Timothée Chalamet in The King: England’s legendary warrior prince is reinvented as a petulant and introverted man-child in this ponderous revision of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V plays

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Warning: This review contains spoilers.

There’s never any Shakespeare on Netflix, the online streaming channel which seems to specialise in teenage shows about Satanism and suicide. Still, we’ve held off cancelling our subscription in order to see The King.

The film is the brainchild of Joel Edgerton, who co-writes, produces and plays Falstaff. His fellow Australian David Michôd (who made the excellent Animal Kingdom) directs and co-writes. The project first came to our attention a couple of years ago when Edgerton made some comments about cutting the “long-winded” Shakespeare speeches and adding some Game of Thrones spirit to proceedings. I tweeted scathingly about this at the time, but to be fair to Edgerton, he has played Prince Hal and Henry V on the Australian stage, and he seems like a pretty open and honest (not to mention talented) bloke, so his vision for The King might just work…

The film has a pretty striking opening with young northern noble Hotspur (Tom Glynn-Carney) sending an unfortunate Scottish spear-carrier the way of all flesh. Then we see Hotspur in conference with King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn), where he refuses to hand over his prisoners, and spits out a selection of scathing and treasonous insults in his monarch’s direction.

We then relocate to the tavern where Henry’s elder son Prince Hal (Timothée Chalamet) is misbehaving. We quickly learn that Hal really hates his Dad. In fact, his bad-mouthing of the old man is almost as treasonous as Hotspur’s.

By now we’ve been introduced to Falstaff (Joel Edgerton). Now, Shakespeare’s Falstaff is infamous for being exceedingly old and humongously fat, but Joel Edgerton is neither. His Falstaff has a bluff rugby player physique and his character is full of bluff ‘wisdom’ to match. His accent sounds Yorkshire to me, but at different points in the film will veer from Mancunian to Scouse to Scots. Initially, he seems more Hal’s Kindly guardian than the gleeful corrupting influence of Shakespeare’s version.

The film does have some nicely framed interiors – there, put that on the DVD sleeve! But storytelling cliches abound – so of course we have to have the hero refusing his quest in the form of Hal refusing to go and see his dying dad (and later refusing to go to war with France) and so on.

Hal surprisingly bests the rebel Hotspur in a bout of single combat rather early in the film, which of course robs the confrontation of the revelatory power it has in Henry IV Part 1. At this point my impression of Hal is that he’s a somewhat sulky, slightly slimy, sexually ambiguous vampire who seems unable to make eye contact, treats people like dirt, and is no friend of the square meal. The traits of Shakespeare’s Hal, which have fascinated audiences and readers for 400 years are clumsily smelted into an uneasy mixture of narcissism and self-hatred. Well, I suppose that’s very 2019. The problem is that he seems too languid to ever have truly been a hell raiser. This Hal is less Bullingdon boy and more lonesome emo.

Anyway, the events of the Henry IV plays are raced through in 30 minutes as Henry senior dies and Hal becomes King Henry V. Then there’s an interesting scene where Henry receives congratulatory gifts from the rulers of places mentioned in other Shakespeare plays. This scene also reveals Henry’s court to be surprisingly small and rather parochial. From France, he receives the insulting gift of a ball (in the play, of course, it’s a box of tennis balls), which he bounces off a wall in a manner reminiscent of Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

Stripped of Shakespeare’s poetry and wit, this script can feel ponderous and banal. Chalamet certainly isn’t helped by clunksome lines like “I appreciate your umbrage, William”, but compared to Saoirse Ronan in this year’s Mary Queen of Scots he’s almost likeable. And at least we haven’t had a gender studies lecture yet. Oh, hang on though – there’s still one hour and 40 minutes left to go.

As a new king, Henry’s approach is to pardon all his dead dad’s enemies. Although when his Chief Justice (Sean Harris) says “Great reforms are best enacted with regime change” it sounds like it’s come straight off the autocue at a White House press briefing.

I may have dreamed it, but I think there’s a bizarre moment where Henry’s kid sister (Thomasin McKenzie) strokes a camel. She’s the Princess of Denmark and wise beyond her years, so she gives him sage advice (presumably before boarding a private jet to go and combat climate change). Henry reiterates how “all the unrest in the kingdom” was his father’s fault. His anti-dad hatred really is deeply unappealing, especially since the old man seemed pretty cool, from what we saw of him. At this point, I feel my attention waning. The film seems headed for the valley of sanctimony.

And I feel bad for saying it, but the longer Timothée Chalamet is on screen, the more the film’s vitality seems to ebb away. At times I find myself wondering ‘why are we wasting time with this fella?’ as he just seems like a minor character. We want Henry the bloody Fifth, not some twitchy man-child.

