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Home :: Archive :: 1990 :: July ::
1.0006 Modern Interpretations, Branagh (151)
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 1, No. 6. Monday, 30 Jul 1990.
 
 
(1)   Date:   Mon, 30 Jul 90 03:20:00 EDT                    (64 lines)
      From:   
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      Subject: Modern Productions
 
(2)   Date:         Mon, 30 Jul 90 11:10:25 EDT              (67 lines)
      From:         Ken Steele <
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 >
      Subject:      Branagh's Lear and MSND
 
(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date:   Mon, 30 Jul 90 03:20:00 EDT
From:   
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Subject: Modern Productions
 
     Certainly one cannot complain about adapting Shakespeare to the
modern stage if it works.  But I do not think we can make comparisons
between "modern" and "traditional" productions.  The 19th Century's
most popular productions involved what Michael Booth calls spectacular
theatre, and the style of acting was entirely different from what we
are used to.
 
     Henry Irving was considered the greatest Shakespearian
actor of his day, but a recording of him doing Wolsey's final speech
in *Henry VIII* had me rolling on the floor.  An American journalist
transcribed Irving's treatment of some lines in *The Merchant of
Venice* as follows:
 
          Wa thane, ett no eperes
          Ah! um! yo ned m'elp.
          Ough! ough! Gaw too thane! Ha! um!
          Yo com'n say
          Ah! Shilock! Um! ouch! we wode hev moanies!
          (as qtd. in Ellen Terry, *The Story of My Life*.
            London: Hutchinson & Co., 1908.  p. 273)
 
But to most Victorian theatre-goers (both English and American),
Irving's style of acting and production was perfectly acceptable--
even laudable.  Irving was the first actor to be knighted.
 
     What I find interesting about contemporary productions of
Shakespeare is how the theatre has changed its perception of
Shakespeare's works completely.  Now instead of seeing his plays as
great temples of moral and cultural virtue, they are works for the
"common people."  Now the idea is to "popularize" Shakespeare, and
make him "accessable" to the masses.  And so I get to see *The Comedy of
Errors* performed at Lincoln Center as schtick with the Flying
Karamatzov Brothers, *The Taming of the Shrew* converted into the
"Wild Bunch," and *A Midsummer Night's Dream* placed into "The Road
Warrior."  And how often do we see the comedies as opposed to the
tragedies?  Would the ratio today be the same as the 16th, 17th, 18th,
or 19th Centuries?
 
     But I am not complaining about modern productions.  I saw Kenneth
Brannagh's productions of *Lear* and *Dream* when the Renaissance
Theatre Company came to Toronto, and felt that they were very good.
Emma Thompson's Fool was outstanding, and I feel her's will be
considered one of the great interpretations of that role.  And I
did not agree with the Toronto critics, who for the most part panned
both productions.  For me, they were acting like snobs and saying,
"We will not be taken in by this British company, because we are
sophisticated Torontonians."  They missed the point.  Brannagh's
interpretation of both plays, while seeking to be popular, employed
a style that was "faithful" to the plays.
 
     My feeling is that we can compare styles, but to do so is more an
exercise in theatrical and cultural history than one about
Shakespeare.  We can criticize and praise different productions, but
we can never really talk about the "definitive" or even "traditional"
productions any more than one can talk about the "definitive
interpretation of the text.
 
Stephen Matsuba
York University

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(2) --------------------------------------------------------------71----
Date:         Mon, 30 Jul 90 11:10:25 EDT
From:         Ken Steele <
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 >
Subject:      Branagh's Lear and MSND
 
 
Well, perhaps this is somewhat tangential to the essential subject, but
tangents are the foundation of most conversation.  I don't believe that
Toronto critics (and New York critics, and Los Angeles critics...) were
being snobbish when panning Branagh's Lear and MSND.  I found them both
to be surprisingly *flat* productions: the cast was either tired or
uninspired, and the audience soon caught this boredom from them.
Ethna Roddy's Cordelia was truly awful; more than one noted Shakespearean
has remarked to me that this was the only Cordelia they had ever seen
whom they were actually glad to see die.  I agree, Emma Thompson's fool
was intriguing, and deserves the applause given it by almost every
critic.  Perhaps Branagh's Edgar and Quince would have been impressive,
too, but understudies took both roles when I saw the productions.
 
The staging for Branagh's Lear was expressive, but the endeavour to
design a set for both MSND *and* Lear resulted in a set which was
ideally suited for neither.  Of course, twinned plays always create
interesting resonances: I noted in particular that Snug carries a
joint-stool around CONSTANTLY in MSND, but that in Lear's mock trial
scene, the joint stool is purely a figment of his imagination.  But the
double feature at Stratford Ontario last year, combining the Comedy of
Errors and Titus Andronicus in a single evening, did considerably more
interesting things with the interconnections, I though, although they
did justice to neither play in such abbreviated versions.
 
Branagh's rain effect for the storm sequence was impressive -- a
custom-designed sprinkler system created a semi-circular curtain of
water cascading down into the ditch around the set -- but it was more
spectacle than drama.  More effective, for me, was the version of
the storm on the heath presented on Toronto's Harbourfront by
Theatresports, who staged a mock-King Lear in the duck pond wearing
hip-waders.  Lear and the Fool don goggles for the storm sequence,
in which other actors hurl buckets of water from either side.
But moving water does not assure moving drama.
 
The workmen in Branagh's MSND were wonderful, of course -- the modern
dress and tools brought their characters to life, and they ran away
with the show (even Bottom was a disappointment compared to his peers).
Perhaps the most hilarious moment of the play, though, was as Snug
reverently approached Theseus and Hippolyta, and began handing out his
business card to the members of the royal audience.
 
Something I have noticed, though, is the phenomenal difference an
audience can make to a production.  Last year I saw David Williams'
Shoemaker's Holiday twice at Stratford (Ontario, as always): the first
time I saw it with a herd of Renaissance scholars, who applauded
enthusiastically and added their energy to that of the players.  I
was convinced that this was the most successful play of the season.
The second time, with my wife, I was mortally disappointed as the
audience failed to grasp the jokes, sourly resisted applause, and
the actors waned in enthusiasm as a result.  Very different play,
although only a few weeks had passed and the performance had not been
altered.  My point is that perhaps the Branagh production seemed
equally remarkable during some of its performances, but I was not there
during one.
 
Branagh's cinematic Henry V, of course, is an amazing triumph which
ranks him as Olivier's successor.  Perhaps my expectations were too high
for his stage productions -- or perhaps his true talent lies in directing
film rather than stage productions.
 
Ken Steele
University of Toronto
 

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