Saturday, 25 April 2015

King Edward III, notable philanderer

I am back from an accidental hiatus! While most of this has involved me settling into a new academic job and all the lecture planning / writing / dressing like a grown up / panicked imposter syndroming that entails, I also spent an exhausting but really enriching week as one of three adjudicators for the Christchurch Regionals of the University of Otago Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival. (Thanks, Annette, for asking me.) Ten of the 13 pieces that we sent through to the final showcase night were directed by students and it was a total pleasure to watch so many clever and talented high school kids wipe the floor with some of the city’s more established theatre companies. Steampunk witches! As You Like It set in the Summer of Love! A rapey, MRA inspired Petruchio!

As we left after the showcase, one of the students we’d chosen to go up to the national festival in Wellington, who played a note-perfect Macbeth, came up to us to say YOU’VE MADE MY WHOLE LIFE and having been through that process myself, from school show to national competitions to travelling to the Globe with the NZ Young Shakespeare Company, I melted into a little puddle and trickled through the floorboards. See what happens, schools, when you don’t give all your money and support to sports teams?


Today’s play is King Edward III, which was dabbed with scented oil and wrapped in silks and added to the canon in the 1990s, although there is still ongoing debate as to whether it belongs there. It was only when I was bulk purchasing cheap Shakespeare editions that I came across this and groaned a little, as the one decent annotated copy is the sort that’s annotated for clever people with an interest in meandering and complicated literary authentication procedures, as opposed to people like me who just want to read it as a bit of a romp. How will I know what all the big words mean? There is very little written on this play – no cheat sheets! – so this was a bit challenging.

As we start, Edward III, King of England, is told by a French defector that he is (by virtue of various begats and marriages and convoluted rules about succession) the rightful ruler of France. It’s mine! he says, let's take it! although then a French envoy arrives to say ‘nope it's not – you have forty days to sharpen up and present yourself in France to acknowledge King John as the One True King’. Nyah nyah, says one to the other, prepare for war and an ongoing dramatic continuation of the France v England grudge match that drives so many of the history plays. This also establishes that Edward is a) a hot head, and also b) incredibly hot-headed. Plus, he has a temper and is a bit reckless. And hot-headed.

Meanwhile! King David of Scotland and his countrymen, who are portrayed as a looseknit faction of booze-guzzling Cletus the slack-jawed yokels, are running raids and skirmishes along the border. (One theory for the dearth of performances of this play is that this offensive representation of the Scots was deemed highly un-politic in the Jacobean era.) Poor old Edward needs to fight wars on multiple fronts, so he hies himself north to Roxborough, where the Countess of Salisbury is holed up inside her castle. The scenes between the two of them are the best in the play.  

Here are some things about the Countess. Firstly, she is awesome: clever, brave, strong, articulate and resilient. Secondly, she is a stone cold fox. Edward arrives, takes one look at her, and does his best Tex Avery cartoon impression: tongue on the floor, eyes popping out of his head, aaaaooogah noises, spinning around on the spot with steam coming out of his ears. ‘Screw fighting the Scots’, he says, ‘point me in her direction’.

After he is invited in – who turns away the King, let alone the King that just helped to scare away your attackers? – the Countess is gracious and acts appropriately and asks him to stay. The King (reckless, hot-headed) starts thinking with his man bits, acts totally inappropriately, completely discounts the existence of his wife and asks one of his baffled men to help him write the Countess some love letters.

The Countess, who is a top hostess, pops in to see how they are getting along and it's time for EXTREME COURTSHIP: HOT-HEAD EDITION

She says, is everything okay with your lodgings?
She says, hrm, alright, is there anything I can get for you?
She says, oh okay like what?

He makes googly eyes.

She says, wut?
He says, actually, I am a bit discontent to be completely honest
She says, let me fix that the best I can, because I am a gracious host!
She says, I can get you some better sheets, or maybe something nice to eat, and I would do anything for love but I won't do that
He says, but I am your king!
She says, yes but even still, I cannot give you what is not yours to have because YOU ARE MARRIED AND FYI SO AM I
He says, excuses, schmexcuses, and anyway, I just talked to your dad and he said it was totally okay
The Earl of Warwick says, it's true, I totally did, although there was a pretty heavy element of blackmail involved 
She says, please, can you stop you really need to stop putting me in this situation, even the Scots were better than this

Edward's son Ned the Black Prince arrives, and his son's likeness to his wife cools his jets / pants momentarily, until the Countess returns and any circumspection flies out the window.

She says, great you're still here
She says, fine, all you have to do is kill everyone who stands in our way - your wife, my husband, and my poor dad
He says, done!
She says, what the hell is wrong with you, look, I will LITERALLY kill myself with this here knife if you don't back off

... and he finally backs off, with much muttering about how much trouble women / suicide pacts are. No rose ceremony for you, Edward. I wouldn't be surprised if he then went and picked up a copy of The Game.

I've read a few interpretations of these scenes that suggest that this is a 'right person, wrong time' love story for the ages that is writ in sighs and glances, and that the honourable Countess is tragically bound by duty to keep turning down the persistent, love-lorn King. Reading this as a lady person – who, like many other lady persons, has received unwanted sexual attention from people in positions of power or dominance – I feel quite differently about it. It’s a great character-driven dramatic sequence, though, and it features some lovely language, and I’d love to see it played out in the Shakespeare Festival or similar.

