Category Archives: Shakespeare Diary

A Summer’s Night Shakespearean Dream.

Dogberry painted by Marks

Do events ever happen to you and you feel as if you’ve dreamed it?  Well, that happened to me the other night.  Will (the fourteen year old) and I are doing an exploration of Shakespeare and comedy this summer.  Firstly, we are watching three different versions of “Much Ado About Nothing” to compare and contrast them.  We have watched David Tennant and Catherine Tate at the Wyndham Theatre  ( Turning Teenagers Onto Shakespeare) and also watched Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in Kenneth Branagh’s film version. (Shakespeare – Sexy Or Strangely Funny?)  The other night we went to see an outdoor professional production – or so we thought before we went.

Beatrice

Over the years, I have been to many glorious outdoor theatre productions.  I thought I was going to something similar.  At this point I must say that I think there are times when I am a bit dense.  In the past, all the ones I have been to have been in the grounds of stately homes.  This one was in the grounds of a school but me being me; I simply thought that it was a way of getting people to watch more  theatre.

I had bought my tickets over the internet not chancing buying at the gate, in case of large crowds and a sell out.  My suspicion was aroused when I was given the shooting arrow eyeball look for buying tickets over the internet.  Four ladies, positioned like sentries, guarded the table that held the cash box.  There was a certain amount of disdain in the chief’s voice as she said “so you’ve been on the internet for your tickets.”  All their eyes were on us and I began to feel like a pervert to say the least for buying my tickets in that manner.

Benedick played by Garrick

Once we were inside and passed the bouncers, I was beginning to see what we had actually come to.  We were on a school playing field, the stage was a small platform which resembled a sheep pen but could have been set up for a hanging gallows and there were about sixty people sitting around it eating from their Tupperware boxes.  We set up our chairs and Will mentioned that this really was like going to a performance from the past.

Claudio accuses Hero of being unfaithful to him at their wedding.

I bought a programme from one of the actors and Will and I settled down to look at it.  Instantly, we were approached by a white haired, extremely well spoken lady.  She asked me if she might look at my programme.  So I handed it to her.  She then says “You don’t mind if I go off with it, do you?”  Will and I stared open mouthed as she sauntered off to her seat and started reading our programme.

Ellen Terry’s Beatrice will never be forgotten.

In front of us was an elderly man and his wife tucking into their picnic.  A hairy, round man in an Hawaiian shirt approached the elderly couple.  “George, you need to go up there and thank the town council, the Lions and the Ladies Guild.  Oh and tell them where the toilets are.”  George put his sandwich quickly into his Tupperware box and shouted “What?”  Hawaiian shirt then replied, “You’re the chairman – you have to go up and make a speech.”  George shouted “What do I have to say?”  After a lot of whating and  whoing – it was then suggested that George wrote his speech down.  At this point, I was beginning to wonder if that was part of the entertainment.  George frantically scribbled on his scrap of paper and Hawaiian shirt kept repeating town council, The Lions and toilets.

The actors announced that the play was about to start and Hawaiian shirt bustled back to his seat.  George looked flummoxed, he half stood up, hesitated and then landed heavily back into his seat.  I wondered if his moment of glory had passed.  White haired lady rushed over and handed me back my programme.

This version of the play was set in World War II with Beatrice and Hero as land girls and Dogberry and Verges as the Home Watch.  Incidentally, Beatrice and Hero doubled up as Dogberry and Verges with strong Welsh accents.  The play started and the audience had to sing “We’ll Meet Again.”  Well actually, “Much Ado About Nothing” didn’t start, it was a sub play which was about Land Girls waiting for Harold to come home from the war.  The sub play was performed intermittently in “Much Ado About Nothing” to give the actors time to change as there was a lot of doubling up going on.  It was a bit like having advertisements whilst watching the television.

Dogberry and Verges.

“Much Ado About Nothing” began and my heart sank as I watched Beatrice and Benedick in their movements.  For those who don’t know, to get a play ready for performance, the movements of the actors have to be worked out.  This is called “blocking”.  There was an obvious choreographed blocking sequence which was meant to look comical but it simply wasn’t rehearsed enough and it looked like a clumsy rehearsal.  Other times, actors were standing like spare parts waiting for their turn to speak.  Beatrice is one of my favourite Shakespearean characters but this one thought she was playing a principal boy in a pantomime.  All the way through the play, I expected her to heartily slap her thigh.

The interval arrived and the white haired lady rushed up to my seat and asked “You don’t mind if I take your programme again, do you?” and off she went with it.  This time she was standing behind the audience talking to another elderly lady and wafting my programme about proprietorially.

George rushed for the stage and very politely asked the audience not to use the trees or the grass as there were toilets in the school.  I think that was meant to be a joke.

