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Your Shakespeare is Too Small
The National Theatre Live production of Othello (2013) features Adrian Lester as the Moor, Rory Kinnear as Iago and Olivia Vinall as Desdemona. Directed by Nicholas Hytner, it is set primarily in a 21st-century army barracks. The production has been shown in cinemas around the world, and is currently available on demand to British schools. I recently watched it on YouTube; it has since been removed. I didn't like it, and the following are my scattered attempts to explain why.
1. Othello's occupation was not only gone; it never existed. Adrian Lester's Moor had obviously never been on a battlefield, never killed an enemy of the state, never led a patrol squad let alone an army, never even received basic training. His sweet, doe-eyed face was that of a child, and his all-pervading gentleness wiped out any trace of martial authority. His sole attempt at a military stance consisted of folding his arms behind his back. "Farewell the plumed troops" seemed bizarre, not only because of the modern setting, but because the childlike Lester visibly didn't know what he was talking about. So intent was this production upon making Othello a victim that it neglected to make him a warrior and commander as well.
2. The Othello music was also gone: some of it cut, some it transposed into modern English, the rest of it filtered away by Lester's naturalistic delivery. Hesitant and halting, Lester groped for high astounding terms. When he somehow managed to find them, he muttered them apologetically, excusing them with audible air-quotes. Perhaps one shouldn't blame him. In this world of fluorescent lighting, camouflage fatigues, green metal lockers and toilet stalls, Shakespeare's language couldn't help but seem pretentious, indeed ridiculous: something for the speaker to be ashamed of.
3. Lester can cry at will, his wounded eyes leaking lie a sodden diaper. His suffering was believable, but it was his suffering or generic suffering, not Othello's. Nothing else inspired belief, including his alleged love for Desdemona. Othello sees his wife as "there where I have garnered up my heart,/Where either I must live or bear no life,/The fountain from the which my current runs/Or else dries up." Yet there was no convincing passion or shared sense of wonder between Lester and Olivia Vinall, who seemed more like old friends or next-door neighbors. Again, perhaps one shouldn't blame Lester. Vinall's Desdemona was merely an energetic tomboy, bumptious and wiry--cute, no doubt, but hardly the exemplar of physical and spiritual beauty that Shakespeare imagined. The hymns to her "divinity" intoned by Jonathan Bailey's plodding Cassio were doubly misplaced: this Cassio could never have framed such words; this Desdemona didn't deserve them.
4. Shakespeare's Iago says "I am not what I am." Rory Kinnear's Iago is what he is from first to last, and what he is is paltry: an East End pub-crawler, a dreary Cockney guttersnipe, incapable of devising multiple intrigues or taking down someone greater than himself. In the days of Edwin Booth, Iago was intelligent, dark, brooding, almost tragic in his villainy: a man with the stature to annihilate Othello. But nowadays a racist can only be a redneck, so Iago must be presented as coarse and stupid, full of low cunning but otherwise brainless. This is nonsense, since the man who improvises cynically clever couplets for Desdemona, who expounds his proto-Nietzschean philosophy to Roderigo, who destroys the Supreme Commander of the Venetian Army, is clearly not without mind or substance, however malicious. The bluff, uncouth soldier is a mask. The true Iago is a cultural and ethical materialist, systematically breaking down ideals, aspirations and achievements into their "real" constituents of political pull and animal appetite. Othello and Desdemona threaten his world-view. Eradicating them is the only way he can set things right. Iago is intellect corrupted by resentment; I would play him wearing glasses and thumbing a volume of postmodern theory. Of course, almost anything would be preferable to a commonplace rank-and-filer, since demeaning Othello's Nemesis necessarily trivializes Othello.
5. Chekhov once said, "We must not bring Gogol down to the people, but raise the people up to Gogol." Perhaps such high-mindedness is quixotic; perhaps most theater companies cannot afford to educate an audience. But there was a time within living memory when this didn't matter, when English theatergoers were so imbued with Shakespeare that attracting them did not require wholesale degradation. Those days are gone and will not return anytime soon. Until they do, we will have to endure productions like this one, where eloquence is suspect, elevation risible, and greatness itself a loathed relic of the past. They are the kind of productions that Iago would enjoy.
