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Theatre Reviews

London Theatre, Nicholas Hytner and Antony Sher Bring Forth a Dud

Nicholas Hytner (Photograph: Charlotte Macmillan)

Back to earth with a vengeance. The best theatre in the world, one of the most highly regarded directors and a famous actor…and together, they bring forth a complete dud. A drama without drama. Acting that would embarrass the Ku-ring-gai Town Players. A script that would win any contest for frog-marched cliche and over-sugared sentimentality. It is called Travelling Light by Nicholas Wright, a fairly undistinguished playwright. Tonight it premiered at the National Theatre with the drawcard of Antony Sher.

My God, it was awful.

There is that terrible moment when you are trapped in bad theatre. It may happen five minutes after curtain rise. Oh no, this is a mistake…it is not happening, you think….but yes, you have queued for the first night of…a horror. An evening wasted. You sit there thinking how much better to be at home watching The Wire.

Interesting to me that atrocious writing and lamentable acting can get a forum, even in as lauded an institution – even in this temple of fine theatre, the UK’s National Theatre.

The play is about the origin of the motion picture business in the shtetl of Eastern Europe, of Jews playing with Lumiere brothers equipment in the 1890s, then immigrating with it to the US, ultimately to Hollywood where Sam Goldwyn and Louis B Mayer and other poor but brilliant entrepreneurs gave Amerida and the world an entertainment revolution and a vast new industry.

Our forebodings came to the surface when Sher, playing a timber merchant who funds a young man’s experiments with the camera, starts sprouting lines written to denote ethnic cuteness. “Me, no like Tsar’s army” is about the level. “Words…words I no like! Me, I like pictures!” How did Sher sign up for such a lifeless role, this fine actor who has given us such memorable performances in Macbeth and Winter’s Tale or, at this same National Theatre, as Primo Levi?

L-R: Damien Molony as Motl Mendl, Antony Sher as Jacob Bindel and Abigail McKern as Ida in Hytner's production of Travelling Light (Photograph: Johan Persson)

Surely we have ways of telling stories about East European Jewry without the sentimentality and nostalgia of Fiddler on the Roof. The musical appeared in the mid-60s. All these years on, Travelling Light refuses to rise above Fiddler’s folkloric myths.

Hytner ought to accept some responsibility for quality. The National, founded by Olivier, has been the wellspring of some of the world’s finest theatre. We have walked across Waterloo Bridge after a Volpone or an Orestia or Mourning Becomes Elektra and been happy to be alive. Thrilled by the professionalism of this theatre tradition.

Yet tonight as we left dejected at interval the real reason this play has been produced dawned on me. This play was been done with one purpose: to be taken to New York where it will fill a Broadway theatre with gullible crowds from all over, thrilled by shtetl coziness, adoring of Sher’s stock ethnic characterization and happy with an obvious, see-it-coming-a-mile off plot. It has been written and produced to be a facile commercial success in New York.

Ten plays this Christmas in London. A couple of disappointments but, all in all, none that would leave you angrier – with a company and talent that should have a better collective antenna.

London Theatre: The Best

Michelle Fairley, Will Keen and Fiona Glascott in Paul Hart's production of Jean-Paul Sartre's Huis Clos (Photograph: Simon Kane)

Robert Hughes said he would come back after death as a rat in the Prado. I think my goal would be to return as a rat in London theatres, scuttling across the river to The National, then when the reviews justified it, to the West End, with big river journeys to get to Stratford.

The two most astonishing plays in London are these.

First Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos, written in 1943, produced by the Donmar in the tiny Trafalgar space which is the smallest theatre I have ever sat in – must have been 50 of us in the first night audience. Where I sat there was one row in front and none behind. I couldn’t move my trapped legs. The action starts when a valet shows a man into a room with a few sticks of second empire furniture. The man in his double breasted suit seems to be some kind of prisoner expecting torture. Or is it house arrest? By the time they have bantered and a woman is shown into the same room we realize this is hell. A third is shown in…here they will be confined in this room – without even toothbrushes – for eternity. No exit. And the hell is that they will have to relive the deed they had them condemned and live out conflict with one another. The acting was riveting. In the tiny space we were confined with them.

Mark Rylance in Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem

Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth is dominated by the defiant maverick presence of a “gypo” caravan-dweller in a pocket of forest near a new housing estate. He is Johnny “Rooster” Byron, banned from the local pubs, a dealer in drugs to the drop-out kids who hang on him, vaguely in touch with mythic worlds of the English forest. The title is from William Blake’s And Did These Feet in Ancient Time. Johnny Byron is played by Mark Rylance, who we saw do a National Theatre Hamlet 20 years ago and who has been artistic director of the Globe. Bloody, done-for, his camp site about to the bulldozed by the council and the Wiltshire police, he belts out an occult message on the drum he was said was a got from one of the giants who built Stonehenge. His presence in this role is dominating London theatre. The crowds line-up for this show which has triumphed in London before, then on Broadway. He is a colossal presence but every actor in the cast measured up.

Heaven for me would be an eternity of theatre at this level. And that Richard II at the Donmar (see below) was reason enough to subscribe to Shakespeare, and perhaps theatre in general, as a private religion. Theatre as sacrament. I take it that seriously.

Shakespeare – at a Standard I Approve

The theatre is so small that downstairs seated in the second row we had only another three rows behind us. So it was if we were on the stage. Indeed when one of the characters knelt on the walkway he was next to me. We were part of the action. (A big contrast with that Kevin Spacey Richard III in a 2000 seat Sydney Lyric Theatre).

You enter this, well, chamber theatre and there is a shadowy half illuminated Gothic facade. The boy king Richard sits meditating on his throne. Swathes of incense flavor the air. There are distant tolling bells. There are candles. This is 1399 and Shakespeare’s history cycle is about to begin with the deposing of a king that will plunge the country into 85 years of civil war, peace only coming with the Battle of Bosworth shown at the end of his Richard III, which Shakespeare wrote in 1592-3. That is, it preceded Richard II written in 1595-6.

Last night at the Donmar, with Eddie Redmayne as Richard and Derek Jacobi an earlier Richard a few seats away, the drama was enacted again. Outstandingly, and any Australian director should be flown here to watch the production 10 times before receiving a cent of government funding ever again. Once again on the English stage I witness a living theatrical culture, fed by years of working these texts and acting so authoritative and precise I admit of only one cavil and that is about the star.

Eddie Redmayne as Richard II (Photograph: Johan Persson)

Richard II is, first, an anatomy of a political deposition. A king rules but we see him through inexperience and petulance and overconfidence make an error of judgment in resolving an issue between two barons. Then, in embarking on an invasion of Ireland, a second error of judgment that compounds the first (it arises from that oldest challenge, how to pay for a war). The king suffers “a thousand flatterers within your crown” as old John of Gaunt warns him. We see grievances at work about those who are “in” at court from those who are “out”. There is a quick gathering of the aggrieved, to mount a threat to the king – we see how it gather force with lightning speed. The king is a bad king – he gossips girlishly about how the banished Bolingbroke handled his ride into exile, he ignores the warning from wise old York that if he seizes Bolingbroke’s inheritance “you pluck a thousand enemies”. There is the politics of the rebel camp, of York standing between the two sides, having seen the boy-king’s foolishness but also seeing rebellion as an act against god.