Then, oh boy, there is a bunch of fighting and warring and diplomacying and prisoner taking for a few acts. Ho hum. Prince Edward, Ned the Black Prince, acts as a pretty good precursor for the valiant Prince Hal in later plays. I am not ashamed to admit that I found a lot of this to be pretty boring, I think because I can rarely be bothered keeping track of all the redshirt lords.

Things pick up near the end when, during yet another battle between the English and the French, the sky turns black with flocks of (supernaturally disposed?) ravens - an unkindness of ravens, Google tells me. The French, who are cowards, get freaked out by this and the Black Prince manages to lead the English to an heroic underdog-ish victory, but as far as I am concerned the corvid is the winner on the day.

Verdict: I like ravens. I like the Countess. I quite like some of the imagery, especially the descriptions of battles. I am not overly interested in the finer points of literary authentication or extended scenes of diplomacy and political wrangling and hostages and war that have little to do with character and lots to do with pleasing a late 16th / early 17th century crowd who wanted to see something that confrmed, in their heart of hearts, that the French were rubbish.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Twin frenzy!

I have really been looking forward to reading The Comedy of Errors, and it's a wonderfully knockabout antidote to my Richard III-related antipathy. I have a massive soft spot for this play, in part because I was lucky enough to see an outstanding production of it at Shakespeare's Globe 15 years ago, but also because its extremely fun to read, even if you can't keep track of all the door slamming, doubling and buffoonery.

The setup is this: a guy from Syracuse called Egeon has made his way to the xenophobic Ephesus, a place known for magic, filthy paganism, and other such freaky business, where he is immediately arrested for being foreign and told that if he cannot pay a ransom he'll be put to death. Ruh-roh. He pleads his tragic case to the duke: Egeon has been looking for his son, Antipholus, and his son's servant, Dromio, who set out from home on their own mission some years earlier, and he has been wandering around for so long that he had no idea that Ephesus was jerk-central. To appease the duke, who is sympathetic but bound by law, Egeon tells a TRAGIC STORY...

He and his wife Emelia had identicial twin sons (both of whom are called Antipholus for reasons), and also 'inherited' another set of identical twins from a low-born woman (both of whom are called Dromio for reasons), who will be the Antipholuses (Antipholies?) servants (because inequality). Egeon and Emelia and the four infants get on a ship to (something something doesn't matter) but! Storm! Catastrophe! Calamity! The sailors bail, leaving the civilians to fend for themselves. One of each twin are lashed to one mast and the other two to the other, and during the maelstrom the boat breaks in half. Egeon is left with one of the pairs, and his wife and the other babies are gone... end flashback.

It is a very very sad story, and a rather long monologue that is quite comically stopped halfway through when Egeon apropos of nothing says '...and I guess you can work the rest out from there', so kind of a weird way to open a comedy. But, it's a great setup: now adult, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse have been travelling for years looking for their twins, who probably don't know that they have brothers. Although Egeon doesn't realise it, they are all in Ephesus now - where the other twins have just so happened to have grown up - but if Egeon can't find some money quick smart he's going to be executed. This plot is then forgotten about until the very end.

Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse are bosom buddies, despite their master-servant relationship, and both are pretty naive and good natured; they are essentially cheerful backpackers on a heart-warming mission in a time before hacky sacks and couch surfing.

Their urbane Ephesean counterparts are more hardened and cynical: Antipholus is an ambitious young merchant with a hot, upwardly mobile wife Adriana, and Dromio is quick-witted and streetwise.

When things start going south, the local pair upgrade from irate to outraged, while the baffled Syracuseans(?) decide pretty quickly that all the craziness is down to Ephesus's murky reputation for sorcery.

Thankfully it doesn't go all Oprah and soft-focus misty-eyed sentiment - no slo-mo reunion scenes and hand-holding. Instead, each twin keeps being mistaken for the other, including by their respective servant and master, resulting in COMEDY PLUS. This includes:
  • misunderstandings over money, gold chains and jewels!
  • beatings!
  • anger-fuelled threats of adultery!
  • more beatings!
  • pages worth of confused orders!
  • misrecognition!
  • even more beatings!
  • arrests!
  • escapes from custody!
  • a swordfight!
  • an exorcism by a quack doctor!

... and best of all, Dromio of Syracuse being aggressively pursued by his counterpart's robust and lusty fiancée, Nell the kitchenmaid, who he finds not at all to his liking.

His account of this to his Antipholus in act 3 scene 2 reads like an extended 'yo mama' joke:

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE  A very reverent body; ay, such a one as a man may not speak of without he say 'Sir-reverence.' I have but lean luck in the match, and yet is she a wondrous fat marriage. 
ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE  How dost thou mean a fat marriage? 
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE  Marry, sir, she's the kitchen wench and all grease; and I know not what use to put her to but to make a lamp of her and run from her by her own light. I warrant, her rags and the tallow in them will burn a Poland winter: if she lives till doomsday, he'll burn a week longer than the whole world.

...and so on. Eventually we get a geography lesson:
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE  Nell, sir; but her name and three quarters, that's an ell and three quarters, will not measure her from hip to hip. 
ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE  Then she bears some breadth? 
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE  No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip: she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her.

