Stratford Reviews: Take a Deep Breath (of Kings)

Heyo! And welcome to the last of our reviews from Stratford. We’re actually home now and have been since yesterday, but the entire saga of our journey left me too exhausted to actually write. You see… we were SUPPOSED to get home Sunday, but after a huge delay in Toronto involving a woman traveling with four small boys who insisted upon NOT STAYING SEATED DURING TAKE-OFF (which, you know, is against the law) and having to return to the gate to kick her off… we got to spend the night in Newark, NJ. And by night, I mean we got three hours’ sleep in a hotel because we had to be up early to catch the shuttle. Oh, and by the time we got breakfast at 5am, we hadn’t eaten in eighteen hours. So that should explain a lot.

Oh, Newark. If I never see you again, it’ll be too damn soon.

So… that’s why this is coming to you three days after the actual performance. But don’t you worry, I’ve still got everything locked up in this here noggin just ready to pour out. I apologized ahead of time for any length issues, so… here we go.

Breath of Kings took up our entire Saturday. We planned it like that, but it seems a lot of people thought we were insane for doing the histories back-to-back. I guess people don’t find the Henriad as interesting as I do. Well, I should have known that; the glazed looks I get when I start talking about history should’ve been a lifelong clue. I admit, I will never understand people who think history is boring. You know what’s boring? Golf. History is exciting. But, in any case, we had six hours of history plays on Saturday (though divided by three hours to go get dinner and whatnot), which closed out our time in Stratford this year.

The plays were staged in the Tom Patterson theater, which is the first time we’ve gotten to see a show there, and were thus performed in the round. Yes… surround sound history. When we went in for part one, Rebellion (Richard II and Henry IV pt 1), the stage looked like it had purple carpet on it, but it actually turned out to be mulch standing in for the earth of England. Since the earth/soil is important to Richard II in particular (lots of exile and returning home, etc), we both thought it was a good, if minimal, approach to the whole endeavor. In fact, here’s a picture:


See? Doesn’t it kinda look like purple carpet? A and I thought, just like everything else, that it was a brilliant use of the space. And it totally worked with the production, which was relatively minimal and somewhat modern. Given that it was an adaptation by a Stratford actor, A and I thought they probably didn’t receive a huge budget, and so what they did with it was really creative. There was a mix of modern and period in the costuming, with button downs and black jeans pairing with houppelands and robes. In fact, the division between “main” characters and supporting, and especially between Kings and nobles/commoners, was really easily discerned because the grander costumes were reserved for the royals/main characters. Richard II was in gold robes when he was king and plain cloth when he was deposed. In Henry V, the French wore beautiful blue, gold, and white that contrasted beautifully with the plainly-dressed English. It was a great use of costume-as-storytelling that I appreciated (and I know A did, too).

This was also another great use of lighting and sound here from Stratford. Because of such a minimal set (especially in Redemption, where pieces of the stage were removed during Agincourt to “destroy” the field), the lighting and sound really had to carry the atmosphere. Flashing lights and somewhat modern sounds gave, in my opinion, the audience something to ground them; they could understand what the lights and the noises meant because it was something they could connect to, and from there, they could connect to the action on stage. Any time there’s battle on stage, it’s going to be abstract, so giving the audience something concrete to hold on to was a great decision, in my opinion.

One of the other boarders at Laura’s described Breath of Kings as “Reader’s Digest Shakespeare”, saying it was for people who didn’t truly appreciate the Bard. I disagree. I think that, yes, some of the depth of character was lost in combining four plays into two, but what it gained was a clear line, a discernible thread of how the events of the Henriad played into one another. Richard is deposed, Henry IV — as his deposer — is thus never settled on the throne and always plagued by rebellion, and Henry V represents a redemption (haHA) for the throne and for England, uniting the people and bringing glory to John of Gaunt’s “scepter’d isle”, which had become rotten. And, too, it reflects the nature of the hollow crown to destroy the men who bear it, which Richard II so beautifully (and in this case, exceptionally, but I’ll get there in a second) describes upon finding out everyone has defected to Bolingbroke. There are a lot of themes at work here, a lot of patterns, and I believe the combining of the plays succeeded in highlighting them rather than simply expediting the process. (Though, to be fair, the expedition of both Henry IVs was appreciated. While I like them in that they show the development and rise of Henry V, they lack the linguistic beauty of Richard II and the powerful glory of Henry V. They’re quieter, for the most part, with the exception of Shrewsbury, but the battle was quickly done and obviously not the focus.) So, basically, to the lady who basically accused A and I of not being serious about Shakespeare (because we enjoyed these plays): shove it.

