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Doing it Elizabethan Style: Shakespeare’s Richard III

A few weeks ago I heard that the Globe had transferred two of their summer productions to the Apollo Theatre for the winter – and more importantly from my perspective, these were two new all-male productions starring Mark Rylance, former artistic director of the Globe. I’d read about the similar productions he’d done almost a decade ago, so the chance to see one at last was irresistible!

Johnny Flynn as Queen Anne and Mark Rylance as King Richard III (Photo: Globe Theatre)
Johnny Flynn as Queen Anne and Mark Rylance as King Richard III (Photo: Globe Theatre)

I hesitated briefly over which to choose, and eventually plumped for Richard III. Much as I love Twelfth Night, it’s a play I’m very familiar with, whereas the only version of Richard III I’ve seen is the well-known Laurence Olivier film. The reviews of Rylance’s performance suggested that this might be the better of the two, which swayed me further.

I booked stage seats, for the best possible view at the most reasonable price. This meant we were seated in one of two two-tier wooden stands, almost like a bit of the Globe Theatre brought to the West End, on each side of the stage. Unfortunately we arrived too late to get a lower-level seat, but the upper level still gave wonderfully up-close-and-personal views of the actors and set. The costumes were absolutely gorgeous – I spent a good deal of the play just taking in all the details, from the various styles of men’s hats (including a very silly fluffy white one with a pink hatband, like something a pimp would wear!) to the daggers worn tucked horizontally through the belt, in the small of the back. Another benefit of our seats was that we could see many of the costumes hanging up backstage, and even got a chance to thank the actors personally as we left, since they were still standing in the wings.

The undisputed star of the show was of course Rylance. He plays Richard as an almost pantomime villain, confiding in the audience about his wicked plans and getting them on his side. The result was an extremely funny play – surprisingly so, for a Shakespeare history play – at least until his final downfall. He was ably assisted in this by his foil, Roger Lloyd Pack as Buckingham (better known as Trigger from Only Fools and Horses). Most of the actors apart from the few leads played multiple roles, but the distinctness of their costumes meant that I was never confused when they returned in new guise. From our stage seats we could also make out little details invisible to the rest of the audience, like the fact that the pewter inkwells really did contain ink and you could see the actors signing the various documents that appear in the play. This added a startling verisimilitude that I had not expected – and nearly gave Mark Rylance a turn when he all but dropped an inkwell in his lap!

As mentioned above, one of the main reasons I wanted to see this production was that it was being staged with full Elizabethan practices as far as possible. The stage was lit by masses of candles (albeit backed up by some electric lighting for the benefit of modern theatre-goers) – four huge wrought-iron candelabra hanging from the ceiling, and a large floor-standing one at the back of the stage. Scenes flowed seamlessly from one to the next, with incoming actors beginning their lines even before the previous ones had left the stage. And then of course there were the men in female roles.

Samuel Barnett (perhaps best known for his role as Posner in The History Boys) was brilliant as Queen Elizabeth, graceful in his movements and acting as effortlessly as if this were his usual type of role. Johnny Flynn was less successful as Anne Neville; he declaimed his lines stiffly, as if it was taking all his effort to maintain a believable falsetto. A pity, as this has put me off going to see Twelfth Night, in which he plays the key role of Viola.

Samuel Barnett as Queen Elizabeth and Colin Hurley as King Edward IV (Photo: Globe Theatre)
Samuel Barnett as Queen Elizabeth and Colin Hurley as King Edward IV (Photo: Globe Theatre)

One difference from Elizabethan practice is that the actors playing female roles were a lot older than they would have been in Shakespeare’s day – Barnett, for example, is 32. Some actors did indeed continue in such roles until their early twenties, but the majority would have been around fifteen or sixteen, an age at which many an undernourished Elizabethan apprentice might still have an unbroken voice. These days, finding boys young enough to have such voices but old enough to play leading roles in Shakespeare must be practically impossible!

