Branagh Theatre Live at Garrick Theatre presents The Winter’s Tale (2015)

winter's theatreBased on my love of the productions I’ve seen from National Theatre Live, I was interested to check out what the new Branagh Theatre Live is doing – especially since I read The Winter’s Tale within the last year, preparatory to reading The Gap of Time, an excellent retelling. Recall that these “theatre live” performances happen elsewhere – this one in London – and are live-taped for broadcast all over. I went with my parents to a local movie theatre for this showing.

I’m afraid the worst thing about this production came right up front: Kenneth Branagh gave a criminally long-winded lecture about the upcoming season of Branagh Theatre Live; about the plays they’ll be producing; and about this play. Bless his heart, he’s an actor, and it’s unsurprising that he loves the sound of his own voice. But his co-director Rob Ashford should have helped out by directing this speech: too much talking, Kenneth. It wasn’t just my annoyed mother and me: the audience was audibly frustrated with the intro. Those of you headed out to see later showings, feel free to go a little late.

And you should still go, because it’s a wonderful play, I think. It’s growing on me with familiarity: I’m glad I had some experience with the text, and recommend that. I found the opening dialog a little hard to follow, even with previous knowledge. Also, it starts out very dour; you have to stick around to see the mood lift a little, and it might help to have that assurance. But it settles out. I think the casting was solid, the acting quite good – Pops felt that Branagh overplayed the part of Leontes, but I thought he was fine here; Leontes is just crazy. Judi Dench was phenomenal, and challenged Branagh for the spotlight overall. The two that played the young couple, Jessie Buckley as Perdita and Tom Bateman as Florizel, were attractive, fun and powerful. I think Autolycus was a stronger character on the page than on the stage, somehow. And the Shepherd and Clown were as loveable as ever.

In conclusion, I think this was a perfectly good production of an underappreciated play. For those who love theatre, absolutely a good time. Maybe not the best introductory experience for newbies, though.


Rating: 7 ballads (looking charitably past Branagh’s opening lecture).

Maximum Shelf: The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on July 22, 2015.


gap of timeThe Hogarth Shakespeare project undertakes to reinvent the Bard’s classic works in novel form; the first installment is The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson (Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit; Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?), a “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale. In Shakespeare’s original, the kings of Sicilia and Bohemia are great friends until one accuses the other of sleeping with his wife. The jealous Leontes plots to murder his friend Polixenes, but misses his chance and instead takes out his rage on his pregnant wife, the queen Hermione. By the time his suspicions are proved false, he has lost both his son and his wife, and the baby girl Hermione gives birth to has disappeared. Leontes ordered the baby taken into the wilderness and abandoned, but the man he assigned this task died in the process, so the baby’s fate is unknown. Sixteen years later, a romance between Polixenes’s son and a beautiful, mysterious shepherd’s daughter may offer redemption and even a second chance.

The Gap of Time is set dually in modern London, just following the 2008 economic crisis, and the fictional American city of New Bohemia. Londoners Leo and Xeno were childhood friends and, for a time, lovers; as adults, despite very different values, the bohemian Xeno and the materialistic Leo have become business partners in Sicilia, a high-tech gaming company. Leo’s wife, MiMi, son, Milo, and his uber-capable assistant, Pauline, round out a highly functional, loving family of sorts, until Leo becomes obsessed with the idea that MiMi and Xeno are sleeping together. Leo reacts violently, and loses his son and wife. When he tries to ship MiMi’s baby daughter overseas to Xeno, whom he wrongly believes to be her father, the little girl goes missing.

In New Bohemia, Shep and his son, Clo, who run a piano bar, come across a carjacking too late to save its victim, after which Shep is able to pull a baby out of the nearby hospital’s BabyHatch, a high-tech receptacle for abandoned infants. He is convinced this child is a gift meant for him, to help him heal after his wife’s death, and raises the girl as his own. Her name, according to papers found with her, is Perdita. He could never conceal from her that she is adopted: Perdita is white, while Shep and Clo are black; but she grows up in a home filled with love and music, never doubting that she is wanted. As in the original, 16 years will pass before Perdita encounters a romantic interest who, though equally ignorant of their connected past, will lead to her learning about her origins.

A very brief recap of The Winter’s Tale at the beginning of the book informs the reader, so that no knowledge of the original is necessary to follow or enjoy this retelling. Indeed, The Gap of Time will please readers who have never given Shakespeare a second glance, as well as his committed fans. Winterson has fashioned the ideal remake: paying respect to the original and faithfully following many plot points, as well as the general spirit, she simultaneously builds upon it, not only making Shakespeare’s work accessible to modern minds but providing a freshly felt and relevant emotional experience.