Another thing A and I liked that some of our fellow boarders didn’t was the use of women in men’s roles. Now, to be clear, it wasn’t the presence of women that bothered our fellows, but rather that they were not, in their mind, convincing as men. Their physicality, their voices, were not shaped to make the audience believe that the characters they played were male. But A and I didn’t think it mattered. They simply were not ATTEMPTING to portray these characters as men; the maleness or femaleness of these characters and their performers simply didn’t matter. Do y’all remember a while back, I did a post on gender in Shakespeare? This is a perfect case of that concept. Yes, it’s history. Yes, these were men. But it really didn’t matter because the characters were, first and foremost, important (or secondary) players in the rise and fall of Kings. Their gender and the gender of the people playing them were entirely secondary to what the character needed to accomplish. So, again, A and I disagree with some of our fellows. While neither of us would say this was our favorite production (Gasp! I know! Me? Really?! But, alas, yes… The Hypochondriac ruled all.), neither of us would say it was poorly done or poorly acted.

Speaking of acting. Let’s get into that for a moment before I sign this thing off (as I see it’s turning into something of an essay). My favorite actor from Stratford (and possibly A’s, too, though maybe not as much as me) played Richard II, Shallow in Henry IV pt 2, and the Chorus in Henry V. Tom Rooney is nothing short of spectacular. If you were with us last year, you’ll recall our gushing reviews of his Polonius, who actually succeeded in making us miss him when he died. For historical reasons, I have never been fond of Richard II, and he made me rethink my opinion, at least of whether or not to feel sorry for him. At turns humorous, capricious, and pitiful, his Richard set such a high mark for the rest of the play that I’m convinced it’s the reason Breath of Kings isn’t my favorite. His return in Henry IV pt 2 was described by a fellow audience member as “the best performance of Shallow I have ever scene”, and I am inclined to agree. It’s not a deep part (obviously), but it was so comedic and well-performed, it helped me get through my least favorite portion of the Henriad. And, by virtue of his being the Chorus, he got to speak the last words of Stratford ’16, which felt entirely appropriate to me. There’s a reason he’s my favorite, and, after this year, he retains that spot. In fact, his was my favorite individual performance of the entire trip. I’ll ask A hers the next time we speak.

I have also got to give it up for Graham Abbey, who not only adapted and co-directed this production, but also starred in it as Bolingbroke/Henry IV (same character, different titles). His character’s… descent, for lack of a better word, from strong and mighty to sickly and wounded was spectacular, and he has a damn fine voice for Shakespeare. The clear weight of the crown upon his head and the way it seemed to steal his mind, his body, his spirit from him was nothing short of brilliant. And his “son”, Hal/Henry V, played by Araya Mengesha (a brilliant piece of colorblind casting that), was equally amazing, taking his character from wayward youth to warrior king in a brilliant evolution. I liked his decision to take the more… cynical approach to Hal’s character, in which he played up his behavior with the Eastcheap characters as a kind of ruse to make everyone underestimate him. The language is there in Shakespeare, but he chose to play it up, and that is something I enjoyed. Seeing it in that light, it’s easier to understand why he is remembered so brilliantly; he understood the crown and used it to shape himself and his story. My only criticism of his performance was the decision, whomever’s it was, to have him yell the “once more unto the breach” speech. Just a personal opinion (shared by A), but, though it makes sense to shout it over the din of battle, I prefer it as a quietly rousing speech for an exhausted and spiritually downcast group. Something that builds. But it is a small quibble because the St. Crispin’s Speech before Agincourt was nothing short of spectacular. I’ll admit, there were tears in my eyes. It’s a truly remarkable speech, and one of my favorites.

