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Aug 2 12

The Bodleian Library to Digitize Their Shakespeare First Folio

by Josina Reaves
First Folios at the Folger Library, Washington, D.C.

Oxford University’s Bodleian Library is known for its exacting standards of behavior and its difficult admission process (you have to sit through a lecture on the library’s history and then take and sign an oath just to get a library card!), but the untold million volume, non-lending library is preparing to give rare access to a piece of literary history by digitizing their First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays.

The move, instigated by Dr. Emma Smith of Hertford College, Oxford, will give readers a chance to see the text as it was printed in 1623. The book was sold by the library after an acquisition of a Third Folio in 1664 because it was such a shoddy printing job to begin with but re-purchased in 1905 after a chance encounter by an eagle-eyed librarian. Obviously, there are stories to be told by the nearly 400-year-old volume, and given its state, no one has been able to touch it, except for restoration work, in quite some time.

The library has launched a fundraising campaign called “The Sprint for Shakespeare” in hopes of raising £20,000 for the project. Digitizing this book will be more than a simple job, since the binding had to be restored before the cover could even be opened. Click through and join Stephen Fry, Vanessa Redgrave, and Sir Peter Hall in helping to bring this piece of history to the masses.

Jul 30 12

The Humanity in a Monster’s Eyes: Ron Cephas Jones Brings Richard III to the Public

by Josina Reaves
Ron Cephas Jones

Before the Olympics opened and began their fortnight of filling London with the best and brightest athletic stars, London held what they called the Cultural Olympiad.  The events started in June and featured performances and exhibitions in every conceivable art. Obviously, it also included a lot of Shakespeare. So much Shakespeare, in fact, that Shakespeare’s Globe, which was left out of the main planning of the Olympiad, staged its own version by having all of the bard’s plays performed in a different language by companies from different countries. That is a lot of Shakespeare, my friends.

Funnily enough, New York seems to be vying for silver as the city that puts Shakespeare on the stage a lot, too. Summertime Shakespeare usually belongs to the Public Theater, what with all of their free Central Park performances, but since they’ve given half of the season over to Stephen Sondheim with Into the Woods, you might wrongly have suspected that Shakespeare wouldn’t get his due.

Fear not, for the Public’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit, is bringing Richard III, directed by Amanda Dehnert, to the masses instead. Following so closely on the heels of Kevin Spacey and the Bridge Project’s electrifying RIII, it is a bold move to put the twisted king back on the boards, so of course the Public has to come at it sideways.

Enter Ron Cephas Jones.

Let me start by saying that the second time I saw Jones on stage at the Public was in a production of Titus Andronicus that I didn’t think I could sit through. It was bloody, naturally, but I was most disturbed by how long it took Jay O. Sanders’ Titus to find his humanity, his gentleness. I know the whole point of the play is that Titus is almost never accessible as a human, even as a father, perhaps because of how much Rome has taken out of him and away from him. But Jones, as Aaron, was fully human from the first word.

He strode onto the stage with a kind of power and immediacy that Aaron deserves but does not always get. For Jones, that raw, radiating power was never a problem. When he was on stage, it was hard to take your eyes off of him. And the most impressive thing about that performance was that I had been in the elevator with him not 20 minutes before curtain. He had been in a leather bomber jacket and a hoodie, having just come in from the cold, and he looked for all the world like a man about to go see a play, not be in one. But when Aaron entered, Jones was in complete command of that role, inhabiting Aaron’s hurts and wants and making it clear that no one else could bear as much malice with as much grace as he.

That is the man to play Richard.

The Mobile Shakespeare Unit takes plays into unlikely places to give everyone access to the best theater.  This past Saturday, July 28, the Unit was at the Cephas Center for the Arts in the Bronx, offering a free performance for anyone in the neighborhood; before that was a performance at Rikers Island. By the time the play rolls back to the Public for its final performances from August 6-25, the Unit will have given free shows with artist talk-backs in all five boroughs. Jones will be there, through it all, to fill those disparate spaces with his deep, resonating voice, his lanky, energetic form, and the truth of Richard’s humanity burning from his eyes. This is not a performance to miss.