Shakespeare’s sympathetic and intriguing plot involving several twists and changes of heart plays well with Winterson’s nuanced tone, while her characters are more multi-faceted than the originals. Leo is a deeply flawed man who nonetheless attracts the reader; Xeno is magnetic, beautiful and sensual; and MiMi is a woman of more complex feelings than the dignity Shakespeare gives Hermione. The next generation, Perdita and Zel, Xeno’s son, are appealing, with passions and interests of their own. It is Shep and Clo, though, Shakespeare’s nameless Shepherd and Clown, who get the most reworking, and to great advantage.

Most of The Gap of Time takes place in London and New Bohemia, but also visits Paris, the Seine and, of course, the bookshop Shakespeare and Company. As realistic as these settings are, it is the gaming world invented by Leo and Xeno that is most imaginative and vibrant. Leo is obsessed with the scene in Superman: The Movie where Superman zips round the world and turns back time to save Lois Lane. Their game is creative, vividly rendered and evocative of Xeno’s disappointment in what his life has become, as well as Leo’s preoccupation with the idea of time’s malleability. It is a game filled with angels of death, and it is called The Gap of Time.

As the title indicates, Winterson’s version of The Winter’s Tale plays with the concept of time even more than the original did, asking questions about what is changeable about our pasts and our futures. Leo wishes he could take back his madness and its consequences; Xeno wishes he’d handled it differently. This is a stirring tale filled with waste, simple mistakes and regrets. But as in the original, it also offers hope, young love and the possibility of new beginnings. In an unusual twist, Winterson herself steps forward in the final pages to speak in the first person about what she hopes for from this story–and then she steps back to allow her characters to finish it.


Rating: 7 feathers.

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

I am working on a Maximum Shelf for the first book of Hogarth Shakespeare: The Gap of Time, by Jeanette Winterson. In preparation, naturally, I got myself a copy of The Winter’s Tale, which Winterson retells, so that I could see the connections clearly.

This is one of Shakespeare’s later plays, variously described as a romance, a comedy, or (as Winterson tells it) a play about forgiveness. It is indeed funny at times, although also tragic and pathos-ridden: in an echo of Othello, a jealous royal husband accuses his wife and best friend of being unfaithful together, resulting in deaths and betrayals he will deeply regret. The Winter’s Tale is indeed a more forgiving version, however, as the next generation gets a chance to correct these wrongs and start fresh; in fact, depending on your interpretation, even the jealous king himself gets a second chance.

There is the requisite Shakespearean clown, a lovable character known only as Clown; there is the requisite Shakespearean rogue, who successfully appears to the same people over and over in a variety of disguises. Which leads me to another Shakespearean requisite, the suspension of disbelief, as a father disguises himself successfully from his own son who knows him well, and a lost identity is easily provable after a lapse of 16 years. It’s all in good fun, though: these are accepted devices of the stage.

And fun it is, despite the unhappy scenes along the way. I also enjoyed a strong female character who stands up to the king and does not get damned for it: another shrew, if you will, but less ambiguously represented; this one is clearly a hero. The Winter’s Tale is a pleasing blend of humor and romance in the end, and I am excited to explore Winterson’s take on it. I only wish I could see it performed now that I’ve enjoyed Shakespeare’s telling. He remains a master.


Rating: 7 bears.

The Lincoln Theatre presents Romeo and Juliet, the musical

lincolnThe Historic Lincoln Theatre in a town near mine advertised a new musical version of Romeo and Juliet, and I needed little convincing. My parents and I drove down for one of the last productions.

The theatre is beautiful, an old movie house with ornately painted walls, a small lobby and an “art bar” in an adjoining alcove. An orchestra was seated at audience level off to one side of the stage. The music was well performed, and as far as design, it was often a benefit to the play, and sometimes not. The group scenes were fun with the addition of song and dance (the choreography was quite good, playing up the bawdy bits). There were definitely times as well when Shakespeare’s script would have been better spoken than sung – the musical format a little bit forced, you know. Especially in his back-and-forth dialog, his repartee, Shakespeare is pretty near perfect on his own, and those lines should have been left alone. So for the music, a mixed score; but honestly, you’d have to do a lot more than this to mess up Shakespeare, so my criticisms are slight and good-natured; it was great fun to see.