What struck me, though, during the play was that I soon stopped thinking of them as “men in drag”. On the one hand, they clearly weren’t actual women, but the combination of the artificiality of the stage environment and the contrast between male and female Elizabethan dress made them so distinct from the men as to seem like women by virtue of that fact alone. It gave me a striking insight into the Elizabethan mindset, whereby a person’s identity (both in gender and status) was judged very much by their clothing and far less by the human body inhabiting that clothing.

The play ended, as all Globe productions do, with a traditional jig performed by all the company. The dancing was superb, with so much leaping, stamping and clapping that I almost expected the men to start break-dancing any moment! It also reminded me a great deal of the ball scene in A Knight’s Tale where they suddenly start boogying to Bowie. Anyone who thinks that an Elizabethan ball would have been as sedate an event as its equivalent in Jane Austen’s day should think again – this was seriously sexy stuff!

All in all it was a wondrous experience, and well worth the considerable sum I paid for the tickets. I’m already starting to eye the coming season at the Globe Theatre with interest…

History at the Movies: Shakespeare in Love

I have a love-hate relationship with movies set in my favourite historical periods. On the one hand, I adore the visuals, but the scripts in particular can be horribly anachronistic or just plain annoying! Just for fun, I thought I’d pick apart a few films set in the Elizabethan period, starting with a well-known example: Shakespeare in Love. I chose this film because, although one obviously can’t hold a frothy romantic comedy up to the same standards as a historical epic, it’s surprisingly faithful to the period.

*** SPOILER WARNING *** In order to discuss historical accuracy, I have to give away the plot. However this movie is over a decade old, so…

The Story

Enthusiastic young playwright Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is struggling with ideas for his latest play, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter, until he encounters the lovely Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), far above him on the social scale. Viola, meanwhile, is no shrinking violet; betrothed to a pompous nobleman (Colin Firth), she tries to escape the strictures of her life by disguising herself as a young man and auditioning for a part in the new play.

Hilarity ensues (as they say), as Viola struggles to keep the two sides of her life separate and secret. She falls madly in love with Will, only to discover he has been keeping a secret of his own: he’s married. Realising that they can never be together, she gives him up, but they never forget one another, and Shakespeare eventually immortalises her as one of his pluckiest cross-dressing heroines, Viola in Twelfth Night.

Historical basis

Obviously there’s not going to be a lot of this in a romantic comedy, but just for the record, the real events included in the film are:

  • Shakespeare’s writing of Romeo and Juliet, probably in the early 1590s (it was first published in 1597, and this usually only happened after a play had been performed many times)
  • the murder of Christopher Marlowe in the early summer of 1593 (supposedly in a quarrel over a dinner bill, but since Marlowe was a spy, the motive behind it was probably political)

Also, Shakespeare was 29 in 1593 (and actor Joseph Fiennes was 28 when the film was made), hence the romance plot fits into Shakespeare’s life very plausibly.

Many of the background details are pretty accurate. Shakespeare is shown stripping the barbs from his quills when preparing to write, and Bankside is portrayed as suitably muddy and semi-rural. There are little touches of social history, too, like Shakespeare walking in on Burbage and his whore and not being the slightest bit embarrassed, or the nurse rocking noisily in her chair to drown out the sounds of Will and Viola’s lovemaking, which give a real feel for how little privacy Elizabethan people had.

Deliberate fictions

Pretty obviously, Shakespeare’s working title for Romeo and Juliet never involved a pirate’s daughter; that’s just a bit of fun, to prepare the ground for the change that his love for Viola brings to his writing. And Viola herself is a fictional character, though judging by Shakespeare’s sonnets he was by no means celibate when he lived in London, hundreds of miles from his wife! Viola’s fiancé, the Duke of Wessex, is equally fictional, though he is a typical Elizabethan nobleman, hot-tempered and proud.

Being a comedy, the film has a lot of fun with anachronisms, from the “priest of Psyche” on whose couch Will confesses his performance anxiety, to the wherryman who talks exactly like a London cabbie: “I had that Christopher Marlowe in the back of my boat, once…”. However these little touches help to connect a modern audience with the past, and they are in the spirit of the era, if not the letter.

