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February 19, 2012

Coriolanus: The Shooting Script

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I've just been sent a copy of Coriolanus: The Shooting Script by the good folks at Harper Collins. This is part of an ongoing series of carefully packaged and attractive scripts, offering the film text along with insights from the filmmakers, and it's a fascinating read after seeing the film.


John Logan's introduction offers a fascinating insight into the rationale behind the heavily edited script. Specifically, they tried to narrow in on the personal story, using "the tools of cinema" to probe "into the most private corners and darkest rooms" (ix). The private and psychological story took precedence over the public elements.

In filmic terms, Coriolanus is compared to the titular protagonists of Citizen Kane and Lawrence of Arabia. He is "similarly opaque and unknowable; he's neurotic, violent, degraded, and ennobled simultaneously. He is purely and austerely himself" (viii). This tallies with the finished version, particularly its closing scene, which the screenplay describes simply as follows:

Coriolanus' body is awkwardly tossed into the back of an open truck. Like a sack of potatoes.

Sprawled ungainly in death.

No ritual or ceremony. No honor.

Snap to black. (104)

The script itself is surprisingly poetic, images described in terms of their effect rather than their realisation. The Volscian camp is "like something from LORD OF THE FLIES" (82), and the raging of the mob is descibred as "a terrifying spectacle of sudden mob rage, only a razor-thin edge to violence" (46). As a way into thinking about the process of creating a filmic language, this is a valuable resource.

Longer scene notes by Logan go into interpretation of specific moments. I was particularly interested in Logan's admission that the film's "theatrical purple patch" is the speech immediately following Coriolanus' banishment, where he turns his rejection back on his persecutors (110). Logan recognises the importance of the Act 3 turn, and interestingly relates it to films such as Gladiator and Any Given Sunday, which spin on a central dime. He also discusses the reasons for Menenius' suicide, the shower scene where Auficius shaves Coriolanus' head, and the decision not to cut back to Volumnia in the final moments. The exposure of the process is continually enlightening, serving to support and justify the purpose of the film.

Finally, as well as some glossy stills from the shoot, there's an interview with Ralph Fiennes himself which discusses what drew him to the character and film. Fascinatingly, his choices of cinematic references are films such as The Battle of Algiers, hearkening more towards the documentary and the public. It becomes clear that it is this public focus that Fiennes brought to the film, providing the context for Logan's more character-focused script.

This will be a great teaching resource for anyone working on the film, but it's also a great read for anyone interested in Shakespeare or in filmmaking in general. I'll be interested to look out some other entries in the series, but as a companion to Fiennes's excellent film, it works beautifully.

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.

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.

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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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  • I think you may be over analysing. Wasn't it just meant to be a bit of a history lesson? I remember … by Sue on this entry
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  • The lack of venture in the filming is probably due to NBC Universal being onboard. They provided the… by Duncan on this entry
  • I have been watching the Hollow Crown and i have enjoyed it very much, the acting i think has been v… by Carole Heath on this entry
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