Shakespeare’s vision accommodates all perspectives. Yes, a bad king but an unattractive usurper.

Yes, a bad king but a great metaphysical poet. Richard’s soliloquies point to those of Hamlet they are so lavish, so self-pityingly good they may even – here I invoke Harold Bloom again – have influenced John Donne. I love the way Richard is self conscious about this very characteristic, his propensity to spin off verse. “Mock not my senseless conjurgation,” he says apologetically. And later, “I see I talk but idly and you laugh at me.” The self-awareness of these characters, Shakespeare’s protagonists, is one of the features of his mature work just like the multi-sidedness I praised above. As a ” brilliant fantasia” (Bloom again) overtakes Richard’s mind his poetry becomes more extravagant, climaxing in his last soliloquy in his cell before his murder. Bloom says the play is one long lyric poem. It is all verse, of course.

Poetry, but politics as well. A study of a deposition. Even down to this question: do you put the deposed leader on trial for his crimes, in this case, the murder of Gloucester which was the subject of baronial disagreement in the first scene. No, says Richard, unless you usurpers confront the bigger crime of overthrowing a sovereign, “the deputy elected by the Lord.” He protests as a deposed sovereign being accused of crimes, “must I ravel out my weaved-up follies?”

Let me make the point. There was no jerkiness and shouting from these actors. There was no lack of harmony in the authority and flexibility of the voices. God forbid, there were no flat, untrained voices being hoisted on us – think of those we suffered in the Sydney Theatre Company’s Uncle Vanya. One felt here was a theatrically-educated intelligence informing all aspects of the production. For those who think these things important the costumes were (unobtrusively) medieval. Harmony, in all respects. Nothing jarred. So herd every director and aspirant director, every know-all graduate of NIDA, on the next available flight and make them queue at 5am outside the Donmar to get prized tickets. Absorb how director Michael Grandage does it and no more excuses.

I thought Eddie Redmayne may have tilted a tiny bit too far toward the fey, boy-king side of Richard. Were his range of responses – nervous smile, terrified eyes – too stylized and limited? His range of gestures too textbook refined? I have seen Fiona Shaw, Ralph Fiennes and Derek Jacobi perform the role…and, well, I don’t know. But nothing fell short or jarred. This was an entirely believable king – a bad ruler and inspired poet.

Oh, why do I nag about voice? Because I want to luxuriate in the words. To hear York say, “To be a makepeace, shall become my age” or to have Richard’s favorites branded “the caterpillars of the commonwealth”.

To savor every word of Richard’s “Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings…” soliloquy. Or hear him decant on how,”Not all the waters in the rough, rude sea can wash off the balm from an anointed king”. Or the lament, “Bring back yesterday, bid time return…” And of course there is dying John of Gaunt’s rant about “This royal throne of kings, this scept’red isle…” never more of a sick man’s rave and less of a wartime lyric, than in this performance by Michael Hadley last night. There is reference to “plume-plucked Richard” and much more of the Elizabethan word richness that can live if spoken well.

Friends, we have got to aspire to this standard.

And when I get time, a review of Juno and the Paycock, Irish theatre from 1924.

Spacey’s Richard III: Left at Interval

Annoyed by this Richard III, we bolted at interval – it didn’t come soon enough – bought some kebab in a Turkish grill in the casino and got back to Maroubra to watch half an hour of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.

If you like Shakespeare, don’t see this. If you liked Kevin Spacey in American Beauty (1999) don’t see this. If you like the fun of Shakespeare’s villain Richard, Duke of Gloucester, don’t see it. Instead watch Ian McKellen in Richard Loncraine’s Richard III (1995) set in an alternate 1930s fascist England. It is the best around.

Spacey plays the cheapest and most obvious laughs, as if entertaining a school-age audience. You know the style, Shakespeare as fun for a dumb audience.

The crude over-acting by him and his colleagues was reflected in too many shouted lines. Words are lost in the upper registers. Resonance and enunciation are thrown away and Shakespeare’s words go missing. Some of this might be due to the relatively large theatre. The Lyric Theatre in Sydney’s Star Casino seats 2000 and we were sitting in the rear. But there’s something more profoundly wrong when you sit through the performance of a play dreaming of the fine production you’ve got at home on DVD and wishing you were watching that instead.

I don’t know why Sam Mendes thought he had to place an outsized “NOW” on the rear of the stage as the action commenced. Audiences are accustomed to Shakespeare being performed in mixed old-new dress and accustomed to suggestions of the contemporary world. No need to announce it, just let Shakespeare’s language, characterisation and plot take over.

But they only take over with voices charismatic with flexible range and insinuating resonance. Crude shouting is monotonous. Seen too much of it when Australians do Shakespeare. Give us slyness, suppleness, subtlety. Here’s a lesson for the Bell Shakespeare Company and other Australian companies: give us better voices. Shakespeare’s language demands them.

I find myself wishing the whole cast and their director would sit down and look at those fine British actors in Loncraine’s Richard III. In that production, the language is not lost. We can savour such expressions as “the censures of the carping world”; or Richard’s soliloquy, “I am myself alone”; or the gamey suggestion of “secret mischiefs” or “black magician”; much of it with suggestions of the flavours and language of Shakespeare’s world as in “I run before my horse to market” or “I was a packhorse in his great affairs”.

Ian McKellen in Loncraine's Richard III

Even though the play has elements of vaudeville and can’t claim the status of Richard II or Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2, it deserves to be performed – more today than ever – because of its portrayal of villainy. Richard’s relish for evil-doing and his running commentary on his own tricks (as in “Was ever woman in this humour woo’d?/Was ever woman in this humour won?”) makes me think of Stalin’s humour. When I commended the play in My Reading Life, I said these lines, given by Shakespeare to Richard, remind us of how Hitler chortled about his gobbling up of small nations:

I must be married to my brother’s daughter,

Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass.

Murder her brothers, and then marry her –

Uncertain way of gain! But I am in

So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin;

Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye.

We enjoy this villain because like Macbeth he is physically brave and defiant till the end, an existentialist who – again, like Macbeth – announces that he’s too far in blood to go back. And because he’s over-articulate and coldly intellectualising throughout:

There is no creature loves me,

And if I die, no soul shall pity me –

And wherefore should they, since that I myself

Find in myself no pity to myself?

I feel sorry for people who, drawn by Spacey, will see this production and come away thinking that all of Shakespeare is stale, crude, overblown. Thirty years ago we left a New York theatre when Al Pacino murdered the same role. Hands off, Hollywood, is my advice.

Derek Jacobi’s Lear Doesn’t Live Up

I missed it in London at Christmas time. Nobody could get tickets.  The Donmar Theatre is a small space (251 seats).  It gets high praise for its productions and they are generally booked out before they open. Compensation, however, in the form of a simulcast beamed into Australian theatres last weekend.