Historical “errors”

  • It’s fairly certain that Shakespeare never wrote a play for Philip Henslowe (played by Geoffrey Rush in the movie). No payments to Shakespeare are listed in Henslowe’s surviving account books – a fact which some have used as “proof” that Shakespeare wrote none of the plays attributed to him. However Shakespeare was a member of a theatre company based on the other side of London, and from 1599 he was a sharer in that company, so the absence of payments to him isn’t that surprising.
  • The story about Queen Elizabeth and the cloak over the puddle is almost certainly fiction; it probably originated with 17th-century historian Thomas Fuller, who was inclined to embroider the facts with fanciful incidents, and was perpetuated by Sir Walter Scott in his Elizabethan romance Kenilworth.

Conclusion

Overall I give this movie 6/10 for historical accuracy – the plot may be pure fiction, but it’s played out against a background that puts many a more serious film to shame.

Horrible Histories

Savvy historical writers have long known that children’s non-fiction is a great resource. Books like Stephen Biesty’s Cross-Sections Castle or Man-of-War provide visual references unparalleled in adult history books – perfect for helping you plan out that seige or pirate attack! Children’s books also include many of the minutiae of daily life that get overlooked in discussions of the decline and fall of empires. It’s this attention to often bizarre detail that makes Horrible Histories a must-watch show for any writer of historical fiction. It also happens to be damned funny…

When the BBC expressed an interest in adapting Terry Deary’s wildly popular children’s history books for television, he was naturally a little apprehensive. Surely the venerable institution wouldn’t be able to replicate the anarchic humour of the books – or wouldn’t want to? Fortunately a wise BBC executive handed the project over to Caroline Norris (Dead Ringers, The Armstrong and Miller Show) whose used her experience in adult comedy to brilliant effect. The result is a cross between Monty Python and The Fast Show, except with the sexual innuendo and swearing replaced by jokes about poo and farting. Well, it is aimed at 6 to 12 year olds!

It succeeds by never talking down to its audience; whether parodying reality TV or explaining the English Civil War in a manner more reminiscent of an election night broadcast, it always acknowledges that kids are well aware of the adult world and want the same quality of entertainment as their parents. And with a cast of familiar faces from comedy shows like Gavin and Stacey (Mathew Baynton), Jam and Jerusalem (Simon Farnaby), That Mitchell and Webb Look (Sarah Farland) and of course The Armstrong and Miller Show (Martha Howe-Douglas and Jim Howick), adult viewers can be forgiven for forgetting they’re watching kids’ TV at all.

The show has become a huge hit, and has even been revamped (with Stephen Fry doing the between-sketch links) and given a new Sunday evening primetime slot. Ironically, the “grown-up” version is far nearer what Deary anticipated in the first place. Fry’s avuncular delivery of the linking material is ill-suited to the tone of the sketches at best, and patronising at worst. It’s as if the BBC is afraid that adults won’t think the show educational enough unless they inject some solemnity into the mix.

Not that I care. I have the DVDs of Series 1 and 2 on order, and Series 3 is still on iPlayer. I wonder if I can write the cost off as research expenses…?

Film review: Pirates of the Caribbean – On Stranger Tides

This is, surprisingly, my first current film review this year. I’ve been so caught up in my novels that I hadn’t been to the cinema until now. This one’s pretty spoiler-free, I think – if you’ve seen the trailers or read any pre-release publicity material, you probably already know more than I reveal here!

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is, as its closing credits state, “suggested by” the novel of the same title by Tim Powers, reviewed on this blog earlier this month. This is a pretty accurate description, since all that has been retained from the book is the central conceit: that Blackbeard is searching for the Fountain of Youth to extend his life and continue his voodoo-enhanced reign of terror in the Caribbean. Since the first movie was also heavily inspired by the same book, there frankly wasn’t much left to pillage (without reprising Curse of the Black Pearl) – and it shows.

