All entries for October 2011

October 30, 2011

Hunting Folios: Eric Rasmussen's "The Shakespeare Thefts"

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One of the relatively unknown problems in scholarly research is - what do you do with the stories? Inevitably, as we research, we turn up anecdotes, gossip, juicy titbits which are simply inappropriate to go in the monograph or article. Some of us (and I'm very guilty of this) relegate them to footnotes. Others pop them in TLS letters or Guardian articles. Some don't publish at all, but save them for conference dinner conversation. Particularly in Shakespeare studies, there are so many eccentrics and fascinating narratives that it's a shame for them to be lost.

That, at least, is the rationale behind The Shakespeare Thefts by Eric Rasmussen, scholar and bibliophile (and one of my general editors on the Collaborative Plays project. For over a decade, Rasmussen has been leading one of the most ambitious bibliographic enterprises ever mounted, the physical cataloguing of every extant copy of the 1623 First Folio. The results came out this year in The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalogue, co-edited with Anthony James West. This mammoth reference resource describes the folios in painstaking detail, from watermarks and scuffs to frayed edges, to more obviously interesting idiosyncracies such as marginalia, pasted pages and pawprints (!). At £225, however, it's not for the casual reader, and while the bibliographic detail will be of lasting value to book scholars, it's not information that will attract a wide audience. Thus, The Shakespeare Thefts.

This short book, arranged as an eclectic series of anecdotes, reminiscence, stand-alone narratives and detective stories, rounds up the juicier side of the team's research in compiling the larger volume. The unique cultural value accorded to the First Folio has made it a prime target for thieves, bootleggers, eccentric collectors and forgers.In tracing the provenance and history of the books, Rasmussen's team also compiled the more interesting instances of Folio theft and reappropriation, which make up the book.

Rasmussen's style is personal and humorous, often veering into personal anecdote: Rasmussen's son refers to his personal copy of the Second Folio as his "college fund", and a whole chapter is devoted to Rasmussen's purchase of a fakr portrait of Shakespeare and the ensuing TV journalism debacle. What comes across most strikingly is the personal enthusiasm for book history and the comic self-awareness of the extremes of obsession, not least in describing one team member's jubilant reaction to the discovery of a hair in an original Folio, and the complete lack of enthusiasm for the discovery on the part of the book's librarian.

That this is a labour of love is always apparent. Rasmussen's team of Folio hunters (who all get their moment to shine, and develop their own "characters" at various points in the book) travel the Globe to barter with Japanese private collectors, take tea with English earls and fight with librarians. One gets a sense of the scale of the enterprise, and of its importance, in Rasmussen's repeated return to his frustration with one Japanese family that continues to deny him access to view its prized copies. It's become, as in the title of one chapter, "Obsession"; yet it's an obsession driven by the scrupulousness of the team's scholarship and their wish to make the information available for future generations.

Of course, one of the most important effects of this kind of detailed study is that theft and resale becomes almost impossible, as each Folio is now so individually identifiable. The cornerstones of this book are the extended stories of particularly notable incidents, including Raymond Rickett Scott's well-documented attempt to pass on the Durham University copy, the deliberate theft of a Folio by William John Kwiatkowski (eventually revealed when an accomplice panicked that the Folio would end up in Hitler's possession) and the Folio once owned by Charles I. That thefts involve extraordinary pre-planning and ingenious attempts to disguise the books through mutilation gives the stories their meat; however, Rasmussen offers an interestingly mixed response to the individualisation of Folios. He loves ephemera and hand-annotation, and is even supportive of the expert facsimile pages created by John Harris to piece out incomplete volumes. Yet on the other hand, the deliberate desecration of Folios by would-be thieves becomes the mutilation of national treasures. It's a fascinating story, and one becomes aware of the fragility of these precious artefacts, yet eager to get them into one's own hands and feel the connection to the past.

The skill of Rasmussen's writing is in getting the reader excited about old books, offering colourful stories that turn paper and ink into individuals with living histories and murky pasts. It's a wonderful record of a passion project, and the ideal companion to the bibliographic volume.

