Jamie Parker as Harry.
I read my first Harry Potter book when I was ten years old, and made my brother take me to the store with him to buy the second one the moment I finished it. When I was eleven, I wrote my first work of literary criticism on the series – which basically means that I looked up the meanings of the characters’ names and listed them all like a very dorky IMDB trivia page. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was the first book I read entirely in English because my family was on holiday in the US when it came out and I refused to wait until the translation came out. While I was still in the middle of reading it, I left my copy on the roof of our car, and we drove off without anyone realising that I had forgotten to take it inside. I then yelled frantically at my parents until they stopped on the side of the road and let me look for it – and there it was, battered but still intact and, most importantly, still readable. The last book came out the same summer I moved across the country to study comparative literature. I remember travelling to the next town over that morning so I could be the first in line when the store opened. I giddily read the first lines while waiting for the bus back home, alone on a bench in the morning sun. I wrote my BA thesis on power, morality, and responsibility in the Harry Potter series (and got an 8.5/10 for it, thank you very much). I own a Gryffindor tie (even though I consider myself to be a Ravenclaw), a Time Turner, and a replica of Harry’s wand. Two days ago, I got my first and only tattoo – a small Deathly Hallows symbol on my wrist.
And I really wish J.K. Rowling would just stop already.
(Note: This review is full of gigantic spoilers.)
Edward Bennett (Benedick) and Michelle Terry (Beatrice).
As I’ve explained in my review of Love’s Labour’s Lost (RSC 2014), this production was presented as Love’s Labour’s Won by the Royal Shakespeare Company. This was a controversial decision that confused audiences and led to heated debate among scholars, since Love’s Labour’s Won is either the title of a lost Shakespeare play or an alternative title for an existing play. Which one? Who knows! An episode of Doctor Who was dedicated to it, that’s the level of mystery we’re talking here. Still, I can see why one would want to stage these plays as a duology: they are variations on similar themes. Both Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing have a distinct male and female group, men asked to prove their love, strong female characters who are more demanding than forgiving, clear class differences, and a whole lot of banter. Some critics have even argued that Berowne and Rosaline were a kind of try-out for Beatrice and Benedick.
The setting is the same (Charlecote Park, post-WWI this time) and most of the cast members return, but this production fails exactly where Love’s Labour’s Lost so gloriously succeeded: using the setting to enhance the themes of the story.
Read my book review of Love’s Labour’s Lost here.
In 2014, the RSC performed a trilogy of plays set before (Love’s Labour’s Lost), during (The Christmas Truce), and right after World War One (Much Ado About Nothing – review here), thus tying into the year’s centenary commemoration events. The two Shakespeare plays were presented as the Love’s Labour’s duology: Much Ado was retitled Love’s Labour’s Won (a controversial decision resulting in many confused people in the audience and furious debate among Shakespeare scholars), the majority of the cast performed in both plays, and both used the same setting: Charlecote Park, a grand country house and estate a few kilometres away from Stratford-upon-Avon where some say Shakespeare poached a deer and got arrested for it.
Vittoria (Kristy Bushell) and Brachiano (David Sturzaker) with Flamineo (Laura Elphinstone) watching in the background.
Read my book review of The White Devil by John Webster here.
A few hours before we attended the RSC 2014 production of John Webster’s The White Devil (Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon), my fellow students and I attended a lecture by Martin Wiggins at the Shakespeare Centre. He spoke passionately about how these characters are all prisoners of circumstance, driven to crime without the financial means to sustain their honour, and discussed the play’s detached analysis of morality whilest quoting Hamlet (“nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”). All interesting points, but Wiggins barely touched upon what struck me the most about the play when I first read it: its depiction of brutal misogyny. My professor seemed to agree and raised his hand to ask Wiggins about it: “But what about gender?” Wiggins pulled a “not this again” face, the face of a man who has gotten this question a lot lately and is starting to get a little annoyed. “That is not what Webster’s play is about, though.” Seeing the quick look of skepticism my professor and I exchanged, he added: “you will see that the current production makes much of gender, but it is a jazz riff on the text, not a straightforward representation.”
A number of critics seem to agree with Wiggins: this is director Maria Aberg’s The White Devil, not John Webster’s. But is this really a problem?
2013 production of Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi.”
Read my review of the 2014 RSC production here!
The White Devil is not an easy play to wrap your head around. The language is dense, the plot complicated to the point of convoluted, and the male characters all have names that end with “o.” Thanks, early modern dramatists’ obsession with Italy! The first time I read Webster’s work there was only one scene I enjoyed (more on that later), but having let it sink in for a few days, I find that there are things I appreciate about this play, things worth drudging through the confusing dialogue for.
The 2009 Globe production.
Read my review of the 2014 RSC production here.
The university student is a strange creature, stuck in a curious limbo between adolescence and adulthood. It is said to be a time of great learning: you attend lectures on fascinating subjects (hopefully), figure out how to pay an electricity bill, and do your own laundry. There is the pursuit of knowledge, the desire to evolve, a search for that elusive wisdom that all proper adults seem to possess… But you’re not an adult yet. Instead, you find yourself having water balloon fights outside the lecture hall and drunkenly debating the finer details of The Samurai Pizza Cats at a party while wearing a penguin suit you don’t remember putting on. This delicate balance between work and play, between new responsibilities and having fun, is exactly what Love’s Labour’s Lost is about.
The 2014 Dutch stage production by Toneelgroep Oostpool
The first time I saw Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was a few months ago and when I sat down in the theatre I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that it is a famous play and that I thought the title was funny. After the first ten minutes or so I thought I had it all figured out: it was a comedy of manners about a loud wife and her grumpy husband. I settled in for a night of easy laughs, maybe a bit of slapstick along the way. Little did I know that by the time the first act was over, the audience would be left in a stunned silence, which was finally broken by the man sitting behind me who let out a quiet “…Jesus.”
Not that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf isn’t funny. It is, in fact, absolutely hilarious… Until it’s not.
The Cobbe portrait.
It is practically impossible to say or write anything about literature without at one point running into Shakespeare. He is (mis)quoted by everyone, his characters are a much-used point of reference, and his plays continue to inspire other works of art to this day. The Bard is everywhere, to both the delight and horror of literature students all over the world. These days, the name Shakespeare has become synonymous with high culture, complex works that can only be deciphered by the scholarly elite… And yet most highschool students are expected to read at least one of his plays in school and make sense of it.
I think the #1 thing that keeps some people from getting into Shakespeare is the language: it’s a whole different vocabulary to get used to. When you’re not familiar with early modern writing, his plays can look quite daunting on paper and when you try to read the opening monologue, you instantly start to panick (“oh God, I don’t know what any of these words mean and here I thought I was pretty good at English what is happening“).
So what is the best way to tackle a Shakespeare play?
National Theatre (2013-2014)
Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s least read, least performed, and all around least popular plays. It is not as poetic compared to his other works, the story is dark and very political, and sympathetic characters are thin on the ground. And yet I am glad that Tom Hiddleston’s star power (and Ralph Fiennes’ film adaptation a couple of years before that) has brought it back into the public consciousness, because Coriolanus has a lot to offer and asks a number of thought-provoking questions about power, democracy, and the cost of integrity.