Simulcasts in my opinion work very, very well with opera.  See my reference in the opera section of this blog to Don Pasquale, a simulcast late last year from the Metropolitan Opera in New York and for Wagner’s Das Rhinegold, simulcast in October last year, also from the Metropolitan Opera.
But I’m beginning to doubt that it works that well for theatre.  And that may be the problem I had with Jacobi’s Lear.

Lear (Derek Jacobi) with Cordelia (Pippa Bennett-Warner)

It was extravagantly praised in reviews. The Telegraph in London wrote, “Michael Grandage’s production proves outstanding, the finest and most searching Lear I have ever seen, and in this small space it often achieves a shattering power.”  The Guardian wrote, “…the miracle of Michael Grandage’s production is that it is fast (under three hours), vivid, clear and, thanks to a performance that reminds us why Derek Jacobi is a great classical actor, overwhelmingly moving.” Paul Levy writing in the Wall Street Journal (December 10 – 12) opened flatly, said “Derek Jacobi is the finest performance of King Lear we are likely to see for some time”.
I, however, found it distinctly unmoving and I’m not sure whether it was the limitation of the simulcast. Perhaps it is a slight tininess in the sound. Perhaps it over concentrates our attention: Jacobi enlarged on the screen delivers monologues that work better live on stage especially if the theatre is of a Shakespearian scale.

I’m reminded in the reviews of how Jacobi bought his own qualities to bear on the role.  He actually whispers in a hoarse voice, “blow, winds and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!” It’s hard to imagine any earlier Lear being as flamboyantly misogynistic as Jacobi in the speech about women – “down from the waist they are centaurs”.

Gina McKee and Justine Mitchell as Goneril and Regan

But I found that the lyricism of the battered old king on the heath was too removed from the raging and manic king we meet in scene one, rationally dividing up his kingdom and seeking protestations of love from his daughters. I know drama is all about seeing a character change but the later had little relation to the earlier.

The daughters are a problem. Regan and Goneril are wooden. Can anyone believe the black actress Pippa Bennett-Warner playing Cordelia is really a daughter of the thoroughly Caucasian Derek Jacobi? I seem to recall seeing more sympathetic Fools than the one played by Ron Cook. What I look for in English performances of Shakespeare is the uniformly fine acting style that one so often gets in National Theatre productions and sometimes in the Royal Shakespeare Company. I didn’t have a sense of experiencing that here.

The last English theatre Lear I saw was Ian McKellen in 2007 with the Royal Shakespeare Company which was altogether more satisfactory (yes, and a large part of that may have been seeing it live and not beamed into a cinema). I thought John Bell’s performance at the Opera House in April last year gave me more to think about too.

And I expected to be overwhelmed. After all, it has claims on being the finest tragedy in all literature.

Cleopatra Dies…On London Stage

Octavia (Sophie Russell) and Antony (Darrell D'Silva) Photo: Ellie Kurttz

London has the best English speaking theatre in the world and it’s the main focus for our holidays here. But it is pretty disappointing this Christmas. Take the Royal Shakespeare Company’s offerings.

Antony and Cleopatra, which Shakespeare wrote in 1606, is saturated with poetry. The two protagonists are drunk with it. This has been discussed by the formidable critics Bloom and Kermode. Bloom considers it the richest of the 39 plays. In fact, the poetry flows on even when the plot – the defeat of Antony’s eastern empire by Octavian (Augustus), the triumph of Rome over Egypt – is played out.

Therefore you need splendid voices, voices that soar and swoop. In the audience you do not want to miss any of it. But with inadequate voices (that is, inadequate for these roles) from Kathryn Hunter and Darrell D’Silva I found myself consulting the paperback text on my knee when I could.

As I argued in my chapter on Shakespeare in My Reading Life, this play has marvellous words.

The two lovers are engaged in “lascivious wassails” and, when their rule over Egypt is coming to an end, opt for “one more gaudy night.” Even as they are forced to concede that after the defeat at the Battle Actium, “We have kissed away kingdoms and provinces.”

“Authority melts from me,” laments Antony and we have a sense of the eclipse of the empire of the East, of the end of an independent Egypt on its way to becoming a mere province of the Roman emperor (not even, if I’ve got my ancient history straight, of the Roman Senate ). We are witnessing as well the rise of one of Shakespeare’s cold young pragmatists in Octavian and the politics of the play are almost a parable of the old leader being supplanted by the younger.

The succession of scenes devoted to the geo-politics are compelling. It’s as tight as a good TV documentary drama. We see the shades of opinion on both sides and overhear the arguments over strategy, even see Octavian execute an erstwhile ally, a fellow triumvir Lepidus. We see the dramatization of Agrippa and Maecenas, two of the great loyalists to the young Caesar, and the actors responsible are sound, in the tradition of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The leads let us down and I found myself longing for an Antony and Cleopatra as charismatic, as Timothy Dalton and Vanessa Redgrave in a production we saw in London in 1986. I remember their flexible, wide-ranging voices which you can capture if you get it on the video which came out in 1983.

Octavian, the cold young pragmatist (John Mackay).

Octavian, the cold young pragmatist (John Mackay).

Meanwhile in the midst of my disappointment – I yearned for them to be good, this is my favourite acting company, my favourite writer – I still loved the politics and the language. “Let the old ruffian know…” says Octavian of Antony. He talks of the “old ruffian” the way a Paul Keating may have spoken of Bob Hawke in 1991. “Fortune and Antony part here,” admits the sad, flawed hero. And why?

Because of a tragic misjudgement. He ignored the strong advice from his own commanders (more of that attention to the strategic discussions in each camp that is a feature of the play):

“Trust not to rotting planks.” In other words, don’t fight by sea – “rotting planks” – fight on land.

Cleopatra asks Enobarbus what do we do now? Just as an Evita Peron or Madame Ceausescu may have inquired of an adviser as their regimes wobbled perilously.  He replies:

          “Think…and die.”

The Winter’s Tale

Greg Hicks in The Winter's Tale.  Photo by Stewart Hemsley

Greg Hicks as Leontes.


In an essay in the RSC’s program for this production, Maria Tatar writes about The Winter’s Tale as a melding of three fairy stories : the incandescently beautiful child abandoned by a cruel parent, the mad jealous rages of a brutal husband driving away his wife and the catatonic or frozen woman revived by love.

That’s useful but more so is Harold Bloom’s reminder that the play’s not a tragedy but a pastoral romance. That renders comprehensible the scenes of rustic comedy and the role of the subversive clown, Autolycus, whom Bloom almost puts in the category that includes the exalted Falstaff. I’m quoting here Bloom’s provocative and grand Shakespeare The Invention of the Human. For all the flamboyance of its Shakespeare- worship it is an erudite and thought-provoking guide and one you will want to consult before performances like these.

This production has the RSC pro Greg Hicks, who I’ve seen as Macbeth and Julius Caesar, in the role of Leontes, the king of Sicilia who suddenly falls into a pit of pathological jealousy over his wife Hermione, suspecting her of an affair with his childhood friend and ally, Polixenes, king of Bohemia. Watching the roller coaster of his madness is as unsettling as watching any mental illness and its portrayal is Shakespeare at his most acute. It is like Othello’s jealousy only worse in that his condition is not fed by an Iago. As Bloom remarks, Leontes is his own Iago.