Tickets are available by clicking here.

Jul 28 12

Wondering About Those Isles: Why Shakespeare Is Bad For The Olympics

by Josina Reaves
Tower Bridge up 1

In the early part of Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics, actor Kenneth Branagh read Caliban’s speech from Act 3, scene 2, of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It goes a little something like this:

Be not affeard, the Isle is full of noyses,
Sounds, and sweet aires, that giue delight and hurt not:
Sometimes a thousand twangling Instruments
Will hum about mine eares; and sometime voices,
That if I then had wak’d after long sleepe,
Will make me sleepe againe, and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and shew riches
Ready to drop vpon me, that when I wak’d
I cri’de to dreame againe.

It is, without question, a beautiful and heart-rending speech. Caliban, Prospero’s slave, is tortured daily with pains and pinches, and this music is the only joy and beauty he has found in many years. But even that joy is a torture, he says, because it is so evanescent.

Why was that the note to start on? Why introduce us to the wonder of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales by suggesting that here was beauty that would torture our souls? And weirder, why do it moments before rending the scene with the introduction of the industrial revolution?

Too prosaic a question? Too literal? Should I, instead, just take the poetry as it is and enjoy it?

Well, how about this: why introduce us to the wonder of Great Britain through the voice of Caliban, a slave so maligned that he is driven to murder by his own shame, pain, and indignation? Why, more importantly, invite the athletes and dignitaries of former and current colonies and commonwealths to England through the voice of a slave? That can’t be right.

Danny Boyle is known for telling stories that focus the best of the human spirit through the lens of the worst human behavior, so perhaps that moment was his wink and nod to his country’s troubled past. If so, it seems a rather inappropriate time to make such a statement.

The opening ceremony of the Olympics should be a celebration of the host country’s art and history, its best and finest, but this note suggests that Boyle did not want to offer an open England, full of joy, but rather a contrite England, perhaps one full of shame at its past misdeeds. Or perhaps a bold England, glorying in its ability to make beauty out of brutality. I can barely suggest such a thing, but then, I saw Slumdog Millionaire, too.

Or maybe this was just a wrong-headed choice of text. That is frequently the case when England chooses Shakespeare for its patriotic moments. Usually, we get John of Gaunt’s speech from Richard II, you know the one:

This royal throne of kings, this scept’red isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden…
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England….

That bit of text has been used in every tourism video I have ever seen, and more than a few lager commercials besides, but it is always a poor choice. As laudatory and patriotic as it sounds, it ends with Gaunt’s blunt statement that that England “Is now leas’d out–I die pronouncing it–/Like to a tenement or pelting farm…. That England, that was wont to conquer others,/Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.” So, not so proud. But the better part of the speech gets a lot of airtime, despite its inappropriate context.

Now, apparently, we’ll be getting Caliban’s dream out of context, too. No worry about this shackled and abused boy being used as the spokesman for the games; instead, we’ll cheer and champion the verse and ignore the context, as we do.

Now that is heart-rending.

I think it might be time for England to admit that as much as they love their Shakespeare, his verse is not full of great slogans. Shakespeare did not write in a patriotic age—I don’t think you could pull much pro-England verse from Jonson or Marlowe either, though I could be wrong—and his strongest language criticizes his nation rather than lauding it. So move on, England. Find another great cheerleader. I’m sure John Betjeman’s got a line or two!

Jul 27 12

A King is a King, All the Same: The Twisted Truth of Macbeth’s Right to Survive

by Josina Reaves
Holywell Cemetery, by Josina Reaves

A little over a year ago, I was completing work on my degree, a Master of Letters degree in Early Modern Drama. The final hurdle was a viva, a conversation with the two professors who had read my exam paper and who were going to make me defend every idea I had pounded out in the course of three hours.

At one point, the conversation came around to my contention that Macbeth had deserved his tragedy because he had failed to meet a few of the basic traits of manhood, as defined in early modern England. Specifically, he did not have a family to raise into Christian adulthood and could not, thereby, secure the very crown he had stolen with a bloodline.