The Hollow Crown: Richard II (2012)
Watching Rupert Goold's film of Richard II (2012), featuring Ben Whishaw in the title role, I was initially intrigued and then swiftly dismayed by Whishaw's cinematic inwardness. Richard is frankly despicable in his early scenes, but he can ultimately win over the audience through the extremity of his suffering, the flight of his poetry and the prophetic intensity of his insights. Unfortunately, Whishaw conveys nothing but increasing introversion and remoteness, and so remains loathsome throughout. His closest relationship is with his pet monkey; when he claims that he "needs friends," one imagines that a troop of baboons would suffice. At Wales, he climbs a sand dune to deliver his speeches,hoping that physical elevation will lift him to the heights that his passion cannot reach. He remains abstracted and withdrawn at Flint Castle, where his Richard is so intent on producing an effect that he seems to feel nothing but stage-jitters. His colloquies with Aumerle are like whispered conversations in the wings on the order of "How am I doing?" This may be an interpretive choice; it is also an evasion of the central challenge. If Whishaws were horses, Ben would be a hack.
David Tennant's Richard for the RSC (2013) is equally inadequate in a different mode. During an interview shown before the play, director Gregory Doran declares that "Whatever David does, he is absolutely contemporary!" If by that he means "incapable of dealing with heightened language and profound emotion," he is correct. Unlike Whishaw with his ever-receding solipsism, Tennant tries to supply these deficiencies with his trademark cheeky humor. As a result, he is the funniest Richard I have ever seen (even funnier than Fiona Shaw), but I think that the play is meant to be a tragedy.
Why should an audience care about a Richard as aloof, callow, trifling and ordinary as Tennant's or Whishaw's? In possible awareness of this problem, Doran and Goold resort to the exact same device to generate a measure of belated sympathy. Flouting Shakespeare and Holinshed, they have Richard assassinated by Aumerle instead of Exton, and they further present Aumerle as Richard's actual or would-be lover. In order to wipe out the taint of his abortive treason, Aumerle (we are to understand) destroys the thing he loves at the real or imagined behest of the incorrigibly heterosexual Bolingbroke.
In short, both directors portray Richard as a martyr to homophobia, something that Marlowe's Edward so obviously is, but that Shakespeare's Richard so obviously is not. Goold drives home the point with sledgehammer subtlety by depicting Richard as the most famous of all gay icons: Stripped to a loincloth, he is shot to death with arrows. Doran does nothing quite so blatant, but he does have Richard and Aumerle share a lingering kiss, and he directs Tennant to be distant and unloving towards his Queen. His farewell kiss to her in their final scene is perfunctory, and when she responds with a more ardent kiss, he does not reciprocate.
Thus, Richard meets his doom in both productions implicitly proclaiming "I am Edward II, know ye not that?" The audience is meant to think of gay-bashing and wipe away a tear. But there may be some who feel that the countertextual triggering of irrelevant responses does not make up for actors who are "absolutely contemporary" and therefore unable to cope with classical magnitude and pathos. And there may be some who are more moved by the plight of Richard's Queen than by the factitious vagaries of his liaison with Aumerle, a relationship with no more tragic grandeur than Oscar and Bosie's.
I don't care much for little Falstaffs: they're a contradiction in terms. Antony Sher is too small for the part in every sense (height, girth, personality), and his old-man's voice is not fooling anyone. But he's a good comic actor; he gets his laughs; and he's endearing the way a leprechaun is endearing. Ever since Richard III (1984), Sher's audience has been waiting for lightning to strike again. His Falstaff does not constitute a second bolt, but it's nothing to be ashamed of. And if we must have puny Falstaffs, I will gladly take Sher's rendition over the scabrous and joyless performance of Simon Russell Beale, who looked like a garden gnome with its paint flaking off.
In King Lear, Simon Russell Beale extends his perversely impressive record. Having given us the worst Hamlet ever and the worst Falstaff ever, he now adds Lear to his list of negative ultimates. He has three major modes of delivering his lines--shouting, babbling and ruminating quietly--and is boring in all three. Only once does he come up with a novel line-reading. When told that the Fool has pined away since Cordelia's departure for France, he peevishly whines "I have noted it," as if to say "I'm not stupid, you know." It is characteristic that Beale's one attempt at originality should be a note of sour petulance.
