Tennant as Richard II – what did I think?

DT RichardRichard II.

Richard II is not one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays. It’s long, it’s entirely in verse (much of it rhyming couplets, making it difficult to conduct a realistic conversation), the historical background is alien to us and we are plunged right into a dispute that can seem pretty baffling to the uninitiated. Additionally, the protagonist is deeply unlikeable. There is also an almost complete lack of light relief. For these reasons, and no doubt many more, it is rarely performed.

But if you’re going to understand the Histories, it’s essential, because the whole cycle turns on the issue of whether the sacreligious act of deposing an anointed ruler can ever be justified – a question of vital importance to Shakespeare’s audience as the ageing Elizabeth became increasingly paranoid. She was under no illusions. “Know ye not I am Richard II?” she quipped darkly, threatened by the rebellion of Essex and other restless favourites.

So Richard is a very public and political story, and last year’s BBC production with Ben Whishaw in the title role put that across poetically and winningly. His Richard was almost too beautiful to live – a foolish boy-king in his golden pavilion toying with his pet monkey and fondling his flatterers. And when I heard that Tennant was going to take on the role, I wondered if he was already a bit too old. His face seems to have lost some of its youthful smoothness over the last few years, become pinched and a bit gaunt in certain, unflattering lights, though he can still scrub up well when he wants to. But wasn’t he a bit mature for the bratty Richard, I wondered?

Well, I needn’t have worried. Being Tennant, directed by Doran who understands him and knows him inside out, he turned that to his advantage. Clad head to toe in shimmering raiment, nails laquered to match, sporting hair extensions almost to his waist, he gives off the aura of an ageing, slightly dissolute rock star with his best hits behind him. He plays a monarch utterly trapped in his divinely appointed role, who has known nothing else since childhood (the real Richard II was crowned at the age of 10), deeply and desperately unfulfilled, capricious and gripped by the ennui that comes from having everything, yet nothing. Even more remarkably, he conveys a sense that his downfall, though merited politically since he behaves atrociously, exchanges an age of refinement and culture for something less imaginative, more pragmatic and brutal. This production harbours no illusions about medieval chivalry. It is a form of words that plasters crude bullying and jockying for position with a veneer of refinement, and results in as much grief and slaughter as any capricious royal commands. Tennant’s Richard calls off Bolingbroke and Mowbray’s dual at the eleventh hour because, above all, he finds it boring and distasteful.

It had not occurred to me until I saw this production that Richard II is a personal tragedy as well as a public one. It’s personal because Richard doesn’t know who he is. Or rather, he always assumed that “the King” was the only conceivable answer. When that goes, there’s nothing left, and it takes an actor of Tennant’s sensitivity and chilling calibre to let the ghastly fear show in his eyes as, one by one, his certainties are stripped away. He’s never been regarded as a human being, so he’s never learned how to be one (there are obvious parallels with the Doctor here, though his performance never goes near them in any overt way). A particularly touching scene is when the young Aumerle, who is obviously in love with Richard, breaks down in his presence and the ex-King awkwardly takes him in his arms, struggling to locate something close to a genuine emotional response.

In its later stages, Richard’s journey becomes a philosophical quest. Rotting in prison, his layers of royal costume literally stripped from him, chained in a filthy shift, he ponders is fate, trying and failing to make sense of it all:

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world:
And for because the world is populous
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it; yet I’ll hammer it out.

Richard’s first steps to self-awareness are snuffed out by his murderers, but in his lines we hear something like an early draft of Hamlet’s interiority.

It would be quite wrong to give all the credit to Tennant for this production, as he would be the first to admit. Another of its unexpected strengths is that the older nobles on the sidelines of the action are fleshed out and made fully human. Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt takes the famous “England” speech and restores its anguish; it is not triumphalism but a lament for a loved native land despoiled by foolish misgovernment. And those who saw Doran’s 2008 Hamlet will recall how ably Tennant was supported by the superb Oliver Ford Davies as Polonious. Here he returns as the King’s ageing uncle York and shows us an old man worn out by the loss of his brothers to internicine fighting, unable to bear the load the inadequate King Richard puts on his shoulders as regent at a time of political turbulence, yet torn apart by inner conflict as he comes to realise that the unthinkable must be done to preserve any semblance of order. In York we have an eloquent defence of the sanctity of kingship, and the lacerating pain of seeing it fail. It’s a stupendous achievement, and a great pleasure to see the dynamic between Davies and Tennant again.

Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York and David Tennant as Richard II

Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York and David Tennant as Richard II

In short, this production more than delivers. If you are a Tennant fan, you’ll find plenty to absorb you here, but hopefully you will see beyond the charisma to a difficult play done well. You’ll be lucky to get a ticket but do catch the movie showing if you possibly can.

 

Tennant returns to Stratford – and more good news

tennantR2I’m obviously backsliding as a Tennant fan, because the much-rumoured news that he was to play Richard II for the RSC came as a complete surprise to me. After some frankly forgettable movies, it’s the right part for the right man at the right time. If he left it much longer I think he’d find it harder to convey Richard’s physical and mental fragility, although anyone who remembers the Tenth Doctor’s meltdown in The Waters of Mars won’t have many concerns on the latter.
In fact, this announcement is the jewel in the very enticing crown of Doran’s overall vision for the RSC. There’s a real feel of going back to basics, with his commitment to stage the entire canon without repetition over the next five years. I’m pleased that he’s resisting the pull of the GCSE and A-Level set books and backpeddling the ensemble strategy a bit. Celebrity casting has its pitfalls but great actors are great for a reason – they are supremely good at their job. And great actors and celebrities aren’t necessarily synonymous, though in the case of Tennant’s Hamlet the two did coincide. Hopefully the hysteria will be more muted now he’s no longer whizzing about in the TARDIS, which will make the daunting prospect of booking and security management a little easier for the RSC and, presumably, the whole experience less stressful for him.

Also welcome is that Doran has a clear plan for the beautiful Swan theatre. Written on the Heart, a couple of years ago, did show its potential as a more intimate space to reflect on the complexities of the early modern era and its dramatic output. The Hilary Mantel adaptation is a terrific coup and might even generate more buzz than the comparatively little-known and demanding Richard II.

The revival of TOP is further good news for the Stratford economy. Local businesses have had a tough time in recent years, with the main house dark for so long and the future of The Courtyard unresolved. Keeping shops and guest houses open may not be at the top of Doran’s agenda, but the RSC is a big enough local employer to take some responsibility for the community, so this is good news on both aesthetic and economic grounds.

I’m looking forward to many more wonderful theatrical experiences in Stratford over the years to come. For this relief, much thanks, Mr D!

Christopher Eccleston in Antigone – National Theatre, London

Image

Tiptoing around a tyrant – Eccleston as Creon in Antigone

Antigone is a short, intense and deeply political play, as relevant now as it was two and a half millennia ago. Though it is set in a society alien to our own, the issues it explores are universal.

The production I saw at the National Theatre is set in a nuclear bunker of sorts, closely modelled on the photograph of Obama and his aides receiving the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death. You can smell the stale cigarette smoke and sweat of a bloody conflict barely ended. Greek tragedies are prone to claustrophobia, since ancient views on dramatic unity decreed that they should take place only in real time and space; i.e. a single location. But this production makes those limitations into a strength, and although the mental collapse of the protagonist Creon happens frighteningly quickly, it never feels  at all contrived.

This is a credit not only to Sophocles’ writing and Don Taylor’s translation, but to the particular intense qualities of Christopher Eccleston, who is outstanding in a role that he seems born to play. He begins as the voice of reason, quickly taking control of a society’s fragile return to normality, and his implacable decree that the body of the enemy’s leader should remain unburied seems justifiable, if a little harsh. Clearly, these are harsh times.

But Creon’s decree is an affront to the gods, and therefore an even greater threat to social order than the recent war. Antigone, sister of the unburied man, defies Creon in the full knowledge that it will cost her her life.  A collision course is set between public and private morality.