Kelly Hunter in The Winter's Tale.  Photo by Alessandro Evangelista.

Kelly Hunter as Hermione.

Hicks is not as powerful and as eye-popping a Leontes as the remarkable Antony Sher whose version you can track down on DVD. Sadly Perdita, his daughter, was not played strongly enough by Samantha Young, lacking the personality the role needs. I doubt if the role of Paulina delivered by Noma Dumezweni came close to what that needs either. She is the noblewoman who talks truth to power, confronting the insane king with the enormity and injustice of his actions.

It is being performed in the Roundhouse theatre in the inner suburb of Camden. Given the thrust stage, the production lost a lot of its poetry when a line got delivered by an actor facing in the opposite direction. Compared with the acoustics for Hamlet on the traditional proscenium stage of the Olivier (see below) which is pretty much perfect this is frustrating. You cannot enjoy poetic drama if you miss every third line. Still we can look forward to the new complex being built at Stratford-on-Avon which I recall is close to completion.

Gemma Arterton and Stephen Dillane in The Master Builder. Photo: Simon Annand

Gemma Arterton and Stephen Dillane in The Master Builder.

The Masterbuilder, performed at the small Almeida at Islington – acoustics fine – was a disappointment. Perhaps this was because Hendrik Ibsen goes beyond the terrain of his earlier plays, from historic or realist drama to the symbolic. I was not sure what his message was. The difficulty with the production may have compounded the problem. The point of setting the actors in a sandpit? My disappointment is all the more because I recall powerful Ibsens in recent years in London: a Hedda Gabler in the West End and The Wild Duck at the Donmar.

As for Sheridan’s The Rivals at the Haymarket… nothing unifying the performances, no style, no zest and, as a result, not a laugh in it. Any audience member will be left as I was wondering what Sheridan’s much-vaunted genius was all about.

Penelope Keith as Mrs Malaprop and Peter Bowles as Sir Anthony Absolute were obvious venerable comics to be harnessed to carry the thing but to no effect. One of the lessons of this very dull evening is that the hallowed name of director  Peter Hall can carry no guarantee of quality.

But at least there was The National Theatre’s Hamlet…

The Best Play in Town

The best play in town is The National Theatre’s Hamlet with Rory Kinnear as Hamlet, directed by Nicholas Hytner.
The setting is modern, a surveillance state with guards in suits and with ear pieces lining the corridors, as in the White House, and being witness to all the action. Don’t dismiss this as a gimmick. It is supported by the text which defines Elsinore as a palace of spies – Polonius sends Reynaldo to spy on his own son in Paris, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are sent for by the king to spy on Hamlet, the king and Polonius spy on Hamlet and Ophelia. It is not, therefore, altogether wild to have Ophelia hide a tape-recorder in her book for her conversation with Hamlet as he feigns madness and Polonius and the king listening, not behind a wall, but on headphones in another room.

But this never gets in the way of the action. Rather it simply fosters another view into a play grown dangerously over-familiar.

There is a force and directness here, conferring clarity on a piece notoriously difficult to make work on the stage as distinct to working as a poem, a “poem unlimited” in the words of the lordly critic, Harold Bloom. There were moments when I could have been seeing it for the first time, such was the freshness, and I was hanging on every word.

Especially for the seven soliloquies.

Hytner in the program notes says that when Hamlet returns to Denmark after being rescued by pirates “there is a mystical, even spiritual, element to him. He has discovered something mysteriously enough for him to be unable to explain it in a soliloquy. Famously the soliloquies stop.”

The best stage Hamlet I can recall up to now was the one Hytner acted, done for the National in 1988 or 1989. I remember the graveyard scene with the conversation about death hanging in the frosty air. What is Hamlet, after all, but a meditation about death ( and life ) set in the form of an Elizabethan revenge drama ?

With familiarity you become still more fond of the language of the play, even as you feel you are close to knowing it by heart. “Coagulate gore” is an old friend and the line, “How all occasions do inform against me and spur my dull revenge”. I like Hamlet’s quick suspicion that his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had been recruited to spy on him: “Were you not sent for?” and their alacrity at changing the subject to that of the visiting players, knowing that will thrill Hamlet who loves the theatre.

Shakespeare gives Hamlet the speech advising actors on their craft (and here we are never more certain anywhere in the 39 plays that we are hearing Shakespeare’s personal voice : “Speak the speech…”).

The king after the commotion with the players is “in his retirement marvelous distemp’red”. Such words and sentences have become old friends.

There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.

Yet I’d never absorbed before Hamlet’s reference to his “aunt mother and uncle father”, again an example of the endless wit and paradox of the prince’s “wild and whirling words.”

But to keep charming us the play has to be performed with clarity delivered by flexible, commanding, charismatic voices. Never – I take issue with Australian directors on this – in flat, Aussie accents. Good voices are what this production gives us. I liked it more than the heavily praised 2008 RSC production with David Tennant and, in its more modest way, I think it makes Kenneth Branagh’s ambitious 1996 movie a little overblown – although Branagh gave us, uniquely, the full 4000 lines and four hours. This by contrast, like all other productions, had something like 500 lines removed and runs for three hours 35 minutes including a 20 minute interval. It is Shakespeare’s longest play but suffers little from being tightened, as Mel Gibson’s excellent movie version confirmed. And Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film even removed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Fortinbras.

And 500 years after it was first performed we haven’t been able to better it- that is, as a writhing, galloping commentary on life and death with pulsing, flawed humans getting things muddled and freezing at crucial moments and judging one another ceaselessly and, every now and then, making sense of the flow of events that can at anytime overwhelm.

As we applauded I thought of Will. Of that brain with it’s 20,000 word vocabulary and colossal capacity to summarize human complexity. Samuel Johnson wrote, “His works may be considered a map of life.” There are too few synonyms for genius.

A brisk 45 minute walk through London, another delicious curry at the best house in the city ( see below ) and on TV Verdi’s Rigoletto with Placido Domingo, from the ducal palace in Mantua. Verdi, the master of humanity and compassion in music drama was a profound admirer of Shakespeare. How many words for genius?

40 Comments leave one →
  1. January 5, 2011 9:38 pm

    call me a troglodyte maybe, but when will this John Bell-esque trend of Shakespeare performed in modern day clothing and actirs carting mobile ohones and briefcases around ever end? I might be a very old fashioned young man, but I want bloomers, cod pieces and “ye olde” costumes on my actors! There, I’ve said it now. cb

  2. December 5, 2011 5:00 pm

    cb – perhaps you are more an old codger than a troglodyte – at least you go to theatre. Thanks Bob Carr for informing me – I was surprised that I hadn’t heard about Kevin Spacey coming to town to do Richard III – I loved the Antony Sher version in the mid-80s. But maybe just as well, I didn’t hear.

  3. Bradley Corner permalink
    December 6, 2011 2:01 pm

    Dear Bob,
    I don’t know whether you’ve noticed but Sydney is in dire need of a real theatre critic.

    The fawning reviewers at our papers, falling over themselves to praise EVERYTHING, is leaving our fair city in a state of diabolical paralysis.

