Wednesday, 27 April 2016

What is Shakespeare's Greatest Play? Part VII

To mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death (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 choices from Dr Galliver and Tom McCarthy 
Pierce Quigley as Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream

What is your favourite Shakespeare play? 
My introduction to Shakespeare was watching the BBC’s “Spread of the Eagle” when the Roman plays were broadcast.  I was still at Corpus Christi preparing for the 11 plus when they were shown but I recall being tremendously impressed by the version of Julius Caesar; especially the speech of Mark Anthony after Caesar’s murder ( alas, I’m too old to remember the actor and too lazy to look it up).  We later read the play when I was at St.John’s.  We seemed to read a play a term from the First Form onwards and had to learn chunks for prep.  I ended up having to memorise Mark Antony’s speech and Cassius’ one about the “ tide in the affairs of men.”  More recently, my understanding and appreciation of the play has been enhanced by reading James Shapiro’s “1599.”  I now have some insight into the political and religious allusions being made by Shakespeare to his contemporary audience.

What is your least favourite Shakespeare play? 
King Lear. I know that it’s moving, full of great poetry and a masterpiece.  I also see thanks to Shapiro, again, in his later book, “1606” and Clare Asquith in this week’s Tablet, that it’s full of significance for the politics of James I’s England.  Allowing for all of this, I cannot bring myself to enjoy it.  Partly, it was spoiled for me by a production at St.John’s when I was in the Sixth Form.  The master in charge of drama, who shall remain nameless but was an OP, decided that none of the boys was up to it and played the lead himself.  He played it rather as Tony Hancock might have done. Overall, however, the play is relentlessly depressing.  I can find enough tragedy in my study of history. 

Who is Shakespeare's greatest character? 
Greatest character” largely depends upon the definition of the adjective.  I’m not sure that I want to write a mini essay on this.  If we can restrict it to “favourite”, the answer is Rosalind in “As You Like It.”  I like her wit and strength of character. 

Who is Shakespeare's greatest villain? 
I reckon that persuading a husband to kill the king counts as villainy, so my choice is Lady Macbeth.  Notwithstanding her villainy, she has the decency, in the end, to see that she might not have done entirely the right thing. Again, at school we had to learn the speeches when she strengthens Macbeth’s resolve and when she appreciates the enormity of her actions.

Which Shakespeare character would you be most likely to fall in love with? 
It is not my practice to fall in love with a figment of someone’s imagination, so I’ll have to pass on this one.

What is the best production/adaptation of a Shakespeare play that you have seen? 
With regard to the best productions I’ve seen, it’s a close run thing between two fairly recent offerings from The Globe company.  A few years ago, they put on an outdoor performance of “The Taming of the Shrew”  in the gardens behind Portsmouth Museum.  The all-female cast made  great job of the play’s humour and, I suppose, did something to redress the balance of the theatre in Shakespeare’s day being an all-male business.  At The Globe, in 2013, I saw a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in which Pearce Quigley was hilarious as Bottom. 
The best adaption I’ve seen was last year’s film of” MacBeth”, starring Michael Fassbinder and Marion Cotillard.  Some liberties were taken with the text but, without diminishing the horror of their crimes, it was possible to have some sympathy for the MacBeths.; a genuine tragedy.

Tom McCarthy


Favourite play  
Antony and Cleopatra. Its imagery is astonishing.  A short phrase can conceal unplumbed depths of meaning.  In dismissing Cleopatra as a “tawny front”, a supercilious Roman encapsulates the cold reason of Rome as against the warm sensuality of Egypt.  Indeed the first scene of just 60 lines can be experienced  if read aloud as the whole play in microcosm: tight and lifeless Rome as against the glorious folly of “kissing away kingdoms”.  Its language is so glorious, too, that it should, like Milton’s Samson Agonistes, never be performed but only read and read aloud.

Least favourite play
Richard III.  It has no structure.  If it has a beginning, middle and   end, they are not necessarily in that order.  Richard is a bore or a comedian in spite of himself, probably both.  Also, the play ends with the Battle of Bosworth and, as Lady Bracknell says in The Importance... “we all know what that unfortunate movement (or battle) led to”.

Greatest Shakespearean character
Caliban in The Tempest.  Here Shakespeare reveals, or maybe conceals, a prescient sympathy for a victim of Elizabethan colonialism and a gentle satire on Prospero’s delusive search for self-enlightenment.  Caliban is my hero.

Greatest Shakespearean villain: 
Antonio in The Merchant of Venice.  He is not true to himself, so then he is false to everyone else.  He is false to the thriftless Bassanio to whom he lends money.  He  is false to Portia that in lending money to Bassanio she can be bought.  Most of all, this vile man masquerades as a Christian  while he spits at Shylock and demands that this devout Jew “presently becomes a Christian”.  For me the most chilling moment in all of Shakespeare.

Which of Shakespeare’s characters would you fall in love with?  
Beatrice in Much Ado because when she was born “there was a star danced”.

Ian McKellen and Judi Dench as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth
Best Shakespearean production:  Titas Halder and John Embleton directed the very first Shakespeare play at Hilsea in July 2005, The Comedy of Errors.  It was fast.  It was farce. It was true to its maker’s intent.  It was hilariously funny.  It was also judiciously cut, leaving out the insult to Ireland.  There was wine. 
For tragedy it has to be Trevor Nunn’s Macbeth, (1978):  Judy Dench as Lady Macbeth, Ian McKellan as a strong but troubled Macbeth.  Dench reveals (see it on dvd) the lost woman behind the “fiend like queen”, as Malcolm calls her.  I shall never forget Dench’s terror when she calls on the “spirits that tend on mortal thought” to “unsex me here”. Or when in the sleep walking scene she stares at her white hands, imagines them steeped in blood and sees that “here’s a spot” and senses that “here’s the smell of the blood still”. And Macbeth is his greatest play.

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