When I was a teen, I used to read Shakespeare plays aloud with my mother, a high school English teacher, for fun during summer vacations. Mom and I tended toward the tragedies, but when my own daughter and I read Shakespeare’s plays during her high school summer vacations, we read most of his comedies together. We’d take two different well-footnoted editions of his works and our dog with us on a walk to the park. There the three of us would sit in the sunshine while Lily and I read through an act or two of As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Lily and I usually only got through one act a day because as we read, we compared the footnotes in each edition to better understand the allusions and puns and to get pronunciation suggestions along the way. Together we delighted in just how funny Shakespeare’s plays really are—how bawdy, how full of puns and mischief and made-up words his plays are! Lily had a knack for understanding Shakespeare, but we both benefited greatly from reading the footnotes so we could catch the jokes and puns and historical background that we otherwise would have missed. Pronunciation and word meanings have changed so much over 400 years that even Anglophiles and literature fans can miss a great deal of Shakespeare’s naughty wit without a bit of context.
This fascinating little video featuring English linguist David Crystal and his son, actor Ben Crystal, gives examples of how Shakespeare’s plays sounded when spoken during the playwright’s own lifetime, and explains some of the jokes that modern audiences miss. Give it a listen.
Since I learned that Benedict Cumberbatch would play the title role in Britain’s National Theatre production of Hamlet this autumn, I’ve sought a way to justify another trip to London to see him on the stage. Happily, this week I was able to do the next best thing: I attended a special video presentation beamed from the Barbican Theatre in London to 1,400 sites around the world. The production wasn’t strictly live—I saw it delayed by a few hours to accommodate the time difference between London and Seattle—but it was exciting to know that it was a very fresh and special event.
The National Theatre’s staging of Shakespeare’s most popular play been a hugely successful one thanks to the justified popularity of Benedict Cumberbatch, who attained superstar status for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s exceptional Sherlock series, shown in the US as part of PBS’s Mystery series. This week’s initial showing of Hamlet in cinemas around the world drew the largest global audience for a live broadcast day of any title in National Theatre Live history; more than 225,000 people around the world saw the production in cinemas on the first day. More showings had already been scheduled in cinemas over the coming two weeks, but the first showing was so extraordinarily popular that more cinema presentations will be added during November.
I quite enjoyed the production, which also featured the compelling, charismatic Irish actor Ciarán Hinds (Mance Rayder in HBO’s Game of Thrones; Julius Caesar in HBO’s ROME; Captain Wentworth in the splendid 1995 film version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion) as Hamlet’s uncle/step-father, Claudius. The video created and shared around the world this past week will be repeated in several Seattle cinemas over the next two weeks as well as in other locations around the world, so if you don’t mind sitting for 3-1/2 hours (including a 20-minute intermission) in a cinema, this is a beautiful production, well filmed.
There are quirks in this production that are entertaining or interesting to watch, but can be distracting in their oddness. Benedict Cumberbatch dressed like a soldier and playing at being at war in his oversized dollhouse flanked by giant toy soldiers is an unexpectedly lighthearted moment, and is fun to watch. Yet it is strange, and it feels not only out of character but like a maneuver meant to distance the audience from the action—this production has many anachronisms and bits of folderol meant to throw the audience off guard and to play up the staginess of the production instead of allowing us to enter Hamlet’s world and even his head, as productions of this play tend to do. It is the most introspective of Shakespeare’s plays, so to play it in a way that constantly underlines its very falseness and inauthenticity is at odds with the desires of the productions we are used to. But being shaken out of our complacency and surprised by theatrical antics is one of the things that live theater does best, so there is room for a production of this old chestnut that leaves us a bit confused and off-center. Hamlet is himself imbued with many awkward and uncomfortable traits, after all, so it makes some sense that his story should be similarly discomforting and confusing.
When Hamlet’s murderous step-father, Claudius, connives and justifies planning Hamlet’s destruction in Act IV, windows and doors blow in and the entire set becomes covered in what look like black flecks of decay, or leaves, or even shredded tires—who can say? There is no explanation, and the black bits overtake Hamlet’s world and remain on the stage for the rest of the play, in every setting, inside and out, with only small sections of stage swept clean at various points during the ensuing drama to create pathways or patches of light.
As the production wound down, Cumberbatch arose from the ground for his curtain call, bits of the mysterious dark schmutz still clinging to his face, neck and clothes. Did the particles symbolize doom, or Claudius’s corruption (and perhaps Hamlet’s, since he takes an innocent life and leads others toward death), or general decay? Something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark, but what exactly it is that overtakes the land is not clear.