Beale's Lear is stumpy, obese and devoid of authority. He shouts his way through the first scene without scaring anyone, and his curse of Goneril in I.iv is merely tedious. (Goneril herself is undaunted by it, and coolly slaps his face in response). Beale typically acts in a vacuum--his professional motto appears to be "Only disconnect"--and his madness as Lear is not very different from his habitual onstage solipsism. Since he cannot convey love or affection, and has no capacity for pathos, his reunion with Cordelia, his reassurances to her as they are led off to prison, and his lament over her lifeless body are all aridly unmoving. One cannot understand why Cordelia loves this man, why Kent risks his life to follow and protect him, and why the Fool never dreams of deserting him. Yet one also cannot understand why Goneril and Regan despise him. There is simply nothing there to inspire extreme emotions one way or the other, except of course among those who hate being bored.
Sam Mendes has directed with his customary lack of freshness and insight. The opening scene is dominated by a dais with microphones, an overly-familiar prop in current Shakespearean productions. Lear murders the Fool in a fit of insanity, just as he did 30 years ago at the RSC (Adrian Noble, 1982). The final scene degenerates into postmodern abstraction, and becomes almost unrecognizable in the process. Edgar and Edmund do not square off in a duel: Edgar simply enters and stabs his strangely unresisting brother to death. Goneril and Regan die onstage rather than off, but the other actors seem barely to notice. Gloucester's cadaver is also lugged in, again occasioning little or no reaction. The dying Edmund does not try to redeem himself by saving the lives of Lear and Cordelia. There are other cuts, yet for all these added lacunae, the scene is staged and played in a desultory manner that robs it of any impact. The rest of the production is directorially unremarkable, and in fact routine.
Finally, there are no worthwhile performances among the ensemble. Kate Fleetwood, a congenitally creepy actress, plays Goneril like a sinister vamp in an old talking movie. Anna Maxwell Martin dishes up a giddy, quasi-psychotic Regan whose blithering delivery is sometimes incomprehensible. As Gloucester, Stephen Boxer gets a surprising number of laughs for a man with a pair of bleeding sockets. Sam Troughton's characterization of Edmund is limited to wearing glasses when pretending to be decent and removing them when not. His lanky brother Edgar (Tom Brooke) appears to be suffering from Asperger's syndrome. He stares at the ground rather than Edmund during his initial scenes, and greets the news of his father's intention to kill him with an almost shrugging carelessness. This autistic insensibility merges so smoothly into the maunderings of Poor Tom that one cannot be sure if Edgar is ever lucid. Adrian Scarborough's Fool, a pint-sized spiv in a pinstriped suit, isn't funny, trenchant, poignant or haunting, but he does have a nice singing voice. The other supporting actors are forgettable, and I have forgotten them.
New York Hearts New York
"I've got The New York Times," warbles Jeremy, the angelic Jewish teenager who gets straight As, reads Thomas Mann and Emily Dickinson, plays classical cello and falls in love with a ballet student. But don't think that Jeremy isn't a Regular Guy: he also likes rock music, plays basketball, hangs out with street-smart Ralphie and has a knack for picking winning horses (although he never bets: that wouldn't be sweet). This preening New York self-love, this compound of populism and culture-vulturism--this ingratiating depiction of the ideal Manhattan adolescent--is more irritating now than when I was Jeremy's age: too often, it strikes me as tony, cute and smug. Nevertheless, after 37 years, the movie still has winning moments, and the young Robby Benson and Glynnis O'Connor give appealing performances (which they never equalled). So I'll give it a pass.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Two hours of bleached-out austerity followed by twenty minutes of expressionist lunacy. A man driven to succeed by his hatred and contempt for humanity has occasionally figured in literature (e.g., Absalom, Absalom!), but not very often in film. Unfortunately, the director drains the juices from his story with his bone-white palette, his tamped-down emotions and his penchant for shooting dramatic scenes in long shot (Man as a tiny figure against a harsh and unyielding landscape, etc.). Daniel Day-Lewis has little more than a dry, rasping authority, while Paul Dano is simply bad as a revivalist preacher and his brother, a piece of dual casting that makes for enormous confusion. Near the end, the film veers to the other extreme, with Day-Lewis acting in a florid, hambone manner that makes one blush. It takes a long long time for this bloodless film to get some color, and when it finally does, you may wish it hadn't.