Creon remains implacable, and slowly reveals that his main course of strong leadership comes with a poisonous side order of cruelty and sneering vindictiveness. His son, betrothed to the condemned Antigone, pleads with him to show mercy. They end up having a punch-up on the floor. The Chorus of staff gradually, fearfully, begin to express their reservations. But it takes the arrival of the blind prophet Teiresias, and his stomach-churning speech against angering the gods, to articulate the full implications of Creon’s hamartia.

Eccleston’s Creon is a bomb waiting for the appropriate detonation. You walk on eggshells around him. Even when voicing sweet reason, there’s a manic glint in his eye that makes you cross him at your peril. He spends the play receiving reports of disasters that threaten his authority, and his reactions are subtle but telling. A slight tightening of the jaw, a hardening in the eyes, the suggestion of a nervous tic; all these are manifested within a body that appears, to the casual onlooker, to be utterly controlled. But the electricity of unpredictable tyranny fills the stage.  Those who think of Eccleston as a working-class hero might be surprised by how completely he embodies worldly power here.

But Creon is not a monster, though ever since the Romantic period productions have tended to present Antigone as a feminist icon, a freedom fighter or at least a beautifully devoted sister. Creon is trying to establish something we can recognise as a modern state, governed by human wisdom and expediency rather than custom and religious observation. We can identify with such a goal, even if he does not arouse our sympathy.

It is inevitable that the gods will exact their revenge. Greek tragedies were performed as part of a religious ritual, after all. But the source of their enduring power is that they challenge us to consider both sides of an eternal conflict in a nuanced way. What actually happens to Creon, and breaks him – the suicide of his son in Antigone’s living tomb, is arguably a logical consequence of his own actions, yet the spectre of divine retribution is the motor that drives the play towards its grim and inescapable conclusion where Creon, bloodied, stripped bare of all pretence, becomes totally vulnerable and says simply, “I ought to be dead.”

This is a fine reading of a magnificent play, the antithesis of the derivative and superficial entertainment that has become ubiquitous in our society, and it’s a pleasure to see it packing a theatre. Eccleston embodies the Arisotelian definition of a tragic hero, invoking both pity and terror. Although his fine work in Doctor Who is unmentioned in the theatre programme, it is possible to see a common thread between the two roles, both of which explore a character capable of god-like powers, but only too aware of the cost, both to self and to society, of indulging such impulses.

 Review from The Arts Desk website

Sweet Music – The Subtle Seductions of South Pacific and Shakespeare

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

The Merchant of Venice – Act V, Scene 1

Last night, we saw the much-praised Lincoln Center production of South Pacific. We’ve had the tickets for months and it didn’t disappoint. It’s a superlative production – there’s so much talent on display, not just in the obvious singing, dancing and acting departments but also in the imaginative staging, lighting and perfect period design. No amplification, no special effects wizardry, just old-fashioned, honest talent. And everybody left the theatre on a high, singing “those wonderful romantic songs.”

But the interesting thing is that, though it’s packed with romantic set-pieces and numbers, South Pacific is not a romantic show. Absolutely not. It begins with an expatriate, whose murky past includes murder, calculatingly eyeing up a woman half his age. In the next scene, we meet Bloody Mary, an enterprising native woman whose sidelines include trading in shrunken human heads, and a raucous chorus of US Navy troops who flood the stage with sex-starved testosterone. In this world, everything is currency – a theme personified by Bloody Mary herself and her American equivalent, the blue-collar Luther Billis, who ruthlessly exploits any economic opportunity and would like nothing more than to blag his way onto a neighbouring island, get an exotic native lay and plunder their culture for marketable souveniers.   We’re introduced to the nurses – there are only six of them, nowhere near enough to go around – and the message is clear – they’re the officers’ property.