Last and certainly not least, Falstaff. Geraint Wyn Davies’ performance was… amazing. Falstaff is the heart of Henry IV (both parts), but is especially important to part two. In fact, part two is almost more his and Hal’s story than Henry IV (well, not almost… definitely), and the performance was hilarious. He found every comedic moment and used it well. When Henry V repudiates him at the end of Henry IV pt 2, I was genuinely brokenhearted despite knowing Falstaff fully intended to use Henry for his own devices. It was a damn fine piece of work. Shout out to Mikaela Davies for being both the Dauphin and his sister, Katherine, in a brilliant piece of acting, and Johnathan Sousa, for a great Hotspur. I confess, I’ve a fondness for that character, and he did it brilliantly.

OK. I’m done. I swear. I swear I am done. I promise. That’s the end of Stratford 2016’s reviews. Come Friday (trying to get us back on a regular schedule), either I or A will talk about our overall opinion and impression of Stratford (the other will follow the next day). We should be back to normal starting Monday. Love from back in Florida!



Silly Sunday: Historical Sillies!

Heeeeeyyy! Welcome to Week Three’s Silly Sunday, aka the opportunity for me to post silly history/Shakespeare jokes to my heart’s content! YAY!



Since it’s my last week to be silly before Stratford, I’m not going to worry about keeping this on the topic of the Henrys. Instead, I’m going to post a bunch of silly stuff related to Shakespeare’s histories in one way or another. Why? Because I can. So… let’s get silly!

First up: Shakespearean History Bingo. Grab all the filmed versions we’ve been recommending for the histories you can, sit back with your drink of choice (or, better yet, one of our pairings), and see who wins! Prizes can definitely be determined by household, but I’d say the winner should get more drinks! Or, even better… books! A nice copy of the histories, maybe? Or Holinshed’s Chronicles, aka Shakespeare’s source material for his English history plays? I’d enjoy that.

Shakespearean History Bingo — Good Tickle Brain: A Mostly Shakespeare Webcomic:

Or maybe you’re feeling like… no, I don’t want to watch all that. Even if it does mean I win a copy of Holinshed’s Chronicles. Well then… I guess we’ll just have to bring back our old friends, The Reduced Shakespeare Company and their hilarious take on Bill’s historical plays. (Caution: for those of you who aren’t into sports or American football in particular… tough luck. This is fricken funny.)


Did you want something actually from the plays we’ve covered of late? Well, I guess. OK. I give you one of my favorite Shakespearean insults, straight from Henry IV pt 1:

William Shakespeare - "[Thou] mad mustachio purple-hued maltworms!". funny, shakespeare, henry-iv:

Aaaand… some Tom Hiddleston. Because do you really want me to go a whole post without mentioning Hiddles? I’ll let Katherine answer for me:

King Henry V and Kate - this is funny.

And, one more. Because, even though we’re not seeing it and I actually hate it, but I really love it, and I love him… even though he totes killed my family (and is also family, really)… Richard III!

And here I was, all proud of myself for staying quiet in a closet for half an hour!:

OK! That’s it for me today! A will be here tomorrow with a discussion of The Scottish Play! Which is also, technically, history… but not really. Men in kilts! (But not. Because that play happened WAAAAAAYYYY too early for kilts. You know what else happened WAAAAAAAAYYYY too early for kilts? FUCKING BRAVEHEART.) *cough* I mean…

I think I’m going to make a sidecar and watch some Hiddles. See you next Saturday!


Boozy Plays: Henry IV pt 2 and Henry V

Heyo! Welcome to today’s Boozy Plays, wherein we attempt to pair some Shakespearean classics with their proper alcoholic partner. I’ve covering two plays this week, so let’s get going.