    Please review more.


    Desperate Theatre Goer.

  4. Brendan W permalink
    December 6, 2011 2:51 pm

    I do so love the implication that by enjoying the Spacey version of Richard III that I am somehow dumb. Must stem from the ‘If I did not enjoy it, then clearly the only people who could are stupid’ line of thought.

    I had hoped to catch this production at the Old Vic when I was in London earlier this year, but missed out and had to “settle” for seeing David Tennant and Catherine Tate as the definitive, in my view, Benedick and Beatrice… Although perhaps Mr Carr would like me to beg dumb again, as it was clearly a version aimed at the masses and set outside of Shakespearean times.

    Of the two plays I saw this past weekend (Gross Und Klein and Richard III) I only enjoyed one, but was treated to spectacular, albeit very different, performances on both occasions. Richard III was only my second professional Shakespearean show, but I look forward to many more… In varying forms.

    • Bob Carr permalink
      December 6, 2011 6:07 pm

      You have seen TWO professionally-perfomed Shakespeare and declare that one was the “definitive”?

      • Brendan W permalink
        December 6, 2011 6:46 pm

        Perhaps a mis-type there… The perils of reading blogs when I should be working!
        My professional Shakespearean viewings may be limited, but I have seen enough theatrical performances to be able to make a judgement on whether what I have seen is any good or not. Naturally this is going to be highly subjective, as I mentioned in my previous post I did not find Gross Und Klein to be terribly enjoyable, clearly there are many people out there who do. Do I think that they are dumb for liking it? No. In fact, good on them. If everybody liked the same entertainment we would be stuck with nothing but reality TV!

      • Bob Carr permalink
        December 6, 2011 6:57 pm

        When you have gone to the UK and seen productions by the RSC and The National Theatre come back and engage. To talk about a production that treats its audience as dumb is not the same as saying the audience is dumb. If you thought it was compelling you just need to see more Shakespeare and see the video version of Richard 111 I recommend. And a big tip: you never,ever see amateur Shakespeare. That is an offense against God.

  5. Tokyo Nambu permalink
    December 6, 2011 10:12 pm

    “If you thought it was compelling you just need to see more Shakespeare and see the video version of Richard 111 I recommend.”

    Well, I’ve seen a _lot_ of Shakespeare “by the RSC and The National Theatre”, covering the entire canon and such treats as the “Glorious Moment” eight histories in four days extravaganza. In recent years I’ve seen the Tennant Hamlet and Much Ado, the Stewart Macbeth, Tempest and Merchant, the Jacobi Lear and Macbeth, the Brannagh Hamlet and Henry V, the Stephens Lear, Wood Tempest, etc, etc, etc. I guess it adds up to at least a hundred productions in the places you recommend.

    And my companion for the Spacey R3 at the Old Vic goes even more than I do, and as well as seeing everything the RSC does in each of its spaces tends to see most of them twice. We also both flirt with the Donmar, CFT and other serious companies in England.

    I thought the Spacey R3 was excellent. It wasn’t quite up to the standards of the Simon Russell Beale / Sam Mendes production in The Other Place in the early 1990s, which is essentially definitive (and was the place Mendes drew quite a lot of the current production from), and although time dims the rose tinted spectacles of remembering the Sher production of 1984 if certainly stands comparison with it. Putting “Now” on the stage harks to the device used at the RSC during the all-weekend Histories Cycle, when Jon Slinger, as Richard, finished 3H6 by turning to the audience and saying “Now…” at 11pm Saturday, and picking up “Now is…” at 1pm Sunday. Everyone knows it’s the opening line, as it’s the one Shakespearean opening line everyone knows: Sher seriously proposed cutting it, such is the weight that it puts on actors, and David Troughton at Stratford some years ago played with the line in order to defuse the ghost of Olivier.

    Hicks’ Winter’s Tale was pretty good, too, and reduced my children to joyful tears by the end, although you’re right to mark the A&C as a turkey. Those able to see more Shakespeare by the RSC will have seen the triumphant Swan “remix” of the production, with Katy Stevens opposite Da Silva following Hunter’s abrupt departure, which was a joy from start to finish, as well as being startlingly erotic — at last, you could see why Anthony sacrificed everything. We can leave aside the cheap jibes directed at Pippa Bennett-Warner (I don’t want to go to the theatre that casts white people on spurious “well, that way they look consistent” grounds, and thankfully neither the RSC nor the Donmar are that theatre — I’m looking forward to her in Richard II at the Donmar next week, although obviously if I saw more Shakespeare I’d realise my mistake) and note that the Jacobi Lear was, for most people who saw it, a complete triumph, and probably ranks alongside the Robert Stephens production of the early 1990s.

    You’re quite entitled to think that a given production stinks. I thought the recent RSC Julius Caesar was a car-crash, although people I respect disagree with me. But to extend from that to the argument that anyone who disagrees is ignorant, and merely hasn’t seen enough Shakespeare at the RSC to comment, is simply arrogant. I can see plenty of reasons why you might think that Spacey wasn’t your Richard III, just as personally I don’t think Ian McKellen is mine (too mannered, and on film too cut, although the NT production was better). I’ve seen every production whose name you drop, and I can’t help thinking probably rather a lot more that you don’t. I wouldn’t deny anyone the right to enjoy things I hated, or hate things I enjoyed, just on the grounds that I think I know better than they do.

    Oh, and the Tennant/Tate Much Ado _was_ definitive. The guy may be on shaky ground on the basis of not having seen much to compare it with, but I’ve seen many productions of it. It was really, really good.

  6. Bob Carr permalink
    December 7, 2011 8:39 am

    Dear Tokyo,

    If you can tell me how I can get a ticket to Richard 11 anytime in then first two and a half weeks of January, I will reconsider each and every one of my conclusions. As you know one has to have booked before the coronation of Charlemagne to get into the Donmar. I will queue through any number of winter nights, buy dinner at the Savoy for any bribe-taking box office clerk….I guess it is plain impossible.

    Your post is a celebration of life in the country which has the best theatre in the English-speaking world. I envy you each and everyone of those performances.

    You might consider that the qualities you admired in Spacey’s performance were lost in a 2000 seat theatre, just as the edge was taken off Jacobi’s Lear in the simulcast.

    By the way, what do you think of Bloom’s The Invention of the Human?

  7. December 7, 2011 10:05 am

    One other thing: the reason Sam Mendes placed the word ‘Now’ in huge letters on the stage is that it is the first word of the play. So it is a neat pun.

    • Bob Carr permalink
      December 7, 2011 10:40 am

      Yes, and how does that deepen one’s appreciation? When I direct Henry 1V will I be exalted for painting SO or WAN WITH CARE on the backdrop?

      • December 7, 2011 10:49 am

        Certainly not! But as Tokyo points out in a comment above, the opening lines of Richard III are so well known, and such a huge burden for any actor, that this seemed to me a way of defusing that.

  8. M Dixon permalink
    December 7, 2011 12:55 pm

    I agree that Spacey overacted (often excruciatingly embarrassingly), and that much of the language was lost (although I thought the end of Act III, with the video link conference call between Buckingham and Gloucester, breathed a bit of life into the old dog – though given you left at intermission, I suppose you disagree).