October 16, 2011

Hamlet (Ketterer's Men) @ The Shakespeare Institute, Stratford–upon–Avon

I've recently been reading Marvin Carlson's The Haunted Stage (2001), which deals with a phenomenon in watching and making theatre that Carlson calls "ghosting". This is, effectively, the outer frame which shapes what an audience experiences in the process of attending a theatrical event, the collective resonances carried by actors, buildings, texts, scenery, everything that is reused, recycled and re-experienced. He concentrates particularly on Hamlet as the most haunted play in the Western canon, partly because of the play's own treatment of ghosts but more because of the long stage history that inevitably acts on every new production.

If Hamlet is already a haunted play, this production by the newly-formed Ketterer's Men was more haunted than most. For not only did we experience the "haunting" familiar to all productions of Hamlet: the pregnant pauses before the famous soliloquies, the pre-emptive laughter at the appearance of the already-familiar Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Osric, the collective watchfulness of Claudius's face as he himself watched "The Mousetrap"; but we also experienced the more visceral haunting of an old friend. Ketterer's Men were got up in honour of Lizz Ketterer, who died earlier this year and had always spoken of doing a production of Hamlet with her friend Will Sharpe, with the two as Ophelia and Hamlet. This production thus ghosted a version that never was but was infused with Lizz's life and spirit, and the collage of photographs dominating the programme ensured that her presence was felt by all. I've spoken briefly about Lizz before and don't need to do so again, except to admit that I can't be anything approaching impartial coming to an event that was so emotional for so many people I care about.

Happily, this was one of the best Hamlets I've ever had the fortune to attend, and certainly the fullest. Clocking in at just under four hours with two intervals, a conflated text and few really substantive cuts (the Rynaldo scene was skipped), this bare and intimate production put Shakespeare's play front and foremost, allowing this reviewer at least to really "hear" Hamlet for the first time in a long time. A mix of modern and period dress emphasised the relative formality of characters (Claudius in smoking jacket, Hamlet in hoodie, Gertrude in long gown etc.) and simple props (pikes, letters, daggers) supplemented the visual where necessary, and a low rostrum provided a level at the upstage end of the thrust, but this was an actor's production.

Sharpe's brooding Hamlet was intense and withdrawn, given to the occasional joke but mostly committed to his anger. Soliloquies were delivered slumped against walls or sitting on the stage, and he frequently turned lines in on himself, particularly his third repetition of "except my life". Softly spoken and natural in most of his dialogue, the moments where he lost control had particular impact in their relative volume: whether screaming against Laertes of his love for Ophelia or finally rejecting the nervous Guildenstern. A genuine affection for Ophelia and for his friends softened the character, but this Hamlet stood alone.

Elizabeth Sharrett's Ophelia was heartbreaking. Plainly dressed, she was tender towards her brother (even repacking his bag for him) and mildly irritated by her father. She played the nunnery scene with reluctance and thinly-veiled pain as she returned the letters, and then with tremulous shock as Hamlet began his tirade and screwed up the letters. While the force of this scene came from Sharpe, the emotional impact was in Sharrett's courage as she continued standing despite her world clearly falling apart. In her madness, she entered wearing a hoodie and thick mascara, which ran down her cheeks as the tears fell. The image of Laertes cradling her, the two weeping, as she sang "He is dead and gone" in broken lines spoke to the loss better than anything I've seen before on stage.

Beyond these two outstanding performances, the work of the entire ensemble was excellent, bringing out resonances and stories that are perhaps sometimes lost under the trappings of large-scale productions. Peter Malin (who also directed) was a sorrowful Ghost, pleading with Hamlet for his love and action, and delivered a fine showpiece speech as the Player King. The scene in Gertrude's bedchamber, with Stephanie Surrey vulnerable in pyjamas and Sharpe in particularly kinetic mode as trapped her on the stage, eventually grew into another intimate portrait as the Ghost stood over Gertrude and looked at her in love, while Hamlet sat between. The intimacy of this scene contrasted with Steve Quick's portrayal of Claudius throughout. This sickly politician clapped the entire audience for their support in his first scene and relied on a winning grin and the presentation of benign power throughout, a facade which was slowly dismantled as events got out of hand.

The play's humour was strong throughout, giving relief to the intensity of the main action. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (a game José A. Pérez Díez and Matt Kubus) wore flat caps, multi-coloured scarves and vacant grins as they toddled around the stage; and the scarves reappeared in the hands of the English Ambassador in the play's closing moments. David Waterman's Polonius rambled on relentlessly and muttered to the audience; the Player King offered protest at Hamlet's incessant demands; John Curtis's Osric was flamboyant and extravagant, and Helen Osborne's faux-gormless laughter as the Second Gravedigger brought the house down.