Last time, I brought you Richard II & Henry IV pt One. This time, I’ll be covering the other half of the Henry IV duology and finishing out the first half of Shakespeare’s Plantagenet Plays with Henry V. One of those plays is more fun than the other, and it’s the one on which I’m going to focus my pairing efforts. Because it’s just better.

Part Dos of the one-time Bolingbroke’s tale focuses less on the titular King and more on his son, the future Henry V. In fact, it shouldn’t be viewed as a continuation of the historical record as much as of the narrative from the previous play. In fact, Henry IV’s role in it is mostly to get sick and die so Hal can take the throne and become awesome. So, in essence, Part Two is more prequel than sequel. That’s how cool Henry V is. So, to sum up: Falstaff goes on being Falstaff, but he’s getting older and sicker; Prince Hal is still hanging out with London degenerates, but repudiates them and rejects Falstaff in particular; there’s another rebellion, but Prince John (as if to make up for another English prince named John) uses duplicitous political machinations to end that; and Henry IV gets sick and dies, but not before Hal transforms into Henry and decides to be super serial about being King. Then there’s an epilogue where Shakespeare totally convinces tells the audience he’s not making fun of a political rival using Falstaff.

Basically, the best part of this play is the elegiac comedy of Falstaff and the power of the repudiation scene, which, if done right, can be pretty damn powerful. Though I do like the parallel of both of Prince Hal’s fathers — his real one and his surrogate — sickening and dying over the course of the play. While Falstaff survives to the next play (sort of) and the once Bolingbroke dies, Henry ultimately decides to follow the path of the latter and let Hal die. By the end, he is Henry V.

Not that he wasn’t always cool, mind. When he was fighting at Shrewsbury (the battle from part one), he took an arrow to the face and kept fighting. Keep in mind, he was sixteen at the time. Six-freakin-teen. Take a moment to look up what he had to go through to get the arrow out and you’ll wonder why more people don’t talk about it. Henry V was a beast taking arrows to the face (and just breaking them off to keep fighting) at an age when most of us are complaining about our parents not understanding. Seriously.

But let’s talk about his play. The vast majority of it is taken up by battle, as I discussed on Monday, with a weird detour into romance, and then an untimely death that threw England into chaos because his stupid son kept going catatonic at really, really bad times. (If you follow us on Twitter, you’ll get to follow my nightly conversations with a historical fiction writer of the Wars of the Roses, some of which are really fun!)  It is England’s Independence Day, or something equally patriotic that doesn’t involve aliens. The PatriotPatton? I think I said Patton last time, because I could totally see Henry V standing in front of a St. George’s Cross (remember, no Union Jack yet) or the Plantagenet lions/leopards (it depends on who you ask).

Anyway, it opens with the Southampton Plot, which was an attempt to assassinate Henry that definitely failed (and also served to show that Henry V was NOT TO BE F****D WITH!), but quickly moves to war efforts against France because, if you know your history at all, England had once owned half of France and wanted it back. It’s a quick-moving play, stopping every once in a while to let Henry make great speeches like the “once more unto the breach” speech at Harfleur and then the St. Crispin’s Day speech (“we few, we happy few, we band of brothers”) before Agincourt, which is also the climax of the play and results in an astounding English victory. (Historically, it was the battlefield and the ineptness of the French that really won the battle, with some help from the famous English longbow, but it was totally Henry V’s heroism here, OK?) Then Henry has to woo Katherine of Valois even though neither speaks the other language (which is adorable) and claim his place as the heir to the French throne (setting up that whole Joan of Arc thing). Then, at the height of his glory, he dies, leaving an infant to rule and England to rot. If you want to see the rot, read all ninety-seven parts of Henry VI (OK, there’s only three) and Richard III, where the grandson of Katherine of Valois through her second marriage manages to take the throne and start the Tudor dynasty.

Did I use this as a chance to talk history? Yes. Yes, I did. But now you get your reward! DRINKS! I wanted to pick something English, but then I thought… why not something slightly French, too? And maybe something that the English and the French each claim as their own AND came into existence during a war? Is there such a drink? YES! YES,THERE IS! And it’s called a Sidecar! Either invented in London or in Paris at the end of WW1, it’s a mix of Cognac, Triple Sec, and lemon juice, and perfect for this play. I’m going London School and recommending this version, which calls for two parts of Cognac to one part everything else. It’s super delicious, and I’m not the hugest brandy fan.

