All entries for Sunday 25 September 2011

September 25, 2011

Shakespeare on Film: An Encyclopedia by Marcus Pitcaithly

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In a year when Shakespearean film is very much back in the mainstream, Marcus Pitcaithly’s new volume, Shakespeare on Film: An Encyclopedia is especially timely. Pitcaithly’s assiduous volume is the most comprehensive survey of Shakespearean film yet undertaken. Running from Beerbohm Tree’s 1889 King John to Marianne Elliott’s 2009 All’s Well that Ends Well, the encyclopedia covers every Shakespearean film or adaptation released in cinemas, on the condition that it is at least largely based (textually or thematically) on a play – thus, of backstage dramas, Shakespeare in Love is included, but Stage Beauty, Me and Orson Welles and The Libertine are not.

That this pedantic reviewer failed to find any missing items according to Pitcaithly’s criteria is credit to the volume’s thoroughness. I’m less sure if some of the items mentioned – e.g. Bob Komar’s 2006 Measure for Measure – ever did reach the big screen rather than going direct to video, but details of distribution are not Pitcaithly’s explicit concern. What the volume does offer is an entertaining and detailed introduction to every relevant screen version that will prove an invaluable resource for scholars and enthusiasts alike.

Despite the book’s title, this is not so much an information-gathering exercise as an opportunity for Pitcaithly to offer his own judicious reviews of the films. The value of his immersion in this field is immediately apparent: his introduction to Omkara (2006), for example, locates the film within the context of Vishal Bharadwaj’s other work and reputation within Indian cinema; he is able to discuss the collected work of the "usually unimpressive" Cromwell Films; and there are an impressive number of "lost" films discussed for cinematic completists.

As such, the strong personal voice of the writer is an advantage throughout. Rather than bland description, Pitcaithly is frank about which films he likes and which he doesn't, while still according all a fair hearing. Thus, he takes time to go through the important flaws of Zeffirelli's The Taming of the Shrew while offering a remarkably positive appraisal of Brian Blessed's King Lear. He is transparent when he has not seen one of the films in question and carefully qualifies reported reviews (as in his description of Kishore Sahu's 1954 Hamlet).

As a miscellany, the book is a delight. Pitcaithly's engaging tone and attention to detail make him an ideal guide for this whistle-stop tour. He is equally well-versed in both the Shakespearean text, frequently noting his disappointment at serious omissions, and also in the language of cinema, reflecting on the quality of cinematography and the intertextuality of film references.

For pedagogical purposes, the book is sorely lacking one important feature – an index by title, and a correlating one by play. The reader who wishes to trace, say, all the film versions of Romeo and Juliet, is required to trawl manually through over 300 pages of analysis. Ideally, for a volume this size, all entries should be individually numbered, allowing for a simple keying system.

The final entry, the NT Live broadcast of All’s Well that Ends Well, raises a final interesting methodological question. TV adaptations are excluded, a limitation understandable in a project of this size. However, the book’s ethos of including anything that has been shown in a cinema is complicated by the new trend for broadcasting live stage productions in cinemas. Even if the book were to be updated by a year, it would be required to include a half-dozen stage productions from the Globe, the National’s Hamlet and the Donmar’s King Lear, and no doubt many more as this new form takes off. These productions do not adhere to basic filmic conventions: they are the stage productions, covered (with greater or lesser skill) by HD cameras, but still performed to a live stage audience. Is it really more valuable to include these films than to include, say, the versions of the RSC’s Hamlet or the Chichester Macbeth that were specially filmed for TV and are, in those senses, far more “filmic” than the NT Live broadcasts?

While the ongoing blurring of forms of dissemination for screen Shakespeare means that a project of this nature will always leave open ends such as these, one could not ask for more from this volume as a single-author overview of cinematic Shakespeare. It's currently available from the author, but hopefully will be picked up and distributed by a publisher before long.

Othello (Sheffield Theatres) @ The Crucible

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I’m not usually an advocate of celebrity casting. I didn’t see any of the star-name Shakespeares of the summer: Kevin Spacey in Richard III, Ralph Fiennes in The Tempest, or David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Much Ado about Nothing. However, I’m too big a fan of The Wire to have risked missing Daniel Evans’s new production of Othello in Sheffield, conveniently just up the road from my new home in Nottingham. Reuniting Clarke Peters and Dominic West, this was the thinking person’s celebrity show.

Othello publicity art

The Crucible is an exciting space, here featuring a large bare thrust with a stone background, dominated by a huge set of doors. The acoustics of the space were dismal, however, with several actors struggling to be heard. Little practical problems such as this blighted the production throughout: fluffed lines, awkward pauses and a horrible moment when Peters found himself unable to draw his sword from the bed, causing him to toss the dead Desdemona’s head about rather roughly as he struggled to liberate it.