It’s not that there’s anything seriously, woefully wrong with the film – it’s not the random, almost incoherent mess that was At World’s End, but it lacks the sparkle of Curse of the Black Pearl. Whether that’s more the fault of the director or the scriptwriters, I leave to more analytical moviegoers to decide, but given that director Rob Marshall is a choreographer with more experience directing musicals than action movies, this was never likely to be the pinnacle of the Pirates franchise. On the other hand writers Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott didn’t give him a lot to work with – and in their case, we know they are capable of better. They wrote Curse of the Black Pearl, after all.

Again, part of the problem seems to come down to the impossibility of adapting the book a second time, and therefore being deprived of the narrative core that drives Curse. Without Will and Elizabeth to provide the romance element, the scriptwriters hit upon pairing Jack Sparrow with a previously unheard-of paramour, Blackbeard’s daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz). But Jack’s character doesn’t suit angsty romance, and his chemistry with Cruz doesn’t exactly set the screen on fire either. So they tried tacking on a subplot about a young preacher (to me at least, a very obvious substitute for the book’s hero, John Chandagnac) and the captive mermaid. However the preacher, Philip, is such a minor character that for a long time you don’t even know his name, and so the whole thing feels thin and under-developed compared to Will’s life-long devotion to Elizabeth. Sadly, two weak romances are no substitute for one good one.

The pacing is not great either. The film feels a good half an hour too long – and not just because of the excess romance scenes. Some of the action set pieces (like the mermaid’s capture) are dragged out as if to milk every last CGI possibility, and the final obligatory battle between pirates and soldiers is interrupted by a typical piece of Captain Jack’s witty banter – except that the dialogue lacks the dazzling panache of the earliest scripts and so only serves to bring the scene to a grinding halt.

Overall it’s not a bad movie – if one had never seen the previous ones, it might even seem like a clever resurrection of the pirate genre – but Curse of the Black Pearl was always going to be such a hard act to follow that On Stranger Tides suffers badly by comparison. There are far worse ways to end a series, though, so unless Rossio and Elliott can pull something extraordinary out of their tricorne hats, I very much hope this is Captain Jack Sparrow’s last, still-entertaining gasp.

DVD review: Red Cliff

Although the focus of my historical interest is medieval and renaissance Europe, I’ve always had a fondness for the Far East, ever since my early teens when I used to watch The Water Margin with my Dad. I love all kinds of Asian cinema, from visually gorgeous epics like Hero to non-stop-action martial arts movies. Red Cliff delivers, for me at least, a near-perfect mix of the two.

Note that the version reviewed here is the earlier, heavily cut Western release, just over two hours long, not the epic four-hour original.

Red Cliff (2008)

Set in 3rd-century Han China in the aftermath of a civil war, Red Cliff is a retelling of the historical Battle of Chi Bi. Ambitious prime minister Cao Cao persuades the young Emperor that to secure permanent peace, it is necessary to crush the two remaining warlords: Liu Bei and Sun Quan. Taking his vast but exhausted army south, Cao Cao drives Liu Bei and his ragtag band of rebels before him. Liu Bei sends his brilliant young strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to convince Sun Quan’s viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) to form an alliance, and together they make a stand, on the Yangtse River at the fortress of Red Cliff.

This being a John Woo movie, there is plenty of action, from vast panoramic battle scenes to one-on-one combat, the latter in typically flamboyant – and bloody! – Woo style, though without the exagerrated wirework that has become almost a big a cliché of Asian cinema as “bullet time” is in its Western equivalents. It’s not all yang, however; there are quiet moments, from tea ceremonies to musical duets, as beautifully filmed as in any of the more “artsy” Chinese movies. And speaking of yin, although this is inevitably a film dominated by its male characters, the women are not neglected. Sun Quan’s sister Shangxiang plays a very active role in helping to defeat Cao Cao, and even Zhou Yu’s wife, the gentle Xiao Qiao, who wishes they could all sit down and talk over tea instead of fighting, refuses to sit at home whilst brave men die all around her.