Alright! That’s it for me today! Sorry for rambling again. I like history…

A will be in tomorrow to recommend something for your viewing pleasure!


Monday Muse: War! What is it Good For?

(Is it really absolutely nothing?)

Heyo! Welcome to Week THREE (holy crap… are we really only two weeks away from Stratford?! I still have so many toiletries to procure!) of Shakespeare-a-Palooza 2016: Cactus Likes it Shakespearean! Week one covered Richard II and Henry IV pt One and, in case you were away, last week was As You Like ItThat leaves the other half of Henry IV and Henry V, as well as Macbeth. And, probably because I’m some sort of weirdo, I decided I wanted to write about Henry V instead of the Scottish Play. So, once again, I’m fully prepared for no one to read anything I write here. But, guys… Henry V is super cool!

And Tom Hiddleston played him!


How can you ignore that?

I’m not going to talk about Henry IV during the Monday Muse. Instead, I’ll save a review of that for Friday and focus entirely on his son this week. Henry V is a popular figure in English history. A hero, a true Medieval King (and perhaps the emblem of the office) who brought England glory, riches, military victory, and, best of all, the ability to say they kicked French ass. Not since Edward III was there a King of this bent, and this is most evident in the Battle of Agincourt (the third of the triad of great English victories of the 100 Years’ War). He ended up becoming the heir to the French throne and, had he lived, he would have united England and France for the first time in centuries (since King John lost it all).

But he did not live. And, because of his early death, England was doomed to half a century of bloody civil war.

This is what I love so much about the play. And about Henry himself. (Something I think, too, that Hiddleston got so right in his performance, but I guess that’s really A’s to talk about on Saturday, isn’t it?) It is a shining moment of glory made poignant by its tragic ephemerality. For a short few years, England was united, strong, and glorious in its outlook. Then it all came crashing down.

History provides the best stories, folks. Don’t let anyone tell you different. Seriously. Don’t let ANYONE tell you history is boring. It’s literally screaming “Hi! Story!” at you every time you say its name!

Anyway. For all this amazing unity and Englishness and national greatness, it’s really not clear how Shakespeare feels about the play’s central subject: war. You’d think a play that includes the “band of brothers” speech would be pretty straightforward on the matter: war, glorious war for the glory of glorious England! Especially in the reign of Elizabeth, Gloriana, who had a pretty well-known hard-on for violence, glory, and war. (She was known for really, really liking Titus Andronicus, for example.) But, really, there’s some question about whether or not the play is pro- or anti-war. Rather, it is considered by most to present a much fuller picture of the question, showing both the misery and the glory (apparently that’s the word of the day) of battle. For example, though the Chorus and Henry are full of noble words and bright deeds, the actions of the Eastcheap characters (Prince Hal’s friends from earlier plays) constantly undermine this perceived heroism. And Henry himself talks of raping and pillaging Harfleur one minute and patriotism/sacrifice the next. His actions at Agincourt with the prisoners-of-war are notably unchivalrous and unlikable. Hell, his own people tell him to his face (well, admittedly, he’s pretending to be a normal guy) that war isn’t great for the people who actually have to fight it. But, in the end, it’s the bombastic “once more unto the breach”-es that we remember.

Like, seriously… how many of you remember that there’s an entire part AFTER Agincourt where Henry woos Katherine of Valois and neither of them speak the same language and it’s adorable? OK, well, I’m sure most of you remember it, but doesn’t it feel a bit weird tacked on there after “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers”? Because, really, we all seem to remember the glory most of all. And that’s Shakespeare’s strength: hiding a lot of depth behind the top layer of flowery language (though, admittedly, a lot of that depth is double entendre and fart jokes). It’s what I love so much about him.

But I see I’ve rambled again, and, for that, I apologize. Here’s another picture of Tom Hiddleston to make up for it:


He’s at his best as Henry when he’s dirty. I swear.