This is not an idealised world. Quite the reverse. And this modern production brings that right out into the open, juxtaposing the glorious songs with an occasionally sordid reality to great effect. Good popular music is extremely potent, particularly when combined with a 25-piece orchestra at the top of their game and luscious tropical settings. If that’s all you want, you’ll go away satisfied. But there is more, and it’s there for anyone who wants to look for it. South Pacific still has important things to say, and painful things can be said enjoyably; it’s the dissonance and ambiguity that make it rich.

Most problematic of all is the subplot regarding the heroic Lieutenant Cable and his beautiful Polynesian partner Liat. Bloody Mary happens to be Liat’s mother, and as far as she’s concerned her daughter is just another commodity that can be offered to the troops. Remember that heart-stoppingly beautiful, romantic number, Younger than Springtime? Cable sings it straight after he’s had sex with her, a girl handed to him on a plate by her mother, probably in her early teens, clearly frightened of him and unable to have a conversation with him because of the language barrier. He’s absolutely sincere when he sings about her youth and joy invading his arms – just as Pinkerton was in Madam Butterfly. In the second act, sensing that she’s losing her best customer, Bloody Mary gets Liat to perform for him to the charming little tune, Happy Talk. Believe me, it’s no academic affectation deconstructing this kind of thing. Its subtext is up there, along with the corn, as high as an elephant’s eye.

At the interval, my husband turned to me and said, “It’s just like Shakespeare, isn’t it? Full of quotes.” I realised he was onto something. South Pacific has a lot in common with those edgy, unsettling comedies that Shakespeare wrote in mid-career. Particularly, I felt, with Much Ado About Nothing, a story that also features military men on the lookout for partners (or just sex) and sometimes behaving badly. Both shows have two contrasting romantic couples – one sparky and delightful to watch, but ultimately raising few issues other than the usual one of how long it will take them to get together, and another one that is far more problematic. We laugh along to Beatrice and Benedick, delighting in the sparring, but few modern audiences could feel entirely comfortable watching the cruelty of Claudio denouncing Hero as a whore on the flimsiest of evidence and humiliating her on their wedding day, or her apparently willing capitulation when he barely has the decency to apologise. It might have been entirely acceptable to contemporary audiences, but it’s a major issue for any modern production.

Claudio rejects Hero on their wedding day - 1861 illustration by Marcus Stone

In a previous review of The Merchant of Venice, I wrote about Shakespeare’s audacity – the way he seemed to delight in surrounding his audience with the trappings of conventional romance, using every theatrical device available, only to pull the rug out from under their feet. In the final act of The Merchant, a glorious tableau of soaring verse celebrating moonlight and sweet harmony rapidly degenerates into a bitch-fest about a mislaid love token that wouldn’t look out of place on The Only Way is Essex. Shakespeare, it seems, is saying the same thing as Rogers and Hammerstein – you think you’re getting romance, and you are – but romance is an illusion, just like the theatre. The reality is sex as currency, and relationships as transactions. And shadows surround the happy couple centre-stage at the end. In the case of South Pacific, it’s the memory of Cable who doesn’t come back from the mission, and in The Merchant it’s the heartbroken Antonio and the devastated Shylock, who loses both his daughter and his ducets to a morally bankrupt society.

Every time a show is revived, whether it’s four hundred years old or sixty, artistic choices have to be made between accommodating the realities of what audiences found acceptable at the time of its composition, and what layers are inferred by the writers but present for future audiences to see. South Pacific is more than worthy of this treatment, and for those who look beyond the schmaltz there are many issues, some of them disturbingly relevant, to explore.

You’re never alone with a clone – “Futureshock” reviewed

Imagine being forcibly woken after eight hundred years of suspended animation, to be faced by a heartless corporate clone informing you that the programme you signed up for has run out of money, so you’re going to be turned out into a society you can barely comprehend with no support whatsoever. This is the unenviable position that Laura, heroine of the play Futureshock, finds herself in. Back in 2030, with Earth going to hell in a handbasket, NASA funded an exploratory mission to an alternative planet many light-years away. To encourage people to sign up, they promised to deep-freeze their loved ones and reunite them in a thousand years’ time.