“You wish to be a king for the people” says the Sean Harris advisor guy a bit later. Then he mentions “the mood of the people”. I get the impression he used to work for Tony Blair. After having played a severely constipated Macduff in Kurzel’s Macbeth, Harris’s approach here seems to be to recite every line as if he has a hedgehog in his throat.

After a French assassin is caught, Henry decides to send some tough words back to Charles of France. But will he ever stand up straight, that’s what I want to know? That stoop is really starting to grate. Also, there’s 86 minutes left, and I’m beginning to wonder if anything will ever happen. For a film that set out to cut all the “long-winded” Shakespeare, there is an awful lot of talk. Yes, Shakespeare can be slow-moving, but the pace of The King is positively glacial.

Some traitors are caught, but when Henry says “Tomorrow you will have your heads cut off”, the timing of the line is so odd that I burst out laughing. His next line, “I have chosen you as an advance party to Hell”, sounds like something out of The Expendables. We are nudging into ‘so bad it’s bad’ territory.

At this point I’m wondering how can Chalamet be such an uncompelling lead. He’s got good hair, great cheekbones, he’s quite beautiful in an early-’80s English pop star way, but where’s the vitality? It makes me appreciate how bone-crunchingly brilliant Tom Hiddleston was in this role. The Hollow Crown was historical pageant, bawdy comedy and medieval action movie, but still Shakespeare through and through. I can understand the need for a radically different approach (if, indeed, the makers of The King are even aware of The Hollow Crown), but why so dull?

The subsequent execution scene is well done, and properly horrible. My prayers have been answered and Henry is finally sitting up straight. An absurd twist promptly follows – Henry returns to the tavern to recruit Jack Falstaff because there’s no-one else he can trust.

This is the point at which Falstaff’s accent veers into Scottish, while Henry’s dialogue is now so cumbersome it’s like he’s gargling marbles.

By now I’ve pinpointed what bothers me about Chalamet’s performance: it’s like he’s heavily medicated. And the mumblecore performance simply doesn’t work in the medieval context. Okay, I can appreciate you don’t want to be bellowing like Olivier, but how’s this going to work in the upcoming battle scenes? Are you going to whisper to the troops? Use sign language?

And so it is that Falstaff – Shakespeare’s legendary coward, wastrel and bullshit artist – is here introduced to Henry’s captains as a heroic battle veteran who’s going to lead them. I don’t know what they were thinking, but this is surely the apotheosis of Hollywood/Globalist Entertainment Corp idiocy.

It’s like those Stallone films where Rocky and Rambo make a creaky comeback, except Joel Edgerton doesn’t really look old enough to be making a comeback. And how weird that Falstaff, who famously wasn’t in Henry V, now seems to have become the main character.

So we get to France, where there’s some good siege engine action, and Chalamet seems more charismatic when speaking French. It’s a fugly film, though – the English are just a succession of interchangeable dour men with pinched faces and slightly overcooked regional accents. Falstaff has now overtaken Henry as the most annoying character, but Henry seems to be in love with him. And then the Dauphin (Robert Pattinson) turns up to chat in the middle of the night.

This is an eccentric performance by Robert Pattinson. Well known for playing a vampire in The Twilight Saga, he threatens to drain Henry’s body of blood. He’s like a Monty Python character, but he does capture some of the prideful idiocy of Shakespeare’s Dauphin. However, R-Patz quickly reveals a predilection for decapitating little English boys, so it’s clear he needs a serious talking-to.

There is some semi-interesting stuff about methods of waging war, but Falstaff is becoming such a pompous bastard and it’s all terribly heavy handed. Maybe if the whole thing was in French it would fool me into thinking it was good.

The subsequent Henry-Falstaff face-off seems to imply sexual intimacy, as did the scene at the beginning where Hal performed impromptu surgery on Falstaff – yes, really.

There are so many lulls in the action that even the lulls have lulls. Which makes me ponder that whenever people set out to make Shakespeare “less long winded” they always follow the same approach: 1. They take out all the good stuff. 2. They replace it with a bunch of new stuff which paradoxically has the effect of slowing everything down and bumping up the run time, and 3. They just generally make it incomprehensible. Ergo: The King.

There is so much that could be cut here: a scene where a messenger is called for and issued instructions like it’s going to be significant but then nothing much happens as a result of it. And the other problem is that it’s so static. Too many scenes of people sitting and talking, or standing and talking, or walking slowly and talking. The very things that stage versions of Henry V try to avoid, this film can’t get enough of them.

Well, it’s the eve of the battle and surly Falstaff has revealed himself to be a master tactician and all-round dispenser of earthy wisdom. Henry, however, hopes to avoid battle, and challenges the Dauphin to single combat – well, it worked with Hotspur.

The Dauphin responds with gross sexual insults, so Henry finally gets really riled and gives a stirring speech to his troops. Okay, it’s not Shakespeare, but at least he puts some much-needed vim and vigour into it.