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE  In what part of her body stands Ireland? 
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE  Marry, in her buttocks: I found it out by the bogs. 
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE  I found it by the barrenness; hard in the palm of the hand. 
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE  In her forehead; armed and reverted, making war against her heir. 
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE  I looked for the chalky cliffs, but I could find no whiteness in them; but I guess it stood in her chin, by the salt rheum that ran between France and it.

... and on to Spain,the Indies, Belgium, the Netherlands, and so on. These sorts of exchanges, in which Dromio regales the equally baffled and horrified Antipholus with stories of his confusing exploits, are quite lovely, and highlight the affectionate friendship that they share despite their differing social standings. For me, their bond, their fish out of water status and their shared goals - to find their brothers, then to take advantage of what at first appears to be a beneficial situation, then to get the hell out of dodge - also provides the story with a sense of heart that might be lacking in other such farcical fare.

Of course it all works out fine in the end because it's not the sort of play where family members get baked into pies or stabbed in towers. Egeon isn't executed, the sets of brothers are reunited, and it just so happens that the Abbess who helps some of them out is actually Egeon's lost wife Emelia. Hurrah. It all closes with a gorgeous moment in which the Dromios finally get a chance to address one another. Play over, hearts warmed, money well spent.

Verdict: A+++ would read again.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Richard the Third is a four letter word

Oh the procrastination! I have to admit that I'm finding rereading plays that I'm more than passing familiar with to be a bit like homework, especially if I didn't regard them with much affection in the first place. For this reason I put Tricky Dicky off for quite a long while, and instead read this and this and this and this and also this, which was great (thanks for the rec, Karen). Merry Christmas everyone!

I haven't read or seen a production of Richard III for maybe twelve years, though, so here are the bits that I forgot about / liked better this time round, all brought to you through the magic of EXTENSIVE SWEARING.

The problem with Richard, Duke of Gloucester and later King Richard III - apart from the fact that he's a total prick -  is that he's the cleverest guy in the room and he knows it.  In the famous opening monologue, hunchbacked supervillain Richard announces to the audience that he plans on going about fucking up everyone's shit without them knowing what shit he's fucking! Grab your popcorn.

(Richard seems to have forgotten that one day it will be helpful to have people who will trust you and who you can trust back)(maybe he should have had one redeeming feature, like liking kittens or something?)(baddies 4 lyf).

So Richard fucks up some shit, then gloats about it, before unveiling his plan for more extensive shit up-fucking, all with the intention of becoming king shit of turd mountain (i.e. England, so wracked by war and infighting since the time of Richard II that it's little more than a sad brown smear in the North Atlantic).

Richard fucks up everyone so bad that he manages to a) have his brother murdered, b) convince a woman who hates him to marry him, c) turn half the court against one another d) imprison the other half and e) get a couple of kids slaughtered for what, at this point, seems like shits and giggles.

Oh Richard.

From there it's half sadistic wish fulfilment (Richard eventually gets the crown through dissembling, violence and general cuntishness) and half schadenfreude (everything turns to shit, Richard isn't that clever after all, battle battle battle, Richard wants a horse, Richard is dispatched by the Earl of Richmond who becomes Henry VII, the Wars of the Roses are doneburger, England is well again, we can all go home).

What I am enjoying, apart from set pieces involving bumbling assassins (Act I, Scene 4), are the near infinite ways of saying the world is a cruel place, like when Queen Elizabeth hears that her husband, King Edward IV, is dead, and cries out against the loneliness and awfulness of grief:
Why grow the branches when the root is gone?
Why wither not the leaves that want their sap?
If you will live, lament. If die, be brief,
That our swift-winged souls may catch the King's
Or, like obedient subjects, follow him
To his new kingdom of ne'er changing night. (II.2.42-47)

... or like when the aging witchy-poo Queen Margaret curses pretty much everyone for being singularly awful, and then has a go at Richard:
If heaven have any grievous plague in store
Exceeding those that I can wish upon thee,
O, let them keep it till thy sins be ripe,
And then hurl down their indignation
On thee, the troubler of the poor world's peace!
The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul!
Thy friends suspect for traitors while thou livest,
And take deep traitors for thy dearest friends!
No sleep close up that deadly eye of thine,
Unless it be whilst some tormenting dream
Affrights thee with a hell of ugly devils!
Thou elvish-mark'd, abortive, rooting hog!
Thou that wast seal'd in thy nativity
The slave of nature and the son of hell!
Thou slander of thy mother's heavy womb!
Thou loathed issue of thy father's loins! (I.3.681-696)

... or like when the ghosts of all the murdered appear at the end to curse Richard and lay their blessings on his foe Richmond:
 Despair and die! (x100)

More sad / grim / violent bits, please. It's like a small coffee table book of affirmations: 1000 Ways To Say I Hate You, the World's Awful, and Please Fuck Off and Die, by W Shakespeare.

Verdict: meh - although this is no reflection on the play itself, more my general indifference to revisiting something I didn't much like in the first place. I'm sure you'll love it!

Wait wait - edited to add: Okay I have been a bit unfair, and have let a very poor experience of a particularly fragmented student production of this play get in the way of me being even vaguely even handed. I am sorry Richard! This is a very good play.