Even in the small space, the play never strayed too far from its roots as a fast-paced revenge tragedy. In another standout performance, Gareth Bernard posed a vivid threat as Laertes, taking command of the stage whenever he was on it and needing both Gertrude and Cecilia Kendall White's loyalist Voltemand to restrain him from the steady Claudius. The final duel, fought with large swords, was a surprisingly sophisticated piece of fight choreography and brought the play to a nailbiting conclusion (even despite the ghosting of a well-trodden plot; always a sign of a good production).

The near-full text allowed for some unexpected treats, including a highly amusing dumbshow version of "The Mousetrap" performed in high camp before the main event and a full showing of Matt Stead's imposing Fortinbras. One thing I noticed, in the context of a full production, is how far Horatio (played suitably nervous yet steady by John Conod) is overwhelmed by events. Here, behind Conod's big glasses, he was clearly a spectator rather than a participant, reminding me of Young Lucius in the BBC Titus Andronicus. Standing for the audience, seen through Horatio's eyes the production became a relentless and painfully confused series of movements and betrayals, leaving no place for innocents or bystanders.

If I do have one complaint, it's that there were a couple of occasions where dialogue was delivered at too brisk a clip, at the expense of emphasis and reflection (though considering the production's running time, one was also glad the company didn't dither). That's a small point, though, in an evening that did both Lizz and Shakespeare proud. I've not been moved by Hamlet in this way before and, even without the backstory, this set a bar for how Hamlet can still "mean" even after so many iterations. Outstanding, and hopefully we'll see far more of Ketterer's Men.

October 09, 2011

Edward II @ Manchester Royal Exchange

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It's rare to see a history play specifically relocated in time. While it's common to see a production that incorporates elements of costume and resonance drawn from across the ages, in order to suggest that the issues presented transcend their historical setting, few directors are prepared to fix a specific new date for a play that depends so heavily on "real" figures who belong to a fixed time. For that reason, it was a pleasure to see Toby Frow's new production of Marlowe's English history set firmly in the 1950s. The sheer audacity of this decision was realised in the addition of a full-scale coronation scene reproducing Elizabeth II's, complete with replicas of the Westminster Abbey thrones, robes and the British crown. As the Archbishop of Canterbury proclaimed Edward "King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" (!), Gaveston entered in his robes, approached the throne, and then kissed the throned king passionately. The combination of pomp and travesty, all underscored by the climactic strains of "Zadok the Priest", made clear just what was at stake in Edward's behaviour.

As ever, this Edward II was a story of two halves: the first the rise and downfall of Piers Gaveston (Samuel Collings), the second the battle for the throne between the parties of Edward (Chris New) and Mortimer (Jolyon Coy). The success of the production was in not collapsing following Gaveston's demise. Collings was a compelling presence, bred in a seedy jazz underworld. A fantastic four-piece band (including Richard Mark's Baldock on trumpet) entertained a club of Gaveston's companions, smoking and dancing. The play began as a mysterious man in white suit, fedora and tinted glasses, carrying an umbrella and case, entered this scene and handed Gaveston a letter before leaving. Gaveston roared in triumph and delivered his opening soliloquy to his fellows, kissing Spencer and promising glory for all.

Gaveston, wearing black eye make-up and dressed like James Dean, was a deliberately provocative presence. He lounged on couches, kissed the king publicly (even in front of Isabella), swaggered as he insulted the earls and skipped merrily about the stage. He curled up topless with Edward to watch a movie, clapped his hands with glee as Edward granted him his honours. His energy enthused New's Edward with the same. Edward's natural demeanour was slightly depressive, with a tendency to self-pity and plaintive noises. One of the production's most affecting moments came as he quietly replied to Mortimer "Because he loves me more than all the world"; and when the two were together onstage, Edward's confidence and dynamism increased correspondingly. Despite Edward's poor decisions, and Gaveston's clear disdain for the trappings of court, there was something genuine in their shared affection.