The battle (Agincourt) is well done, especially when Henry enters the fray and we follow him from one crashing life-or-death martial encounter to another. It’s literally hand-to-hand combat, often dispensing with weapons altogether. We don’t even see Henry wield a sword until a satisfying encounter with the Dauphin, which I won’t spoil. Suffice it to say, it’s a rare occasion where a major change to Shakespeare (and to actual historical events) works really well.

We bid adieu to Falstaff, but now Henry goes to meet the French king – another windbag – who proposes that Henry marry his daughter Catherine (Lily-Rose Depp), or Princess Stony McStoneface, to give her full title.

(Is it deliberate that Timothée Chalamet is so un-kingly in this? On the voyage back to England he looks like a little orphan boy in one of the Titanic’s lifeboats.)

A bit of romance would be nice at this point, but Princess Stony has other ideas. “I will not submit to you,” she announces in a drab monotone. “You must earn my respect”. A minor point, but Princess Stony has just told us that she doesn’t speak English, but then proceeds to inform Henry at great length what a worthless little toerag he is – in English. At any rate, it feels like the aforementioned gender studies lecture has arrived. Or maybe it’s a job interview. “Do you feel a sense of achievement?” she asks icily. I’m half expecting her to follow up with “Why do you want to work in Human Resources?”

Admittedly, the acting styles are fairly complementary here – in that he’s a blob of jelly and she’s a plank of wood. In Shakespeare, of course, this scene is played for bilingual laughs – although recent stage productions have done everything in their power to remedy that. And so she sneers while he squirms, but once again it’s a scene with two people talking while seated. It’s not exactly a rollercoaster thrill-ride.

“All monarchy is illegitimate,” Princess Stony opines. Which is great, as I was just thinking that what this film needs is an injection of Neo-Marxist theory.

“It would seem that you have no explanation for what you have done,” she continues, with all the moral authority you’d expect from someone whose brother liked to chop children’s heads off. Clearly rattled, Henry then turns detective to uncover the true motives of his shifty war enthusiast of a Chief Justice. So now we’ve had three awkward scenes of static conversation in a row. This time, however, Timothée Chalamet sits while Sean Harris is commanded to stand precariously on a stool. I can’t help thinking it must be a metaphor for something.

Finally the film ends. So what have we learned? I dunno, maybe ‘Don’t send a man-child to do a warrior king’s job’? We are a couple of hours older, not a lot wiser, and there’s still no Shakespeare on Netflix. Ah well, at least we can cancel our subscription now.

The King was released on Netflix on 1 November 2019.

All Crowns are Hollow: The scheming and backstabbing politicians of today would do well to ponder the fate of Shakespeare’s Kings

“…For within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a King
Keeps Death his court…”
Richard II – Act III, Scene 2
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Shakespeare’s plays are full of lessons for contemporary politicians – especially, perhaps, the history plays like Richard II, the tragedies such as Macbeth, and the Roman plays including Julius Caesar.
There’s one lesson that pops up time and time again, and I’ll present it as a question: “Are you really sure you want to be King?”
Because kingship in Shakespeare’s plays is almost always presented as a poisoned chalice – quite literally so, at the end of Hamlet.
Very few of the kings in Shakespeare ever get to do any actual ‘kinging’. Instead they fight tooth and nail to get to the throne – often committing heinous crimes like murder in the process – and then they die.
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Looking back at these plays from a distance of 400 or so years, it seems clear that what Shakespeare is doing is helpfully pointing out that the English system of monarchy doesn’t work very well. In fact it’s susceptible to complete breakdown, and when that happens we get a civil war – which is bad news for absolutely everyone.
Don’t believe me? Well, Here’s how Shakespeare depicts the fate of all the English kings between a relatively short period of 1400-1485:
Richard II – allegedly murdered.
Henry IV – dies stricken by guilt and fear.
Henry V – dies young, bequeathing legacy of chaos.
Henry VI – allegedly murdered.
Edward IV – allegedly murdered.
Edward V and his brother (the Princes in the Tower) – allegedly murdered.
Richard III – killed in battle.
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Not to mention all the other many and various Yorkists and Lancastrians with viable claims to the throne or legitimate places in the succession who are either murdered or meet their demise in battle.
One suggestion that emerges here is that maybe it’s better for a nation to be at peace and for society to tolerate a certain amount of hooliganism or anti-social behaviour (characterised by Prince Hal, Falstaff and their cronies in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2) than to embark on wars of conquest (Henry V) that deliver short term glory but ultimately bring disaster (Henry VI).
As suggested above, Shakespeare seems to truly hate and fear civil war. If you read the ten history plays as a sequence (starting with King John and ending with Henry VIII), the dominant emotion is often grief. Some of the most powerful speeches, whether by queens or commoners, are those which mourn the deaths of cruelly slaughtered loved ones. In Shakespeare there is rarely any upside to such butchery.
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The challenge of kingship, Shakespeare suggests, is about the careful control of volatile factors in a world where an alpha tyrant (Richard III) is just as likely to fall as a watery weakling (Henry VI). Perhaps, ultimately, the definition of a successful king is one whose reign wasn’t interesting enough for Shakespeare to write a play about.
Of course, it’s always perilous to mix up Shakespeare’s heavily fictionalised history plays with the actual history of England, but while we often think of the Tudor period that followed 1485 as being less volatile, it seems that these dysfunctional patterns of monarchy continued right through the reigns of Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I.
There was war with France and Scotland in the reign of Henry VIII, the shattering effect of the Reformation – and notoriously he had two of his six queens executed. Edward and Mary both died young, having continued to stoke the fires of religious conflict. Elizabeth’s reign was blighted by the threat of Spanish invasion and numerous assassination plots, including one which led to her executing her rival, Mary Queen of Scots.
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(And in a plot twist that even Shakespeare might have considered a bit unlikely, James the VI of Scotland ended up succeeding to the throne of Elizabeth – the very same woman who’d had his mother executed.)
Shakespeare, remember was born in 1564. In a little over 17 years prior to his birth England had no less than four monarchs. Five, if you include the ill fated ‘nine days’ Queen’, Lady Jane Grey.
And a quarter of a century after Shakespeare’s death, there was of course another civil war. And this one ended with the beheading of a king, Charles I, in a scenario with grim echoes of Macbeth.
The odd thing is that Shakespeare worked for Charles’ father, James VI and I, for whom he wrote Macbeth. If the young Charles ever knew of Shakespeare and his works, it seems that – to his tragic cost – he ignored their lessons.
Images from The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, courtesy of the BBC.