A bigger problem was what I’ll call technical difficulties: our seats were in the second row, with the orchestra curling up along one side of us and the players right in front. They had microphones, but the speakers were behind us. The balance between instrumental music and actors’ voices was badly off: we often couldn’t hear what they were saying or singing at all. (Luckily we know the play well, and the acting makes much clear.) At intermission halfway through we moved well back in the theatre, and the sound quality was so drastically improved – quite good now! – that I’m only sorry we waited that long. We partly missed the balcony scene in that first half. Once the sound issues were resolved by our reseating, I have little to nitpick.

The acting was quite good. Mercutio was outstanding; Juliet’s nurse was great fun; and Romeo and Juliet themselves were, as one would hope, the stars of the show. The actors represented a wide age range, which is again as it should be: Juliet was played by a senior in high school, and though Romeo is listed as a college graduate, he felt plenty youthful for his role. Tybalt is a mere child at 14! But a pretty burly 14, and pulled off the impetuosity required. While Juliet was wonderful – and a fine singer, once I could hear her – I admit Romeo was my favorite actor. He was handsome, dreamy-eyed, romantic and passionate; it was just right.

This play (and so much of Shakespeare) stands the test of time. It was written more than 400 years ago, and I’ve seen it repeatedly, but it’s still so fresh and affecting: every time I ache for Romeo to wait just a little bit longer, for Juliet to wake up in time, for Tybalt to listen to Romeo’s pleas, for Mercutio to recover. And although I had considered myself a little too jaded for this, I admit the romance got to me again, and clearly will the next time I see this play performed. It’s just too good. Shakespeare has his audience wrapped up; the romance and the tragedy are every bit as alive in 2015 as when he wrote these lines in the 1590’s.

There is comedy here, too. I don’t know the histories so well and so won’t comment; but even in his tragedies there is bawdy, physical humor or wordplay. Different interpretations can play these lines up more or less; this one inserted a few pelvic thrusts to good comedic effect.

I don’t want to be too harsh on the musical adaptation; it was often fine and only occasionally the merest bit heavy-handed, but the play as presented by talented actors was outrageously fun and moving and I’d see it again. But I’d sit further back.


Rating: 9 vials for Shakespeare, 8 for the production, 7 for sound.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

veronaI had a pleasant reread of this early Shakespeare comedy in preparation for the Houston Shakespeare Festival this summer. Of course you saw my post the other day about what a special copy of the book this is…

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is an earlier and a lesser-known Shakespeare play, but I think it’s still excellent in all the usual ways: clever wordplay, mild bawdiness, romantic wafflings or confusions that may threaten our modern sensibilities just a touch, but overall, with the potential to be wildly entertaining in the right hands. I remember the performance I saw as a youngster being accessible (having read the play beforehand helps, of course).

The two gentlemen are Valentine and Proteus, and they are best friends. Valentine is prepared to leave Verona to seek his fortune in Milan; Proteus stays behind because he is in love with Julia, and determined to win her. Valentine finds his love in Sylvia, daughter to the Duke of Milan; and Proteus’s father is convinced to send his son away, separating him from Julia just as they declare their love for each other. Proteus is sent to join his friend Valentine, which should be a happy reunion; but fickle Proteus falls for his friend’s betrothed, betraying both his friend Valentine and his own love, Julia. Determined to win Sylvia away, Proteus reveals Valentine and Sylvia’s elopement plan. The Duke has Valentine banished; and the action of the play moves to the woods.

In what might be seen as a vague early shadow of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the woods are host to a banished Valentine and his servant Speed – who are taken in by a host of bandits – and who are pursued by a grieving Sylvia and her faithful servant – who are pursued by a love-stricken Proteus, her father the Duke, and the Duke’s intended son-in-law Thurio – who are accompanied by Julia, serving as a page (in male drag of course) to Proteus, thereby in pursuit of her love. If you had trouble following that, all is as it should be.

You might recognize a few lines:

What light is light, if Sylvia be not seen?
What joy is joy, if Sylvia be not by?
Unless it be to think that she is by,
And feed upon the shadow of perfection.

Or:

It is the lesser blot, modesty finds,
Women to change their shapes than men their minds.

Speed, servant to Valentine, and Launce, servant to Proteus, have their share of buffoonery, great scenes with wordplay and witticisms that are typical of Shakespearean comedy. All ends well (although we sniff at the treatment of certain female characters, and the slurs upon Jews. Time-typical Shakespeare, again); and the play is, indeed, funny.

I look forward to seeing this summer’s live performance.


