Review: RSC live King Lear

Review: RSC live King Lear – 14th October 2016

Guest post by Emer Murphy

As the centenary year marking William Shakespeare’s death nears its close, audiences around the world continue to delight in the wonders of his work. Despite the evolution of both time, and culture, his plots and characters demonstrate true resilience as they poignantly reflect the most basic of human instincts and injustices. But while the twenty first century moves into unchartered territory, there remains an almost striking familiarity. With millions of people displaced as a result of violent conflict and western politics catapulted into a state of chaos, history appears to be repeating. It is against such a backdrop that the RSC production of King Lear, directed by Gregory Doran, becomes all the more resonant for its audience, as the story of the great King’s fall offers lessons to even the most sophisticated of cultures.

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Lear and his daughters  (Image credit: RSC website)

With the stage awash with golds and browns, Lear’s downfall is instantly foreshadowed by the overt use of autumnal colours as he makes his magnificent entrance, wrapped in huge furs and hoisted aloof. He is instantly set apart from everyone else, elevated to a god-like position and encased in a glass box to highlight his utter detachment from his subjects (much like the political elite of today). Anthony Sher’s Lear speaks with controlled authority, almost complacency, as it becomes clear that he is significantly removed from reality. He has become too comfortable atop his throne, something Sher captures so perfectly with his body language, sinking into it with such effortless ease as it appears to be an extension of his being. Lear clearly occupies a realm of his own and is seemingly untouchable, until the moment he makes his most fatal mistake – the banishment of his beloved Cordelia – the catalyst for his fall.

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Sher as Lear  (Image credit: RSC website)

As Lear succumbs to his baser instincts, letting jealousy and egotism rule him, winter colours of grey and black come to prominence on stage and the set becomes more barren and bare. The leaves have withered and gone, just as Lear’s reign has rotted from its roots, leaving him to the mercy of those he scorned. While Sher’s performance displays an understanding of the wayward king, it lacks a little chaos and, to echo Susannah Clapp, it remains contained. He never loses control. He never truly gives into the flames of passion, despair and madness, and because of that the performance lacks a certain spark. Even at his lowest points – his isolation in the forest, his suffering through the storm, and the death of Cordelia – he remains somewhat detached from his emotions, bottling up his inner turmoil instead of releasing it. In short, the explosion never came. But for all that Sher was not, he nonetheless remains an intriguing Lear, spitting venom at his daughters, sitting in despairing silence with his Fool and muttering lovingly to Cordelia’s limp corpse. He captures the quiet, contemplative Lear with the ease of a skilled and experienced actor, and instils in the audience powerful human emotions that can only be triggered by the demise of a great character.

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Edgar as Poor Tom  (Image credit: RSC website)

The stand-out performance, however, goes to Paapa Essiedu for his stunning portrayal of the calculating Edmund. Essiedu brings a refreshing burst of villainy to the role with his mocking irony and humorous disdain, transforming Edmund instead into a most likeable villain. His tantrum-like foot stamping and immature jealousy make him a character the audience can relate to as he manipulates his way into his father’s favour. Strangely, but most satisfyingly, it is he who prompts the most laughter. Likewise, Oliver Johnstone excels as Edgar/Poor Tom. His agile, nimble movements allow him to move energetically around the stage in the image of a wild animal as Edgar slowly transitions to Poor Tom. His startled facial expressions and fleeting looks capture the peril of his situation as he appears more mad than Lear ever does. Covered in a layer of dirt and dust, wearing only a filth-stained loincloth, Poor Tom makes Lear, in his white undergarments, appear as though he is merely on a hike through the wilderness.

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Lear and Goneril  (Image credit: RSC website)

In a similar vein, Goneril’s progression from decent daughter to murderous villain is fluid and measured. She the product of Lear’s contempt, moulded from his cruel, hateful words as she refuses to be governed by his dictations. She does little to warrant or provoke such anger in her father and yet he rejects her so thoroughly, cursing her with infidelity in a scene that would make even the harshest of critics flinch. Her distress is palpable and resounds throughout the theatre as Lear’s treatment of her forces her to become cold and unforgiving in nature. Regan’s progression, by comparison, is not near as convincing. In the most vicious and violent of all Shakespearean scenes, Cornwall and Regan tear out Gloucester’s eyes, but here their actions seem too rushed and instead take from the horror of the scene. Regan maintains her distance from the action and is more of a spectator than an active participant in the violence. The glass box in which Gloucester is bound has echoes of Lear’s opening entrance, but this time the sentiment was very different. It comes to symbolise the utter destruction of his reign as, ultimately, it comes to be stained and spattered in the blood of his closest acquaintance.

Overall, the production captivates from the moment of Lear’s entrance to the moment he breathes his last, but somehow it fails to fully ignite.