The curious case of the Henry V-quoting toddler who saved Shakespeare Magazine from certain and ignominious doom (as recounted by his proud and admiring father, the Editor)

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My abiding memory of the very first issue of Shakespeare Magazine, published five years ago this week, is that it very nearly didn’t happen at all. I remember rising at about 5am feeling frazzled, fearful and sleep-deprived, and tweeting something like “Right, let’s go to work” to convey a bravado I didn’t feel.

I’d taken redundancy only 19 days earlier, and although I’d been thinking non-stop about Shakespeare Magazine for over a year, this was surely one of the swiftest launches in media history, and I was overwhelmed. I had always intended to get the first issue out on 23 April 2014, which would have been Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. But there was just too much still to do, and my hopes were fading fast.

Originally I’d been working from the kitchen of my Bristol home. But I’d had to move into the spare bedroom because the WiFi signal was stronger. I’d fallen into a cycle of working late into the night and then crashing out on the bed right next to the desk where my ancient Russian computer hummed and spluttered. And on this particular day I had company. My young son was running a fever, so instead of taking him to nursery I’d installed him in the bed beside me. This way I could keep an eye on him while I worked.

By the early afternoon I was firmly ensconced in a slough of despond. The mag wasn’t going to come out today, it simply couldn’t be done. Maybe it would happen tomorrow, maybe it wouldn’t happen at all.

And then something remarkable occurred. My son woke up, having shrugged off his illness and now looking as fit as the proverbial butcher’s dog. He gave me a cheeky grin and said, in what I can only describe as a mischievous tone, these words:

“Once more [pause] unto the breach [pause], dear friends.” [pause, chuckle]

I was flabbergasted. Of course, my son was used to hearing me spouting plenty of Shakespeare lines (and trying to get him to repeat them), but these words, from one of Henry V’s most stirring speeches, just stopped me dead in my tracks. He’d even remembered to say ‘unto’ instead of ‘into’.

And yes, in my semi-delirious state, I did take it as a sign that today of all days I must persevere. A phone call from my freelance Art Editor did the rest: “Right, where’s these final pages, then? Get yer finger out and we can still do this”. Well, that’s not all he said, but the language was more Anglo-Saxon than Shakespearean, if you catch my drift.

And so it was that Issue One of Shakespeare Magazine was published at around nine o’ clock that evening. To be honest, it’s always been a struggle, but I’m currently working on Issue 16, and I still love it.

Oh, and when this happened my estimable offspring was a couple of weeks shy of his third birthday. So this is really a story about how a two-year-old saved Shakespeare Magazine. Thanks, son.

A powerful short film from Fractured Shakespeare, Was it Rape Then? makes unsettling use of Shakespeare’s words. Co-creator Charissa J Adams takes us behind the text

Was it Rape Then? from Lady Brain by Casey Gates on Vimeo.