If I have one complaint, it’s that the cuts create a few jumps in the narrative that can leave the viewer a little puzzled, so I can’t wait to get hold of the “extended” (i.e. uncut) version and see it in all its glory. If you have any interest in military history – or just dig the awesome battle scenes in Return of the King – I would strongly recommend seeing this film.

Classic movie: Scaramouche

One of the big influences on my imagination when I was growing up, and therefore on my writing as an adult, was the classic swashbuckling movies of the 1940s and 1950s. I thought it would be good to share some of my favourites on this blog – and of course it’s a great excuse to watch them again!

Scaramouche (1952)

Adapted from Rafael Sabatini’s 1921 novel of the same name, Scaramouche is set in late 18th century France. The hero, André Moreau (Stewart Granger), is the bastard son of a nobleman and best friend to Philippe de Valmorin, a hot-headed young revolutionary. Upon being told that his father, the Count de Gavrillac, has cut off his allowance, Moreau goes to visit him, and on the way meets the beautiful Aline (Janet Leigh) and falls in love with her. Unfortunately Aline turns out to be de Gavrillac’s daughter and therefore Moreau’s half-sister. Worse still, the count has just died, leaving his bastard son penniless.

When de Valmorin is killed in a duel by the arrogant Marquis de Maynes (Mel Ferrer), Moreau vows vengeance; but to have a chance of succeeding, he has to learn the art of the sword from the finest fencing masters in France. In the meantime he goes into hiding with a commedia dell’arte troupe, where he takes on the masked role of Scaramouche. This throws him back into the arms of his one-time lover, the fiery-tempered Lenore (Eleanor Parker), who plays Columbine in the same troupe. Meanwhile Aline, who is a ward of the crown, is introduced  to de Maynes by the queen and they become engaged, though Aline is still in love with Moreau.

Thanks to Moreau’s popularity as Scaramouche, the troupe is invited to play in Paris. Persuaded to join the new National Assembly, whose deputies are being systematically killed off in duels by the aristocratic members of the opposition, Moreau fights several duels and wins. Believing himself ready to take on de Maynes, he tries to call him out – but each time, de Maynes is absent on the queen’s business, thanks to Aline’s scheming.

Aline cannot keep the two men apart forever, however. Her plans go awry when she persuades de Maynes to attend the theatre where Moreau and the troupe are performing. Recognising his enemy, Moreau leaps up onto the balcony, and there follows one of the longest, and possibly best, swordfights in movie history, ranging through the theatre.

I won’t spoil the ending, but I think it will come as no surprise to find out that Moreau wins the fight and gets the girl in the end (which girl, I will leave you to find out!).

There’s so much to love about this film, I hardly know where to start, although the final swordfight, with Granger in a stunning black-and-white Renaissance costume (including, as Queenie from Blackadder II would say, “very tight tights”) is the highlight and most memorable scene by far. And whilst its female characters may be a little stereotypical by modern standards, Aline’s spirit and cunning make her rather more likable than the typical wilting heroine of pre-women’s-lib romance. One of my favourite scenes is the one in which she feigns a tantrum in order to divert de Maynes away from duelling, played by Leigh with such mischievous delight that I was cheering her on!

Watching it again, I was struck by how much this film influenced my first novel in particular, from the swordsman hero and travelling players, to the blend of action, politics and romance. It may be escapist nonsense, but it’s very much my kind of escapist nonsense!

Winter is coming

Yesterday (Monday 26th) was the scheduled date for filming to start on the rest of Season One of “A Game of Thrones”, HBO’s adaptation of George R R Martin’s epic fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire”. To say that I’m excited is an understatement…

On a long walk to the post office yesterday, I was trying to work out why. I mean, I really enjoyed reading the first book, and I’m looking forward to the second, but I have other favourite fantasy series, including one that’s already been adapted for moving pictures – several of the Discworld novels have been thus treated. On the other hand none of my most favourite Discworld books have been adapted yet, which takes the edge off the anticipation. Also, Pratchett is an easy sell with wide audience appeal – adapting his work is almost a no-brainer.