Guest post by Emer Murphy. Emer has recently completed her studies on the MA Texts and Contexts: Medieval to Renaissance at University College Cork.

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Report: World Shakespeare Congress

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After a solid week of Shakespeare-related talks and events as part of the World Shakespeare Congress programme, it’s hard to know what to say in summation. So I’ll confine myself to the satisfyingly large but manageable topic of, you guessed it, Shakespeare & Ireland.

It wasn’t hard to find connections between Shakespeare and Ireland in 2016, as abundantly obvious from the #Shakespeare400 programme of events running throughout the year and promoted on this blog. At the Congress, Irish academics were out in force, but the Irish connection didn’t stop there. The country’s first president, Douglas Hyde, was singled out in Gordon McMullan’s opening remarks at the Globe for his contribution to Sir Israel Gollancz’s A Book of Homage to Shakespeare (recently re-issued by Oxford University Press for the 100 year anniversary). McMullan dwelt on issues of translation, citing how Hyde’s contribution in Gaelic was in parts toned down by the translators to be less overtly anti-English.

The following day saw the Irish not simply spoken about, but speaking. Director Caroline Byrne took her place alongside directors from Serbia, Nigeria and the USA for a panel on Global Shakespeare led by Tom Bird on the Globe stage. She spoke eloquently about her desire to commemorate the women of 1916 Dublin who had been ‘airbrushed out of history’, and how that informed her production of The Taming of the Shrew that has just finished its run in the Globe theatre. While Tom Bird asked her and others on the panel whether there was any post-colonial unease engendered by Shakespeare, the answer was a polite but firm ‘No’ from all corners (although Arin Arbus of Theatre for a New Audience did speak of an insecurity with the language among American actors).

 

In terms of Irish academics/academics from Irish institutions, I’m very happy to report that there were more in attendance than any one delegate could see. Shakespeare in Ireland’s own Edel Semple (UCC) led a wonderful seminar on ‘Paratheatrical Entertainments in Shakespeare’s London’ with Donald Hendricks (Kansas State University), which had Tiffany Stern as a respondent. Colleague Andrew King (UCC) was also in illustrious company, appearing on a panel alongside Helen Cooper and Hester Lees-Jeffries. From Trinity there was Ema Vyroubalová as well as her PhD student Shauna O’Brien, while Emer McHugh did NUIG proud (hopefully she will be appearing on the blog again soon with her thoughts on Caroline Byrne’s Taming of the Shrew). Maynooth’s Stephen O’Neill carried the banner of Digital Shakespeare, and Queen’s Belfast had both faculty and post-graduates in attendance, including Mark Thornton Burnett, Mia Hewitt and Matt Williamson. Your current author, Derek Dunne, was pleased to be part of a great seminar on ‘Everyday Shakespeare’, and tried in vain to keep up with congress tweets #WSCongress16 [Forgive me if I’ve left anyone out – will happily amend]

The Congress had its flaws, and a quick look at the dearth of academic tweeters in attendance (perhaps 20 regular tweeters, plus more occasional users and institutional tweets) tells you something about the delegate demographic. This is inevitably linked to the high registration fee, which did not seem to justify itself either in terms of conference swag (SAA 2016 gave every attendee a brand new book), or swanky receptions (Globe coffee breaks did not extend to biscuits). Similarly, the conference programme was by no means state of the art, with neither Table of Contents nor Index (RSA’s app this year clearly pointed the way forward in this respect, but WSC failed to follow the signs). Questions have also been raised about issues of diversity, particularly gender, as eloquently argued by Nora Williams in a recent post on her blog. One thing I cannot complain about is the marginalisation of the Irish, who were centre-stage at various points throughout.

Report: ‘Shakespeare Lives Through Sir Kenneth Branagh on Stage and Screen’ – exhibition and Q&A

Guest post by Cynthia Martin.

As part of the Shakespeare 400 celebrations in Belfast, the Queen’s Film Theatre is honouring Sir Kenneth Branagh’s work with an exhibition which chronicles his prolific career as both Shakespearean actor and director.  The display features an array of movie stills, photographs, movie posters, promotional postcards, and theatre programmes from Branagh’s early beginnings to today (complements of the Branagh Collection, located in the Special Collections & Archives of Queen’s University Belfast). An eclectic collage of rare artefacts, this exhibition will tour the island, as Ireland celebrates Branagh’s contribution to Shakespeare appreciation.

The exhibition begins with a large triptych, designed to detail Branagh’s very distinctive and rich work in Shakespeare adaptation throughout the past three decades. Informative yet concise, this poster presents visitors with an organised contextualization of the coming attractions for optimal experience and engagement.