These unintentional difficulties, however, were reflected in other uneven moments that were deliberate. Lucy Carter’s lighting design was frequently effective (the gloom of the opening scene; the gradual increase of exposure towards a balmy heat in the play’s second half) but often inexplicable. Why, after establishing a beautiful darkness for the opening scene, were the lights raised so much for the second scene which also takes place in the dead of night? Why switch from relatively natural lighting states representing atmosphere to the abstract use of lighting to create a confined stage space for the willow scene? Why introduce a lighthouse-style moving spot for one random scene change? The set was more consistent, the mostly bare stage allowing for the appearance of a large bed in the final scene to shift the dynamic dramatically.

Despite these problems, Evans offered a traditional and decent production of Othello that particularly benefitted from the evenness of Peters and West. Both held the stage with consummate ease, and just as generously yielded it when not needed. West was particularly skilful at blending unobtrusively into the background in the earlier scenes, gradually coming more to the forefront. His interpretation, with a thick Sheffield accent, echoed Ian McKellen’s in Trevor Nunn’s famous RSC production in treating Iago as a bluff Northern soldier, whose plain speech and manners meant that others repeatedly underestimated him. His crudity following the tempest was pointedly disliked by the other characters, and his casual behaviour towards his peers drew occasional scorn from Cassio. It was an effective approach to Iago that made especial use of subtle expressions – his “I like not that” and “indeed” were entirely natural, yet the note of suspicion contrasted so well with his usual bluffness that Othello couldn’t help but pick up on it.

Peters was a dignified, slow-moving Othello, who took his time to stroll around the stage and react. He spoke carefully, in a deep voice, and allowed himself plenty of time to think before replying to Iago. As the rot set in, the cracks began to show. Peters offered the most believable epileptic fit I’ve ever seen onstage, allowing his words to gradually speed up and break down, his body becoming locked into his stutters and finally collapsing. His careful dignity also made his subsequent outbursts more pointed, and the moment where he slapped Desdemona was especially difficult to watch.

Other performances were less strong. The young Lily James was an affecting Desdemona, who maintained a self-possession even during her abuse by Othello that felt surprisingly modern; but Alexandra Gilbreath’s Emilia was quite tiresome. Played as a Mistress Quickly/Nancy-from-Oliver! Cockney maid, her performance was based around mugging, saucy innuendo and hands-on-hips indignation. As the second half went on, she became much better, her jaunty persona giving way to a more interesting fierce loyalty to the wronged Desdemona that allowed more of the character’s depth to be seen. Colin George as Brabantio, meanwhile, seemed barely to notice the words he was reciting during the first two scenes, where expression and sense were both entirely absent.

As ever, the drinking scene was a particular highlight, with Montano (Luciano Dodero) unusually prominent as Iago got the revellers to pour their dregs into a single goblet that Gwilym Lee’s Cassio was forced to down. Lee did excellent work in the role, creating a very human Cassio whose attempts to drunkenly assert his sobriety were realistic rather than merely funny. Brodie Ross complimented Cassio in this scene and others, exaggerating the foppish aspects of the character while rarely making him ridiculous (save for in the very entertaining “incontinence” passage, where he wailed comically). Ian Barritt’s Clown was also surprisingly funny.

A few other moments stood out. James’s singing during the willow scene was not only beautiful, but poignant and vulnerable, and it was from this point that Gilbreath reined in her excesses as Emilia. The storm was fully created with thunder and lightning effects, over which the actors attempted to scream; and the scene in which Cassio and Iago discuss Bianca was simple but absolutely clear. Iago stood between Othello and Cassio, angling his body to explicitly control what Othello could and could not hear.

This was Iago and Othello’s show, however. I would have liked to have seen more go on beneath Iago’s façade, particularly as West’s pauses and careful swallows after mentions of his wife’s infidelity suggested a very specific motive for his anger that was realised brutally as he pinned Emilia to the floor and kissed her in order to get the handkerchief, before kicking her off the stage. His relationship with Peters was riveting, however, and their long shared scene was the most obviously rehearsed aspect of the whole production. The two batted single words and raised voices back and forth, orchestrating the temptation in a captivating and entirely believable manner, giving a sense of Iago’s truly insidious nature.

This has the potential to be a much better production once the company have relaxed and the kinks are ironed out. While it suffered from a few very weak performances and an overly traditional approach, this remained a faithful and often fascinating Othello that understood the importance of getting its two lead characters front and centre on a bare stage and letting them work. While it was a relief to see these priorities, however, the central relationship needs to be better supported by the rest of the production in order for it to be great.

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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