A Shakespearian Smorgasbord

Today’s post is a bit of a pick and mix of all things Shakespeare that have come my way recently. Firstly, a very recent interview with Sam Mendes, acclaimed director of both stage and screen.  His latest theatrical outing was directing Simon Russell Beale as King Lear at the National Theatre in London. Here he is in conversation with Mark Leipacher about that very production.


Along with Mendes, there are a series of video and audio recordings from the National that talk with the actors about their approach to creating all the major roles in Lear. You can listen to Talking Lear here or watch them here.  Another from the same series, which is really interesting, is a discussion hosted by theatre critic Michael Billington between psychoanalyst, Mike Brearley, and academic, Laurie Maguire, where they discuss Shakespeare’s understanding of the complexities of the human mind and how these would appear to be evident in King Lear.


Finally in connection with King Lear Simon Russell Beale wrote a piece for The Telegraph in April, Whys Shakespeare always says something newin which talks at length about playing the Bard, the dangers of editing the text and why he considers that Shakespeare still has something to say today.


Another production that has been making headlines beyond its rave reviews is Titus Andronicus currently at The Globe Theatre, London. Titus is renowned for its violence – 14 deaths, a brutal rape and scenes of mutilation and cannibalism. Inevitably, stage blood is often used by the litre in productions of the play, and occasionally to great and gruesome effect.  This particular production has clearly pushed the boundaries, being described as full of violence and sick humour in Hannah Furness’ article for The Telegraph, Globe audience faints at ‘grotesquely violent’ Titus Andronicus. The fainting count at the time the article went to press was growing rapidly. If rumours are to be believed, the largest number to faint so far in one performance is 43.


It is clear from the publicity photographs why the squeamish are not faring well at The Globe. Indeed those who faint have been dubbed ‘droppers’ by fellow theatre goers and Globe staff. Furness writes:

One theatre-goer, who watched the show’s opening night, said there had been “quite a few droppers” in the audience, who fainted upon seeing so much blood. Another reported he had “almost puked” by the interval, while a third warned: “You will definitely need a strong stomach”. Others praised the “Brilliantly staged and flawlessly acted” production, but warned of “blood and violence galore”

What is amazing that amongst all the gore, the director, Lucy Bailey has also been highly praised for bringing out the darkly comic elements of Titus and making sense of what is often seen as faltering marriage of knock-about humour and extreme suffering on Shakespeare’s part.


I16iht-lon16-superJumbo_Fotorn her article for The Guardian, There’s method in theatre’s blood and goreMarina Warner talks about violence on stage through history, why tragedies such as Titus bring us face to face with intense violence and how they also carry a vital contemporary message. A great read.

There is some really good related reading on The Globe’s website. One is a great piece wittily entitled Food for Thought by Cedric Watts about the cannibal or anthropophagous banquet scene in the play.  Another is The Sound of Cracking Bone by Robert Shore which looks at the rehabilitation of Titus as a play of substance and how staging it in a theatre resembling its original setting allows it to breath again. It also reminded me of my favourite of Shakespeare’s stage directions, which comes from Titus, 

Enter a messenger with two heads and a hand

The maxim, there’s no such thing as bad publicity seems to have held true for The Globe and they have quietly taken advantage of the ‘droppers’ to garner extra publicity for the show. No one has actually said how much stage blood they are getting through, but it didn’t stop one intrepid journalist heading off to find where it was all made. There will be blood! written by Nick Clark for The Independent visits the suppliers of the fake blood for Titus who make up to 450 litres of the stuff every week and have doubled their production in the last year, largely due to bloody productions of Shakespeare’s plays.

Finally for today, a shout out for The Internet Archive which has recently posted the Orson Welles Shakespeare Collection, a selection of Shakespeare’s plays adapted for the radio by him in the 1930s and which were groundbreaking at the time. Welles is perhaps best known for the movie Citizen Kane, as well as one of the most famous broadcasts in the history of radio, his adaptation War of the Worlds which caused widespread panic when American listeners thought it was real and that an invasion by extraterrestrial beings was taking place

Orson Welles as Brutus in However, he was also a celebrated Shakespearian actor and during the late 1930s, Welles was the toast of Broadway, thanks to a string of audacious revivals of the Shakespeare’s work. The most famous of these was his 1937 adaptation of Julius Caesar. Welles costumed the piece in modern dress with soldiers wearing what looked like Nazi black shirts. The show was lit in such a way as to recall a Nuremberg rally. Obviously this was playing at a time when Hitler’s power was growing, and the production is said to have jolted American audiences and made Welles famous, with Time Magazine even putting him on its cover.