How did the idea arise for using Shakespeare in this film?
“The idea originated with Shakespeare. For as long as I can remember, I have loved Shakespeare. Not just the plays and stories, but the words and metaphors he uses to express the human condition. A few years ago, the idea emerged to take Shakespeare’s words out of context and use them to express a new character’s thoughts and emotions. I then started playing around with pairing famous lines from different plays together to find new meaning. Last November, I set about forming a monologue on a subject which has resonated with me for a long time. This text was the result. From that monologue, this short film was made.”

Jessica Marie Garcia

Jessica Marie Garcia

The script includes lines from The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, The Tempest, Macbeth, Henry V and Coriolanus. But the title doesn’t seem to allude to Shakespeare? What was your thinking behind that choice?
“The title and first section of text comes from Double Falsehood, which is most likely not Shakespeare’s words, but the passage was just too rich to ignore. And since it speaks to doubt in consent, the doubt surrounding the text’s origins seemed strangely appropriate. I could not ignore its usefulness, and it played such a crucial role in inspiring the creation of the piece, that it felt appropriate to leave it in.”

Karen Pittman

Karen Pittman

Double Falsehood is very rarely cited – what led to your interest in it? Was there a particular edition you used? And would you recommend it as a stand alone work?
“As I was creating this piece, I began searching any of Shakespeare’s text which dealt with consent and/or rape. This monologue of Henriquez is what surfaced. It is quite an interesting piece of text when you think about the time in which it was written. Consent is something we are much more aware of now, especially in the last five or ten years. However, here we have this man arguing with himself over whether or not he raped this woman.

Charissa J. Adams

Charissa J. Adams

“He uses the excuse that we often still hear men use today: ‘Twas but the coyness of a modest bride, Not the resentment of a ravish’d maid’. Essentially saying she was just shy and she didn’t say ‘No’. This is the very reason More Than “No” was started. Consent is more than not hearing ‘No’. It is a freely given, not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, not under-age, and an undeniable ‘Yes’, given verbally or non-verbally.

“In the end, he concludes: ‘While they, who have, like me, The loose escapes of youthful nature known, Must wink at mine, indulgent to their own’. Saying any other man would have done the same or ‘Boys will be boys’. This is the epitome of rape culture, which is exactly what we are trying to confront with Was it Rape Then?.

Sujana Chand

Sujana Chand

“As for the edition, I use the Shakespeare app produced by PlayShakespeare.com for a lot of my research. It is so easy to use! They site the year as 1728. That is all the information I could find about which edition they use.

“I would not recommend it as a stand alone piece. I think it is flawed in several ways – in the characters and especially the ending which seems to wrap up too quickly without fully dealing with each of the character’s arcs. I think that The Comedy of Errors and The Two Gentlemen of Verona are superior plays with similar themes.”

For nearly three decades, actor-director Kenneth Branagh has been bringing the Bard to the big screen. Kelli Marshall asks: has he earned the title of Shakespearean Auteur?

Auteurs are filmmakers whose personal influence and artistic control are so great that, despite the collaborative process of moviemaking, we recognize them as the authors of their films. Auteurs you may have heard of include Charlie Chaplin, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino.

Henry V

Henry V

What about filmmakers who consistently work within the realm of Shakespeare? Can we consider, for example, Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, Julie Taymor and Kenneth Branagh masters of Shakespeare onscreen?

A recent issue of Shakespeare Quarterly takes on the first four directors, so let’s consider Kenneth Branagh – who has brought to screen, in some form or another, nearly 20 percent of Shakespeare’s works.

Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing

Branagh has directed film adaptations of Henry V (1989), Much Ado about Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996), Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000) and As You Like It (2006). His 1995 film In The Bleak Midwinter (US title: A Midwinter’s Tale) features a struggling actor who strives to put on a production of Hamlet in a village church. Most recently, rumors have circulated that Martin Scorsese will produce a sort of documentary with Branagh as Macbeth.

Hamlet

Hamlet

Even Branagh’s non-Shakespearean ventures feature Shakespearean themes. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) contains Hamlet’s existential ideas, a Titus Andronicus-like house of spare body parts, and echoes of Caliban as Robert De Niro’s monster laments onscreen: “Yes, I speak, and read, and think, and know the ways of man”.

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Additionally, Branagh’s Hollywood blockbusters like Thor (2011) and Cinderella (2014) consist of, respectively, a flawed hero who must earn the right to be king and a fairy-tale world that Branagh has, in interviews, likened to The Winter’s Tale. Finally, also reaffirming Branagh’s association with cinematic Shakespeare are his turn as Iago in Oliver Parker’s Othello (1995) and as Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn (2011).

As You Like It

As You Like It

Another reason we can consider Branagh an auteur of Shakespeare onscreen is his loyalty to British Shakespeare actors and production team. This deliberate choice contributes not only to Branagh’s style, but also to the films’ seeming credibility. In other words, trained British actors “doing Shakespeare” are theoretically more palatable for many audiences than someone like Al Pacino, for example, whose American accent was ridiculed in his Richard III-based documentary, Looking for Richard (1996).

