Saturday, September 26, 2009

Rattle Halberd

One summer tradition here that I especially enjoy is going to see Shady Shakespeare.  Erik, one of my former colleagues, often has parts in these plays, and it has been fun to see him in a non-software context, and also to just enjoy the atmosphere.  Picnicking in a good park, followed by a show where the audience is enthusiastic and the actors having a great time, held under a forest canopy that gradually grows darker as the night progresses... it's a grand time.

Every year Shady Shakespeare has two plays.  There doesn't seem to be a strong principle at play for what plays they choose; they do both the best-known and slightly more obscure plays, and while some years they will pair a comedy with a tragedy, other years they may do two comedies.  This particular year was As You Like It and Richard III, neither of which I had seen or read before.  More on that in a minute.

As You Like It is a comedy.  It was fun, even though (as I keep on harping) I don't care for his comedies all that much.  This one seemed to combine all the typical elements in his comedies: you had mistaken identity, gender-bending cross-dressing, deposed royalty, jesters, animals, rural bumpkins, etc.  So even though I hadn't encountered it before, I felt like I was on solid ground watching it.

The next week was Richard III.  At least, it was supposed to be.  When we arrived at Sanborn Park we learned that a power line was down and nobody could enter the park.  Well, it wasn't exactly "down."  It was more that a tree was leaning against it.  Or at least against the pole that held the line.  In any case: DANGEROUS!  We elected to eat our picnic at a convenient spot by a creek on the outskirts of the park, far away from the dreaded killer elevated power line.  Craig had brought some amazing homemade creme limoncello and fried chicken.  Others brought an assortment of tasty Whole Foods offerings.  I brought homemade oatmeal cookies and whole-wheat no-knead bread.  We had a GREAT couple of hours.  Eventually the PG&E truck arrived, then fled.  The show was canceled.  We resolved to try again later.

Several weeks after, we made a second trek back in.  This time we had sausage (sweet and hot Italian), more Whole Foods goodies (pasta, couscous, etc.), an astonishing assortment of cookies (in addition to my peanut butter, also many delicious store-bought), Pad Thai, and so on.  I believe there may have been some wine as well.  We had a GREAT hour.

Eventually we made our way over to the stage.  We sat in the front row, so as to maximize the possibility of embarrassing Erik.  People were still a little rowdy from supper, and so I missed a crucial announcement before the show started: the lead actor's father had died, and he had gone to the funeral; there was no understudy, so a volunteer from the company had been elected to play the part of Richard.  Several other, smaller parts were also missing their primary actors.

And so, I was a little bewildered.  I heard a voice boom, "Now is the winter of our discontent."  I looked around, and saw a man dressed in black at the back of the seating area... holding a script.  He limped his way through the crowd onto the stage, still reading from the script.  Reading very well, mind you, but... obviously reading.  Gradually, other actors came onto the stage as their parts began; Richard would look at them while they were talking, then his eyes would return to the script when he replied.

Not realizing what was going on, I tried to make sense of it.  "Of course!" I thought.  "Richard is supposed to be an incredibly hated character.  He has traditionally been portrayed as being hunchbacked, limping, with a shriveled arm.  Well, in the context of theater, what's the biggest handicap a person can have?  A script, of course!  This must be a clever way of making the audience hate Richard.  It's obvious that he's the only actor who is using this 'crutch,' further separating him from those around him.  It's post-modern and brilliant!"

I began to suspect that something was afoot sometime after intermission, when Richard missed a cue.  One of the actors said something like, "But hark!  Richard draws near!"  He looked expectantly towards a door.  Nothing happened.  He waited a few more seconds.  Nothing.  He turned aside to the audience, grinned, and said, "... eventually."  Huge laugh - people were waiting for an excuse to chuckle.  He turned back, and eventually, Richard came through - no longer carrying his sheaf of pages, but a honking huge binder with the entire play in it.  "Hmmm, that doesn't seem normal," I thought. 

