Archive for March, 2006

Peter Brook’s Hamlet with Adrian Lester

March 31, 2006

I saw this as a stage production when it came through Seattle in 2000 or 2001. I remember being blown away by Adrian Lester’s incredibly clear and specific moment-to-moment work as Hamlet. My favorite scene was Hamlet putting Yorick’s skull on a stick and talking to it like a puppet — amazingly funny and theatrical work.

That bit is gone from the filmed version; I don’t know why. Watching it now, I’m struck by the drastic cuts. It opens with “O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,” cutting the opening scene and the entire court sequence with Claudius and Gertrude and the ambassadors to Norway and Laertes and Polonius. Hamlet gives the soliloquy, then Horatio enters and says he’s seen the ghost. And then the ghost appears right into that scene. No guards, no battlements — no fucking around. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive without the introductory scene between them and Claudius. “To be or not to be” is moved to when Hamlet leaves Elsinore for England. Laertes doesn’t show up at all until Act IV.

The cuts, combined with Brook’s exquisitely simple staging of the whole play on a large square red rug, serve to focus the production down to the core of language and interaction. There’s something wonderfully intimate about the whole thing. Brook has said he likes to do Shakespeare with only what is essential. He certainly does that here.

It makes me question the choices I’ve made so far for my own production. I’m not allowing for that simple intimacy in my design concept. I’m planning to use more actors, more business, a larger and more complicated canvas. And that means sacrificing some powerful opportunities.

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short post tonight

March 30, 2006

I got caught up editing together a montage from my recent production of Macbeth — Final Cut Pro is worse than video games.

I started watching Peter Brook’s Hamlet with Adrian Lester this afternoon, before getting sucked in to the computer. I’ll post a review soon. But quickly: it’s a very interesting cut of the play. It opens with “too too sullied flesh” and cuts Laertes entirely out. I’m not going to cut Laertes, but I can feel my mind opening up to more possibilities.

Campbell Scott’s Hamlet

March 29, 2006

A made-for-TV movie adaptation of Hamlet, starring and co-directed by Campbell Scott for Hallmark Home Entertainment. I’ve always found Campbell Scott sort of sleazy and annoying, so it was a pleasant surprise to find him doing solid work here. Nothing outstanding, but he’s clear and crisp and easy to watch.

The movie itself is almost totally forgettable. It looks and plays like a soap opera — all bright daylight and half-whispered dialogue. Laertes in particular seems incapable of even the barest minimum of vocal production; he conveys intensity by whispering more slowly. Everything is straightforward and uninspired.

There were a couple of nice moments that I might steal. I especially liked having Ophelia witness Hamlet’s joking about Polonius’ dead body — a great way to set up Hamlet’s responsibility for her madness.

But for the most part, this Hamlet was, well, a made-for-TV-movie. Yawn.

The most unkindest cut

March 28, 2006

Still working on the cut of the play. Here’s an example of how this works for me.

There are three scenes in a row in Act IV in which Hamlet does not appear. IV,v is Ophelia’s mad scene and Laertes’ rebellion, 215 lines. IV,vi is Horatio receiving — and reading aloud — Hamlet’s letter explaining about the pirates. IV,vii starts with Claudius and Laertes plotting; another letter from Hamlet arrives, they plan the fencing match and the poison, and Gertrude arrives with the story of Ophelia’s death.

These are good scenes. Lots of opportunities for exciting theatre. But my goal is an hour forty-five, so good scenes will have to get cut. And at a certain point, the people came to see the Prince.

In my first pass at cutting these scenes, I made a lot of internal cuts. For example, the King says to Laertes after Ophelia’s mad scene:

Laertes, I must commune with your grief,
Or you deny me right. Go but apart,
Make choice of whom your wisest friends you will.
And they shall hear and judge ‘twixt you and me:
If by direct or by collateral hand
They find us touch’d, we will our kingdom give,
Our crown, our life, and all that we can ours,
To you in satisfaction; but if not,
Be you content to lend your patience to us,
And we shall jointly labour with your soul
To give it due content.

This quickly became:

Laertes, I must commune with your grief;
Be you content to lend your patience to us,
And we shall jointly labour with your soul
To give it due content.

