Wednesday, 30 April 2014

What Is Shakespeare's Greatest Play: Part II

To mark William Shakespeare's 450th birthday (generally believed to be April 23rd), Portsmouth Point blog asked PGS staff to tell us their favourite (and least favourite) Shakespeare plays, favourite characters and favourite productions. Here are responses from Mr Richardson, Mrs Godfree and Mr Burkinshaw.

See selections by Ms Burden, Mrs Walsh and Mr Lister here.

Mr Richardson


Tom Hollander and Adrian Lester in
Cheek By Jowl's production of As You Like It

What is your favourite Shakespeare play and why?
It’s a bit of a cliché, but King Lear was one of the first plays I ever encountered by WS, and its sustained bleakness, its humour and its sheer power make it in a league of its own.

What is your least favourite Shakespeare play and why?
Cymbeline has been the least favourite of mine in terms of seeing productions, but The Merchant of Venice is a play I have taught on many occasions and am now truly out of love with: defending its racism makes one take very contorted positions, and I would prefer not to any longer.

Who is the greatest Shakespeare character and why?
Ah! Tricky! I have a soft spot for the bear in The Winter’s Tale: he turns a relentless tragedy into a comedy, and has never got a kind word from anyone for his pains.

Who is the greatest Shakespeare villain and why?
Well, arguably that bear, too. Edmund in King Lear is consistently and unapologetically villainous, so perhaps worth a vote here.

Which Shakespearean character would you be most likely to fall in love with and why?
None. For me they are not those sort of plays: the women are rarely lovable, and the men are rarely admirable. Perhaps Yorick in Hamlet: Hamlet remembered him fondly (if very belatedly).

What is the best production of a Shakespeare play that you have seen and why (theatre, film or both - choose as many examples as you wish)?
I saw Ian McKellan and Judi Dench in Macbeth in the seventies somewhere, which was thrilling, but I think they were having a bit of an off day. The best has to be the Cheek by Jowl production of As You Like It: an all-male cast with a black actor (Adrian Lester) playing Rosalind, it made the whole play a real experience and an utter delight.

Mrs Godfree


Laurence Olivier's film version of Henry V (1944)

What is the best production of a Shakespeare play that you have seen and why (theatre, film or both - choose as many examples as you wish)?
The first Shakespeare play I saw was Laurence Olivier’s film of Henry V, in the mid-1960s  – I was 14. I just loved it - it was a huge emotional experience – the swoop down from the skies above London into the Globe Theatre, and then the magic expansion of the theatre into the ‘real’ world … with wonderful sets like the background of an illuminated manuscript. Depths of touching pathos as well as humour from the comic characters, and a very sexy courtship scene – Olivier was so handsome! I admired him too in Othello, with a wonderfully malign Frank Finlay as Iago, although Othello’s blacked-up makeup rubbed off on Desdemona as he killed her. 

By contrast, a recent and powerful version of Othello, set in barracks rooms in Cyprus, with Rory Kinnear as Iago and Adrian Lester as Othello, and streamed live into Vue from the National Theatre. Mrs Gillies left the theatre in tears – I could see why, or feel it rather – the murder scene was painfully protracted and realistic, and was a brutal culmination to Iago’s slow tightening of the noose on Othello as the play progresses. 

I have also recently loved the rather cut-down version of As You Like it, directed by Kenneth Branagh, set in nineteenth century Japan – absolutely beautiful landscapes, and the directorial decisions made me go back to the original play again.
Finally, playing Goneril in a very downsized version of King Lear for schools, during my PGCE year, gave me a true feel for how Shakespeare’s mastery of iambic pentameter enables the emotional flow of the scene to take its course. You just have to allow the metre to create the inflections, and the sense looks after itself. Lear offers us such a bleak vision of life – it’s almost too painful to watch, when done really well.

Mr Burkinshaw

Jeanne Moreau as Doll Tearsheet and Orson Welles as Falstaff
in Chimes at Midnight (Welles' film adaptation of Henry IV Pts 1 and II)

 What is your favourite Shakespeare play and why?
I have always loved Hamlet. Set in Denmark, it anticipates ScandiNoir by more than four centuries with its brooding atmosphere, existential philosophy, Freudian subtext and excessive body count. I also find Troilus and Cressida very modern in its ironic treatment of love and war (conveyed very effectively in a fantastic production by Trevor Nunn in the late 90s).


What is your least favourite Shakespeare play and why?
Twelfth Night – I get bored with all the disguises and mistaken identity, find the puns tedious and feel that the humiliation and exclusion of Malvolio at the end of the play is mean-spirited and out of all proportion. 


Who is the greatest Shakespeare character and why?
My favourite character is Jack Falstaff and his unquenchable appetite for life, friendship and sherry sack. His relationship with Prince Hal is one of the great literary bromances and his rejection by Hal (newly crowned Henry V) at the end of Henry IV Part II (“I know thee not, old man”) is one of the most moving moments in theatre.


Who is the greatest Shakespeare villain and why?
Shakespeare is groundbreaking in his portrayal of the attractiveness of evil. Simultaneously charming and chilling the audience as he revels in the sheer creativity of his own villainy, Othello's Iago seems a literary forebear of anarchic nihilists such as The Joker. Meanwhile, it is Edmund the Bastard's sardonic villainy, in King Lear, that seems to make him so irresistible to Queens Goneril and Regan.


Which Shakespearean character would you be most likely to fall in love with and why?
Probably Cleopatra (from Antony and Cleopatra) – self-absorbed and self-serving, but also witty, complex and unpredictable. 


What is the best production of a Shakespeare play that you have seen and why (theatre, film or both - choose as many examples as you wish)?
Michael Bogdanov’s ‘Wars of the Roses’ cycle (Henry IV Parts I and II and Henry V) at the Old Vic, featured one of the most chilling scenes I have ever seen, when the rebellious lords, instead of being executed off stage, were dragged to the front and shot in the back of the head by thugs in balaclavas, which brought the horror of civil war home to the audience very brutally. I enjoyed Mark Rylance’s performance as Hamlet, with a set taken straight from German Expressionist cinema and the protagonist dressed in pyjamas throughout, turning Elsinore into a psychiatric hospital. Christopher Walken’s portrayal of Iago as a sadistic Brooklyn mobster (described by the New York Times as “punk Renaissance”) was also particularly memorable.  My favourite film adaptation is Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1966), which, like all of Welles’ productions, was made on a tight budget (the sound track is a little uneven) but his portrayal of Falstaff in all of his corrupt but life-affirming glory is magnetic, while the settings of tavern and battlefield are lent a poetic squalor by Welles' dazzling cinematography.

See also What is Shakespeare's Greatest Play: Ms Burden, Mrs Walsh and Mr Lister



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