Othello

Othello

Like John Ford, Spike Lee, and Quentin Tarantino, Kenneth Branagh recycles collaborators. He consistentely employs Tim Harvey (production designer), Patrick Doyle (composer) and Roger Lanser (cinematographer) as well as core cast members like Brian Blessed, Derek Jacobi, Richard Clifford and Richard Briers. Indeed, when these names appear onscreen, we know we’re getting a Branagh film.

That said, Branagh also stocks his films with multinational and multiracial casts. He knows that, in order for his Shakespeare adaptations to succeed in the US, American stars like Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Keanu Reeves, Kevin Kline and Bryce Dallas Howard can help boost those box-office receipts.

In The Bleak Midwinter

In The Bleak Midwinter

Speaking of casting, Kenneth Branagh also repeatedly casts himself in his own adaptations. Like Spike Lee and Woody Allen, this makes him a director/auteur who unquestionably stamps his own personality onto his body of work. Aside from As You Like It, in which he appears only via voiceover, each of Branagh’s Shakespeare films stars Kenneth Branagh.

Moreover, as Jessica Maerz reminds readers in Locating Shakespeare in the Twenty-First Century, virtually all of Branagh’s Shakespeare film adaptations are based on previous theatrical productions in which he starred at the Royal Shakespeare Company and Renaissance Theatre Company. Again, this decision lends a sense of credibility to Branagh’s filmic work.

My Week With Marilyn

My Week With Marilyn

As a Shakespeare film director, Branagh mostly eschews early modern settings and costumes, a decision that reinforces his desire to bring Shakespeare to the masses. Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, and Hamlet offer audiences a vague notion of the past, and the Shepperton soundstage for Love’s Labour’s Lost has been described as being “decked out with walls, willows and punts to make a kind of ‘movie Oxbridge’.”

Only with As You Like It does Branagh give viewers a specific historical time and place: the film’s title card begins with: “In the latter part of the 19th century, Japan opened up for trade with the West”. For Branagh then, moving around Shakespeare physically and temporally makes it seem as though he, as the Washington Post once noted, is finally “blowing away the forbidding academic dust”.

Director Branagh with the stars of Thor

Director Branagh with the stars of Thor

Finally, Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare film adaptations (and many of his non-Shakespeare films) include rich mise-en-scenes and sweeping cinematography, both of which serve to illuminate Shakespeare’s poetry and prose.

Recall the lushness of color, texture, food, and costume within Branagh’s Much Ado and As You Like It, both visually romantic films. Even his Hamlet – with its wintry setting, the never-ending streams of gilded mirrors, and the hardened stone walls of Blenheim Palace – appear visually luxurious on a 30-foot screen, not to mention in 70mm (as it premiered).

Likewise, Branagh’s cinematographic choices – specifically sequence shots, or scenes that unfold in one long take, and Steadicam tracking shots that encircle characters – work with the flow of Shakespeare’s language. Perhaps the most memorable example of both of these stylistic choices is his four-minute tracking shot in Henry V, in which Branagh’s Prince Hal carries his dead luggage boy (Christian Bale) across the solider-strewn battlefield as ‘Non Nobis’ somberly plays on the soundtrack.

Cinderella

Cinderella

Like other filmmakers who’ve been labelled auteurs, Kenneth Branagh is drawn to distinct stories, themes and motifs. He commits to a core cast and crew (that often includes himself). He also refuses to set Shakespeare contemporaneously and possesses a passionate desire to bring Shakespeare’s language to the masses.

Finally, he boasts a signature directorial style and production aesthetic. But through it all, Kenneth Branagh almost always helps to shine a light on Shakespeare – and really, isn’t that what a master of Shakespeare onscreen should do?

Merely Theatre tour the UK with their stripped-back, sweaty, no-frills, gender-blind productions of Shakespeare’s Henry V and A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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As a company, Merely Theatre are known for stripped-back, sweaty Shakespeare. No gauche sets, frilly costumes or fussy props – just the actors, the audience and the text. Oh, and one more thing – they’re the first Gender-Blind classical rep company.

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Ten actors rehearse in male-female pairs, so each set of parts can be played by both a man and a woman. One from each pair is then chosen for each performance. The result is both men and women playing both male and female characters.

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Company actor Robert Myles said of the concept: “When Shakespeare was writing, men played both male and female characters. The only difference for us is that now, women do too.”

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The company don’t draw attention to the cross-gender casting within the shows, instead looking to take the issue off the table. They then endeavour to tell the story with maximum clarity and energy, making Shakespeare as accessible to first-timers as it is rewarding to aficionados.

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Artistic Director Scott Ellis said in a recent interview with The Stage, “We start with: ‘What does the character want? What is the character saying?’ If the actor happens to be male or female, as far as we’re concerned it doesn’t make any difference.”