In the past, I had always sought out very good productions for us to watch.  However, to help Will’s critical skills, I had told him that we will be going to all sorts of productions as I feel that it is as helpful to see bad productions as it is good ones.  I always feel it is helpful for children to go to live theatre if it is at all possible.  They have to study plays at school and it is a whole lot easier to write critical essays about drama if the teenager has been to quite a few performances to make it real for them.

Will’s eyes were wide during the performance.  He is very serious about both Shakespeare and acting.  His first words when we came out were “I thought we were going to a professional performance.”  It wasn’t irony; he thought that I had forgotten to tell him that we were going to an amateur performance.  He was happy to be there because he said that he had learned something very important.  He is appearing in a comedy on Saturday night and had been worrying about his comic timing.  He could see how off the actors were in their timing and that made him realise that he doesn’t need to worry about his comic timing because he obviously understands it.

Beatrice and Benedick from yesteryear.

The play did not get any better in the second half but I am glad I went.  There was a certain charm to sitting in the field watching the actors in the play and the people in the audience.  I never did discover what George was chairman of, but to be honest, none of it seemed real – it was more like a dream.  Maybe I went to see the wrong play.

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Shakespeare, Sexy Or Strangely Funny?

List of titles of works based on Shakespearean...

 

Shakespeare – Sexy or Strangely Funny?

 

This summer Will (the teenager) and I are exploring Shakespeare and comedy.  Initially, we are watching three different versions of “Much Ado About Nothing” to discover how widely interpreted the comedy can be by the director and actors.  Shakespeare’s plays were written to be performed not read.   The audiences were  the ordinary folks of the day, mostly.  I often think that objective has been lost.  I think all too often now, Shakespeare’s plays, for many people, are thought of as something which the kids do at school. Unfortunately, if we don’t demonstrate to teenagers and children that this is not so, that they are to be performed and watched with pleasure, even if we don’t have to, this notion will be perpetual.  (For those of you who are not fans of Shakespeare, I am not only referring to his plays, I also include plays by Marlowe,  Johnson, Aphra Behn and all the other wonderful playwrights from around the world of yesteryear.  It is our heritage.)

 

The first viewing was of a filmed version of a performance at the Wyndham Theatre starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate.  This version was hilariously funny using visual action to elevate the humour in the text.  For more on that read “Turning Teenagers Onto Shakespeare – David Tennant and Catherine Tate”, under “Shakespeare Diary on this site.

 

The second version is the film starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson.  This is made as a film in that the setting is an integral part of the whole performance.  Branagh’s version is mainly a love story as opposed to the one starring Tennant which is mainly a comedy.  Comedy in Branagh’s version is kept to Dogberry and Verges – the constable in charge of the watch and his deputy.  It is in keeping with much of Shakespearean comedythat the laughs come from the lower classes.  Well, that is how it is supposed to work out.Cover of "Much Ado About Nothing (1993) (...

 

I have seen Branagh’s version four times before I watched it with Will.  It is set in the beautiful countryside of Tuscany, Italy.  We see a large Tuscan home surrounded by lush gardens.  Girls in long, white, floating dresses languish around the garden and there is Tudor music playing accompanied by the sound of Hey Nonny Nonny.  The setting is a typical pastoral idyll.  It is a spectacle – there can be no other word for it.  Next, the men arrive.  We see young, handsome soldiers all in smart uniforms arriving in a perfect line on their horses.  They have got long boots on with tight trousers and buttoned jackets.  The whole scene is one of distinction between the sexes.  The ladies are at home waiting for the men to return and looking soft, gentle and dreamy.  The men ride in and look masculine and sexy.  Before I continue, I have to say that I have never been a floating, feminine, dreamy sort of girl.  My grandfather taught me to get a sneaky left hook in at the age of five and I can write feminist essays which will make the eyes run.  However, I have always thought that those men riding on their horses looked deliciously sexy and have always been transported by the whole scene.

I relished being transported to 16th century Tuscany and waited eagerly for the men to arrive on their horses.  They arrived, dismounted and marched up to the house in a line.  Will hooted with laughter.  He stood up and puts his hands on his hips imitating them.  He said “we are devilishly manly with our tight trousers and long boots.”   I wanted to shove the Crunchie I was eating up his left nostril.  I could see exactly what he meant but didn’t really want to.

 

His main criticism however, was the way Don John, the illegitimate brother of Don Pedro was depicted.  (Don John is the villain behind the plot when Hero is set up to look as though she is unfaithful to Claudio before their wedding.)  Will, rightly felt that the depiction was too much of a stereotypical villain to be believed.  We had a strike of lightening at one point before he entered a room.  Will was waiting for his villainess laugh – it came, although it wasn’t too cackling.  He felt as if the Don John in the performance at the Wyndham theatre was far superior.  He was slightly camp and not too obvious.  Villains of that nature work far better as they are far more likely to fool us.