My professor then wondered why it wasn’t easier to bring about his end. Why couldn’t Macduff have been shifted into place as a rightful victor without all of the sneaking off to England to bring Malcolm back instead? My response came in a flash of insight, not unlike the kind Jonah Lehrer mentions in his book Imagine.

“Macbeth was a king—wrongfully, perhaps, but anointed and sceptered and enthroned—so killing him would as horrifying a prospect as killing Duncan had been. Even Henry Bolingbroke had to go through the motions of removing Richard II’s entitlements before he could have him murdered,” I said.

My professor’s response was swift and maiming: “I have never heard anybody compare Macbeth to Richard II like that before, by which I mean, I think it must be wrong.”

Well, okay, then. At that point, I thought I could see my degree being washed down the drain, but after a few more squirmy minutes, I was let off the hook and allowed to get my long-awaited diploma.

And yet, I never got over the comment. More importantly, I never got over the notion that I was right. Here’s why.

From a certain perspective, Macduff’s decision to travel to England to find Malcolm is more like something Hamlet would do than great strategic thinking from a mighty Scot. He has suspicions about the newly anointed king that cause him sleepless nights, yet instead of rousing an army of kinsmen, all likely to be suspicious themselves, and charging up to the castle to demand a recount, he slips off to England to bring back the lad who himself slipped off to England like a thief. Why? Sure, Malcolm had been named as Duncan’s heir shortly before the king’s untimely death, but Malcolm had shown no firm interest in the throne by his unwillingness to stand forth and claim it at his father’s death. His fear that he might be suspected of the murder was no more reasonable than his choice to leave his country without a king when it needed one most. The throne was his by right of election, regardless of rumor or suspicion, and knowing he had committed no murder should have given him surer footing on the throne.

Macduff, likewise, should have shunned a boy who could so easily abandon his duty, but he holds the right of election as a sacred bond. Therefore, wouldn’t he also honor and fear the power of God’s choice in allowing Macbeth to accede to the throne? If Malcolm should be sought as the rightful heir to the throne, that could only be important to someone who recognizes the validity of the possession of the throne. No upstart should march in there and snatch away a crown that does not belong to him, Macduff seems to say.

In this same vein, Henry Bolingbroke refuses to assume full command of the already “sceptered isle” until after Richard II has passed said scepter to him willingly. Though he knows Richard is only obliging because he has already lost the allegiance of every lord and vassal in his land, Bolingbroke still requires the ceremony because he cannot bring himself to commit regicide, only homicide. Richard, for all of his weakness and avarice, is fearsome as a king, and while he can be made to kneel and submit, he cannot be killed without consequences. Macduff knows this of Macbeth as well. Though he will kill him eventually, he will do so in the service of the heir, righting a wrong rather than committing one.

This idea could translate just as easily to Hamlet’s dis-ease about killing Claudius. Regicide is one of those felonies, speaking relatively, that crosses into federal laws. And you don’t want to mess with those federal felonies.

Now, that may be a bold analogy, my friends, but just because no one ever made it before, doesn’t make it wrong.

Apr 23 12

A Happy Birthday to the Bard, that Rascal!

by Josina Reaves
Emma Smith and Josina Reaves

I love Shakespeare, and I loathe him.

His words are enervating and exasperating, his plots dizzying yet familiar, his characters lively, sexy, and dangerous. As amazing as it seems, William Shakespeare chronicled human passion and motivation–past, present and future–in less than 40 plays.

And yet, despite his having been dead for almost 400 years, he is still as slippery as an eel, unknowable, inexplicable. How many other artists are still so distant and unattainable so long after the production of their work? Sure, there are those who require as much study and inspire as much pondering, but Shakespeare persists as a kind of unique Gordian knot.

Last summer, I completed my course work on a Master of Letters degree in Early Modern Drama and sat for an exam to prove my five summers of study had been well spent. For three hours, on a late July afternoon, I pounded away at a keyboard and tried to produce a paper that drew on my years of research in a cohesive and sensitive manner. When it was over, I felt a little sick about the whole thing. Had I really been prepared? Had I made any sense? Had I adequately expressed my thoughts? Were my thoughts even reasonable? I couldn’t be sure.