Going to Hell
Take Fargo, remove its humor, warmth and charm, and you have this film: a bummer of a tale about despicable people who attempt a crime, fail miserably, and destroy themselves in the process. It has no discernible point, except that crime doesn't pay if you're stupid. The director tries to make the story watchable by scrambling its chronology, but this is merely a gimmick. His efforts to deepen the material by adding a father-son conflict are equally unavailing. Philip Seymour Hoffman, physically gross as ever, relies a bit too much upon chuckling bonhomie; Marisa Tomei plays his upper-middle-class wife like a gangster's moll; and Ethan Hawke's acting is as shallow as his character. No one is likable, and it's impossible to care about their self-immolation. A depressing movie about scumbags who get what they deserve and deserve what they get.
As You Like It (2006)
East is West
One may have little regard for As You Like It and still feel that chopping it to pieces and scattering the bits over the vernal salad of Arden is not a recipe for success. Cut two-thirds of the play as Branagh does and what remains? A string of sketchy vignettes without the time or the text to breathe, develop and resolve. At best the film can be likened to a volume of illustrations, providing discrete visualizations of key moments with threadbare results.
And yet. While this movie is filled with things that I have little use for--colorblind casting, thematically pointless multiculturalism, Kevin Kline--I found it surprisingly watchable. The Japanese setting does not distract overmuch, and it largely vanishes once we reach Arden: a forest is a forest. Most of the performers are capable, and a few--Adrian Lester, David Oyelowo, even Brian Blessed--are better than that. Some of the scenes are played with conviction and warmth, and are even moving. This isn't a good As You Like It, or a good film, but it's the first piece of Branaghian Shakespeare since Henry V that isn't a complete waste of time.
Looking for Richard (1996)
Ninety minutes of mind-numbing incompetence. Pacino played Richard twice on stage (in 1973 and 1979) and both times he was blasted by the critics, for the simple and sufficient reason that he has no classical talent. Prior to making this film, his only other venture into Shakespeare was as Marc Antony in an early 80s production of Julius Caesar: here, too, the critics came to bury Al, not to praise him. But nothing can daunt a stubborn egomaniac. Well, almost nothing, for you'll note that this isn't a film version of Richard III, but rather a documentary about Pacino's "search" for the character. Interesting, that. Did Branagh make a film called "Looking for Henry V"? No, he made a film version of Henry V. Did Olivier make a film called "Looking for Othello"? No, he made a film version of Othello. So what's up here? Why is Al presenting us with a "search" for the thing instead of the thing itself? I'll give you three guesses.
Hamlet at Elsinore (1964)
Christopher Plummer's Hamlet is so fine that it redeems a bad film and goes a long way towards redeeming Plummer's career. Here is a man whose gifts might have placed him among the great classical actors, but it was not to be. The fault, dear Brutus, lay in his wayward commitment, a matinée-idol fecklessness that frequently opted for the easy or thoughtless way out. His Iago (1982) was a palimpsest of clashing interpretations; his ashen Macbeth (1988) died before the play began; and his Lear's (2004) admonition that nothing can come from nothing was self-referential. But his Cyrano (1973) was marvelous: romantic and contemporary, eloquent and neurotic, febrile and edgy yet flamboyant, it synthesized centuries of acting styles in a manner reminiscent of Olivier. I am happy to add Hamlet to the list of his achievements.
Plummer gives us the complete Prince where others have given us parcels. He has looks, presence, breeding, charm, athleticism, wit and consummate grace. He also has a touch of the feminine (which works well for Hamlet), yet is incontestably virile. This is important: one mustn't feel that Hamlet's fitful misogyny springs from congenital attraction to his own sex. There is no doubt that Plummer could have happily married Ophelia in a better world than Denmark. Nor is there any doubt of his capacity for martial exploits if his mind could deem them authentic. "Hamlet does not think too much but too well," and Plummer has the capacity (lacking in Gibson, Branagh and Hawke) to convey a subtle and probing mind. Michael Pennington (1980) was more intellectual, Derek Jacobi quirkier in his line-readings, but neither combined thought and surprise with sexual incandescence as Plummer does. He is a bright particular Star who has been wounded into inwardness, which is merely to say that he is Hamlet.