But NASA went bust centuries ago, Laura discovers that she’s the only person who survived the revivication process, and her partner’s mission won’t reach its destination in her lifetime. Worst of all, perhaps, humanity has found alternative solutions and nobody really cares.

Laura’s an appealing character, if a little dogmatic at times. A poet, passionate and romantic, she believes that she has been betrayed and that, regardless of the current circumstances, society is morally bound to honour the sacrifices that the original explorers made and underwrite them, regardless of cost. It’s an argument that cuts little ice with the glacial, cloned manager of the facility, Nicoletta. In her world, clones are accepted as completely human, legislation protects them from offensive language and the imperfections that, Laura feels, make her uniquely human are despised.

Between these two extremes, a male mediator, Stampfer, proposes a compromise. Laura will be humanely killed but everything about her, both physical and emotional, will be uploaded into a data file and made available to her partner, if and when he returns. The only alternative is for Laura to stay alive and live a miserable life on the fringes of society with no means of supporting herself.

What would you do?

"I look like him..." Rose Tyler (probably) isn't buying it

If you’re a fan of Doctor Who, you might have come across this dilemma before. Back at the end of the 2008 series (we won’t go into details) the Doctor managed to grow a second version of himself, one that “had the same memories, same thoughts, same everything,” and left him in another universe with the woman he loved, as a kind of consolation prize. The storyline split Doctor Who fandom down the middle. Many saw it as a happy ending, giving those who appreciate such things a whole imaginative universe to play in. Others were appalled – how could you really love someone, and then settle for his double, while the original person continued to live and suffer without you?

For all its laughable plots, Doctor Who has often shown an uncanny  knack for asking the questions that challenge us to define what makes us human. Futureshock does the same. Laura’s objection to the proposed solution is that the data file “won’t be the real me,” because already she’s had experiences, and laid down new memories, that won’t be included. But eventually she goes along with the proposal. I’d love to have seen a second act where we heard the arguments from her lover’s point of view, assuming he eventually got home.

Science fiction and theatre aren’t natural bedfellows. Maybe it’s because we tend to think of it as epic and spectacular. By contrast, Futureshock, a three-hander on a minimalist set, is a very intimate piece. But, in addition to establishing three characters who were more than just representatives of conflicting positions, it opened up all kinds of cans of worms, shedding light on the preoccupations of contemporary society. There was satire of the way that inhumane, financially-driven government welfare cuts are couched in impersonal language to remove their sting. There was commentary on our idolization of physical perfection and the fickleness of celebrity culture. However, it’s Laura’s philosophical dilemma that stays with me.

If you believe in the concept of a unique human soul that survives after death in a recognisable form, you’re going to have problems with Laura’s fate. On a personal level, what interests me was that I thought it was a humane, pragmatic solution. I understood, without really endorsing, the arguments of the future society that they couldn’t commit in perpetuity to expensive promises made centuries ago for reasons that were no longer relevant to them. This was very different to the way I’d felt about Rose being left with the duplicate Doctor. Admittedly, I’d had years, rather than minutes, to get emotionally invested in the characters in Doctor Who. And I resented being expected to settle for pragmatic compromise. I saw the narrative as an epic romance, and such an ending jarred and did not sit well with me. It was a bit like Aragorn acknowledging that really he’d been a bit silly to go around mooning after an Elven lady for so long, and settling for a quiet life with a nice village girl instead.

That suggests that, when it comes to whether or not we’ll buy into an ending, the tone of the narrative is all-important. Some stories stick up their fingers in a glorious WTF gesture to real life and glory in being an alternative to it. Others make it clear from the start that they’re about ideas rather than feelings. That’s an over-simplification, of course, and the best ones should aim at doing both. Whether or not they succeed is, of course, another matter.

And then there’s post-modernism, and the self-aware narrative. But that’s another story.