Monday Muse: Shakespeare’s (Problematic) Histories

Heyo! Welcome to what is not only today’s Monday Muse but also, by virtue of it being August 1st, Day One of Nerd Cactus’ Second Annual Shakespeare-a-Palooza, aka We’re Going to Stratford At the End of the Month and Want to Talk to Y’all About Shakespeare! I think you’re in for a treat because we’re at our best when we’re focused, and we’re totally focused for the next month.

Now, A probably gets the more exciting plays to work with, but I chose to work with the histories because, well… historian. Yeah. So, I’ll be covering Richard II/Henry IV pt 1 and Henry IV pt 2/Henry V and A gets Macbeth and As You Like It. I promise not to take it personally if you skip my weeks and wait for hers…


I promise.

Anyway, let’s get going.

A lot of people don’t really think of history when they think Shakespeare. They assume that all of his plays fall into either tragedy or comedy, i.e “everyone dies” or “everyone gets married”. And, yeah… insofar as Bill’s most famous plays are concerned, that is kinda what happens. Aside from “friends, Romans, countrymen,” I think most people would forget the histories entirely if Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch hadn’t played Prince Hal/Henry V and Richard III recently. But, for me, Shakespeare’s histories are some of the most fascinating plays to study, and not just because I’m a sucker for the Wars of the Roses.

The reason they’re so fascinating to me is because, given how I feel about the duty of storytellers to history, I really shouldn’t like them.

I’m one of those writers who believes that, when using history in a story, it is the duty of the writer to change their story to fit what we know about history. If we know Mehmet II’s forces defeated Vlad Tepes’, don’t have Dracula kill Mehmet at the end of your movie for a heroic ending. (Apparently, that’s how Dracula Untold ends. I have never seen it. A actually told me not to see it because, frankly, shit like that makes me genuinely angry.) Don’t characterize William Wallace as some woad-wearing, tartan-sporting Highland lord when EVERYTHING WE KNOW ABOUT THAT PERIOD SAYS THAT SHIT IS WRONG!!! (Also, and probably more importantly, don’t make Isabella of France, who was three at the time of the… wait. No. I’m getting side-tracked by anger parentheticals…)

Shakespeare’s histories are the kind of thing where the actual history is less important than the story being told. So why don’t his plays drive me into apoplectic fits of rage? Even Richard III, though that’s the one that causes my eye to twitch because, for God’s sake Bill, he wasn’t evil fucking Quasimodo! But why, then, do I tend to give William Shakespeare a pass?

Because he lived in a time where saying the wrong thing about the wrong person could get you killed.

For Shakespeare, then, history served as a distancing tool, a framing device a la Hamlet’s play-within-a-play scene. It allowed him to tell a more pertinent, topical story, a more political story, within the guise of people long dead. Richard III needed to be evil because Queen Elizabeth was Henry VII’s (Richmond in the play) granddaughter, and a man had to be an idiot not to make Richard a villain. There’s some thought, as I discussed back in April, that Richard III might have even been a character stand-in for Robert Cecil, and the story itself an allegory about the succession from a Catholic-sympathizing Shakespeare. Here’s the post if you’re interested. Henry V, with all its bombastic, pro-England speeches and victories, is like the Patton of its day. You could almost see Henry standing in front of the St. George Cross delivering speeches to the troops about St. Crispin’s Day and Agincourt. It was a piece of pro-English propaganda (though also remarkably nuanced in its depiction of war, particularly Henry’s violence in Harfleur, but I’ll get into that next time). So, then, especially with Shakespeare’s English histories, it is the conceit of keeping his head that causes Shakespeare to manipulate history to tell a larger truth. (It must also be noted that Antony and Cleopatra was not performed until after Elizabeth I had died, as writing about the fall of a great Queen might not have been particularly politic during her life.)