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This has enabled the company to commit to 50/50 casting long before much bigger theatre companies, playing their part in defining the next generation of theatre-making.

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The tour continues from March until May, with dates in Eastbourne, St Albans, Taunton, Balham, Croydon, Cambridge, Northwich and Northern Ireland before concluding at the Kings Theatre in Edinburgh.

Go here to find tour dates and book tickets. 

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Gregory Doran completes his ambitious ‘King and Country’ tetralogy with rising star Alex Hassell in the title role of Henry V

[Images by Keith Pattison for the RSC]

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With the 600th anniversary of Agincourt on 25 October, Doran’s production of Henry V at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre is a standout tribute to both Shakespeare and the battle that helped define British history.

Returning to the role he so effortlessly made his own (opposite Antony Sher’s Falstaff) in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Alex Hassell is undoubtedly the star of the show.

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By the time he’s reciting the legendary St Crispin’s Day speech, Hassell deploys Shakespeare’s words so powerfully that the audience is ready to leap up and follow him into battle.

Hassell also brings some comedy to role of the English king who has left his notoriously misspent youth behind him.

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A particular highlight is the meeting of Henry and the French princess, Katherine, played by Jennifer Kirby. Hassell plays the scene as a Hugh Grant-type character as he petitions his prospective wife to love him whilst overcoming a language barrier.

Alex Hassell is definitely an actor to keep a close eye on as he progresses through his Shakespearean career.

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Other performances that stand out include Oliver Ford Davies as the cardigan-wearing Chorus, Antony Byrne as the fiery Pistol and Jane Lapotaire as Queen Isobel.

Despite Lapotaire only appearing in Act V, her presence is spellbinding and it’s a pleasure to witness her commanding the stage.

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The entire production was captivating from start to finish, and certainly a strong ending to the RSC’s run of history plays over the last couple of years.

Henry V will transfer to London’s Barbican Theatre in November before moving the New York in April 2016.

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Go here to book tickets for Henry V at the Barbican.

York Shakespeare Project commemorates the 600th anniversary of Agincourt with an all-female production of Henry V

[Images by John Saunders]

York Shakespeare Project remembers both the Hundred Years War and the First World War by having the ‘Barnbow Lasses’ present Shakespeare’s Henry V.

The production is set in a munitions factory where the women’s enactment of Shakespeare’s most famous History play allows them to explore the meaning of war.

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Featuring Claire Morley as King Henry, the all-female company is modelled on the Elizabethan tradition of a single gender ensemble.

As the male actors in Shakespeare’s own company adopted all of the roles – female or male – so too do ‘The Barnbow Lasses’.

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The huge Barnbow factory near Leeds employed women and girls from all over Yorkshire, including York.

A job at Barnbow meant economic independence but with it came danger.

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An explosion in December 1916 destroyed one of the factory sheds, leaving 35 dead and many more severely injured.

As this production coincides with the 600th anniversary of Henry V’s victory at Agincourt (1415) and commemorations of the First World War War (1914-18), it is also an opportunity for York to remember its own rather forgotten ‘heroes’, the munitionettes.

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“I want to produce an evocative and exciting piece of theatre,” says director Maggie Smales (pictured above), “which also recognises the sacrifices that women made.”

Established in 2001, York Shakespeare Project is committed to performing all of Shakespeare’s known plays over a period of 20 years.

Their most recent production, Timon of Athens, featured as part of the York International Shakespeare Festival, and they have also recently enjoyed sell-out shows of Othello and Twelfth Night at York Theatre Royal.

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Their 28th production, Henry V is performed at Upstage Theatre, 41 Monkgate, York YO31 7PB.

It runs from Wednesday 21 October to Saturday 31 October 2015.

Go here to book tickets.

Colorado Shakes presents a “ragtag” but powerful production of Shakespeare’s war epic Henry V

[Images by Jennifer Koskinen]

First impressions are important, and the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s recent production of Henry V made quite the first impression.

As the audience settled, the curtain was up, letting them examine stage design. A ghost light stood front and center on the stage, illuminating a set that was reminiscent of an antique store. Arranged haphazardly on wooden scaffolding were chandeliers, chairs, crates, as well as more eclectic items – a baby carriage, a piano, a mannequin, and more.

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An odd choice for depicting battle scenes and royal courts. The transformation began with the invocation to a “muse of fire”. As the Chorus (Sam Gregory) spoke, actors emerged and snapped to action, putting on costumes and arranging the paraphernalia into the English court.

The lights stayed on for the entire production, allowing us to watch scene changes and the occasional costume change (including make-up application). While at times it distracted from the scene on stage – Bardolph applying his nose make-up caught my eye especially – the raw style complemented the lines of the Chorus, and paid homage to Shakespeare’s original staging conditions in a novel way.