When it comes to more serious fantasy, on the other hand, we have practically nothing. SF TV gets to be dark and gritty, at least at times, but fantasy TV is much more limited. For starters, it’s pretty much all urban fantasy: vampires, werewolves, and other monsters disrupting the lives of modern-day people. Secondly, for a generation brought up on the incomparable Joss Whedon, humour is almost obligatory. The only serious show that springs to mind is “True Blood” – which is of course a show about vampires. From HBO.

“A Game of Thrones” is neither urban nor humorous; it’s more like “The Tudors” or “The Borgias”, a sprawling epic of feuding dynasties set in a brutal medieval-style world. There are monsters out there, but they don’t make much of an appearance in the first book (and therefore the first season).

I think, therefore, that part of my excitement stems from the desire for non-fans of the genre to learn that there’s more to fantasy than vampires and boy wizards. Fantasy may not have the kudos of SF literature, which at its best can be the ultimate vehicle for a thought-provoking story, but it is much wider in range and style than public perception.

It’ll be interesting to see how the series is received by the TV-viewing public. Given HBO’s reputation for making top-quality drama, it has a good chance of success, even if no TV adaptation can ever satisfy the fan-boys. But one thing is now certain.

Winter is coming…

Write about what you know!

As writers we’re often told “write what you know” – which admittedly is kinda tricky when you’re writing SF&F! – but it holds true no matter what genre or medium you work in. When it comes down to facts (and even the most fanciful of stories contains a few), you really have a duty to get them right. And if you don’t know the facts, you need to a) do your research and b) get someone more knowledgeable than you to check them.
On Sunday night, Mr L and I watched the latest episode of “The Mentalist” to grace UK TV screens. I have to confess that I love US crime/mystery shows, even though the formula has become so formulaic (feisty female detective, maverick male sidekick, obligatory black boss) as to be embarrassing. Anyway, we knew we were in for a few cringe-worthy moments as soon as it transpired that one of the characters was British…
(Warning – mild spoilers for episode 217 “The Red Box”)

Now, I can easily forgive a character with a Yorkshire accent professing to be a Liverpool F.C. fan – the major teams have followers everywhere, not just in their home city. But there were two “facts” in the story that I found totally implausible, one of which revealed that the writer knew bugger-all about British culture – or worse still, didn’t care.
First, we were expected to believe that an inexpensive replica of an Ancient Egyptian ring, from the British Museum gift shop no less, could be successfully passed off as the original. Perhaps to an extremely gullible member of the American public, but to a dealer in stolen antiquities? I have a handsome replica Anglo-Saxon ring from that very establishment, made of gilt bronze, and not only is it very obviously machine-made and therefore mass-produced, but it bears a modern hallmark! Admittedly “The Mentalist” is hardly CSI – it’s more about showing off the central character’s eccentric personality and kewl skillz than portraying realistic investigations – but this is the kind of slipshod plotting that gives cozies a bad name. I can only assume that, by using the British Museum rather than, say, the Smithsonian, the writer hoped to give the plot-hole a gloss of plausibility, but it’s a plot-hole nonetheless.

The second gaffe was the one that made me laugh out loud, however. Examining the body, Jane observes a scar on the young man’s face, and says that he can’t have been at Eton or he would have had plastic surgery to remove the scar. Seriously? Americans seem to be obsessed with how bad our teeth are (and admittedly we don’t worship orthodontists the way they do) – so why would they perversely think that that we share their attitude to cosmetic surgery? I know the world has changed a lot since I was young, but even now I’m pretty sure that, unless the scar was really noticeable and disfiguring, a young chap at Eton would not even think of having it removed; on the contrary, if he had the surgery he would likely be teased mercilessly for being so vain. But obviously the writer thought it was a cool clue, and used it regardless of its plausibility.