Four days later, I sat down with my professors to defend my paper. I knew I was in trouble right away. The questions were too pointed, too exacting, my teachers too hard to read for my comfort. I battled back, floundered, soldiered on, and began to surprise myself with a growing confidence.  And then I took a hit to head. My dear and beloved tutor, Emma Smith, said, “I’ve never heard anyone compare Richard II to Macbeth that way, by which I mean, I think it must be wrong.” Gunh!

Fortunately, miraculously, in fact, I passed. I got my degree and graduated in fine fashion. But I was left with a feeling of hollowness. I had spent five summers at Oxford University sitting at the feet of scholars and in the stacks of great libraries, and I felt like I had learned nothing. I had studied, and studied hard, but I was still so far outside, so far from clear and confident in my subject. I had seen the plays, read the plays, examined the plays, and still…nothing. How could that be?

And then I realized I was not alone. Shakespearean scholars do not continue to write and rewrite the same book; they keep writing new ones because there are always new questions to ask and answer, new mysteries to discover and solve, new problems to write down and sort out.

Shakespeare is exhausting because nothing about him stands still for long, no facet of his work is straight and clear no matter how brightly it gleams. We strive and search, and still he eludes us. And so, I keep searching because I want to know.

Luckily, I do learn a bit more with each search, and the reading and the viewing are more satisfying (or more frustrating–Declan Donnellan, I’m talking to you!) depending on what I see, but that’s what keeps me coming back for more, year after year.

By the way, checkout today for more blog posts about the man we all love (despite ourselves).


Mar 24 12

Nary an Error To Be Found: The National Theatre’s Comedy of Error is Flawless

by Josina Reaves
Ephesus statue

Guest Post by Anne Carter Hutchinson

While it is called The Comedy of Errors, the National Theatre Company in London seems to have left out the “errors” part.

Director Dominic Cooke’s cast turned in stunning performances of Shakespeare’s comedy that were crisp and entertaining, and though there is certainly room to go over the top in this zany misadventure, this performance stopped short of caricature.

Now I should preface this review by stating that I am easily entertained in the theatre and have never had trouble suspending my disbelief. But I found the performance so tightly bound together by the cast that even the most sceptical of viewers would be hard pressed to say that he did not find humor in the production. The comic timing was spot on, the concept was believable, and the twins actually looked identical, to the point that even when they were on stage together, I could not tell the two Dromio characters, played by Daniel Poyser and Lucian Msamati, apart.

Set in a modern context, the set was rife with scaffolding and buildings that moved and converted to the various settings. The Phoenix, Antipholus’s (Lenny Henry) lodging, for instance, emerged from the back of the stage and wedged itself between two other buildings, presenting itself as a two story condominium complete with a neon sign and coordinated trim. Most of his wife Adriana’s (Claudie Blakely) opening scenes are delivered from the balcony with martini glass in hand, and it all plays perfectly to the miscommunication that ensues between the two characters who look like her husband.

My seat, thanks to the kind generosity of Jot and Quill editor, Josina Reaves, was just to the left of center stage in the front row, so at times, I felt as if I were part of the production. Being that close to the stage has a risk, often accentuating the slip-ups and missteps that naturally occur in a live production. Sometimes you can see backstage, for instance, and the illusion is broken. But so complete was the staging that even those moving around behind the scenes were in character, bolstering the concept of the busy city.

So, should you be lucky enough to live in proximity of London’s National Theatre, I highly recommend you catch this production before the end of its run on 1 April. I, for one, am glad that Josina allowed me to be a part of it. I WAS there!

Oct 12 11

Stan Lee Writes a Graphic Version of Romeo and Juliet

by Josina Reaves

Visitors at this week’s New York Comic Con are going to get sneak peak at a new Stan Lee creation: Romeo and Juliet: The War.  On November 30, this collaboration between the creator of Spider-Man and X-Men and artist Skan Srisuwan will be released as a hardcover coffee table book, if you are so inclined.