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Overall, it worked really well. The actors’ performance matched the set design in every way. Benjamin Bonenfant managed to reconcile the contradictory aspects of King Harry – his furious war tactics were as believable as his awkward love antics.

As a play, Henry V demands a huge range from the cast – bickering troops, hilarious portrayals of the French, an endearing yet awkward love scene, genuine moments of sadness, and gruesome depictions of war.

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This production gave the same authenticity to them all. In her introduction to the play, director Carolyn Howarth says, “All we can do, my ragtag team and I, is tell his story.” And they did.

Colorado Shakespeare is an annual summer festival hosted on the University of Colorado Boulder campus.
Go here for more information.

“Titus Andronicus probably wouldn’t be the best starting point…” Teacher and Hour-Long Shakespeare author Matthew Jenkinson offers his tips on approaching Shakespeare with young people

“All’s Well That Ends Well is funny – if you’re fluent in Shakespearean English!” protested one GCSE English pupil to me recently. It is not an uncommon complaint, along with assertions that Shakespeare’s plays are too complicated or difficult for many school children. Well, quite rightly Shakespeare is not going to go away; quite the opposite, as the new National Curriculum puts even greater emphasis on his works.

So how can parents or teachers aid in the understanding of Shakespeare among their pupils or children? The most empowering thing you can say, at first, is “Do not worry about understanding all (or any) of the words”. It is amazing how quickly a pupil’s brain can shut down because they are panicking about ‘getting’ everything the first time around. Understanding comes with time, re-reading, and patient explanation.

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It is also enhanced by watching Shakespeare on the stage. But parents and teachers need to be judicious about this. Watching a poor stage production will have pupils running a mile in the opposite direction, and they certainly won’t feel inclined to explore the text in any greater depth. Watching a great stage production can have the opposite effect.

There is no need to traipse long distances to Stratford or London these days either. The Globe Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company, respectively, have released some excellent DVDs of their recent stage productions. So you can now break up three-hour-long productions in the classroom or at home, pausing to discuss what is happening or to go to the loo.

Attending a live production can be exhilarating, but I would wait until the children have gained some traction. Making them stand in the rain at The Globe for three hours, as a first experience of Shakespeare, probably won’t have them begging for more.

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Watching a live performance enables pupils to work out plots by seeing the interaction between characters and hearing the tone employed by expert actors. I have used Roger Allam’s Falstaff scenes, performed at The Globe in 2010, to convey to pupils what happens in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. I have been amazed at how much laughter has come from individuals who just would not have understood the text if we had merely read it from the page.

The other way to get children engaged with Shakespeare is to get them on their feet, acting out parts. Again, a sensitive and judicious approach is necessary here. First of all, the choice of play is vital. Titus Andronicus probably wouldn’t be the best starting point. Parents and teachers also need to be understanding of the fact that many pupils, especially as they stumble through adolescence, will be quite reticent about standing up and delivering elaborate metaphors.

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There are two powerful ways to counter this. The first is to create a culture in school and at home where drama is an everyday feature – it is not nerdy or distant. The second – obviously – is to ‘differentiate’ the casting, ensuring that the allocation of parts reflects the confidence and ability of the pupils. Giving a reticent child the part of Macbeth will put them off Shakespeare for life, as will giving a confident actor the part of First Servingman. One of the joys of Shakespeare’s history plays, in particular, is the number of roles available, with differing levels of intensity; every pupil can find their niche.

There are very few schools out there that will be able to stage a full three-hour Shakespeare play, which is why I have been editing a new series of abridged versions in the Hour-Long Shakespeare series. As the title suggests, each play lasts about an hour when performed, with central characters and the overall narrative arcs preserved. This is by no means a novel project – the plays have been abridged since Shakespeare’s day, as evidenced by the discovery in 2014 of a First Folio in St Omer, France, in which Jesuits made cuts to suit their pupils.

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What is new about the Hour-Long series, aside from some original scene shifting (don’t use these texts in exams!), is the use of a Chorus in all of the plays. Shakespeare himself famously used a Chorus in Henry V, for example, but adopting this device in other plays enables any number of pupils to get involved as narrators, offering summaries of excised sections of plot, or acting as Roman citizens in Julius Caesar, the tyrant’s conscience in Richard III, or the witches in Macbeth – all with the text still in front of them.

Removing the pressures of learning vast amounts of lines, or spending too long on the stage, enables usually reticent pupils to engage with Shakespeare in performance. Maintaining juicy title roles with headline speeches attracts those keen actors who are ready for something more challenging. In sum, Shakespeare hopefully becomes more manageable for those who would normally be scared off.

Matthew Jenkinson is director of studies at New College School in Oxford. Hour-Long Shakespeare: Henry IV (Part 1), Henry V and Richard III is available now, priced £10. Hour-Long Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Julius Cesar will be published in September.