The movie serves as foil to Plummer: its badness makes his talent stick fiery off indeed. Filmed at Kronberg Castle in Elsinore, it struggles to work new interiors and grounds into every frame. At times, this pays dividends: The Players' first scene takes place in an open-air courtyard, conveying an exhilarating sense of freedom. Alas, most of the locations are derivative, distracting or nugatory. Repeated shots of waves crashing upon rocks look backwards to Olivier's Hamlet (1948) and sideways at Kozintsev's (1964). One stony corridor is much like another. The Nunnery Scene is filmed in the castle's chapel (acceptable) with Hamlet standing above and beyond Ophelia in the pulpit (not). A minister exhorting a sinful parishioner may seem like an apt metaphor, but the actors do not play the scene that way, and the distance between them prevents dramatic synapses from connecting. It's an ominous portent of postmodern decadence.
There are unkind cuts, bizarre compositions and moments of painful misdirection--one can count the infelicities like sheep vaulting a stile. The Mousetrap is reduced to its Dumb Show, making nonsense of Gertrude's "The lady doth protest too much." Ophelia loses her second Mad Scene and all her unsettling flowers. Polonius, Gertrude and Claudius speak in a single-file diagonal bisecting the screen, which is perfect for a conga-line but awkward for a conversation. Plummer is so tender, quiet and lucid with Ophelia that her "O what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!" seems crazier than anything Hamlet has said.
The tally increases with a crupperful of bad performances. Alec Clunes' Polonius is so fulsome and cute that one can hardly wait for Hamlet to kill him. Jo Muller plays Ophelia as though she were 13, while Laertes (Dyson Lovell) is a cipher to a great account. Subtextual Gertrude must be brought to the surface; June Tobin leaves her placidly submerged ("drown'd, drown'd"). As Fortinbras, Donald Sutherland looks and sounds like an extraterrestrial. The young Michael Caine is a beautiful creature, but beauty is wasted on Horatio, and Caine is so busy avoiding cockney vowels that he neglects to create a character. The biggest disappointment is Robert Shaw, whose distracted, head-rubbing Claudius seems to be suffering from recurrent migraines. Philip Locke, of blessed memory, brings more camp viciousness to Osric than I have ever seen, but it's too little, too late.
Plummer must salvage the proceedings, and so he does, seizing his plum role and plumbing it to its depths. With him in the lead, at least one thing is healthy in the state of Denmark. Sometimes there is no reason at all to see a Shakespeare production; sometimes there is only one. Hamlet at Elsinore is out of joint, but Christopher Plummer was born to set it right.
The Merchant of Venice (2004)
As an actor, Al Pacino comprehends a fairly narrow subset of humanity: thugs, mobsters, hustlers, operators, anyone conversant with the modern American street. He has little or no affinity for patricians, intellectuals, the cultivated, the well-spoken, or people from other times and other countries. This makes him a disastrous Shakespearean, as his Richard III so wincingly confirmed. Shylock might seem more promising, a resident of the ghetto with an earthier argot; and didn't Dusty do it not so long ago? But the 400 year-old idiom and a welter of other strangenesses stand between Pacino and the character, blocking empathy and simple understanding. He accordingly does what any actor in his situation would do. He withdraws into himself and gives a shy, subdued performance, hoping that muted incompetence will pass for restraint.
Pacino spends much of the film in a state of apparent exhaustion, trudging from scene to scene with his eyelids half-open. His voice never rises above a gravelly murmur. With Jessica he shows neither sternness nor tenderness, only somnolence. His initial scene is impenetrable: why does this notorious usurer forgo interest in favor of a pound of worthless flesh? To appease the Christians with a "merry bond"? Or to tickle his vindictivenss with the mere possibility of killing Antonio? The first choice will work only if one cuts Shylock's earlier vow to "feed fat his ancient grudge" against Antonio if he ever gets the chance--a cut which this politically correct film predictably makes. The second choice is the one Shakespeare intended. Yet remarkably, Pacino plays neither, his droopy-eyed fatigue conveying no glimmer of hatred or hope for acceptance. At times he comes fleetingly to half-life, only to relapse into insomniac depletion. "Hath not a Jew eyes?" is gruff rather than furious or anguished; he is offhand rather than impassioned in the Jailer scene; and his demeanor at the trial is moody. We must assume that Shylock is motivated throughout by nothing more than weary resignation.
