cleopatra use and the increasing fighting Caesar’s seeing.

Boss

If The West Wing offers the kind of politics, I dream of, Boss shows the kind of politics I fear we have, i.e. Tales from the Dark Side of Power, Greed and Lust. 

On my flight from Beijing I discovered Kelsey Grammer’s Boss, a high testosterone drama about a fictitious Chicago mayor trying to control city and Illinois politics while hiding his degenerative neurological disorder. Longtime mayor Tom Kane (Grammer) combines Richard Daley and King Lear. Kane’s wife Meredith is a cold-blooded daughter of the former mayor. His daughter has a character that I couldn’t buy. She appears to be a Presbyterian minister who runs a free medical clinic, uses heroine and has sex with her drug dealer. Her theology is quite severe and Biblically literal, yet she only lives out an isolated form of social justice. She seems to have no friends and the mentality of a schizophrenic. I found her character a set up for audience stimulation with little believability, though the actress is compelling.

His staff consists of a taciiturn chief of staff, who has thugs on speed dial and a blonde bombshell with a highly calibrated libido so she can up the show’s heat.

More intriguing characters are a reporter who’s sniffing around sensing that something’s wrong with the mayor’s health while also investigating corruption and wrong doing emanating from the mayor’s office. The Illinois governor and his up and coming challenger illustrate how the mayor is the most influential politician in the state.

I watched four episodes so I was pulled in despite my the female characters. I pretty much figure that the writers are going to fall short of Shakespeare in their ability to write about both genders.

Anonymous

Anonymous speculates that William Shakespeare didn’t write his plays and offers a theory that the 17th Earl of Oxford did. Though I don’t buy this idea because I do think genius springs up in all classes, I do love historical and even speculative historical fiction enough to enjoy a film that has an interesting theory.

For a couple hours it was worth it to put aside my beliefs and enjoy rich costumes, romantic landscapes of yore, even the muddy ones and bold dialog (though it wasn’t as Shakespearean as Elizabeth Rex‘s dialog).  The thesis put forth is that the Earl of Oxford had the education and background that William Shakespeare lacked and he wrote plays to influence Elizabeth as she ruled the British empire.  The implication is that a woman wouldn’t have been wise enough to rule as successful on her own. Well, I don’t buy that, but I did find it interesting to see what this screenwriter believed as the story takes a lot of interesting twists.

I will quibble with the portrayal of William Shakespeare. Here he’s a buffoon and one that’s a far cry from say the jester in King Lear. In fact, we’re told that although he can read, he can’t write. Poppycock. Writing isn’t hard and in a week Asian students have the alphabet down. We know Shakespeare went to grammar school and unless his hand was injured during that entire period, someone would have taught him how to actually write letter.

There was the Earl of Oxford, the real Bard. He was very stately, but for the life of me I can’t recall a line of dialog he said. Now if a film wants to depict the real Shakespeare, shouldn’t that character be eloquent, someone who’s conversation is memorable? That’s why the film failed. I wasn’t convinced that because this man was well dressed and was given a good education, that he was a genius. Genius isn’t that well hidden.

The political intrigue gets complicated, but not impossible to follow. But then I’d seen Elizabeth Rex recently so I knew about the intrigue and the Earl of Essex’s execution. I do wish someone, perhaps a woman, would write a play about Elizabeth that isn’t so skeptical of her ability to lead.

A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream

I expected a traditional production of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, but instead the Chicago Shakespeare Company went Victorian with a tip of the hat to Freud. And while a lot of updates and creative takes don’t work, this one did. I loved the set and the costumes. All the main characters wore various lavender hues, though each had a distinct outfit. The result was beautiful. I wasn’t crazy about the costumes of the forest nymphs, striped pajamas and fantastic headdresses with say 100 butterflies or 100 flowers sticking up. I get that they should be otherworldly, but this choice fell flat for me. Even worse was the kind of the faeries, Oberon, who was decked out in a puffy orange skirt and he had a wig of long black hair that reminded me of Heian era Japan.

While this is one of Shakespeare’s lightest plays, it still has the Bard’s imprint and the language is just wonderful to take in. Yes, it’s a ultra-light, but it’s nice to see Shakespeare can have such fun. It’s a perfect play to show we should all “get over ourselves.

The acting is wonderful and the idea of bring Freud in to this dream was cheeky but not over powerful.

Elizabeth Rex

The Chicago Shakespeare Theater‘s Elizabeth Rex is strong, witty and thought-provoking. Written by Timothy Findley, Elizabeth Rex is a hypothetical look at what might have transpired the night before the Earl of Essex‘s execution. Findley plays with the fact that Elizabeth went to see a Shakespearean play the night before the Earl of Essex, who plotted to overthrow the queen, was executed. Findley’s what if’s are:

  • What if the queen and Essex had an affair? According to the Windy City Times review, they didn’t.
  • What if Elizabeth at age 70 had insecurities about her femininity since she had to wield power as a woman in a man’s age?
  • What if she spent the night in the company of Shakespeare’s actor’s who’re cooped up in a barn near the theater due to curfew restrictions? (Couldn’t the queen waive them or get everyone to a more commodious venue?)
  • What if one of the actors was a gay man dying of pox with insight into gender?
The questions are fascinating. The acting was strong; dialog full of repartee; and the costumes gorgeous. From the time the lights went up energy level was full speed ahead and I was transported to Shakespeare’s ribald, trenchant, lively world. The Queen surprises Shakespeare’s troupe with a visit hoping for a diversion from Essex’s impending execution. What she gets is a questioning and prodding from Ned Lowenscroft, an actor who plays strong lead women with great veracity, we’re told. (We just saw him act in one scene and I didn’t find him particularly convincing as a woman. Some kabuki actors are better and I know they’re men too.)
Much of the play’s energy comes from the sparring between Queen Elizabeth and Ned, who spar. Ned feels he can teach the queen how to be a real woman, i.e. forgiving and emotional. The Shakespeare and the actors were secondary figures, entertaining, but not in the lime light, which was fine. The troupe all seemed to feel the Queen should pardon Essex. What I felt was missing was a voice, a genuine voice that sided with the Queen. Essex did try to seize London and lead a rebellion. No one in this troupe  agreed that “off with his head” was a smart move. It seems to me in any gathering of more than 5 people, there’s bound to be a wide range of opinion.
The first act was swift and engaging, except for an interlude with Ned’s pet bear. I’m not sure what the purpose of that was. A stab at comic relief? It didn’t work for me.
The second half lagged slightly as the play didn’t cover new ground. Ned still urges the Queen to forgive her former lover, and he reveals more about his dearest lover who gave him the pox, i.e. syphillis, the story was interesting, but I don’t want the most powerful parts of a drama to be exposition. Some of the most interesting parts of the play were retold rather than dramatized.
All in all, if you’re looking for a lively, well acted play, if you want to consider some Elizabethan hypotheticals, go see the engaging Elizabeth Rex. After seeing the play I did wonder how plausible it was. Would Elizabethans think or speak of gender in these ways? It would be interesting to find some articles on that. I don’t suggest this as a fault but rather a springboard to deeper study.