The recordings made available by The Internet Archive are obviously dated and sound quality is not always great, but they have a surprising intensity about them. You can access them here and I have embedded Julius Caesar to give a flavour of what the rest are like.


A Rocky Road

normal-2Perhaps more that any other art form, theatre is a political beast. It has to be, it is about the human condition.  Whether it is the content that is political, or the mere act of staging something in a certain place, politics is never very far away. In democracies that have a left leaning government, theatre usually thrives and is supported by the state as a forum for discussion and debate. In those that lean to the right, theatre making shrinks as state funding is usually withdrawn or cut, being viewed as subversive and unnecessary. What the right have yet to work out is that their attempts at suppression only forces theatre makers to shout louder. More extreme governments hijack theatre as propaganda and/or ban work that doesn’t support ‘the cause’. Now of course these are generalisations, but without doubt there is some truth in them.

This week there have a few rumblings of discontent about the forth-coming world tour of Hamlet by the Globe Theatre, which I wrote about in July last year, Going Global. The theatre announced that in their attempt to visit every country in the world, North Korea was on the itinerary for September this year. This immediately drew criticism from Amnesty  and Human Rights Watch. Niall Couper from Amnesty said:

North Korea is a country where the horrors inflicted on people who fall out of favour are worse than any fiction….No tragic play can come close to the misery that 100,000 people trapped in the country’s prison camps endure, where torture, rape, starvation and execution are everyday occurrences.

normalTo be fair, Amnesty didn’t suggest that the theatre should boycott North Korea, but urged the company to read up on its human rights abuses first. Meanwhile Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch (Asia) commented that exclusion would be the order of the day if the performance went ahead:

It’s going to be an extremely limited, elite audience that would see a production in any case. It would have to be in Pyongyang, which is a showcase city whose residents are selected to live there because they have shown their loyalty, so there’s a strict pre-selection process involved right from the off.

Many commentators have of course noted the sinister connection between Prince Hamlet’s murderous revenge on his uncle Claudius in the Shakespearean tragedy and recent events in North Korea. As a report from CNN said

The parallels of staging a drama about an epic family power struggle in Pyongyang, where the country’s young leader Kim Jong Un had his uncle, Jang Song Thaek executed has raised a few eyebrows…..Jang was considered instrumental in Kim’s rise to power, but Kim turned his back on his uncle in spectacular fashion late last year as Jang was branded “a traitor for all ages” and executed on charges that he had attempted to overthrow the government.

Phil Robertson drily noted that

When the North Korean leadership gets around to reading the plot of Hamlet, one imagines they might well insist on something else from the canon


The story has made international news, from Bangkok and South Korea, to Germany and the US.  I suppose this says a lot about how well regarded the Globe is around the world. However, it is politicking that is driving the story. Not surprisingly, the Globe hit back issuing a statement that, amongst other things, said:

We have decided that every country means every country, since we believe that every country is better off for the presence of Hamlet. Shakespeare can entertain and speak to anyone, no matter where in the world they are. We have always believed that cultural communication, and different peoples talking to each other through art, is a force for good in the world. In every country, we are going for one single and simple purpose: to play Hamlet there.

We are very proud of our record of working with a selection of NGOs over the years – Amnesty themselves, PEN, Reprieve and Human Rights Watch. We have raised money for their operations, provided space for them, and felt their influence in many of our productions and the new plays we have performed. In that light, we were disappointed that Amnesty put out a quote about our touring without realizing that it was a world tour, but under the impression that it was going solely to one country.

I take their point, but I do wonder whether this is a wise move, as it could be seen as a potential endorsement of the brutal North Korean regime. There is something to be said for cultural diplomacy, but as the USA News points out, it can go too far. On the other hand, Mark Lawson writing in the Guardian, Is there something rotten in taking Hamlet to North Korea? argues that theatre does not always legitimise its hosts and can be a weapon against oppression. If the Globe were to avoid all repressive regimes, their World Tour simply wouldn’t be.

I’ll leave the final word to Couper and Amnesty who noted that

There’s a dark irony in the fact that Hamlet focuses on a prince wrestling with his conscience. Kim Jong-Un is no Hamlet. Sadly he shows no sign of wrestling with his conscience.


Provisional routing of the tour

Provisional routing of the tour