Apart from the fact that my comprehension in terms of Shakespearean form is improving substantially as I keep reading, my biggest take-away so far is the need for a good copy of the script, which should come with big red letters across the front stating not to fuck too much with the intentions and characters. The Folgers versions of the scripts (long may they continue to feature detailed glossaries and helpful synopses and pretty pictures) also include implied stage directions, including directional cues such as who is talking to whom, and who is talking to the audience or themselves.  This helps with clarity and spatial understanding a lot, especially when there are multiple people or groups on stage. One scene that I recall having a really hard time getting my head around re: voice and intention, made much more sense when I realised, while reading, that I should have been speaking secretly to the audience in certain parts, and not just going BLAH BLAH BLAH CURSE CURSE CURSE in the direction of the other actors.

Recommendation: supersize your Wars of the Roses happy meal by reading Henry VI parts 1-3 and Richard III all in a row and make a weekend of it. And don't be a grinch.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Titus Andronicus, or, Rome is but a wilderness of assholes #brutal #twracism #pie #smdh

I've mostly recovered from the end of the academic year, so am once more capable of reading Early Modern prose and verse. Also it's Halloween, and while this doesn't have ghosts it does have lots of body parts. Hooray.

Titus Andronicus, an early tragedy and Roman play, is not the best loved of Shakespeare's output. It's crudely written in places, it's ultraviolent, and it's a problem play if problem means 'how are we supposed to get all that blood out of the costumes before tomorrow's matinee?' HOWEVER I think it's equal parts ace and totally underrated and here I plan to sell you on its vices and virtues. Certainly, it's hardly got the nuance or poetry of Hamlet or King Lear, both of which are also violent and revenge-y, but that's like saying you shouldn't watch Bad Taste or Meet the Feebles just because The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won a bunch of Oscars. I see the play as the American Horror Story of the Shakespearean canon: a gory, blackly funny, kinda queer exercise in 'throw it all at the wall and see what sticks' (sometimes literally), which is nonetheless underpinned by some serious pathos and a healthy serving of meaty family drama (oh see what I did there)(you will see if you don't know)(oh ha ha ha)(I am a very funny person).

We are in Rome and the Emperor has died. His two sons are vying for his spot - younger brother Bassianus, square-jawed good guy, and elder brother Saturninus, slimy creep - but the people want war hero and model Roman citizen Titus Andronicus to rule. Enter Titus, his four remaining sons, and some captured Goths - Tamora, the Queen, her lover Aaron the Moor (stay tuned for some vintage racism) and her sons Alarbus, Chiron and Demetrius.

"We need an offering to appease the spirits of my 21 sons who died in battle!" says Titus, noted horndog. "Sacrifice Tamora's eldest."

"Be merciful- you're a parent too!" cries Tamora. "Don't slaughter my son for shits and giggles!"

"Mmmmm nope hard luck" says Titus and Tamora's eldest gets the chop.

ATROCITY 1: Alarbus the Goth - limbs lopped off and entrails chucked in the sacrificial fire.

... and Titus's stone cold inability to show mercy - his view that to be noble is to be rigid, not empathetic - is where all the bad business starts, for in this first section Titus loses just about everything. His hard-on for playing things completely by the book leads to a few more fuck ups, and it's worth laying out the extensive machinations of the first act:

A succession: Titus's brother, Marcus, implores Titus to become emperor - but no, that's not the rules, so Titus says I'm a bit old and soldiery for that and Saturninus should take his father's place. Mistake #2, because Saturninus is seven kinds of awful.

A wedding?: Saturninus insists that Lavinia, Titus's lovely daughter, marry him. Titus says yes sure thing Emperor.

An elopement / abduction: Problem is, Bassianus and Lavinia are betrothed. Titus's family, who are looking at Titus increasingly like the mad uncle who no one wants to sit next to at Christmas, help the two love birds run away. (NB: much has been made of the fact that Lavinia doesn't seem to have a say in anything, and that rape also means the violent seizure and abduction of a woman: foreshadowing!) Titus is furious and kills one of his own sons for being so dishonourable, then disowns the rest.

ATROCITY 2: Mutius Andronicus - stabbed by his dad for being disobedient #jeezdad

A wedding!: Saturninus gives a big "fuck you!" to Titus, by rescinding all honour and telling him to disappear with the rest of his traitorous family, then a bigger "fuck you!" to Rome, by asking the captive Tamora to be his empress.

An interment: Titus's family comes back and convinces him to let Mutius be buried in the family tomb. "Thou art a Roman: be not barbarous" says Marcus, words that are written in neon and surrounded with flashing lights. Titus continues to struggle with the whole 'doing right by Rome' vs 'doing right by actual human beings' thing.

A set-up: Tamora comes across all pious and even-minded and asks Saturninus to show mercy and forgive Titus et al. for their misdemeanours... only to tell him in a great villainous aside that she plans on staging a violent revenge: "I'll find a day to massacre them all!" Saturninus and Tamora invite all their nice new friends on a hunt, because nothing ever goes wrong when vindictive people are stumbling round the woods with weapons. <<End of Act I>>

From here it's safe to say that everything turns to shit.