DOHN JOHN

DOHN JOHN (Photo credit: URBAN ARTefakte)

If any readers of this have got teenagers, I would recommend that you try doing this yourself as an experiment.  It doesn’t have to be this particular play – it could be any.  Get your teenager to watch two or three different versions.  You will be amazed at how it helps their critical skills.  It is far easier to form a critical opinion of something if you have something else to compare it with.

 

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Turning Teenagers On To Shakespeare – David Tennant and Catherine Tate.

English: Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Strat...

English: Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Will (the fourteen year old) and I are exploring comedy in Shakespeare this summer.  To begin with we are watching three different versions of “Much Ado About Nothing.” We viewed the one which was staged at the Wyndham Theatre last July on Digital Theatre, a few days ago.

David Tennant at Stratford upon Avon. This ima...

David Tennant at Stratford upon Avon. This image has been cropped from the original image. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The title of this post is Turning Teenagers Onto Shakespeare.  The reason for the title is that I believe that this version of “Much Ado About Nothing”, will get your teenager loving Shakespeare.  It might not seem important for teenagers to enjoy Shakespeare but it is on the curriculum and studying something which you enjoy is a whole lot better than having to put up with a subject which you detest.  I highly recommend buying a download of this and watching it with your teenager.  It is excellent. I have no association with Digital Theatre whatsoever, this post is written purely from the Loony Literature point of view of encouraging others to enjoy literature.  In this post I explain why I believe teenagers will enjoy it.

Catherine Tate 2006

Catherine Tate 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why would teenagers like this version of “Much Ado About Nothing”?  For a start, David Tennant plays Benedick and Catherine Tate is Beatrice.  At first glance, this can seem like a couple of very popular television actors from Doctor Who being hired to draw the crowds in.  However, I have to say that David Tennant is an accomplished Shakespearean actor. (His Hamlet is inspirational.)  He is so loved by the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) that £5,000 has been raised so that one of the seats in the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon is to be named after him.   Catherine Tate has done a fair bit of theatre also and has appeared in Goldoni’s “A Servant to Two Masters”, for the RSC.

Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy about love winning out in the end.  When we add that its main theme is deception then it starts to sound interesting.  This interpretation is set in 1980’s Gibraltar.  Most of the chaps are navy officers and are in a post Falklands party mood.  The plot is set around two couples. We have Hero and Claudio who are getting married but there is skulduggery afoot and Claudio is wrongly led to believe that Hero has been unfaithful to him. He makes a public spectacle of her at their wedding.   Also, we have Beatrice and Benedick who seem to be constantly sparring.  Benedick’s navy chums decide to bamboozle the pair of them into falling in love.

Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing (Photo credit: psd)

Josie Rourke directed this and she deserves the heartiest slap on the back for getting it right.  By this, I mean taking the text and utilising it fully to demonstrate how approachable and contemporary Shakespeare can be.   Tennant is a master of comedy.  He gets covered in paint whilst eavesdropping which sounds rather clownish.  It isn’t.  It is done so well that we can’t help but hoot with laughter.  In Benedick’s monologues, there are moments when Tennant’s  whole persona cries out that he is having the time of his life and that is infectious – we as an audience feel that way too.

David Garrick (another David) as Benedick in 1770.

Catherine Tate plays Beatrice as a “don’t mess with me” type of gal.  I loved it.  The reason for this is that today’s girls will be able to identify with her.  It is often hard for teenagers  (I am speaking here as an ex teenager) to get to grips with the way women have been forced to be historically.  As a teenager, I would often have problems truly sympathising, let alone empathising,  with women in literature for the way in which they acted.  I wanted them to speak out and to act more.  I could turn blue at times urging some of them on to get more agency.   Sometimes I found them impossible to identify with.  It was only through years of both literary study and historical study that I could come to understand them and their motives.  So watching Tate as Beatrice truly felt like a breakthrough in getting  more teenage girls to identify with Shakespeare’s female characters.

When we are in our teens, because of raging hormones, we can often feel truly unattractive.  It seems as if everybody in the world is fancied by someone, except us.  We turn to fiction and film and often it is the handsomest, bravest hero who gets the chocolate box looking girl.  It can be soul destroying and do nothing for our confidence.  This performance of Much Ado About Nothing is the champion of the plain best friend.  Benedick dresses in drag and gets covered in paint –he certainly is no-one’s dark, silent hero.  Beatrice dresses as a man for a party and ends up flying in the air with the grace of a fairy elephant.  She is no gorgeous femme fatale or pale interesting type.  Yet she gets the boy.  The message is simply be yourself, no matter how clumsy and plain you feel , one day, someone will love you for you.  What teenager could resist that?

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare (Photo credit: Newton Free Library)

 

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