Some critics have dubbed Pacino an accomplished verse-speaker. Since he has played only two other Shakespearean roles in a 40-year career overwhelmingly skewed towards contemporary semi-literates, this would be amazing if true. In fact, Pacino speaks terribly, his discomfort with the language manifest in his abashed muttering, and in a hesitant, halting, word-by-word delivery maintained from beginning to end. Could this be dialectal, the alien Jew negotiating a foreign tongue? No, because Pacino uses the same plodding diction with Jessica and Tubal. (Ignorance has a hard time masquerading as characterization). Phony Britishness causes him to pronounce "lord" as "lohrd;" when mingled with the strains of his native Bronx, it changes terminal-r words into earsores or rather ee-ah-saws. His mumbling articulation can have a truncating effect, as when "tourquoise" is lopped into "tourquoi" and "better the instruction" into "bet the instruction." The foreign language is Shakespeare, and Pacino is the hapless negotiator.
Hollywood stars rarely distinguish themselves when they tackle the Bard, and Al Pacino is no exception. His whispery, tentative and amateurish Shylock is a monument to nothing but his own inexperience.
Dubious: A Review of the Play
When a novice in English literature encounters the designation "Mystery Play," he anticipates Agatha Christie and is surprised to discover the First and Last Things. John Patrick Shanley's play reverses that experience. As a drama about clerics entitled "Doubt: A Parable," it leads one to expect a story of spiritual crisis, of the loss or hard-won preservation of Faith. These expectations are encouraged by the play's opening monologue, which touches briefly on that very theme. But this proves to be a red herring, for the topic vanishes immediately afterwards, never to reappear. Instead, the play devolves into a modest, middlebrow detective story about a nun who suspects a priest of being a pedophile.
A small-m "mystery," then, but one which remains unsolved, since we are never told whether the nun's suspicions are justifed. By withholding this information, Shanley seeks to validate his title and invest his play with an imposing ambiguity. All in vain, since debating the priest's guilt or innocence is as pointless as arguing about the Lady or the Tiger. On the evidence presented, either alternative is plausible, but since the author hasn't written a solution, there is literally no solution. That isn't ambiguity, it's gimmickry.
Because in real life there would be a solution, and one which human effort could uncover. There hasn't been much "doubt" regarding clerical molestation, and there needn't be much doubt about the guilt or innocence of this play's Father Flynn. All one has to do is ask the adolescent boys that he's been teaching over the years.
And here we stumble upon a serious problem, for the play never explains why the nun fails to question the relevant boys in her own school. She insists (with little basis) that one of them would lie to "protect" Father Flynn. Yet she admits seeing another student shrink from the priest's touch, and that boy certainly isn't disposed towards protective prevarication. Obviously, other students might have seen or heard something as well, yet the nun never bothers to speak to any of them. This frankly incredible oversight leaves an enormous hole in the story's plausibility, a hole that Shanley couldn't fill without destroying his gratuitous "doubt."
Narrative illogic aside, this is a slight play, since a pedestrian puzzle that a couple of interviews can unravel is not an adequate metaphor for the mysteries that no one can solve. Does God hear our prayers? Is there a God at all? We will never know. "Is Father Flynn an active pedophile?" is simply not in the same league. Leaving the question unanswered does not make it profound, and of course there is no adequate reason to leave it unanswered in the first place.
Only once does this conventional play invite its audience to think unconventionally, but the invitation can hardly be accepted. In a late scene the nun tells an African-American mother that Father Flynn may have victimized her son. Unexpectedly, the mother replies that she can live with that--her boy is gay, his prospects are nil, perhaps an influential older lover can give him a head-start, etc. She is not presented as a moral idiot, but as a desperate woman wanting the best for her child who feels driven to take the widest possible view. But while her attitude is striking, it is obviously unacceptable as a rule for action. Assuming arguendo that some children might derive some benefit from a pedophilic mentor, should we therefore allow pedophiles to flourish unabated? Judging from their victims' testimony, these "mentors" inflict enormous damage; if they ever do a child some good, they are likely to do him as much or greater harm. In the end, it really isn't possible to inject much complexity into this issue, and the mother's plea for tolerance on behalf of man-boy love does not persuade. If Father Flynn is seducing children, he should be removed from the parish, the priesthood, and society as well. There is nothing more to say about the matter, and consequently not much "doubt."
For the rest, the play offers two-dimensional characters and serviceable dialogue. It holds the attention without gripping it.