Over the course of the play Titus's world crumbles around him as Saturninus and Tamora's grip on the capitol increases, and he goes mad, or feigns madness, or rolls around in a sloppy combination of the two. Tamora's evil scheming is massively amplified by the machinations of her lover, Aaron the Moor. He is as villanous a character as you are likely to find and has just about zero redeeming qualities - see his lurid description of his hobbies in Act V Scene 1 - because, as he frequently tells us, his soul is as black as his skin #racism #reallyracist #itsquiteracist.


(In fairness, he makes a pointed comment later about the nature of institutional racism, but by then the evil black horse has bolted.)

The most terrible thing he does is encourage Chiron (dumb) and Demitrius (dumber) to rape Lavinia during the aformentioned hunt - something that Tamora goads on too. This draws from the story of Philomela from Ovid's Metamorphoses: Lavinia's hands and tongue are cut out so that she can't communicate the names of her attackers, but she eventually writes their names in the dirt by dragging a big stick around with her mouth #suggestive #literary.

That's getting ahead of things though - time to catch up, in order:

ATROCITY 3: Bassianus is stabbed and thrown in a pit
ATROCITY 4: Lavinia is raped and mutilated
ATROCITY 5: Titus cuts of his hand in ransom for his sons, wrongly imprisoned for Bassianus's murder...
ATROCITIES 6 & 7: ...but ha ha, Quintius and Martius Andronicus are executed anyway, and their heads and hands are delivered to their father #sickburn
ATROCITY 8: A nurse is stabbed because she knows Aaron is Tamora's baby daddy
ENTERTAINING DIVERSION: Aaron outlines all the violent, horrid and batshit crazy things he does for fun, such as dig dead people up and leave them by their loved ones' doors #punkd
ATROCITY 9: Titus takes Chiron and Demetrius, who are dressed up as Rape and Murder, and cuts their throats
ATROCITY 10: Chiron and Demetrius are baked into a pie and fed to all and sundry, including their mother! #mykitchenrules
ATROCITIES 11+: Half the remaining top billed cast are killed, Aaron is buried up to his chest and left to die, and no one has second helpings

So lots of terrible things happen and loads of critics say that this play is a bit pants. However, if the court will hear me out, the thing I like about this play is that, at the rotten stinking heart of it, it's all about family, the limits of honour and the need to connect with and protect one's own. Titus's myriad sorrows and their often affecting expression are placed centre stage for much of the piece in a manner that moves beyond two hours of 'why me?' Titus Andronicus plays domestic trauma and tragedy out on a much broader, more audacious stage and charts an equivalence between civic and domestic corruption that culminates in a big serving of (humble) people pie. The play is very blunt in showing that there's not a lot of difference, ultimately, between Tamora and Titus's ruthlessness, cruelty and bloodthirsty devotion to what they think is right; if anything, Tamora's foreignness only serves to heighten the audience's appreciation for the sort of awfulness that Titus has been up to out in the field by demonstrating that brutality knows no borders.

Also, the special effects people use up loads of chocolate sauce and that pie scene is pretty ace.

Verdict: Roman Grand Guignol is a dish best served piping hot. #tasty

Friday, 26 September 2014

Women: can't live with 'em, can't terrorise them into submissi-- oh, wait.

Welcome to The Taming of the Shrew, or, Vintage Sexism Is So Hot Right Now.

This play is unusual in that it starts with an induction, or an introductory framing narrative that in this case doesn't resolve at the end of the play - perhaps, a play within a pl-. Christopher Sly, notorious drunkard, gets kicked out of a pub and passes out on a street, where he is discovered, lying in his own piss and puke, by a really rich guy. Let's play a joke! says the really rich guy. When the pisshead wakes up, everyone pretend he is actually a lord who is emerging from a period of amnesia. GREAT IDEA says everyone WE GOT THIS.

Sly wakes up, hungover and disgruntled, and at first is confused as to why servants are suddenly offering him music, fancy beer, a posh couch to shag on, hawks to hawk with, nudie pics, poncy food and the like. Sly changes his tune when he realises he has a wife! (Wife is actually another guy in drag.) Enlivened by the prospect of getting frisky after an all-you-can-eat buffet, Sly is dead keen when the really rich guy - disguised as an attendant - invites him to watch a play... the very play we are about to see. Welcome to the Matrix.

This certainly sets up some of the key themes of the play - social mobility as raucous situational comedy, the issue of marriage, impersonation and fun with disguises, the things one will put up with to get laid - but it's not really carried through the rest of the play and flops around like an extra limb.

So, to the actual thing - and for your benefit I have offered you a bit of latitude in how you read this [hilarious comedy / sexist farce], for The Taming of the Shrew is a contentious play for the modern reader and there have been many attempts to modernise (and rehabilitate) it. Make up your own mind!

This play, like a good number of Shakespeare's oeuvre, opens with some unrequited boy-->girl action: Lucentio, a [really cool guy / dudebro], is trying to [woo / bone] some poor unsuspecting chick.  In this case the chick is Bianca, who has done nothing to deserve this attention - and the attention of some other [really cool guys / dudebros] - but be quiet, mild-mannered, moderately pretty and alive. His clever servant, Tranio, totally approves.

Roadblock: while Bianca would hypothetically like to get married one day, her older sister, Katherine, is a [total bitch / headstrong clever frustrated woman who despairs of all the idiots around her and is in no way okay with being married off to the nearest tool just to suit everyone else], and their father Baptista has decreed that Bianca can't get hitched until Katherine has been [wedded / offloaded, most likely against her will, but hey - comedy!]. One of the first jokes of the play is the difference between courting Katherine and carting her, that is, publicly humiliating her for her womanly transgressions by being wheeled through town in an open cart. Says Tranio, "that wench is stark mad or wonderful froward!"