Rating: 7 gift-dogs.

habits passed along

As I’ve done in summers past, I was looking forward this summer to seeing some Shakespeare dramatized at Miller Outdoor Theatre, where we can sit outside under the stars and bring dogs & food & drink along, and all the performances are free. This is a summer activity I grew up with and still enjoy. Part of my tradition also involves reading or rereading the plays ahead of time so I’ll be ready to fully enjoy what I see. Therefore, I started checking the website for information on the Houston Shakespeare Festival early this summer, to see what plays they’d be putting on (there is always one comedy and one tragedy or history), with the intention of getting my hands on a copy of each if I didn’t already own them.

This year’s history is Henry IV, 1, which I requested from my local public library. The comedy is The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and I was pretty sure I owned a copy, since I saw it as a child with my grandparents in southern California. I went home to check, and sure enough, my 1964 “general readers” edition from the Folger Library was there on the shelf. I pulled it out and put it in the stack.

I was not prepared for the surprise I got when I opened it up, though. This note is taped into the inside cover:

photo 2 (1)
From my grandmother:

Dear Julie,

We’re planning to take you to this play while you’re with us (it’s an outdoor theater) and since it was written 400 years ago (+/-) the language is real strange to our ears and we thought you (and your parents?) might have fun reading it during your trip! It’s a lot more fun to see it ’cause there are no stage directions in the script so it’s hard to imagine all the action. It is a comedy – really kinda silly, I suppose. But I know you’ll enjoy it more if you’re a bit acquainted with the story…

Have a wonderful time & please give our love to all those nice sisters & cousins & all.

Can’t wait for your visit to us!

Love, Grammy & Pop

P.S. Please bring the book with you!

Can you just believe! This is the very copy provided by Grammy & Pop for me to read before seeing what I’m sure was my first Shakespeare performance ever; and I’ve still got it, and here I am however many years later, going back to see the same play and preparing for it in the same way, by rereading this very copy. It got me thinking about where I got these habits. Grammy puts it in this note in almost the exact way I put it to my friends: “this play will be a lot more enjoyable if you know a little bit about the story ahead of time.” I think I can see who I have to thank for my playgoing practices!

I’m wondering about the year, of course. You can see Grammy dated it with day, month and date – no year, but the day-to-date question, combined with her mention of our other travels that summer, put me at just past my 10th birthday for this event. I also found tucked away a ticket to an Astros game (at the Astrodome! against Philadelphia) from the following summer. And my father’s and grandmother’s memories put it around the same time, so I think we’ll call this my ten-year-old introduction to live performances of Shakespeare. (I might have read some before.)

astro
Finding this note inside this book was a real treat for several reasons. For one thing, it’s always nice to hear from my Grammy, who still sends me newspaper clippings with appended notes like this one! And I am looking forward all the more to seeing The Two Gentlemen of Verona performed this summer, because I’ll be thinking back to that summer more than 20 years ago. But most of all, I think it’s charming to consider where we get our habits from. I guess I’ve just always been a person who enjoyed theatre, and enjoyed reading the written drama beforehand; but of course nothing happens in a vacuum, so it’s really fun to see this clear indication of where I come from. Thanks, Grammy.

Houston Shakespeare Festival presents The Taming of the Shrew

Petruchio and Kate

I saw this production on 8/7 with Husband and another couple. (And I reviewed the written play recently, here.) It was a good time! For one thing, I remembered my spectacles this time, so I could see the stage. Also, we all stayed awake through the whole thing. As I said about Othello, the pacing might have been a bit slow, especially for a performance that was past my bedtime… in the dark… viewed from a blanket on a hill with a glass (or two) of wine (or beer).

I thought this performance was outstanding. The bawdy humor came through loud and clear; even Husband followed the whole thing (with some quick briefing beforehand). Some of the modern costume choices were cute and clever, too, and Husband got a kick out of the scene in which Hortensio, in disguise as an appropriate music instructor, tutors Bianca. He’s sort of wild metal guy, and that was fun.

So we had a lovely evening outside, even in Houston – the key being to wait until after dark to be out there. The Houston Shakespeare Festival, in its 37th year, has done it again. This performance was professional, clearly presented, understandable to regular folk, and funny! The humor of The Taming of the Shrew came through. I really think that, when performing Shakespeare, your job is to just let the bard speak, and they did.

As to the misogyny question, I don’t think they took a stance, but just presented the text, with its underlying bawdiness, and let us draw our own conclusions. I will continue to optimistically believe that Shakespeare didn’t mean for us to take him too literally. Really, Kate’s submission at the end is too ludicrous to be intended seriously – right? What do you think?

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