All in all, considering the huge issues they were facing, they did a really impressive job with the play.  I thought that the best part was Richard's line-reading.  Obviously he didn't have the lines memorized, but he still managed to nail the delivery: I didn't detect any missed inflection, fumbled lines, or mispronunciations.  With Shakespeare, that's darn impressive.  (One possible flub - I realized at the end that I never heard the most famous line from the play: "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!"  Not sure if that was missed, or if they actually dropped it from this adaptation, which would be a very peculiar move.)

At the end of every Shady Shakespeare play, some of the actors come out with their hats to collect donations from the audience.  This time, one of the men bellowed, "Come back tomorrow night!  Who knows - perhaps YOU will get to play Richard!"  Again, a big laugh.  As I remarked to the others, you would have thought that we had gone to see Macbeth, given everything that went wrong.

Now, a little background.  I read my first Shakespeare play in... hm, sometime in junior high.  I'm sure that the first time a full play was assigned in class it would have been "Romeo & Juliet," but the first one I read on my own direction was "Taming of the Shrew" (also for a class, but in that case we got to choose).  Like every person raised in an English-speaking country, of course, I had a broader exposure to Shakespeare outside of reading his plays.  In my case that included disparate influences like reading James Thurber's account of a King Lear production ("Get Ready!  Get Ready!  The WORLD is coming to an END!")

I didn't really become a fan of Shakespeare until high school.  We did a few plays in Mr. Harris's English class Sophomore year, and I was just entranced.  In Julius Caesar, I became obsessed with the character of Cassius.  Macbeth was really gripping too.  Both were worlds better than R&J... they were exciting, dark, and endlessly fascinating.  I loved the ambiguities in the plays, and began to see why people continue to perform these plays hundreds of years after they were written.  For example, we watched several interpretations of "Macbeth", including Akira Kurosawa's stunning adaptation "Throne of Blood."  I saw how two performances could both follow the exact same text, and yet leave you with completely opposite impressions of the story.  In "Macbeth," the biggest question is the agency of Macbeth.  Is he a player or a pawn?  Does he seize on prophecies as an excuse to take what he's always wanted; or, is he manipulated by supernatural forces into pursuing his doom?  Any director will need to make a few decisions: when Macbeth asks, "Is this a dagger I see before me," do you actually show a dagger to the audience?  Is Macbeth crazy, or can he see real spiritual forces at work?

Ahem... sorry, got a little carried away.  You get the idea; I moved from being fairly indifferent to Shakespeare to being a big, big fan.

I enjoyed all the other Shakespeare I read throughout high school and college.  Some more than others, of course... "A Winter's Tale" didn't really do much for me, though all its faults are forgiven in exchange for the immortal stage direction, "Exit, pursued by a bear."  In addition to reading, I also had the pleasure of watching some really phenomenal film adaptations.  I became enamored of Kenneth Branagh's work... I still think that his "Hamlet" is just about the best interpretation I have seen.  I also took particular pleasure in watching the plays performed live.  I eventually came to a realization, though.  In my Shakespeare-loving way, and living as a child of the digital age, I had read nearly all of Shakespeare's greatest plays or seen a movie version prior to having watched the live play.  This bothered me, and it bothered me more the longer I thought about it.  After all, Shakespeare's contemporaries would have seen the performances as the first and only definitive version.  Furthermore, the live dramatic tradition was the true legacy that had been carried down through the ages; annotated English readers and special-effects-laden Hollywood films were recent inventions.

And so, I made a decision.  By this time I had read nearly every Shakespeare play that I considered great, except for one: Richard III.  Even before I became a Shakespeare fan, I had known the story of Richard, and grown mildly obsessed with it.  Looking back, I'm not totally clear on the reason why, but as a teenager I was extremely enthusiastic about manipulators and the diplomatically treacherous.  I was fascinated by Machiavelli, Cassius, Richard... all people who, at least by popular reputation, did not acquire power through force of arms, but rather through cleverness, trickery, and manipulation.  I didn't really see myself as the same personality type - I'm about as far as you can get from a silver-tongued orator, and have no patience for deception in my personal life - but I was continually drawn to these sorts of characters.