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Branagh’s Hamlet (1996)

The production stills of Branagh’s Hamlet and Henry V (as well as a black-and-white offstage photograph from the set of Much Ado About Nothing) especially capture the careful thought and conscientiousness behind every scene Branagh has directed. As film is a medium which perpetually moves forward, a production still offers a visual pause to the viewer, affording her/him the opportunity to reflect on all the intricate details of a split second in the performance. The still of Branagh as he is about to begin Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy especially conjures the dichotomous emotional conflict between meditative deliberation and fierce urgency.

Also included in this exhibition are theatre programmes from Branagh’s earlier career with the Royal Shakespeare Company (Henry V by the RSC at Barbican Theatre in 1984 and Hamlet by the RSC at Stratford in 1993). A framed theatre poster from Branagh’s performance as Richard III in 2002 additionally joins the wall amongst production stills and film posters. Aiming to focus also on Branagh’s theatre legacy, these artefacts inspire viewers to contemplate the media translation of Shakespeare from page to stage to screen, and to admire Branagh’s seemingly effortless flexibility between film and theatre productions.

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Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

However, it is perhaps his presence on Time’s front page in 1989 which best demonstrates the extent to which Branagh has contributed to the integration of Shakespeare into modern cinematic culture. Often praised for the accessibility of his Shakespeare productions to audiences, Branagh juggles both high and pop art cultures with impressive dexterity. As Branagh was nominated for two Oscars for his Henry V (Best Actor and Best Director), this magazine cover brings the viewer back to the time when this Belfastite first achieved global stardom.

The launch of the Branagh exhibition on the 7th of May of this year in conjunction with the Irish Renaissance Seminar held at Queen’s University, Belfast, included a lovely reception with wine and hors d’oeuvres. A gracious introduction by Professor Mark Thornton Burnett of Queen’s University, Belfast truly highlighted Branagh’s phenomenal contribution to Shakespeare film, theatre, and adaptation studies. I would recommend this exhibition to anyone with a deep interest in Sir Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations, and am pleased to inform fans that these artefacts will be accessible to various regions across Ireland this year.

In conjunction with this exhibition, the QFT also arranged a Q&A session with Sir Kenneth Branagh himself for the 27th of May. Led by Adrian Wooton, CEO of Film London and the British Film Commission, this event served as a special introduction to a showing of Branagh’s 1989 Henry V, an introduction which was also transmitted live to over 70 cinemas across the UK.

Wooton mainly covered Branagh’s impressive and action-packed career, from Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996), Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000), and As You Like It (2006), to very recent, non-Shakespearean work, such as Thor (2011) and Cinderella (2015). Given that Branagh had mentioned that his interest in Shakespeare began with a passion for his native Irish language, it was a shame that Wooton did not include Branagh’s The Magical Flute (2006) in this discussion, as the obvious connections amongst poetic language, Shakespeare, and music would have naturally led to an engaging dialogue on the profound, yet simple magic of sound.

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Branagh’s As You Like It (2006) – finale scene

Although Wooton’s questions themselves were quite predictable and unoriginal (indeed, one got the sense that Branagh had answered these same questions a million times before), one could not object to the sheer delight of simply being in Branagh’s charming and enchanting presence. Moreover, a pre-selected batch of Twitter questions from fans definitely added a more personal and unique element to the discussion. One Twitter user who had a particularly keen sense of humour asked if, from a director’s perspective, Branagh found himself difficult to direct, to which the audience and Branagh responded with authentic, unbridled chuckles. Overall, Branagh’s personal introduction to his Henry V, the film which catapulted his career as Shakespearean actor and director in his home-town, contributed the perfect piece to the Shakespeare 400 celebrations.

Guest post: Cynthia May Martin is a PhD student in English Literature at Queen’s University, Belfast.

 

The “Shakespeare Lives Through Sir Kenneth Branagh on Stage and Screen” exhibition will tour to the following venues and more locations will be announced in due course:

Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast: 26 April-31 May

  • Irish Film Institute, Dublin: 02-30 June
  • LexIcon Dun Laoghaire: 1 July – 13 August
  • NUI Galway: 15-26 August
  • Linen Hall Library, Belfast: 03-15 October
  • NUI Maynooth: 17-25 October
  • Royal Irish Academy, Dublin: 26 October-02 December

For further details, see the British Council webpage on “Shakespeare Lives Through Sir Kenneth Branagh”.

Several of Branagh’s Shakespeare films will be screened at the IFI, Dublin, this June – see the “Shakespeare Lives on Film” tour.

For information on the British Council’s “Shakespeare Lives Across the Island of Ireland: Conversations and Celebrations” programme see the British Council – Ireland ‘Shakespeare Lives’ webpage.

 

 

Screening: RSC Merchant of Venice

The RSC Merchant of Venice
 Don’t miss the live cinema broadcast of The Merchant of Venice on Wednesday 22 July

This sell-out production of The Merchant of Venice will be broadcast live from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on Wednesday 22 July to cinemas audiences across the UK and Europe and you can whet your appetite with the newly released trailer that includes footage from the show.