This latest version is set in the way-far future and features the cyborg Montagues and the genetically-modified Capulets in the kind of feud that involves flying vehicles and insanely huge guns.  Romeo, the cyborg, glows.

Having written that sentence, I need to put my head down.  I like comic books and graphic novels, but a glowing Romeo?  Wow.

I do have to say that the art is simply ethereal.  Brian Truitt’s article in USA Today includes an exclusive preview of the book, and it’s astonishingly beautiful, if you like that sort of thing.

And yet, Stan Lee’s writing leaves a lot–a LOT–to be desired.  Admittedly, his strength was always plotting and character development and not the bits that go in the thought bubbles, but you know how I feel about Shakespeare’s verse, don’t you?  In case you don’t, I love it like a fat kid loves pudding.  Lee’s version involves taking out lovely lines like, “I have no joy of this contract to-night:/It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;/Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be/Ere one can say ‘It lightens,’” with “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”  Really? Again, wow.

Still, you should check out Truitt’s piece in USA Today and marvel (heheheh!) at this new take on an old, old idea.

Oct 4 11

Why I Don’t Love the New Yorker Festival Anymore

by Josina Reaves

You know how they say, “One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch”?  Well, I’ve finally had my one bad apple at the New Yorker Festival, and I’m still getting over that queasy feeling.

I’ve already shared my complete dissatisfaction with Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous with you, but I didn’t tell you anything about the event that featured the viewing.

In addition to a sneak peek of the film at the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) in Manhattan, the festival also billed the event as a conversation with James Shapiro, noted Shakespeare scholar and—perhaps most importantly—the author of Contested Will, and the film’s director Emmerich.  Okay, I thought, then the $35 ticket and the ridiculous convenience fees will be worth it.  Besides, I like seeing movies at the DGA; it’s in the same block as Carnegie Hall and the Russian Tea Room, so I always feel like I’m getting a little extra swagger with my flick, even though there are no popcorn or Twizzlers in the place.

Well, we know how the movie went, for me at least, but the crowd was pretty ecstatic about it. These people had clearly gotten their money’s worth, but I needed more.  I needed to hear Shapiro validate my extreme irritation with the film, so while other disgusted audience members filed out, I stayed put.

I don’t know who the woman was who moderated this talk, but she was no-nonsense in a way that actually killed conversation.  What she wanted (and was going to have, even if she had to cut somebody) was a series of statements from the two parties, and no monkey business.  Turns out, that might have been for the best, because by the time Shapiro was done with his opening statement, these two men hated each other.

Let me back up.  I’ve seen Shapiro talk four times now. This is a man with a head full of knowledge and a lovely way of expressing himself.  When he’s irritated, though, his glibness can become razor sharp.  Moreover, his face registers disdain and disapproval in ways that carry all the way to the back of the room, as they say.  I’ve heard him speak on the question of the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays before, so I was expecting him to be tough; I wasn’t expecting him to have been rendered speechless by his dissatisfaction.

Not totally speechless, of course, but this was not Shapiro on his A-game.  One of the first things he said was, “This movie is factually inaccurate in virtually every respect.”  There was a smattering a applause for that statement—including mine—but he seemed to have trouble framing the specifics of his assertion. Rather than a litany of details that Emmerich had gotten wrong, he got stuck on the point Emmerich seemed to be making that if the movie was true at all, than Shakespeare/Oxford was merely a propagandist, not an artist, not even an artisan making saleable goods for consumption.  “I’ve long been interested in why smart people believe dumb things,” he said, repeating that there isn’t a shred of evidence to connecting Oxford to the plays, but he couldn’t put forward the more compelling material he does have.

To be clear, though, this was not a debate and not a point-counterpoint display of research and scholarship.  Emmerich was expressing his intentions with the film and the premises he worked with, and Shapiro was expressing his concern that people might believe him.  He seemed almost choked by the notion that Emmerich could take such a high post with the authorship issue without a reason.  It would seem that Emmerich and his team are packaging this movie with a documentary and document packet for schoolchildren, so they can learn the truth of these plays as Emmerich and his, um, scholars have presented it.  Shapiro wanted to know why Emmerich thought he needed to do that, but he couldn’t quite express why he was so incensed by the idea, aside from his contention that the facts were wrong, though he could barely express which ones he meant.