This is an extreme example, but similar cuts, often just a line at a time, shortened these scenes significantly — IV,v went from 215 lines to about 100. And I’m doing line-at-a-time cuts throughout the play.

But it’s not enough. I need to cut pages and pages, quite possibly half of the full play. So I looked at these three scenes again. Here’s the sequence in the original:

-Ophelia’s mad scene with a lot of songs, witnessed by Claudius and Gertrude and Horatio
-Laertes’ rebellion; Claudius begins to turn him
-Ophelia’s second mad scene, with the flowers

-Horatio getting the letter from Hamlet

-Claudius completing his seduction of Laertes
-the letter from Hamlet for Claudius
-Claudius and Laertes plan the fencing and the poison
-Gertrude tells of Ophelia’s death

And here’s how I have it now:

-Claudius completing his seduction of Laertes
-Ophelia’s mad scene, with the flowers and the most interesting songs
-Claudius and Laertes plan the fencing and the poison
-Gertrude tells of Ophelia’s death

What was eight pages even after my first round of cuts has become three and a half, and I think it will still all make sense. Laertes’ rebellion is implied, and we still get some great revengeful lines from him that set up the contrast with the delay-prone Hamlet. Horatio reading the letter isn’t the most exciting scene anyway, and if necessary for logic I can add a line or two from the letter into the later scene between Hamlet and Horatio.

It kills me to do this. I feel like I’m tampering with a carefully built structure, and that if I remove the wrong piece it will all come tumbling down. But again: the more I cut, the more time we’ll have to rehearse each line that’s left. And it’s outdoors. The show will be better for it.

Indispensible Shakespeare Books

March 27, 2006

This post is about practical books, the kind of books I like to bring to rehearsal and spread around the table. Leaving biographies and criticism out for now.

The OED. The Oxford English Dictionary. Every word in the English language, plus every word’s historical definitions, with dates and examples of usage. And the earliest known use of each word. Very often when you look up a word from Shakespeare in the OED, you find the play you’re reading quoted as the first use of that word. My parents had this in the house when I was growing up; it’s two massive books in a cardboard box with a drawer for a magnifying glass for reading the tiny print. I stole my parents’ copy.

The Applause Facsimile First Folio. It’s great to see how the plays were printed just a few years after Shakespeare. The spelling and punctuation can open up a line in a whole new way.

The Lexicon. AKA “Shakespeare Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary: Every Word Defined and Located.” Definitions for every word in all of Shakespeare, and for each use of every word. Often the definitions are light; just what you could figure out from context anyway. Still, an amazing piece of work, and very helpful.

Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare. A tour through all the plays, explaining almost all of the historical, mythological, and biblical references. Incredibly helpful. More on this one in a later post, I think.

Playing Shakespeare by John Barton. I’m just reading this for the first time now, and I wish someone had forced me to read it years and years ago. It’s all stuff that I use with actors on a daily basis, but I had to learn it here and there, one piece at a time. If you are an actor or director of Shakespeare, go get this book right now. The next time I teach a Shakespeare acting class, this will be the textbook. Practical, simple, straightforward methods for finding the opportunities Shakespeare gives you with the verse.

The K&K — Kenyon and Knott’s Pronouncing Dictionary of American English. Uses the International Phonetic Alphabet. Includes names.

Who’s Who in Shakespeare. Good for the histories.

The Riverside complete works.

The Arden edition of the individual plays.

What are your favorites?

off-topic: Caesar photos

March 24, 2006

Just got some great shots from my recent production of Julius Caesar at UC Riverside. They are up for viewing on my flickr page.

Rehearsal Report #2

March 24, 2006

Met with **** (the actor playing Hamlet) again tonight at Cal State Long Beach after teaching my intro to acting class. We started by talking through the design concept (which I hadn’t come up with yet at our first meeting a couple of weeks ago). He seemed to like the Mucha and DorĂ© images, and got excited about the costume possibilities. Then we continued reading through the play, picking up where we left off after Act I and stopping every beat or two to talk.