And so, despite the fact that I wanted to read and watch Richard III more than any other of the plays I hadn't yet read, I resolved to wait until I had had the opportunity to watch it in person.

That day came.  I can't say that it was exactly what I expected, but hey - it was an experience!  And, I decided that it should count in terms of fulfilling that promise.  And so, about a week after seeing the play, I did something that I'd wanted to do for over a decade: watch Ian McKellan's film version of Richard III.

Long before I knew McKellan would play Gandalf in my beloved Lord of the Rings, I had been intrigued by the little I'd heard of this movie.  Finally watching it, I learned that it matched my memory of the buzz.  Richard III tells the story of the play, using all the original words, but transporting the setting to more modern times.  It looks to be the early part of the 20th century: there are tanks, airplanes, and model trains, but the models look old-fashioned.  The setting is still England, as it has to be, given the play's content, but it's an England that we were spared.  When Richard takes power, he rides a wave of fascism.  A military man long in his brother's shadow, Richard has conspired to unit the military and political elite behind him in his grab for power.  There's a pretty stunning scene when Richard is crowned in Westminster Abbey, as giant red banners with a black boar sigil drop down from the ceiling.  Black-uniformed British soldiers hail him.  The look on his face is incredible: it's a rare flash of pure pleasure from this pained man.

One of the many intriguing things about Richard III is the way that he directly addresses the audience.  I didn't get this quite as much from the Shady Shakespeare play, where Richard generally seemed to be talking to himself thanks to having his eyes on the script, but I suspect that most performances will play it like McKellan.  The protagonist seduces the audience in the same way he seduces his wife: speaking directly to us, sharing his thoughts, playing for our sympathy.  It's a little thrilling; it's like Shakespeare allows us to vicariously experience evil through Richard as our proxy.  He does the things we would never do, wouldn't want to do... yet maybe sometimes, in our blackest dreams, might wonder about.

The movie has aged very well.  The pyrotechnics are convincing, and though I'm guessing it would be twice as loud and twice as flashy if it were made today, it's great fun.  The movie moves really well, too, coming in at well under 2 hours long.  The edits are modest and well-chosen.  He cuts most of the old Queen's scenes from the first half of the movie, including the curses she provides.  Many minor characters are excised altogether; when Richard woos Anne, it's just the two of them, without her attendants.  I think that a lot of the diplomatic scenes were trimmed to just include the beginning or the ending.  As a result some of the intricate nuances are lost, but you can still definitely follow the main thrust: you don't see as much of the lords, for example, but still recognize what's happening when they are murdered.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see some big names in it.  Robert Downey Jr. has a great, if abbreviated, turn as Lord Rivers.  He's just in a few scenes, but totally stamps the character: in his interpretation, Rivers is kind of a sexually aggressive dandy.  Maggie Smith also makes an appearance, as does Jim Broadbent as the callow Lord Buckingham. 

Watching the play for a second time, I was struck again by how interesting the progression of characters is.  More so than most other plays, Shakespeare doles out his introductions, waiting until they're needed.  James Tyrol is a fascinating character, the one person possibly more evil than Richard himself, and doesn't even appear until Richard is almost on the throne.  Richmond becomes the hero of the play, and doesn't do much of anything until after the coronation.  (As an aside: I think that Richmond's role in Richard III is almost perfectly analogous to that of Macduff in Macbeth.  COINCIDENCE?!?!  What is it with antiheroes that makes their opponents share the first half of their name?)

So I can breathe a contented sigh, put my feet up, and know that while I have now technically experienced all of the "best" Shakespeare out there, the well will never run dry.  Each performance is a new play, each movie a different experience.  I'll always be ready for more.

No comments:

Post a Comment