There were some questions after that short chat, and what the questions revealed was how ready people were to buy the story Emmerich had presented because they found the film entertaining.  Not one person questioned Emmerich’s sources or his process or even the fact that in addition to destroying Shakespeare’s myth in this movie, he seemed very interested in destroying Jonson’s and Elizabeth’s as well.  And for what?

Shapiro did manage to land one solid punch.  When Emmerich asked why there was no evidence that this great playwright had ever owned and bequeathed books and manuscripts to his children—a piece of proof for him that Shakespeare was a Stratford merchant and not a London writer—Shapiro pointed out that Shakespeare had indeed left books and manuscripts to his son-in-law…on the second page of his will.  Emmerich said, “Well, I did not know that,” and Shapiro countered with, “Well, you shouldn’t have skipped that part of your research.”  And I knew he was finally recovering from his head punch and was ready to get into the ring with some grit.  But it was over.  The moderator rang the bell, so to speak, and sent us out into the rain without anything substantial to take away with us.

And that’s why I’m sick of the New Yorker Festival: exorbitant ticket prices, inane events, and conversations that aren’t actually conversations.  It felt like I’d been lured to some back alley, hit in the head with a sap, and rolled like a drunk for all the money in my pockets.  But I am wiser than I was before.  I will never follow a hooker again…I mean, get suckered into jumping at those tickets the second they go on sale.  I’ll wait, instead, for a nice bright moment, like the kind the Shakespeare Society provides, and I’ll put my money on that!



Oct 1 11

“Anonymous” is Not Good, But That’s the Least of Its Problems

by Josina Reaves

The New Yorker Festival, Director’s Guild of America, September 30, 2011 

I’ll admit, I love a good train wreck, but they’re absolutely no fun when people you love are trapped in them.  So is the case with the disaster that is Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous.

True, Emmerich is best known for disaster movies like Independence Day, Godzilla, 2012, and The Day After Tomorrow, and true, those movies were disasters for more than one or even two reasons, but I really thought he would have less to blow up in a movie set in the seventeenth century.  Turns out, without New York City to focus his wrath upon, he just  chose to blow up history.

As most everyone knows, Anonymous takes one of the more serious Shakespeare authorship theories and posits that Edward deVere, the Earl of Oxford, was the true writer of the plays we now attribute to William Shakespeare.  The Oxfordians, as those theorists are called, claim that the autobiographical details of deVere’s life more closely line up with the plays than Shakespeare’s life.  They also claim that no one with Shakespeare’s education could have written such enduring works of literature, only a nobleman could have dreamt of such poetry.  If I excuse the grotesque classism in that idea and ignore what we know of 16th century grammar schools (which is that they provided excellent classical educations), I can at least accept that the historical elements of deVere’s life make for a compelling case.

What Emmerich does with the debate, however, is to trash the historial record of deVere, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, and Philip Henslowe, not to mention Elizabeth I, and William and Robert Cecil, the Lords Burghley, and most of London.  He is clearly invested in making the point that deVere was touched with genius and Shakespeare was an opportunistic lout who cheated his way into fame, and there was no fact so big that he couldn’t climb right over it to make that happen.

The story follows, non-linearly, the progress of Edward (as he’s called) through and out of Elizabeth’s court.  Young Edward displays a notable precocity by writing and staging A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the pretty young queen, played sexily by Joely Richardson.  As Edward (Jamie Campbell Bower) grows up, he proves to be a bit of a hothead, which lands him in trouble, in a marriage he doesn’t want to William Cecil’s daughter, and quickly thereafter into the queen’s bed.  From there, some simply ridiculous things happen (including the “revelation” that Elizabeth was mother to a slew of illegitimate children who all wound up in the homes of random childless nobles), and eventually Edward winds up out of favor.