It’s such a luxury to have the time to do this type of work, without any need to rush. We’re taking as much time as we want to talk about whatever comes up. A particular line might remind me of another line in another scene; I’ll point out the connection, and that will get **** talking about another aspect of Hamlet’s character, and we’ll spend twenty minutes working through it before getting back to the text. In a regular rehearsal, there’s never time for that kind of discussion. It’s glorious.

Lots more talk tonight about the delay and Hamlet’s motivation. I talked about the idea of denying change and pointed out various connections back to that idea throughout the night — but I also tried not to cram it down ****’s throat. There’s such a fine line for directors here. On the one hand, you have your central idea about the play, and a big part of your central idea is that it is the main character’s superobjective. On the other hand, saying “This is your superobjective, deal with it” to an actor is condescending and rude, and interferes with the actor’s natural process (though when directing young students, it’s sometimes necessary to help them out with this kind of thing, and I’ve directed so many student productions that I have to watch out for overdoing it when I work with professional adults). Ideally, though, if you pick the right main action, your lead actor will wind up playing a superobjective that fits the bill even if you say nothing about it.

We also talked about Polonius, whether he was complicit in the murder of Old Hamlet, and whether Hamlet believes Polonius was complicit. We talked about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and how perhaps Hamlet was much better friends with them than with Horatio — he grew up with them, Horatio is not from Denmark. Even after determining that they came to spy on him, Hamlet seems to keep trying to appeal to their friendship to get them on his side against Claudius (and maybe they really are genuinely trying to help their friend the whole time). We talked about Ophelia, and why Hamlet is so hurtful towards her. I’ll do a whole post about that sooner or later.

And we talked about “To be or not to be” — it seems now like a choice not just between committing suicide versus not, but between accepting that life is suffering versus a knowingly futile attempt to fight the forces of despair and grief (which leads to death, whether it be by suicide or as the necessary consequence of revenge). “To be” is to do nothing, to accept the changed situation by deciding not to take revenge (“to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”). “Not to be” is to actively take action in defiance of the changed situation, even with the knowledge that this is doomed (“to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them. To die.”). I’ll do a whole post on this speech sometime; hopefully I’ll eventually do a post on each of the soliloquys.

Henry IV: The Impact Remix

March 22, 2006

In response to this, here’s a couple of pieces from my program note for the Impact Theatre production of a cut of Henry IV: Part One.

“Impact’s mission has always been to make plays for young people, people who tend to think that theatre is boring, stuffy, and has nothing to do with their lives. And that goes double for Shakespeare. If your only experience of Shakespeare was your boring high school English class, this production is for you. If you start to nod off when you see some dude in tights start talking about Love, this production is for you. We want to show you why people say Shakespeare was the greatest writer in the English language, why we have Shakespeare festivals and not Ben Jonson festivals, why you had to suffer through an interminable semester of centuries-dead white guys speaking words no one uses anymore.

Because the thing is, we think Shakespeare is pretty cool. He used the English language the same way Barry Bonds swings a bat. And he wrote about people dealing with issues that are so personal they break through to the universal: love, obviously, but also revenge, family, ambition, jealousy, and friendship. Like no one before or since, he had an uncanny ability to match the sounds of the words — the open vowels or harsh consonants — to the meaning of what the characters are saying. In Shakespeare, every word is onomatopoeia, and that’s fucking cool. His characters are complex and determined and sexy, his themes are tightly interwoven with his plots, and his stories are profound and beautiful.

…At its most ambitious, Impact’s mission is to reinvigorate the American theatre by making plays for people who wouldn’t come to the theatre otherwise. Shakespeare really did do something special, and it would be a shame for anyone to miss out on his plays. Each new generation finds its own way to bring Shakespeare to life. Now it’s our turn. Enjoy.”

Henry IV: The Impact Remix

The Arden Edition

March 22, 2006

When Shakespeare wrote his plays, the rules of English had yet to be formally set down. Spelling and punctuation were matters of taste. Printed editions of the same play varied wildly. So today, the process of putting together an edition of a Shakespeare play means making choices, and no two modern editions are alike.