No Horror, Just Decor
Julie Taymor is a designer, not a director. She lavishes all her creative energy on scenery, props, costumes and other inanimate objects. She can treat human beings as stage-dressing (the lock-step soldiers, the orgiastic revellers), but she cannot cast them properly or convince them to give good performances. Anthony Hopkins murmurs, rants and snarls without once achieving significant emotion; Jessica Lange and Harry Lennix can barely speak, let alone fill their roles; Colm Feore (Canada's idea of a major classical actor) does nothing with his apostrophe to Lavinia; and Alan Cumming is not convincing as a heterosexual. In brief, Taymor's film is a characteristic specimen of postmodern Shakespeare: heavy on production design, but dramatically and histrionically mediocre. One cannot do justice to Shakespeare through imagery alone, a truth that postmodern auteurs seem unable to grasp. And Titus, of all plays, is about flesh and blood, the very elements that leave Taymor at a loss.
The Kids Are All Right (2010)
We see a marriage based upon artificial insemination, penile prosthetics and butch/femme role-playing. We see a family where the kids want a father, the mothers are attracted to male bodies, and one of them has repeated sex with a man. In short, we see half-baked imitations of the real thing, with everyone yearning for the one element that can make them whole: the opposite sex, and not just more of the same.
Obviously, that wasn't the filmmakers' intention. They wanted to give us an arms-open portrait of an unconventional family, and send the Worthy Message that gay parents are the same as any other parents. I rather doubt that, and my skepticism is not allayed by the casting of two straight actresses in the lead roles. ("The inauthenticity"!). Casting actual lesbians would have been braver and more honest, but the results would have been too real for a mainstream audience, and the film's cozy message of equivalence would have been a tougher sell. In any case, by showing us a gay couple pretending to be straight, and straight actresses pretending to be gay, the film subverts its agenda at every turn.
And then there's Paul: really a nice guy, of boundless good will, yet Annette Bening accuses him of being an "interloper" in her family. No, her family are the interlopers in his life. Drawn to the warm glow of his testosterone, they seek him out, force themselves on him, use him as a sounding board, therapist and sex object--and then dump him. The film takes great care to reconcile the mothers and their brood, and it asks us to celebrate the survival of this matriarchy. But it doesn't ask us to shed a tear for Paul, whose emotional life has been thoroughly ravaged. Ah well, despite his good qualities, Paul is still a Man, and therefore the source of all evil in the world.
A Serious Man (2009)
A Frivolous Film
Until the last few minutes of this movie, its hero Larry Gopnik is both (a) a perfectly good man, and (b) a spineless worm who lets the world walk over him. Neither trait is humanly credible. Consequently, the movie is too divorced from reality to have much meaning, even as a comedy. And since spinelessness is hardly admirable, one cannot say that Larry is an attractive or sympathetic figure.
The movie is also plagued by elements that remain--how to put it?--unassimilated. Take its curious prologue, which is a parable about moral ambiguity. Someone who appears to be a revered elder and a good samaritan may actually be a demon in disguise--or maybe not; it's hard to tell. But the film itself is about a latter-day Job who suffers the insults, afflictions and outrages of the world: an unambiguously good man to whom unambiguously bad things happen. In short, the prologue has nothing to do with the movie. It's merely the Coen brothers indulging themselves to no purpose, and not for the first time.
The same is true of Rabbi Marshak quoting Grace Slick. Yes, it's a send-up of a false sage. But it's also shallow Boomer populism, telling us, with a collusive wink, that we can get as much wisdom from trippy rock songs as from the learning of the ages. I don't find that to be credible either.
Sad to say, this is a very bad Hamlet and a very bad film: badly-directed, badly-designed, badly-shot, badly-staged, and worst of all badly-acted. Branagh is a ranting child, Derek Jacobi effete and spinsterish, Horatio a pill, Laertes an unsightly runt, Charlton Heston inappropriately granitic (the First Player is supposed to be an emotive actor, remember?), Polonius neither funny nor formidable, Jack Lemmon an embarrassment, Billy Crystal ditto, Kate Winslet all gush and baby-fat, Julie Christie merely decorative, etc., etc. The obvious under-budgeting doesn't help: the sets are tacky (that graveyard!), the process shots appalling, and much of the action is confined to a Hall of Mirrors, probably the single most inflexible set ever designed for a production of Hamlet. As director, Branagh uses every trick in the book to hold our presumably flagging attentions: pointlessly swirling camera movements, equally pointless flashbacks and insets (Priam and Hecuba?), playing Patrick Doyle's oppressive score almost constantly over the dialogue. As actor, his performance is trivial when it isn't grating. Deficient in physical presence, intellectual heft and emotional complexity, he races through his lines till their sense becomes garbled and sometimes resorts to a screaming mode for which he hasn't the voice. In brief, he plays Hamlet as an ordinary young man who's gotten in a little over his head, which is a poor description of Hamlet but a spot-on description of Branagh.