    On the other hand, I don’t think Mendes intended it as a showcase for brilliant acting and mulling over lines – it was about movement, the fickleness of the government, the uncertainty of politics, the speed of the destruction a few bad worms can cause in such a short amount of time. That is why the lines were so often rushed and shouted, and why there were title cards to draw attention to the rapid changing of location (I think hence the ‘now’ card, to mark the first scene).

    Perhaps too much light and not enough shade, but it’s worth something, isn’t it?

    That being said, maybe it was the ticket price of $240 that made me want to stay and get my money’s worth.

    • Bob Carr permalink
      December 7, 2011 3:26 pm

      You make some good points.

  9. artie permalink
    December 7, 2011 2:40 pm

    I fail to see that the performance was so annoying that you had to leave. Perhaps you just really love “Annie Hall”.

    PS: I was there and noticed that you managed to speak to your employer on the way out at interval. Hope he or the Bank hadn’t paid for your ticket…

    • Bob Carr permalink
      December 7, 2011 3:30 pm

      I will leave rather than be bored and irritated. I have left operas and plays.

  10. Tokyo Nambu permalink
    December 7, 2011 6:31 pm

    The Donmar have day seats, I think about thirty, which involve queuing. The R2 isn’t quite the hot ticket that, say, the Lear was, so such a route is not impossible. The box office queue is indoors (in the adjacent shopping mall), at least, and next to a rather nice coffee and cake stall, so it’s not the horror story it might be. I bought my tickets in May, which isn’t _quite_ the era of the Holy Roman Empire; but I did buy them via the members’ priority booking period, and I believe that there is now a waiting list for membership. The Donmar’s not alone in using advance ticket money as a form of finance: I’ve bought RSC tickets out to next September.

    2000 is a _huge_ theatre, and you may very well be right that it’s a problem. I don’t think I’ve ever seen theatre in anything close to that size: the largest that comes to mind is the late and unlamented original RST, in my view one of the worst spaces for Shakespeare in the UK, which was 1400 in the form that it finally evolved into. But that was the result of an ill-considered extension to the circle; it was originally about 1100, which is also the size of the Olivier at the NT and the RSC-designed Barbican Theatre. The new RST is again that size at 1040, which is the same as the Courtyard prototype was, and seems about right. The back wall of the old circle now forms the outer wall of the restaurant: the worst-case sightline is now only 15m, down from 27m. The Old Vic, where I saw the R3 is 1060. So “big” UK theatres for Shakespeare are around 1100 capacity.

    But those are at the upper end of capacity. The best space for Shakespeare is the Swan, which is about 450. The typical West End theatre is also tall and thin, and quite small in capacity; for example Wyndham’s, which took the Tennant Much Ado and the West End transfers of the Donmar Hamlet and the Menier Sunday in the Park, is 760. Then there’s the small stuff: the Donmar’s 250, the Menier is 180.

    The exception is the Globe, which takes 3000, but it’s a tourist attraction as much as a serious theatre (sorry) and, being charitable, a standing audience means it’s not remotely as large as 3000 seats would be.

    “When I direct Henry 1V will I be exalted for painting SO or WAN WITH CARE on the backdrop”

    If you asked the audience at a production of R3 what the first word they’re going to hear is, I suspect a substantial number could quote not just the first word or line but the first four or five lines. With the possible exception of Henry V and Twelfth Night, it’s alone in that, and in those cases it’s not the principal’s soliloquy. R3 is the only play which opens with the lead speaking possibly the best known speech of the play, and probably one of the best known speeches of the canon, which sets out pretty much the basis for the production: given that opening speech, you learn a lot about the production. Henry IV isn’t remotely like that: it’s not a famous speech, few of the audience will know it, and it’s a speech that is in essence that of a narrator, a “new readers start here”, “basil exposition” piece of continuity, rather than one setting out character and characterisation. “Now is the…” is often discussed as a major problem in how to do R3, because if it goes wrong, the production’s dead in the water. I don’t think Mendes’ move deserves to be exalted, but I think it’s an interesting approach to trying to defuse (and diffuse) the problem. Perhaps it worked (it did for me), perhaps it didn’t (it didn’t for you). The production owes a lot to his 1992 production, which didn’t use this device, but then in The Other Place (180?) and the Donmar (250) the game is very different.

    The answer is to see some more Richard 3s, I’d suggest. Theatre’s always worth attending, as there’s always something new to learn. By leaving you missed a stunning coup de theatre for the coronation, by the way. The RSC’s making its first new pass at a history since The Histories Cycle of the last decade: single company in the Swan doing John and R3. It might be great; it might be terrible. That’s why we go to the theatre, isn’t it?

  11. Bob Carr permalink
    December 7, 2011 8:24 pm

    And, just curious, what do you think of Bloom?

  12. Cameron Jackson. permalink
    December 8, 2011 11:44 am

    I agree that Loncraine’s Richard III is excellent.

    I’ll turn to the Mendes production. As for the “Now” caption, the particular “now” clearly wasn’t now, it was some slightly diffuse point in the 20th century, it seemed.

    There are some weaknesses inherent in the play. Richard the Third towers to far above the rest of the cast, creating an unbalanced feeling to it, and a lack of sympathy or interest in the fate of the rest of the players.

    Further, to a certain extent, the hand of the writer seems to sit too heavily on the plot, with almost too much pleasure taken in Ricahrd’s demise.

    These criticisms of the play itself aside, I thought Spacey was an interesting and technically accomplished Richard the Third, if, nevertheless, flawed.

    In particular, he was most engaging in soliloquy, and totally unsympathetic when scheming. This made his ability to persuade others to do his bidding (though, of course, largely Faustian in nature) implausible.

    Overall, I found it enjoyable but uneven. Where I thought Mendes was to be commended was in the way that the lines were spoken. Whether or not one considers much of it “too shouty”, the lines were at least spoken with attention paid to the intended rhythm, and with an understanding of what was being said.

    This is not usually the case with Bell, Belvoir Street, or Sydney Theatre Company. And if you really want to appreciate Mendes, cast your mind back to the execrable Julius Caesar, destroyed by Benedict Andrews.

  13. Tokyo Nambu permalink
    December 8, 2011 6:57 pm

    Not read it: I’ll take your recommendation and get it for Christmas.

    • Bob Carr permalink
      December 8, 2011 8:59 pm

      His enthusiasm is evangelical.

      Last night I bought tickets to Comedy of Errors, Juno and the Paycock and Collaborators For January ; maybe a trip to Stratford is possible for M for M and the play about the King James. I wonder what time I should get to the Donmar? Box office opens 10.30 and there are only 10 house seats a day. How has their R11 been received? I remember that of the Nat Theater in 1995 with Fiona Shaw which I have on tape and I have Jacobi’s on tape. “Rough up your voice,” Richard Burton told him when he did Hamlet as a Cambridge student.”Otherwise you’ll end up like Gielgud.”