The Arden Edition is unabashedly, shamelessly, gloriously geeky. For every discrepancy between the First Folio and the Second Quarto (the two most authoritative sources of Hamlet that still survive), the Arden Edition has a little note explaining which one they’ve chosen to follow, and often a longer note explaining why. Wherever the editor has chosen to depart from both the Folio and the Quarto, as is often necessary, there’s a note explaining the choice — and a reference to what past editors have done with the questionable line. After I finish the major cuts to the play, I’ll go through line-by-line with the Arden to set the punctuation and word choice.

About half of every page of the Arden Hamlet is given over to more notes about the text: explanations of obscure words or phrases, alternative definitions for Shakespeare’s many puns, references to similar phrases in other plays by Shakespeare and other writers, speculations on character motivation, elaborations on image patterns and themes, and on and on and on. There’s also an additional 150 pages of longer notes at the end, on such topics (and organized by reference in the text) as the symbolism of Ophelia’s flowers and songs, whether Hamlet knows he’s being spied on in the get-thee-to-a-nunnery scene, the episode of the cloud, the succession in Denmark, the Player’s speech, and many many more.

The Introduction is also over 150 pages, and covers the likely date of the play, the various surviving texts, Shakespeare’s sources, and a massive exploration of the play’s themes. Of all the Shakespeare criticism I’ve read (which isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, admittedly), the Arden does the best job of actually citing the text to make its points.

When you work with the Arden, you know what you’re talking about. There’s no two ways about it. The script I use in rehearsal is a printout of my cut of the play, with lots of room in the margins for scribbles about beats and blocking. But I always bring the Arden to rehearsal as well. In tabletalk, it’s indespensible. Having the Arden in your bag is like knowing a brilliant and slightly cranky old professor who’s spent a lifetime studying Shakespeare and wants to be sure you’re doing it right.

Which isn’t to say I agree with everything in there. The Arden takes a scholarly, literary approach — they clearly think of the play as a work of literature, and seem wary and distrustful of the kind of choices that get made in production. For example, it’s all well and good to point out that Hamlet makes no direct reference to his own situation in the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, but it’s just silly to pretend that the audience isn’t going to make that kind of connection. The Arden tends to take everything Hamlet says at face value and to think that Shakespeare wrote many lines that function primarily or even solely on a thematic level, avoiding the kind of motivational analysis an actor has to do to bring the character to life. It also has a weird obsession with the idea that Gertrude must have been sleeping with Claudius before Old Hamlet died; this is the only point the Arden makes that it seems totally incapable of backing up in the text.

I plan to post about all the Shakespeare books that I use in prepping and rehearsing a show — the Asimov, the Lexicon, the OED — but I had to start here. For geeking out on Shakespeare, nothing beats the Arden.

Olivier’s Hamlet

March 21, 2006

They didn’t have this at my local big-chain video store. I rented it at CineFile, which is apparently LA’s very small answer to Reel in Berkeley or Scarecrow in Seattle. Not nearly the size of either of those, but a similar feel. Also in the Shakespeare section were Strange Brew and a porno version of Hamlet. As a dedicated blogger, I might be compelled to review each of those here soon. No sign of The Lion King, though.

I was surprised by what a mess this movie turned out to be. The script was cut to pieces, which would have been interesting and even useful for me if there had been any apparent rhyme or reason to what was cut what was kept. Fortinbras is gone — which is fine — but so are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The Player’s speech is gone, and so “rogue and peasant slave” is gone as well. The advice to the Players is in there, but the dialogue in the play-within-a-play is all cut.

The strangest thing about this movie, though, is its treatment of Ophelia (Jean Simmons). She’s batshit crazy from the very beginning. At first I thought I liked it; it certainly sets up the mad scene. But this took it so far that it was impossible to really care much about her. Are we really meant to understand that Hamlet didn’t come to her chamber, his doublet all unbrac’d, and that she just imagined or hallucinated that whole encounter?

Other high points: Peter Cushing mincing around as Osric. ‘To be or not to be’ on the edge of a cliff AND with a dagger — two options for suicide instead of just the one. Endless repeated shots of twisty staircases, apparently symbolic of insanity.

In the end, not a lot for me to take away from this one. Still ahead: Branagh, Gibson, Ethan Hawke, Campbell Scott, Kevin Kline if I can find it. And maybe the hosers from Elsinore Brewery.

If anyone knows where I can find any others, especially videos of really good stage productions, let me know.