Not Prince Hamlet, Nor Meant To Be
Horatio loves Hamlet; he may even want to be Hamlet. But wishes are not horses, and it makes no sense to cast a born Horatio as Hamlet. Rory Kinnear is a thirtyish, balding plodder with all the charisma of a substitute teacher. He is not unintelligent: he has considered his lines, and he conveys their meaning clearly if not trippingly. (He has even come up with a new reading: "Soft! You, now! The fair Ophelia!"). But he has no charm, no brilliance, minimal wit and limited powers of invention and variation. In brief, he is ordinary. Ophelia tells us that Hamlet is the undisputed Star of Elsinore, and even Claudius admits that the common people adore him. These accolades sit uneasily upon Kinnear, who turns The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark into The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
Nicholas Hytner has surrounded him with minimalist scenery and a few familiar concepts. For the second time in a year, we see Denmark as a 21st-century police state. Hytner has replaced Gregory Doran's surveillance cameras with a bevy of Secret Service men, but the idea is the same and entirely wrong, for as a police state Denmark is ridiculous. The "dangerously mad" Hamlet puts on an unvetted play attacking second marriages before the newly-remarried Queen. He runs riot during the performance with obscenities, jeers and threats. He nearly kills the unguarded King at his prayers, but decides to wait. Instead he visits the Queen in her room where he promptly kill Polonius. Doran and Hytner wanted to convey the oppressive omnipresence of Big Brother, but what we see are the serial pratfalls of Keystone Kops.
Matters are not helped by their depiction of the Chief Spymaster. When Peter Hall first directed Hamlet (1965), he reconceived Polonius as a cunning politician using the mask of befuddlement to accomplish his ends. Kenneth Branagh did much the same in his 1996 film. Unaccountably, Doran and Hytner opt for a traditional comic dullard, further dispelling the Orwellian ambiance. At least Doran's Polonius was funny. In contrast, David Calder loses laugh after laugh through bad timing and off-kilter rhythms. (He does the same as the Gravedigger in Act V). I have happy memories of Calder's fantastical, dreamstruck Falstaff, but that was fifteen years ago.
In truth, Hamlet will not bear too much updating. If you choose, like Hytner, to present Ophelia as a thoroughly modern young woman--sexy, feisty, jousting with her strange anachronism of a brother--you raise the question of why she yields so quickly to Polonius' silly edicts. Why does her liberated mind give way before the mundane pressures of a bad love-affair and an aging father's death? Sensing these discrepancies, Hytner suggests that Ophelia does not drown under the weight of her own distraction, but is instead murdered by the royal goons. This doesn't help, and Ruth Negga is too pedestrian an actress to make sense of the muddle.
On the plus side of the ledger, Patrick Malahide is a refreshingly slimy Claudius, a serpent in the orchard indeed. (Some actors try to ennoble the character. Nonsense: the man murders his brother and marries his sister-in-law for gain, and then engineers the murder of his stepson). Clare Higgins fleshes out the underwritten Gertrude in both senses, showing us a once-beautiful woman whom years and alcohol have thickened into a harsh, unlovely middle-age. Her gratitude to Claudius is keen, but her resentment at the passage of time is greater.
Among the ensemble, Matthew Barker impresses as the Norwegian Captain (a small part, but there are no small parts), while Ferdinand Kingsley, son of Ben, is an efficient, yuppified Rosencrantz. The tearful Alex Lanipekun shows us Laertes the sentimentalist but not Laertes the fanatic avenger. Giles Terera looks like Eddie Murphy and plays Horatio about as well as Murphy could. James Laurenson was an embarrassing Gaveston to Ian McKellen's Edward II (1970); as the Ghost and the Player King, he seems to have finally ripened into competence.
"Hamlet without the Prince" has become a metaphor; unhappily, Kinnear and Hytner literalize it. In Doran's production, we saw Hamlet as Harlequin. This was shallow, but more diverting than Hamlet as Prufrock. One has seen worse--one has seen Beale--but one has also seen much better.