It also helps that Henry V gives us some great speeches, Richard II gives us John of Gaunt’s “this scepter’d isle”, and Richard III (though… terribly problematic… stupid withered arm and killing Somerset when he was two…) gives us a great (if, again, problematic) villain. Of course, it also pleases me that even Shakespeare, so determined to keep his head Shakespeare (which, of course, I support him in that because who wouldn’t?), couldn’t rob Richard III of his bravery in battle. The “my horse, my horse” line, so often misused out of context to demonstrate Richard’s cowardice, is actually Richard looking for a horse so he can charge back into battle against Richmond’s army. I’ve got a soft spot for Richard. He killed a lot of my family (and was family), but I kinda like him. Despite Shakespeare.

(That crazy lady who found his bones though? Calm down, lady. He wasn’t a saint just because Shakespeare turned him into an unduly villainous caricature.)

Anyway. That’s it for me today. Sorry I rambled. I’ll be back on Friday for this month’s inaugural Boozy Plays, where I’ll be pairing Richard II and Henry IV pt One. See you then!


Silly Sunday: St. Crispin’s Day!

Sorry, folks. Once again, you’re stuck with me. Sorry…again.

Also…no silliness today. Do you know why?

It’s the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt! And what kind of Shakespeare fan would I be if I didn’t celebrate this Crispin Crispian’s day? It took all my might not to go out and buy a little bow and arrow (you know, the ones they sell for kids?) and shoot at ersatz French knights while screaming Henry V’s “band of brothers” speech at the top of my lungs. As it was, I spent my entire workout whispering “once more unto the breach” when I reached the last set of a particular exercise.

I mean, there’s a reason the Agincourt speech waffles between my favorite and second favorite of all of Shakespeare’s historical speeches. The other is “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” and, yes, I have favorite speeches divided into categories. If I didn’t, I’d have 10 favorites and that’s just silly.

Well…I suppose I should leave you with something interesting. The following is a period carol; it was performed at the Tower of London for the 600th anniversary. And if there’s anything I love, it’s period music. Along with Shakespeare. And history. And many other things. I’m a being full of love.

Anyway…that’s it for today! I’ll see you tomorrow for my discussion of Samhain, the origin of Halloween.


Shakespeare Saturday: What to Watch?

Hello, Cactus-ites, and welcome to the second week of Shakespeare-a-palooza! As you might have noticed, we here at Nerd Cactus have dedicated this week to one of Shakespeare’s…less noticeable works: Love’s Labour’s Lost. We actually didn’t know much about this play (I still haven’t read it, truth be told) and even my rudimentary knowledge of its workings leads me to believe that it won’t be one of my favorites. That being said, I look forward to the performance because, if there’s anything I believe about Shakespeare, it’s that a good performance can change everything. Come the end of the month, I’ll let you know if the Bard’s linguistic gymnastics are, indeed, enough to change my opinion.

For the record, my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies is Twelfth Night. Yes, it’s basically a stereotype, full of cross-dressing and mistaken identity and everyone ends up happy (except maybe Malvolio), but I love it. It gives us one of my favorite of Shakespeare’s lines: “If music be the food of love, play on.” And it includes that one you’ve all heard: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” The fun part about that particular quote is that it comes to us via a fake letter from Olivia to Malvolio, as part of the massive prank everyone pulls on him. So the person purportedly saying it has no idea it’s even been written.

But I digress. Yes, I know, dear readers, I do that a fair bit. Please forgive me, for I do eventually reach my point, even if I do take a while. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but at least I recognize the irony of Polonius being the one to say it.

Anyway, as you no doubt know, Saturdays during the month of August are reserved for movie adaptations of the play we paired the day before. Last week was Hamlet, which has had enough adaptations to sink a small battleship (preferably taking the Mel Gibson version with it). This week, well…I ran into the opposite problem. There is exactly ONE film version of Love’s Labour’s Lost, and…it’s not even considered that good. Released in 2000, it was directed by Kenneth Branagh, who, though normally considered an unimpeachable source of the Bard’s works, had a bit of an off week. While it’s certainly not awful (come on, it’s Branagh doing Shakespeare, it won’t be awful), it’s not one of his best. That being said, when it’s good, it’s good; the problem is, it cuts out half the play, and there’s not much there to begin with. On the plus side, it’s staged like an old Hollywood musical and there’s plenty of Cole Porter and Gershwin to keep anyone happy. Even at his not-so-best, Branagh delivers style and sumptuous beauty. (Last I checked, it was still on Netflix, but don’t quote me.)