Futureshock – review

 

Measure For Measure, RSC Swan Theatre, Stratford

Jamie Ballard as Angelo in Measure For Measure) (picture from thegoodreview.co.uk)

Charles Spencer from the Telegraph must really have it in for the RSC this winter season. He condemns their David Edgar play about the King James Bible, Written on the Heart, as “wordy and hard work,” and takes an almost visceral dislike Roxana Silbert’s production of Measure for Measure, Shakespeare’s problem comedy of sex and the city. So damning was his verdict on the second that I almost turned in my ticket.

I’m glad I didn’t. It’s important that we support a female director, still a rarity in British theatre, and take her view seriously on this most thought-provoking of plays. M4M features one of his most conflicted and fascinating heroines – Isabella, the novice nun, who values her chastity above her brother’s life when she is sexually propositioned by a corrupt governor, Angelo. It’s a decision that would have made a lot more sense to a Jacobean audience than it does to us. Isabella’s reasoning is simple – Claudio would lose his earthly life, but her eternal soul is at stake; no contest. In a society full of fudge and compromise on all sides, she stands out as one of the few clearly principled characters. The problem is that exactly the same could be said of Angelo, whose refusal to temper justice with mercy puts her in this dreadful position in the first place.

In these post-feminist times it’s not unusual to present Angelo as a woman-hating monster, possibly casting a black actress as Isabella to underline the point. Josette Simon ended up being wrestled to the ground in Hyntner’s 1987 production. But Angelo’s nastiness is equalled and perhaps excelled by that of the Duke, who presents a huge directorial problem by leaving his deputy, clearly in over his head, to organise a social clean-up that he lacks the courage to implement himself, preferring to maintain his popularity by staging his disappearance and then showing up as a friar (a type that would have shrieked duplicity and enabling of licentious behaviour to Shakespeare’s original audience) to interfere with the action, submit Isabella to a horribly cruel deception whilst claiming to help her reprieve her brother and then offer her his hand in marriage in the play’s final moments. Isabella’s silence at this point ranks with Katerina’s last speech in The Taming of The Shrew as a nightmare moment for any modern director.

So, what does Silbert do with all this? Well, she decides not to romanticise the sex industry so there are no tarts with hearts of gold. The pimps and whores are nasty, though entertaining. The guys in the prison look like members of a heavy metal band after a long night, and there is quite a bit of bondage gear  scattered around, although as this rather more positive review points out, that particular theme isn’t followed through as much as some might have hoped. Angelo, a superb performance from Jamie Ballard, is a character whose actions sprang from stress and a deep-seated inability to recognise and comprehend his own emotions. To me, he seemed to exhibit the symptoms of high-level Asperger’s syndrome, not only in his lack of emotional affect but also in his attempt to control complex situations by breaking them down into their component parts and working through them according to an inflexible protocol. This explains his treatment of Mariana, his rejected fiancee. He deserts her because her father’s misfortune prevents him from claiming the pre-arranged dowry, so by Angelo’s remorseless, well-intentioned logic, she no longer ticks all the boxes that add up to marriage. Angelo is clearly unsettled by physical contact; his leather cummerband is worn not as fetish but as protection, and it is Isabella’s innocent placing of her hand on his chest to appeal to his heart that releases his repressed desire for her.

The Duke is a more difficult problem. He doesn’t behave well, and that’s what makes him entertaining. You can either handwave or embrace this unfortunate fact, and Silbert unashamedly chooses the latter, making him into a showman as he produces hidden coins and plot-advancing letters from his sleeves. Here’s a man who has to be the centre of attention, loved and adored by people, with the rictus smile of Tony Blair or David Cameron and the ruthlessness of Simon Cowell. There’s no heavy-handed attempt to make him into a parable of our times; his actions are allowed to speak for themselves, he’s great fun to watch (and knows it) and it’s likely that his torture of Isabella is a deliberate device to make him look all the more bountiful before the (metaphorical) TV cameras when all is resolved. Nobody understood the ambivalence and power of showmanship better than Shakespeare.

