Shakespeare – The Winter’s Tale Sunday, Apr 12 2009 

I’m not very keen on plays as a general rule, but how can you say no to Shakespeare? It’s hard to beat watching the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Lear in the summer of 2005 – in Stratford-on-Avon no less – even if I did have to leave 10 minutes before the end in order to catch the last train out. That wasn’t quite sufficient to justify the extravagant ticket price when Lear with Ian McKellen came down to Singapore a couple of years ago, but I decided I shouldn’t miss the relatively more affordable Winter’s Tale by The Bridge Project.

I haven’t read much of Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale included, but I’ve taken it to heart that Shakespeare wrote his plays to be watched by a mass audience, not read by literature buffs or boffins. Anyway, anything with Ethan Hawke has to be relatively accessible, right? I didn’t know much else about this production, except that it received rave reviews in New York where it opened, which was enough for me.

We arrived only just on time at the Esplanade, with no time to grab a programme and not much more to prepare the mental palate. And being woefully out of practice in rapid-fire Elizabethan English, I literally did not catch anything of the first five minutes. Luckily, I got into it subsequently and followed most of the rest.

This production was agreeably surprising in several respects. While making use of a few familiar Shakespeare devices, the plot was interesting and altogether very effective. Having shed buckets of tears prior to the intermission, I was expecting pretty much the same kind of tone in the second half, only to be assailed by (early 17th-century) populist comedy and a good deal of laughs, before a goosebump-inducing denouement. No wonder this play has been described (in the press) as having an unwieldy structure – but the direction of Sam Mendes (otherwise known as Kate Winslet’s husband) got around it admirably. I liked the use of British accents for the citizens of Sicilia and American for Bohemia – a practical decision, too, given the transatlantic nature of Bridge Project. Then I was blown away by the standout performance of Rebecca Hall amid a uniformly excellent (and, for Shakespeare, restrained) cast: her Queen Hermione was utterly admirable where she could easily have come across as strident. I was delighted to recognize Dakin Matthews in a sizable role – I’ve always enjoyed his appearances as Headmaster Charleston on Gilmore girls. The sets and costumes were elegant and beautiful (rather than minimalist or deliberately rough), the lighting was very intelligent. And our seats were upgraded (no doubt due to the recession-hit attendance) to a fairly good vantage point.

To top it all off, I learned from the programme that the Old Vic theatre in London is the other of the twin homes of The Bridge Project, which brought on a nice wave of nostalgia because I used to stay just behind the Old Vic. Didn’t manage to watch anything at the Old Vic while I was there, although I recall Kevin Spacey was already there at that point (in Henry III I think); he must really have taken to it since he’s now the artistic director.

Anyhow, I thoroughly enjoyed this superb production, and am relieved that my brain hasn’t quite gone to mush since I started work. This was sort of a warm-up after a long hiatus from so-called intellectual pursuits – as part of my resolution not to waste too much time on mindless activities this year, I’m embarking on a major book-reading, film-watching, music-listening spree…

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Shakespeare – Othello Wednesday, Dec 6 2006 

Every so often I get hit with a sign of how much I must have learnt and grown since (say) 8 years ago, although I don’t necessarily feel much different. There can’t be any activity that does this quite as often as rereading a book, and suddenly discovering this and that detail/nuance which you never noticed before, or being affected by it in a completely new way. The former points to intellectual growth, perhaps, while the latter signifies emotional growth. I suppose it’s only natural for one to, ahem, mature – let’s hope that’s the case anyway – from one’s teenage years into the twenties, but it’s darn strange when you perceive it happening to yourself.

The reading material in question is Othello. I gleefully discarded my copy after my year-end literature examinations in Secondary 3 (I still remember that I wrote an essay on whether Iago’s nature was essentially evil), which was, yup, 8 years ago. And while I struggled with the language then, I found myself intuitively grasping the meanings of the Elizabethan colloquialisms and Shakespearanisms this time. And reacting to the characters as if they were real people who just happened to live a few hundred years ago. After I finished the play I flicked idly to the editor’s introduction (I was reading Arden’s 7th ed., copyrighted 1958) and found myself agreeing with some, and disagreeing with other, points in his reading of it. The fact that I was capable of forming my own opinion on Shakespeare is quite remarkable.

I recall a conversation with a good friend a while ago in which I remarked that I didn’t seem to get much out of many authors and works that people consider classics. For whatever reason, (more) contemporary writers were just that much more accessible and meaningful. I have shelvesful of books that I bought in a spate of self-improvement years ago. Lots of usual suspects are there: Dante, Homer, Dostoyevsky, Goethe, Hardy, Joyce, and of course Shakespeare. Most of them I haven’t cracked. (Okay, off the top of my head I remember that I read Jude the Obscure and The Aeneid, but precious little else). When I did find the time to read for pleasure I’d go for Pratchett, or L’Engle, or L. M. Montgomery. After all, reading The (Old) Greats seemed too much like hard work, even though Shakespeare was a crowd-pleaser in his time.

I’m starting to re-evaluate that prejudice (which was probably born out of fear). At least my parents will stop ribbing me about the money I spent on books that I never read. And then I can sell off – in clear conscience – those that I still don’t get at my advanced age. There is the possibility that in 10 years I’ll snort at how ignorant I was in my twenties, of course. But life is too short to keep returning to things which are trendy to like but that you don’t like, in the hope of eventually liking them. It is also a wee bit pretentious.

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Shakespeare – Much Ado About Nothing Friday, Oct 13 2006 

Okay, so I used to be intimidated by Shakespeare. I had a relatively hard time with the language while I was studying W.S. in school: Romeo and Juliet at age 14, Othello at 15, and Macbeth at 16. It never occurred to me to read Shakespeare for pleasure, more’s the pity: I suppose I thought of him as the preserve of English students. This despite multiple visits to Stratford-upon-Avon, including one time when I watched almost all of a performance of King Lear by the Royal Shakespeare Company (I left early for fear of missing the last train out of Stratford).

Recently, however, I’ve had cause to contemplate re-reading Othello, viz. to help someone out who’s having their own English lit. struggles with it. And in order to prep myself, I thought I’d give Much Ado About Nothing a go. Well! As it turned out, I zoomed through it quite speedily (about 1.5 hours, interrupted by the need to transfer trains and such). The key, I suppose, was not worrying about all the archaic words. I was aided by the fact that my Penguin Popular Classic edition puts all the annotations right at the back of the book rather than on the same page, which somehow compels you to look them up on the spot. So I actually managed to get into the flow of the story, and managed to catch quite a few jokes and barbs besides.

Well, it’s not a perfect play. Beatrice and Benedick are rather too easily turned from mutual dislike to mutual adoration, and the whole thing is a bit light and fluffy. Disposable. But then it is a romantic comedy, and therefore serves a substantially different purpose from one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. John the Bastard is rather a disappointing villain compared to Iago, for instance (but then I suppose almost anyone would be disappointing compared to Iago). But I enjoyed Shakespeare, and that is rather the point. What next?

Much Ado About Nothing, being populated with such witty characters as Beatrice and Benedick, is obviously peppered with bon mots. But this is my very favourite bit, if only because I agree so heartily with Leonato.

LEONATO: Did he break out into tears?

MESSENGER: In great measure.

LEONATO: A kind overflow of kindness, there are no faces truer than those that are so wash’d. How much better is it to weep at joy, than to joy at weeping!