Fast-forward a whole lot of years, and the delicious Henry Wriothsley, Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel), takes Edward (now played ably by Rhys Ifans) to the Rose Theatre to see a play by young upstart Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armest0).  The play is Every Man in His Humour, and Jonson is arrested in the middle of the performance for sedition, which is more or less true.  Jonson is then bailed out by Edward who presses him to stage his play, Henry V, and put his name on it.  Jonson complies with staging it, but worried about his reputation, avoids putting any name on it until he’s seen it, at which point the grubby little actor William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) makes the claim instead.

More stuff happens, including the rise of Shakespeare as a noted playwright, the rise of the Globe (with the help of some nasty fundraising on Shakespeare’s part), and the destruction of the Earl of Essex by William Cecil (David Thewlis) and his toady of a son, Robert (Edward Hogg).  The framework for these plot points is true, but the substance is shoddy and full of holes.  The overlapping of the storylines is supposedly kept clear by having different actors play the parts at different ages, mostly (most effectively in the case of Richardson and her mother Vanessa Redgrave, who shared Elizabeth), but Edward, Southampton, and Essex are all blond and attractive, and you really need to have an eye for blond men if you want to keep them straight.

But these are minor irritations.  The story is ridiculous, the authorship claims laughable (not because of the serious debate, but because the fictional claims are so extremely fictional), and the history offensively mishandled, but the worst of it is the tone.

More than once, the audience at the plays is called a mob.  Though the term has its usefulness and its historical weight, for the film to lean so heavily on why an audience was little more than a dumb hoard is to mock playgoers in a terrible way.  Edward himself suggests that his genius might actually be madness or possession, and Jonson and Marlowe are more often seen drunk and bitter than they are creative and engaged with the work of the theater.  Words are treated like a sickness, plays pathetic wastes, and playwrights failed humans with little to recommend them to queen or country.  The language of the screenplay further reflects that contempt being neither lyrical nor witty, never smart, often laughable.  This is a much-handled script, and the result is a mess that mocks its very substance.

Emmerich manages to get quite a few literal bangs out of this movie, but the figurative ones–the knocks to the record of time, the dignity of playwrighting and playgoing, and the heart of the early modern dramatic period–are appalling.  It’s not a good movie, but none of Emmerich’s movies really are.  We watch them because they offer a bit of fun and excitement.  I wouldn’t put money down for either with Anonymous.


Sep 28 11

More Shakespeare Benefits than You Can Handle!

by Josina Reaves

If you live in New York, you’re used to people asking you for money.  Sometimes they’re kids on the subway selling fruit snacks and peanut M&Ms; sometimes they’re guys singing old gospel songs or dudes who breakdance.  Well, this time they’re Shakespeare companies!

First up, on Tuesday, October 4, is the Frog and Peach Theatre Co. Inc., which is doing a staged reading of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to get your dough.  The fabulously bombastic Rip Torn will star alongside Austin Pendleton, Estelle Parsons, and Shirley Knight.  Foreigner’s Ian McDonald is composing and performing the music, so ’80s rock fans, get your lighters out!  Tickets are $99 in advance, $149 at the door, and there will be cocktails and glamour, according to the website, so that’s something.  Ooh, and the reading is only 70 minutes long, so I’m guessing you’re paying for a lot of glamour, in addition to supporting “New York’s most exciting classical theatre ensemble,” so that’s something else.

On Monday, October 10, the Red Bull Theater will put on a staged reading of Ben Jonson’s nasty masterpiece, Volpone (which was on my wish list for the year, by the way!).  For $100, you get the reading and a party; bump your donation up to $250, and you get premium seating (which, in their small theater, might accidentally put you on the stage, so beware) and VIP pre-show cocktails.  If I’m reading this right, you could conceivably watch the play liquored up, then get completely hammered afterward!  And you get to see the ever-awesome F. Murray Abraham, Richard Easton, and Jay O. Sanders, while bumping butts with Laila Robins, Richard Thomas, and John Douglas Thompson.  Yowza!

Order your tickets for Julius Caesar by stabbing this link, and get foxy with Volpone with this one.

I’m sorry that just happened.