To paraphrase the show’s pilot episode: “It irks me. It’s irksome.”

Now, I’m not going to stop watching the show just because of a few stupid errors – it’s entertaining fluff, and Simon Baker is certainly easy on the eye :) But if this were a book, I’d be tempted to throw it at the wall, because I hold novelists to a higher standard than TV hacks. A flaw like those described above breaks the willing suspension of disbelief, and throws the reader out of the story.
Of course I’m setting myself up for a fall here, because I’m sure that sooner or later I’ll make a historical gaffe in my own work that will irk someone else and maybe even lose me a reader, but I guess that’s a chance we all take when we set pen to paper. No-one ever made art by playing it safe.

Merchant of Venice

Last night we went to see “The Merchant of Venice” at the Globe (a regular annual trip arranged by the campus sports and social club). The production was very good indeed – great acting and lots of music and spectacle. Unusually, they had added some bits of scenery to suggest the cityscape of Venice: at one corner of the stage were some rustic wooden poles, perhaps ten or twelve feet long, for tying up gondolas, and the normal short run of steps up to the stage had been replaced by a wooden bridge. The costumes were mostly Elizabethan but with a few tweaks to add the flavour of a busy modern metropolis (the programme made comparisons between Venice and New York), such as trilby-like hats for the men and one of the merchants in dark pinstripes!

Most surprising of all, though, was how funny the play was. When we think of “The Merchant of Venice”, we tend to focus on the trial, and Shylock’s contract with the eponymous merchant Antonio. But the subplots, of Bassanio’s wooing of Portia, Gratiano’s of Nerissa and the elopement of Lorenzo and Jessica, are much closer in tone to Shakespeare’s other Italian comedies, and the production certainly brought that out. As is typical with Shakespeare’s plays there is a part for the company’s clown in Lancelot, but this production added a nameless courtesan, played (I think) by Leander Deeny (who also took the minor parts of servants Leonardo and Stephano), who clopped about the stage in his high-soled chopins and engaged in “business” (in both the stage and usual sense) with some of the male characters. At the end of the performance all the cast joined in a jig, as was Elizabethan tradition. Perhaps because of the courtesan’s “clogs”, I was suddenly reminded of the big dance number at the end of the movie “Zatoichi”, and I wondered whether Takeshi Kitano had ever seen an authentic production of Shakespeare! Given the Bard’s popularity in Japan, it’s not so very improbable…
This was my second visit to the Globe, and as usual I treated it as something of a research trip as well as a good night out. In the theatre shop I bought a heavily-illustrated children’s book “A Shakespearean Theatre” – with their cut-away illustrations and tidbits of information, books of this sort are really useful for writers, condensing years of academic research into vivid images. Of course I have other, more grown-up resources to fill in the gaps, but an illustrated book makes it much easier to visualise what other works labour to describe.

The Winter’s Tale

Yesterday’s trip to London was exhausting but definitely worth it – almost as good as a trip back in time (and without the smells!)

We got the coach down to London and arrived in plenty of time, so we had a drink in “The Mudlark” and then dinner at Pizza Express (very Elizabethan – not!). Just after 7pm we headed back to the Globe, where we ordered a drink for the interval and hired cushions – the latter very necessary, as the benches are very hard. I was gratified to see that prices for cushion hire haven’t changed in 400 years, in relative terms at any rate. In Shakespeare’s day it cost 1d to hire a cushion, and now it costs £1. On the other hand the gallery seats used to cost only 2d or 3d – a lot cheaper than today’s £25!

The play was performed in Elizabethan costume, though with women in the parts that would have been played by boys. “The Winter’s Tale” is not one of Shakespeare’s best, and not easy to understand; not just because of the changes in the language in the last 400-odd years, but also because it is deliberately obscure in places. However it was an enjoyable performance and of course more “grist for the mill”.

Sadly I have no clear photos as it was a cloudy evening and thus rather dark; the theatre is open in the centre but obviously rather shadowy at that time of day.