Of all the strange and original conceits incorporated into this production, the willful and inconsistently applied anachronisms are the most noticeable and, to me, off-putting. Shakespeare’s plays are often adapted to take place in other time periods than the Elizabethan era, and such variations can be very effective. My favorite case in point is the excellent film adaptation of Richard III starring a stunningly malevolent Ian McKellen which took place in an alternate version of 1930s Britain overseen by fascist dictatorial rulers. In that case, setting the story in a historical period which is so recent and freighted with so much fascistic horror and menace made it feel particularly vivid, real and emotionally accessible.
This version of Hamlet is the first Shakespearean production I have seen that sticks to no particular time period but instead chooses to be willfully and inconsistently anachronistic, beginning with Hamlet listening to Nat King Cole’s haunting “Nature Boy” (which was recorded in 1948) on a record player in what seems to be the late 1940s or early 1950s. Hamlet is greeted by a modern hipster version of Horatio, complete with backpack, pegged jeans and body-covering tattoos; his clothes and glasses seem like they could possibly be contemporary with the Nat King Cole music, but the backpack and tattoos take him to the modern realm. Ophelia in her slouchy sweatshirts and high-waisted pants seems to be dressing in clothes from the 1980s or 1990s, while Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and her new husband (and former brother-in-law) Claudius are clothed in garb contemporary with the song by which Hamlet is captivated (and the strains of which return repeatedly during the production, acting almost as a theme song). The acting troupe to whom Hamlet gives acting lessons are dressed in 1970s gear, and Hamlet himself is often in more timeless, neutral clothing, except for his David Bowie “Aladdin Sane” T-shirt and a handpainted punk overcoat.
The anachronisms delighted my daughter, who felt they underscored the timelessness of the story and emphasized the point that Hamlet as we have come to know him is a man out of time. I see her point, yet I found that the anachronisms often jarred me out of being able to suspend my disbelief, which is something I crave in theatrical experiences, so I found it less immersive than I would have liked. Aside from that, however, I found Cumberbatch very skilled at making me feel that he was in the moment and experiencing life as Hamlet, and the sets, direction and music were very effective.
If you enjoy Cumberbatch, Hines or Hamlet, this is a worthy and thought-provoking production.
If William Shakespeare were alive today and writing lyrics to pop anthems, what would they sound like? Thanks to Erik Didricksen‘s Pop Sonnets blog, we now know. Pop Sonnets (popsonnet.tumblr.com) has given the Shakespearean treatment to dozens of tunes from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (“My fate now seal’d, ’tis plain for all to see: The wind’s direction matters not to me”) to Daft Punk and Pharrell’s “Get Lucky” (“While ladies dance away the night for sport / So shall we too, their favor sweet to court”), to the lyrical demands of the Spice Girls, whose “Wannabe,” incorporates much spice-related wordplay:
Hast thou a hunger to hear the plaintive wail of Steve Perry exhorting, cajoling, nay, demanding that all and sundry hold fast to hope? Then thou art most fortunate, for Pop Sonnets doth present a poetic parody of “Don’t Stop Believing” which beginneth in this fashion:
A lonely maiden from a hamlet small— A boy within a woeful city reared: They both at midnight left their port of call T’ward any destination volunteered.
Pop Sonnets is available as a tumblr blog, but it will also be released in book form on October 6 in the US and Canada, October 8 in the UK. Think what a delectable gift the book would make for thy nearest and dearest!
Before you do depart, O gentle men and ladies fair,
Think not that I’ve no heart and would not leave a treasure rare.
For here before you, friends, I place a gift as bright as gold:
And once you’re read it through, you’ll cry—
To celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday, let me share this delightful bit of his work (if he was indeed the author of the plays attributed to him). This performance is by Mark Rylance, who is considered by many to be the world’s greatest living Shakespearean actor—Stephen Fry believes him the best stage actor alive today.
Rylance, who has won Olivier, Tony and BAFTA awards for his acting, became the first director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London in 1995. It could have become a kitschy tourist attraction but he turned it into a true powerhouse of a theatrical company in the decade he spent at its helm. He is now the star of “Wolf Hall,” the BBC’s excellent production of the story of Tudor political genius Thomas Cromwell‘s tussles with King Henry VIII. The series is currently showing in installments on PBS in the U.S. (If you’ve missed the first few episodes you can still stream them online for a short while.) Rylance is famed for his simplicity and naturalism; he’s not showy, and this performance isn’t the rousing, bold performance you might expect if you’ve seen Kenneth Branagh or Laurence Olivier deliver this speech. I thought I’d give you a more subtle taste of the Bard of Avon. (Interestingly, Rylance and fellow Shakespearean great Derek Jacobidon’t believe Shakespeare wrote “Shakespeare’s plays.”)