In keeping with an ongoing pattern of having dudes make decisions about ladies, two of Bianca's other suitors decide to find Katherine a husband (who, they decide, must be someone naturally a bit bonkers). Lucentio, watching all of this and already desperately in [love / lust] with a woman he's seen for all of three minutes, decides to jump the queue. The plan is this: Lucentio will pretend to be a tutor, so that he can [get some alone time with / properly perve at] Bianca, and Trantio will pretend to be Lucentio so that they can fulfil their obligations to something something whatever topsy turvy people swap clothes who cares.

There's other intrigue and such too but none of that matters because all of this business with Bianca being [passionately wooed by a bunch of really cool guys / lusted after by a bunch of manipulative horndogs, most of whom are pretending to be other people] is just a way of setting up the key conflict in the play and here comes Petruchio!

Petruchio is a total blowhard and refreshingly frank about his motivation: he is in town looking for a wife, and he doesn't care what sort of a person she is so long as she is super rich.  And so it is decreed: Petruchio will [take one for the team / go about badgering a wealthy reluctant woman into marrying him] so that Bianca may be [made available to wed / freed up so that the rest of the horny rabble can have a good go] - and all the expenses he incurs in this endeavour will be paid by some of Bianca's [motivated / desperate] suitors. Here Petruchio's servant makes a sidelong comment that his master might in fact be a bit mad and prone to dirty tricks - total red flag, ladies.

Baptista, quite reasonably, tells Petruchio that if he wants to marry Katherine then she must love him, so Petruchio goes about [wooing / terrorising] Kate in a series of increasingly [hilarious / unpleasant] encounters. Things start off with a bunch of witty, feisty wordplay:

KATHERINE: Asses are made to bear, and so are you.
PETRUCHIO: Women are made to bear, and so are you.

but seeing as this isn't really getting him anywhere, Petruchio tells her that (with her father's consent) she's getting married whether she likes it or not. From here he moves to DEFCON [FUN / SCUM]:
  • every time she does something, such as curse or refuse to talk, he will respond as if she has done the opposite 
  • he tells everyone that Kate really loves him, but that they've decided to pretend otherwise in public 
  • he turns up to the wedding looking like he's dressed himself in filthy rags found at the bottom of a skip, riding a half-dead, diseased riddled horse
  • he abuses the priest and derails the marriage ceremony
  • he turns the post-wedding trip to his house into a filthy, injurious debacle that wouldn't be out of place in your worst ever game of Oregon Trail
  • he doesn't let Kate eat, sleep, or wear any of the nice clothes he's had made for her
...and so on. The whole fiasco is extraordinarily [thigh-slappingly funny / harrowing], and Kate totally [deserves every minute of it / should file for a restraining order].
Kate is made of pretty stern stuff but eventually cracks and goes along with all of Petruchio's nonsense. Finally in a fit of [wry, knowing, wink-wink-nudge-nudge faux-humility / Stockholm Syndrome], upon seeing her sister Bianca acting a bit snippy with whichever loser-in-disguise it is she's finally decided to hook up with, Kate delivers the most famous speech from the play:

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign, one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labor both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe,
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks and true obedience—
Too little payment for so great a debt.
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace;
Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.
(in fairness, Muscleman and Starla really do love each other)

PERHAPS they come to some sort of unspoken understanding during their [lively, comic meeting of the minds / bitter psychological warfare]. 

PERHAPS it really is the case that [if you treat 'em mean you keep 'em keen / even the strongest of minds will give way under relentless torture].

PERHAPS Kate really comes to love Petruchio because [she recognises in him a passionate man and an intellectual equal / she has been completely broken down and even as a wealthy woman she has very little agency].

PERHAPS Kate will [actually be an obedient wife, or even an equal participant in her marriage / one day kill him in his sleep].

PERHAPS I'm just being very rude about a play that is often very clever and that features some of the best insults and witty reparte in all of Shakespeare-dom. But context is important, and this play is the most famous in a tradition of plays and stories in which socially transgressive women are 'tamed' by their husbands, by everything ranging from comic banter to beatings and sexual assault, because it was against the law to be a stroppy lady. Every time I'd get carried away with the farce I'd be brought painfully back to earth by things like the end of Act IV scene 1. Sure, fine, Petruchio barely raises a hand to her over the course of the play, but prior to any declarations of love and remorse he also announces that the best way to tame a shrew is to do what falconers do with new, unruly birds - starve them and deprive them of sleep - and that if the audience can think of any better tactics then hit him up. Hey-oh!

My advice is to read this excellent version of the play from the wonderful and very funny website Myths Retold, and then go watch 10 Things I Hate About You while downing a stiff drink.

STOP PRESS actually wait no watch this. I just found this combo of the play and some burlesque-y striptease and holy moly, why am I bothering to actually read all the plays when I can just watch these?

Verdict: #teamkatherine. Also, if I ever open a pub it's going to be called The Scold's Bridle and women will only pay 70c on the dollar until parity is achieved! Girlpower.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Henry VI Part 3: Alarums Ad Nauseum

This one's kinda long, sorry, and I've even skipped out almost all of acts IV and V.