Innocence under threat: Jodie McNee as Isabella and Ian Midlane as Elbow in the RSC's Meaure for Measure

Jodie McNee, handed a wonderful part, largely plays it straight with an open face, a modest, old-fashioned frock rather than a wimple and a refreshingly down-to-earth Lancashire accent. Yes, she’s screwed-up, but so is everybody else on stage, some of them in far more dangerous ways. Having attempted to retain her innocence in a murky world, she’s forced to learn the hard way how to function when circumstances thrust her unwillingly into its vortex – she has more in common with Angelo than she knows or would care to acknowledge. It doesn’t justify their bad decisions, but if ever there was a play about human nature in all its complexity and the grinding together of the tectonic plates of principle and pragmatism in urban society, this is it. Like the grit in an oyster (an appropriate aphrodisiac image in a play saturated with sexual and commercial imagery), it continues to disturb and challenge us. The high proportion of young people in the sell-out audience suggest that this production is hitting the right spot.

The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Presentist Shakespeare

Catherine Tate (Beatrice) and David Tennant (Benedick) in Much Ado About Nothing at Wyndham's Theatre, London, directed by Josie Rourke. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

 

 

Two very different quotations I came across today get right to the heart of the debate about Shakespeare adaptation:

In the red corner we have Brad Bevitt, who can’t see the point of dressing Shakespeare up in modern clothes and retaining all the original verse. He’s specifically discussing the new Coriolanus adapted by Ralph Fiennes, which from the trailers looks bloody but very intriguing:

If you’re going to adapt a Shakespearean play into a modern age story, then adapt it! Don’t just take the play, use the same words and scenes, put on updated clothes and stand around in updated architecture. That’s just confusing the point and as proven here, results in a film destined for death by boredom.

Okay, so it seems RF is a fan of presentist Shakespeare – that is, his words have a timeless relevance. You can transpose them to just about any period and they have something to say to us. Put your actors in 21st century battle fatigues, give them cellphones and machine guns, but that’s all the”relevance” you need. The language will speak for itself and it’s not for us to interfere. And I must admit, I’ve a lot of sympathy with that view. I love a production where the actors respect the poetry, rather than phrasing the lines like something out of a police procedural on TV.

I’ve seen many productions, and blogged about a good few of them, where the director’s vision was shouting so loudly that the lines Shakespeare originally wrote could not compete. My favourite recent Lear remains Jacobi’s, because it did away with all that noise. Having said that, a well-conceived update can throw the play wide open in a truly exciting way. I’m thinking of something like the RSC/Baxter African-set Tempest last year.

Even a less than 100% successful revisioning can be worthwhile. For example, I had issues with the Eighties vibe in the recent Much Ado starring Tennant and Tate (mainly that it’s hard to accept the attack on Hero’s supposed lack of virtue after a convincing promiscuous drunken stag night scene) – but it gave me lots to think about and shed new light on the military-on-furlough setting of the play.

Yet it can’t be denied that some of the best adaptations take tremendous liberties with the original text, right up to and including a total rewrite. The celebrated Baz Luhrmann Romeo and Juliet had less than 40% of the original lines in it. Kurusawa’s Throne of Blood had none. Yet both felt, in their different way, utterly true to Shakespeare’s vision. And the great man himself would probably have been incredulous at the idea that we should treat his lines as Holy Writ. He must have spent his working life cutting and pasting them.

Before we get too embroiled in the Campaign for Real Verse it’s worth submitting ourselves to the splash of cold water offered by Noel Gallagher. He sat through Jude Law’s Hamlet in complete bafflement and came to the conclusion that the Bard wrote “f***ing gibberish.”

Does it matter what an inverted snob loudmouth musician thinks? I think it does. He may be ranting for effect and to piss off people like Damon Albarn with his John Dee opera, but you can’t deny that he speaks for the vast majority of people outside the charmed circle of culture and academia.

I’d love to know what he made of Hamlet, House of Horror. At least it’s only 75 minutes long. It also happens to be brilliant, and the best scene in it is the 100% rewritten, utterly cynical and hilarious gravedigger’s monologue over Ofelia (sic)’s dead body.