      • Tokyo Nambu permalink
        December 9, 2011 9:26 am

        Measure for Measure I’m seeing next week: reviews have been good, although not much more than that. The R2 has had reviews ranging from good (Billington in the Graun) to ecstatic (Indy and Torygraph): there’s a serviceable summary at Sian Thomas was astounding in the National Theatre of Wales’ Persians on a firing range ( so it all bodes well. I’ve just this evening seen Redmayne in “My Week with Marilyn” and he’s clearly a very good screen actor, too (although Jacobi phones his performance in).

        I’ve never day-seated at the Donmar. I’ll ask on a UK theatre blog when one should show up. There are matinees, which may have less pressure on them.

        I didn’t see Shaw’s R2. I did, however, see Jeremy Irons’ at the RST in the mid-80s, and have very good memories of that. And the R2 was head and shoulders the best in the more recent RSC cycle.

      • Bob Carr permalink
        December 9, 2011 4:37 pm

        Ah, saw that one too – the R11 with the red hair and makeup, like Elizabeth 1. Saw it at Stratford. And saw Rafe Fiennes do it – after he did a matinee of Coriolanus. It exhausted us, don’t know about him.

  14. Nathaniel Pemberton permalink
    December 11, 2011 1:28 am

    “And a big tip: you never,ever see amateur Shakespeare. That is an offense against God.” Would you have turned up tickets to see a Barton/Mckellen/Nunn Shakespeare at Cambridge in 1959? I think God would take greater offense at your arrogance, Mr Carr.

    As a very young uni student myself I can assure you there are some fantastic things being done at SUDS. And a whole lot of butchering of Shakespeare too… If you want to formulate some sort of similar hard-and-fast rule guiding attendance of Shakespeare then it would be perhaps advisable to extend that rule out so that it encompasses virtually all Australian Shakespeare. Our actors are not adequately trained to handle either the verse or their own breathing.

    As for Spacey’s Richard, I agree with you. He sort to entertain the audience with his comedy, and in doing so the link between Richard’s deformity and evil was lost. Simultaneously, I think Spacey should be commended for his command of the verse. I was sitting front-row middle (and that probably explains my account as opposed to your own) and felt that the meaning behind his delivery (as with all of the other North-Atlantic trained actors) was excellent. The shouting was, indeed, a major problem but, when carried through by Spacey’s fabulous charisma and presence, many could easily over look this. I felt it was perhaps a symptom of his flawed portrayal. This, for me, having studied the character of Richard out of actor’s interest, was a superficial, rather than complex, portrayal of the ‘dog’.

    It was only post-interval, however, when the play really picked up. It is unfortunate that the financial outlay for you was not significant enough as to force you to stick it out like the rest of us groundlings… This more positive appraisal comes about for two main reasons. Firstly, I felt Mendes handled the paranoia and battle scenes particularly well (after having earlier bungled the video link scene – this was, in actors’ speak, “gagging” – pathetic). Secondly, the problems with Spacey’s shouting and over-acting, given the circumstances of the play, were rendered irrelevant. With the narrative progression the actor’s choices were all justified amidst the heightened emotion of the play.

    The Lady Anne wooing scene (Act 1, Scene 2), I thought, exemplified the problems with the play as a whole. Instead of nutting out the complex tactics employed by Richard, and the cerebral and emotional development of Anne, the scene was over-washed with a sexual dynamic that left it superficial and, indeed, palatable for the masses. Lady Anne is convinced to take up Richard, most significantly, by the fact that she sees herself as a virtuous Christian taking up a repentant sinner – according to this production, she couldn’t keep her hands of this disfigured hog.

    Whatever you think of Pacino, (and I would love to know your reasons for disliking his Richard – his Shylock [on DVD] was terrific) he was correct in saying that is one of the most brilliant scenes in the Canon.

    I look forward to inviting you to a future SUDS production of R3 so you can see people who aspire to, and may become, future Bartons, Halls, Mckellens and Denchs (not Bells).

    P.S. I am not sure if it has been mentioned here, but I thought the Mendes production’s design was fantastic – the perfect Shakespeare timelessness. The interpretation was in no way over-bearing and was not like the pathetic excuse used by Australian directors in recent years to leave their own dreadful directorial stamp on a canonical text.

  15. Bob Carr permalink
    December 11, 2011 8:02 am

    If we had amateur dramatic societies with the reputation of the three at Cambridge and young actors as promising as Burton, McKellen et al I would be there, every performance. But ours cannot be as good – because the kids never see drama as good as that which feeds the imaginations of the students at Cambridge, especially that at the National Theatre or currently at The Donmar. Now prove me wrong. I want to be proven wrong.

    If your colleagues see half a dozen productions here they are not going to have the remotest sense of the possibilities that lie in the tradition. How can they? I hope they watch a lot of DVDs.

    I saw a production of Heda Gabler here and a few months later one in London – for Godsake, it was a different play! The accomplished and uniform acting styles represented the biggest difference. I really welcome your criticism of local actors on breathing and voice. Why does it happen? Why do local professional productions here use actors with untrained voices? I cannot tell you how often audience members have used the expression “over-acting” in respect of Australian productions, how often we and everyone around us have emerged groaning about “the shouting” that passes for acting with local Shakespeare. (Are the SUDS performers doing voice training? Please don’t mount a defense of the broad Australian accent as legitimate in classical theatre. Cecily Berry told me the aridity of the accent is a major problem with Shakespeare although other variants of English – like some of the accents of the southern US and regional accents in the UK – do not kill the verse. The local monotone and stretched vowels do.)

    All the more intense the disappointment that Spacey served up shouted over-acting uninformed by any guiding intelligence (although you think differently, and much may be explained by the space).

    View the DVD of Henry Goodman as the The Merchant ( National Theatre 2000 ) before you sign up to Pacino. I saw Goodman do it twice and the best was in their smaller Lyttleton space and a lot lost in the sprawling Olivier.

  16. Nathaniel Pemberton permalink
    December 11, 2011 10:29 am

    I disagree with the proposition that our amateur theatre cannot be as good as that which existed then because we are not exposed to the quality of theatre they were. Certainly they were in a better theatrical environment, but I would think the actual cause of difference to lie in their intellectual approach to Shakespeare, not simply the theatre they see. There are other features of the university dramatic society today that are horrid, but I think the lack of a rigorous academic mindset towards theatre is where virtually all Australian theatre, beyond uni societies, is let down.

    This is a cultural thing. This is where Australian theatre will never quite stack up across the board. This is where John Bell, having been asked about the actors he employs, replied that they did not have to have any formal training in Shakespeare (handling the verse/breathing). This is where we do not sit down and analyse the plays for any decent length of time. Whereas the RSC’s Tenant Hamlet rehearsal period began with a 3 week ensemble dissection of the script.

    I am uncertain of the cause of the technical deficiencies in Australian acting and only really came to be aware of it after talking to STC’s Tom Wright; he complained that Australian actors are never properly trained to breath. I picked up on that and feel it is undoubtedly true. Unfortunately this just takes me into awful territory: bemoaning the horrid quality of our acting training institutions.