The previous two plays have started with high stakes drama :
(i) an incredibly depressing funeral (RIP Henry V, you were swell), and
(ii) the wedding between Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou, followed by the Duke of York addressing the audience and regaling them with his best Mr Burns impression while he explains how he is going to make himself king. 
This one starts with York (Team White Rose) busting into the throne room with some of his cronies, claiming it for his own, then (and we're still on page one here) waving a severed head around - "the bloody stump really brings out the carmine in the tapestries" etc. Great start!

Henry VI turns up with his cronies (Team Red Rose), is understandably miffed that someone's stolen his seat, and then there is a 'my dad is more awesomer than your dad' conversation in which York and Henry each try to prove that they have the better claim to the throne. I think I firmly established in my write up of part II that Henry isn't really a bloodthirsty, eye-of-the-tiger kinda guy, so his really soft-bellied compromise is that he be allowed to live out his life as king, and then York and his descendants can have the throne (or have it back, depending on whether you believe the Yorkists or the Lancastrians are cooler). This also means that Henry's son, Prince Edward, who has magically been born and grown up a bit between parts II and III, is disinherited. Stink buzz. Most of Henry's supporters leave in disgust.

Reaction from Interchangeable Lord 1: 
Farewell, faint hearted and degenerate king / in whose cold blood no spark of honour bides
Reaction from Interchangeable Lord 2: 
Be thou a prey unto the house of York / and die in bands for this unmanly deed

Incidentally, I didn't bother keeping track of which of the myriad lords were on whose side because I figured most of them would be dead soon enough anyway. (I was right.)

Enter Queen Margaret, who is straight up the best thing about this stupid play. In part I she's a coquettish French maiden, flirting with the Earl of Suffolk, who arranges the royal marriage and becomes her lover. In part II she is scheming and devious, and generally fed up with Henry's uselessness. Through the magic of character development, in part III (and now a mother), she is a wrathful fury:

It is hard to paraphrase her speech in colloquial terms without resorting to a litany of bad swears; suffice it to say she tells Henry that he is a bad king, a bad husband, a bad tactician, a bad judge of character, a bad father, and all up a complete and utter waste of space. She leaves and takes her son with her and FORMS AN ARMY, because if she has to live in shitty England with all these shitty people then at the very least her lovely English son should have his royal birthright.

Extreme ALARUMS AND EXCURSIONS for a couple of acts during multiple battles in which the Yorkists and the Lancastrians push to and fro. There are three key scenes that define the conflict, two of which employ a sense of poetry that's largely missing in these earlier plays.

The first is when Margaret, in full vengeful harpy mode,

apprehends York with the help of some of her supporters. She is exceedingly cruel: she taunts him with the deaths (actual and threatened) of his sons, and she offers him a hanky soaked in the blood of his youngest to wipe away his tears. She places a paper crown upon his head and mocks his regal ambitions. Margaret's invective is as much aimed at the general, treacherous awfulness and instability of the ongoing York-Lancaster conflict and its broader effects as it is a condemnation of York's own specific actions against the King and realm, but her callousness speaks more generally to the poison flowing throughout the country. After a period of venomous back-and-forths, she and her noble minions kill him and chop off his head so that it may look out across the city of York from a choice spot on the battlements. (I have, by this stage, lost count of all the severed heads.)

(Game of Thrones themed severed head cake pops recipe here)

The second key moment is equal parts poignant and heavy-handed. Henry, who has been instructed to keep the fuck out of the way, looks out across the fighting and bemoans his birthright. He thinks about how he would have preferred to have been born a simple shepherd, spending his days tending his flock and whittling and drinking curds, finding more beauty in his flock's fleeces than in royal tapestries and golden chalices. As he watches his subjects mow each other down he sees one man dragging a corpse with him, hoping to plunder it, before realising that it is his own father; likewise another man, bearing another corpse, discovers that he has killed his own son in the grime of battle because each were called to war by different factions. Henry cries out:
Woe above woe! grief more than common grief!
O that my death would stay these ruthful deeds!
O pity, pity, gentle heaven, pity!
The red rose and the white are on his face,
The fatal colours of our striving houses:
The one his purple blood right well resembles;
The other his pale cheeks, methinks, presenteth:
Wither one rose, and let the other flourish;
If you contend, a thousand lives must wither.
The irony, really, is that if he hadn't been such a weak-willed numpty of a monarch, none of this would have happened in the first place.

The third (much less poetic) moment comes when Clifford, supporter of Henry and scourge of the Yorks, snuffs it in the field, and York's sons come and boot his body around like a football, shouting "helloooo? anyone still in there? Can't believe he died without letting us say goodbye."

So after more alarums and excursions the Yorks win, Henry is banished to Scotland, and Edward, dead York's eldest son, is king (although his brother Richard the hunchback gives a rousing speech as to his own plans to one day be king - you can look forward to for Richard III for more of his special antics and a lot of mwa-ha-ha-ing). Unfortunately Edward IV (whose reign is to be a bit patchy) thinks with his penis, marries the wrong person, fucks up an important alliance, and loses some key supporters. Once more its time for WAR, this time with France (again), who are allied with Team Red Rose.