The nobles wore grey suits and perpetual scowls as they lined up against Edward. The wars of the first scene were imagined as a series of back-alley encounters, aggressive London bobbies and overheard radio reports, the conflict imagined as relatively local rather than involving the whole populace. These were possibly the moments at which the setting struggled most against text, but what we had instead was a conflict driven by clear personalities rather than by faceless nobles. Jonathan Keeble's enormous Lancaster dominated, refusing to be intimidated and softening in surprise only when Edward hugged him unexpectedly. The older Mortimer and Warwick (David Collings and Hugh Simon) were more politic, and the actors reappeared later as the mildly comic and sadistic Matrevis and Gurney. Coy's Young Mortimer was the most interesting presence, however. Moustachioed and antisocial, he hovered at the back of the groups and only declared himself openly in Isabella's presence at first, before rising to prominence in the second half. His cold machinations were underpinned by an almost childish sense of resentment and hatred of Edward, and his strait-laced performance contrasted nicely with Gaveston.

Mortimer was clearly set up as the primary antagonist, while Emma Cunniffe's Isabella was granted a little more sympathy. Throughout the first half she pleaded innocence against Edward's accusations of treachery, and her choice to begin an affair with Mortimer was explicitly set up as a result of these constant accusations and her shunning from Edward's side. Even once openly in opposition to Edward, her primary motivation was the care of her son, and her attempts to protect him governed her behaviour, despite her simultaneous attempts to please her lover. As such, her rejection by her son at the play's conclusion was a final blow, and she screamed for death as she was led offstage.

The play's second half was framed around an extraordinary sequence in the tower. From his first appearance in prison, New remained on stage for the rest of the play, his imprisoned body remaining centre-stage while events elsewhere happened around him. Dressed in simple white shirt and trousers, he was already in distress when asked to resign the crown. This was done in extreme reluctance, and Edward attempted to take it back, first by fashioning the document into a paper crown which he donned and danced in, and then by physically resisting his guards as they stripped him of the document and ran out with it. Later, Edward was seen being subjected to excruciating torture, screaming as jailors filled the cell with siren noises and threw buckets of water over him. Matrevis and Gurney made him listen to the coronation of his son and then lifted a flagstone on the stage into which Edward was pushed, standing upright in what we were informed was the castle's sewer. A torrent of water fell from above, drenching the king, who was left standing cold and shivering for the remainder of the act.

Then the stranger of the opening scene reappeared, now played by Samuel Collings, and was revealed to be Lightborn. This methodical, calculated sociopath took his instructions from Mortimer with a professional but pleasured air, happily informing the noble of his previous methods and politely refusing to divulge his new "tricks". Entering the prison, he dismissed Matrevis and Gurney with disdain and entered into a disquieting relationship with his victim: comforting him with news of Isabella, opening his ever-present case to reveal a gramophone on which he played soothing music and allowing him to sit. As the scene cut back to Mortimer's court, Lightborn sat with Edward, cradling his head and allowing the king to rest. The doubling of Gaveston and Lightborn was particularly effective in this regard, recasting their previous relationship in a twisted manner. After a time, from nowhere, Lightborn suddenly switched. He spun the king round and plunged him head first into the sewer. Then he was handed his red hot poker and sat astride the flailing king, plunging the poker up through his body. The king was left limp, head in the pit and defiled body lying across the stage, as Lightborn sat there panting. They remained in this position as the young Edward ordered the death of Mortimer and, as he received his head, Lightborn stood, tidied himself up, picked up his tools and walked calmly out.

The choice to overlay these sequences was the production's greatest strength, never allowing us to forget what was at stake as the king remained alive. The most significant disappointment was that the child actor playing Prince Edward had clearly had very little rehearsal. While he knew the lines and his blocking, his voice barely carried across the space and there was no expression. Prince Edward is one of the juiciest boy roles in the early modern drama, and his claiming of his own sovereignty a powerful conclusion to the play. If a production of Edward II is going to employ a child actor, it needs to work hard to fulfil the dramatic potential of the character, and this one failed badly. It's not the actor's fault, but it did make for an extremely damp end to the play after such a strong build-up.

There were other complaints. The Caribbean and French accents used by Spencer and Baldock respectively were almost unintelligible, and the choice to rake the stage despite it being in-the-round, combined with the large number of bodies often onstage, obscured too much action in the early scenes. However, the invention and verve of the production carried it regardless. From Isabella announcing her invasion via the BBC to the station arrivals room into which Gaveston returned, the rich detail of the setting gave a personal yet continually loaded commentary on the political action. And at the heart of it, the masochistic tendencies of a man willing to accept any amount of pain in return for intimacy.

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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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