    As for defending the accent in which Shakespeare be done. I remind you that the accent Shakespeare wrote for, and acted in, would have sounded very little like modern British. In fact it would have approximated something like an American/Australian/British/Scottish hybrid. My point being that today there is no right or wrong accent to do it in. There is only technical deficiency or capacity. Of course it should never be done with a monotone. Any person can learn to control their voice, to act the Verse and bring out the sounds. Stretched vowels are just what are needed for “the clouds that lour’d upon our house”. Sitting in the front row I was counting syllables on my fingers with joy as the players actually stuck to the blank verse, and treated monosyllabic lines appropriately, in Mendes’ Richard 3. (Of course, this is my first non-Australian Shakespeare…..)

    There may be others who are fantastic, but the Pacino Shylock was marvelous. People are wrong to think that he has to metamorphosis into some other person to act well. Olivier would do it, but Olivier’s interpretations could often be way off. There is nothing wrong with seeing constantly the New York kid, or Michael Corleone in there. You think audience’s would not have been thinking they were watching Burbage’s Hamlet while they in fact watched his Macbeth?

  17. Nathaniel Pemberton permalink
    December 11, 2011 10:33 am

    A further point about the cultural gap in intellectual approach: that is something that can be overcome through studied reading and selective watching. Therefore an effort to prove you wrong can certainly succeed.

  18. Bob Carr permalink
    December 11, 2011 11:10 am

    Cecily Berry told me she thought the accent of Shakespeare’s actors may have resembled some versions of Southern US English, particularly those versions found in Virginia ( a colony founded in 1607, of course ) McKellen that Babbage playing Macbeth would have pronounced “Tomorrow” something like “Ta marra”. This supports you.

    By the way I heard Richardson and Gielgud In 1975 do Pinter’s No Mans Land and hung on their words the way others might have with a Callas. You can hear them interact on a DVD of a play called Home. Australian actors have a lot of trouble picking up some of the class and regional subtleties in English roles, or so I’ve been told by an English voice coach who lives here.

    • A. McRoss permalink
      December 12, 2011 9:28 am

      I saw the Richardson/Gielgud ‘No Man’s Land’ too and to this day can still remember so clearly the way some scenes in that production were staged and the awe I felt, newly arrived in the UK from Australia, of watching two consummate actors, towards the end of their careers, using such skilful vocal delivery and Pinter’s pauses to create a shudderingly real yet wholly alienating world. I’d never seen pause-driven theatre before, much less so much urbane malice, and was just about riveted to my seat. [If memory serves, Michael Kitchen played the young man, and held his own very well. Superintendant Foyle had a classical pedigree!]

  19. A. McRoss permalink
    December 12, 2011 9:13 am

    I’m another who could scarcely wait for interval on Sunday afternoon to put an end to the irritations I was feeling with the Spacey RIII. So many things wrong with the interpretation of the character and so many performance inadequacies evident on stage. [Why would any casting agent select performers for a classical play who don’t have the first idea about how to speak the lines? The only exceptions were the wonderful Gemma Jones as Queen Margaret, and Haydn Gwynn as Queen Elizabeth.] I see a lot of plays here and in the UK and am in awe of the beautifully naturalistic ability with verse which the RSC draws from its actors. [All hale the decades of work done by the great Cecily Berry in training RSC actors to speak.] David Tennant’s Hamlet, Berowne and Benedick were all true to the demands of iambic pentameter and rhyming verse etc, yet he managed to make even the most familiar lines sound as if he’d just made them up. He enunciates clearly, knows how to pace the line and never emphasises words that have no need of it. Now that’s a very talented actor, with an armoury of skills so many actors no longer have. Someone who knows to a nicety how to bring the humour, sadness, melancholy, tragedy and madness to the 21st C without doing violence to a 450 year old play. [And he can keep an audience engaged without threatening members of it with a pocket laser.] Spacey for me was such a disappointment. So overblown and OTT. I had high hopes for a good afternoon at the theatre but found myself worrying, 30 mins in, that I’d get home too late to watch the news! So I left at interval. I gather from a friend who saw RIII another evening that the final scenes were ‘mindblowing, just brilliant’, but I found myself annoyed all over again by the thought that this production was possibly devised around a series of set pieces. Shakespeare, imo, works best as an ensemble, not as a star vehicle. A jot of balance to my otherwise negative review: I believe the Lyric Theatre is well suited to musicals where there is lots going on and plenty to look at. It’s not good for classical theatre performances, where the focus of audience is often on just one person. It’s a long way to the stage, from the upper reaches of the Circles and from the rear rows of the Stalls.

  20. Ali permalink
    December 20, 2011 4:00 am

    Did Spacey get his characterisation from Richard Dreyfuss in The Goodbye Girl?

  21. Alan Williamson permalink
    January 28, 2012 5:00 pm

    G’day Bob. Moving tangentially from Shakespeare for a moment, are you and Helena going to get to ‘The Boys’ at Griffin?
    There’s a local connection in that Eryn Jean Norvill, who plays the vulnerable, abused, Nola, is a Malabar gal bred & born.
    And tangentially back. Eryn was in MTC’s Hamlet last year, after a performance of which our Australian of the Year declared her “the best Ophelia he’d ever seen”.
    Maybe he says that to all the Ophelias, but she was chuffed.
    best wishes

    • Bob Carr permalink
      January 28, 2012 5:34 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation. How different is it from the brilliant movie? Same script? Have you seen an Australian movie called Blessed? We saw it last night on Fox and were very impressed. Based on a play, Who’s Afraid of the Working Classes.

      • Alan Williamson permalink
        January 29, 2012 8:53 am

        The 1998 film was based on the play Griffin first presented in 1991, with David Wenham also in the lead role, so it was very close to the play script.
        I missed ‘Blessed’, even after seeing Margaret and David do a rave review of it, as usual I just forgot about it.
        Thanks for the recommendation – if it’s on Foxtel, it’ll be on Foxtel again. (That’s a blessing.)

  22. September 3, 2012 7:29 am

    I loved Mr Sher in Shakespeare in Love.

  23. November 17, 2012 9:28 pm

    I’m not sure exactly why but this web site is loading very slow for me. Is anyone else having this problem or is it a issue on my end? I’ll check
    back later and see if the problem still exists.

  24. Nathaniel Pemberton permalink
    January 25, 2013 4:22 pm

    Dear Senator Carr,
    Please refer to the letters sent to your Sydney Electoral Office, and Canberra Parliamentary Office, extending to you an invitation to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the Sydney University Dramatic Society from 6-9 March. This invitation comes, as promised, after our discussion on this blog (“Now prove me wrong. I want to be proven wrong.” December 11, 2011), and our conversation, at the university, after your speech on “Australia in the Asian Century”, on 31 August 2012. I look forward to hearing back from you, and truly hope you are able to attend.
    Yours Sincerely,
    Nathaniel Pemberton

    • Bob Carr permalink*
      January 29, 2013 8:12 am

      Nathaniel, my office will get back to you on this

  25. Ana permalink
    April 21, 2013 4:14 pm

    Dear Mr Carr, I am wondering if you have had a chance to see the much-lauded NT production ‘War Horse’ at the Lyric? I would be glad to read your views.


  1. Kevin Spacey in Richard III « Timinator

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