‘Absolutely adored #RSCMerchant @thersc. Dark, funny and scarily relevant. Steal/beg/whatever – just get a ticket.Audience Member via Twitter

Find your nearest cinema

Watch the trailer

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Theatre: Two Gentlemen of Verona, RSC Live

Valentine and Proteus are best friends until they fall in love with the same girl.

Having travelled to Milan in search of adventure, they both fall for the Duke’s daughter Silvia. But Proteus is already sworn to his sweetheart Julia at home in Verona, and the Duke thinks Valentine is not good enough for his Silvia.

With friendship forgotten, the rivals’ affections quickly get out of hand as the four young lovers find themselves on a wild chase through the woods, confused by mistaken identity and threatened by fierce outlaws before they find a path to reconciliation.

Simon Godwin makes his RSC debut to direct Shakespeare’s exuberant romantic comedy. Simon is Associate Director of the Royal Court. His production of Strange Interlude recently played to critical acclaim at the National Theatre.

This is the first time in 45 years that The Two Gentlemen of Verona has been performed in full production on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage.

Various cinemas, September 3rd, see link.

http://onscreen.rsc.org.uk/cinemas-and-tickets/default.aspx

Review: RSC’s The Rape of Lucrece, performed by Camille O’Sullivan – Cork Opera House 7th June 2014

While Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece was popular when it was first published – some 420 years ago this year – the poem remains a relatively unknown work to most modern audiences. Bearing this in mind, I approached Camille O’Sullivan’s performance with more than a little curiosity – How exactly would O’Sullivan convey the language and energy of the poem? Could this narrative poem work as drama and, if so, how? How would this lengthy poem, written in rhyme royal, be received by an audience unfamiliar with the Ovidian tale and Shakespeare’s poetic style? It was a delight then to discover that through O’Sullivan’s skilful wielding of words, the carefully calibrated decisions to use song at key moments, and a vibrant musical score, the poem was invested with new life and so captivated a new audience.

Opening on a simple set, the eye was drawn to some key features. Feargal Murray played a black piano off to one side, golden light streamed through high arched windows, and stacks of papers were positioned around the stage like stools. Given the shift from day to night to day in the poem, and the mention of Tarquin’s flickering torch, the use of light and dark on stage was purposeful. O’Sullivan arrived on stage in a black, military-style cassock. Using the poem’s ‘Argument’, she began her performance as the narrator and set out the story for the audience. The key players of the piece – Lucrece and Tarquin – were indicated by O’Sullivan’s pointing to two pairs of shoes: Lucrece was represented by pale slippers, Tarquin by black army boots. A notable strength of O’Sullivan’s performance was its clarity; each character was distinctive and she moved with ease between the roles of narrator, Lucrece, Tarquin, and later Collatine, and Lucretius. Throughout, O’Sullivan succeeded in bringing out the drama in the poem and useful links with other Shakespearean characters were discernible; by turns, the portrayal of Lucrece and Tarquin called to mind characters as diverse as Lavinia, Cressida, Angelo, Macbeth, and Othello.

While O’Sullivan delivered a commanding performance throughout, she was most compelling when voicing the tortured Tarquin. Through spoken word, song, and movement, she articulated his desire, and later his shame and self-hatred, with passion and verve. In one of Tarquin’s song, she languidly repeated the lines “her azure veins, her coral lips, her alabaster skin, her snow-white dimpled chin” (l.419-420) so that the blazon became an eerie, haunting refrain. A further memorable moment came when, as Tarquin, she tiptoed to Lucrece’s chamber, almost had her (imagined) torch blown out, but finally “with his knee the door he opens wide” (l.359). It was a testament to O’Sullivan’s performance that, although we knew well the outcome of Tarquin’s nocturnal excursion, this was a tense and gripping moment where everything seemed to hang in the balance.

At the finale of the poem, the men of Lucrece’s family gather to speak to her but end up bearing witness to her suicide. As Lucrece’s grief-stricken father Lucretius, O’Sullivan addresses his daughter’s dead body (or rather, the spot where O’Sullivan, as Lucrece, had fallen at her death only moments before.) In the end, therefore, Lucrece and Tarquin are absent presences; they drive the action, they are spoken of, their actor stands on the stage (now embodying other characters), but they are nowhere to be seen. It is a testament to the power of Shakespeare’s language and this production’s fresh and energetic rendering of the tale, then, that Lucrece and Tarquin remain in our minds long after they have left the stage.

Adapted by Elizabeth Freestone, Feargal Murray, and Camille O’Sullivan. Music composed by Feargal Murray and Camille O’Sullivan. Directed by Elizabeth Freestone.

This review was kindly contributed by Dr. Edel Semple, University College Cork.