War, war, politics, defections, war, "I'm king!", "no, I'm king!", fighting, politics, war.


Fast-forward to the end, because this is getting tiring and tedious and while I'm well aware of the didactic nature of the play - the way that it explores the abject destruction of a few generations due to political infighting and civil strife, and the ongoing political and civic ramifications -  I don't really care for any of the characters except Margaret (who gives a rousing battle speech at the beginning of V.iv). (P.S. Bring back Talbot!)

Here is where it finishes:

  • Edward IV is king and Team White Rose prevails
  • Henry's son Prince Edward is stabbed to death in front of ex-Queen Margaret by Edward IV and his brothers, Clarence and Richard 
  • Henry is murdered in the Tower of London by Richard after FINALLY growing a pair and cussing out Richard to his face
  • Margaret is imprisoned (boo)

The end (for now).

Verdict: (i) Margaret is a badass and the first great female character in the canon, and (ii) multiple battles are surprisingly boring (paging Peter Jackson).

Monday, 8 September 2014

Henry VI Part 2: All Treason, All The Time

Previously on Henry VI:
  • the war in France is over (for now)! 
  • the Duke of Gloucester and Cardinal Winchester hate one another! 
  • people who wear red roses (the Lancasters) and people who wear white roses (the Yorks) also hate one another!
  • and the pious, gentle Henry's going to marry foxy Frenchwoman Margaret of Anjou, who is having an affair with the sneaky Earl of Suffolk, who wants to control the kingdom via her influence (while also banging her).
Part I was a total slog but Part II cracks along, probably because the action doesn't keep jumping from France to England and back again. Also, I've figured out who's who and so long as I pretend that I'm watching a second tier television costume drama where everyone is too pretty by half I can just sit back and enjoy the insults. If I had realised that all the histories were were a bunch of devious, ambitious, increasingly desperate people being extremely rude to one another while wearing flash clothes then I probably would have started in on them years ago.

So - the war is over and Henry just isn't a political animal, so he glides around happily, remarking upon the beauty and wonderment of God's creation. Meanwhile, everyone else is trying to find a way to leverage the most amount of power while the king is busy picking flowers, talking to bluebirds, and generally being a pushover. I imagine King Henry to be a lot like lovely, gentle Pops from Regular Show:

to the point where all the brawling between nobles in the royal court ends up a bit like:

Things get exciting in the middle and it's treason-central:
  • Mrs Gloucester, who would totally love to be queen one day, is punished and exiled for consorting with witches and conjurers. (Hint: while she might be a bit of a twit, it's a political stitch-up.) 
  • Gloucester - honourable Lord Protector, Henry fanboy, and just about the only one not plotting a coup of some type - is accused of treason by Winchester, Queen Margaret, et al. and imprisoned. Most of the evidence seems to rest on the fact that Gloucester is a grump and his wife is dodgy (see above). 
  • For fear of Gloucester being found innocent of all charges (because he is innocent of all charges), Winchester and Suffolk have Gloucester murdered in his bed. There's even a forensic speech on cause of death! CSI: Bury St Edmunds. 
  • The king finally shows a bit of emotional depth and is stricken with grief, but that's okay, because Suffolk is banished then captured and beheaded by pirates, and Winchester comes over all funny (guilt-stroke?) and dies as well. 
The bit players get a good go of it too: two commoners are forced to have a fight to the death over whether or not one of them made an offhanded treasonous comment, and the drunk-but-actually-innocent one loses, thereby proving his guilt in the eyes of God. Justice for all!

In the meantime, villainous York - father of the guy who will eventually become Richard III (coming this summer) - is gurning to the audience as he soliloquises about all the treacherous ways he's going to become king. He is also given an army with which to quash an Irish rebellion. Top tip: don't give a treasonous nutcase an army.

So, basically, everyone wants someone other than Henry to be king, except for Henry, who is as oblivious as this dumb looking rock:

In fairness, Henry knows he's pretty crap at the job. He gets it right when he says Come, wife, let's in and learn to govern better / For yet may England curse my wretched reign.

Time for another uprising, this time led by an anti-intellectual ruffian called John Cade who wants to turn England into a socialist paradise and crown himself ruler. This is the best stage direction of the play: Drum. Enter Cade, Dick the butcher, Smith the weaver, a Sawyer, with INFINITE NUMBERS, all with staves. Apart from the need for infinity extras, these scenes are great - satirical, ironic and funny, unlike anything involving the king.

Things get very fighty, bloody and smashy for a while as Cade invades London, and everything reads like a violent Mel Brooks movie. Two noblemen are beheaded and their severed heads made to kiss. Comedy gold! Eventually Cade runs away and, half-starving, is killed trying to pinch food from someone's garden. He even dies obnoxiously, proclaiming that he only lost the fight because he was too hungry, so ha ha.

Act V: More uprisings! More treason! More intrigue! &c &c. York announces his claim to the throne. Everybody fights!

York and Team White Rose roundly beat King Henry's men at the Battle of St Albans. The Yorkists chase after Henry, who scarpers to London after Queen Margaret shouts at him to get a fucking move on or he'll be killed.

The End.

Verdict: I understand why people don't stage these plays any more. They are exhausting, densely populated and hard to keep up with. This is a pity, because they also have pirates, beheadings, ample parts for comedy troupes and some top notch snark!