But…I can’t just recommend ONE movie to you, can I? No! Not when the Bard is involved! So…having recommended (and I do recommend it, even with its problems) the one version of this week’s play that made it to screen, I shall recommend some others that aren’t this week’s play. Don’t worry, no repeats of last week.

First up is an adaptation, not a filmed version of the play. Why? Because. That’s why. One of my favorite not-the-play Shakespeare movies is She’s the Man. OK, shut up…don’t judge me. It’s one of those movies that made me realize I’d judged Channing Tatum too harshly. Also, it’s quite amusing and it stars a pre-whatever-happened-to-Amanda Bynes Amanda Bynes. Perhaps not the greatest piece of cinema, it is nonetheless entertaining…and, again, Channing Tatum. Remember, if all else fails, enjoy his face. (But seriously, his character–Duke Orsino–is adorable. You’ll enjoy him.) (More parentheses! I’m not sure where to catch this movie. Try the internet. I saw it on TV the other day, but…I’m not good at finding things on the internet. Sorry.)

Moving on to filmed versions of the plays! Do you love Joss Whedon? I know I do. Sure, Avengers: Age of Ultron was a bit problematic, but was that Whedon’s fault or the studio’s? I’d be willing to bet a director’s cut of that movie would be a damn masterpiece, is what I would bet. Anyway…did you know that his idea of a party is to get together with his friends and act out Shakespeare? Did you also know that, to deal with the stress of directing the first Avengers movie, he filmed a low-budget version of one of these parties starring…pretty much everyone you’ve ever seen in a Whedon anything? That’s right. And it’s my OTHER favorite Shakespeare comedy: Much Ado About Nothing. I love it. It’s not one of those versions of Shakespeare set in space or re-imagined as an interpretive dance, but you can tell everyone had a good time filming it, and that counts for a lot. And, if you don’t like this version, there’s always Branagh! Good ol’ Branagh. Pretty soon, he’ll be filming the sonnets. (Like Love’s Labour’s Lost, I believe this is still available on Netflix.)

I would be remiss if I didn’t remind everyone that West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet with knife dances. It’s got my one of my least favorite songs in a musical ever (“Maria”), but also one of my favorites:

So, I think that’s enough about that. Finding West Side Story isn’t hard.

Next up is the play with my FAVORITE SPEECH IN THE HISTORY OF SHAKESPEARE. The “band of brothers” speech, in the hands of a good actor, is magical. Henry V is Shakespeare’s Overture of 1812, a bombastic celebration of England’s greatness, full of rousing crescendos and cannons. OK, so there were no cannon in the play, but evidence suggests they absolutely were part of the Battle of Agincourt in some capacity. And, remember, King Henry promises to turn tennis balls into cannon shot. I’ve got two versions of this to recommend: 1944’s version with Laurence Olivier (because, um, Olivier) and 2012’s version with Tom Hiddleston (because it’s Tom Hiddleston). I’d argue that Olivier’s is better, but the more recent version has the benefit of not being something Captain America could have watched before going into the ice. If neither of those are your cup of tea, guess what? Branagh has a version of this, too (from 1989)! Again, to the internets with you if you want to watch it!

Moving on to my OTHER must-know-and-adore speech, I recommend to you Julius Caesar, starring a…just spectacular Marlon Brando as Mark Antony. His version of the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech will leave you breathless. A lot of people were worried he wouldn’t be able to keep up with some of his more prestigious co-stars, but he blew those guys out of the water. He is passionate and angry, and his performance washes over you like a sandstorm, scouring away until you’re left raw and choking with the force of it. I love it. I love it, I love it, I love it. As I’ve mentioned before, this speech inspired a life-long love of Mark Antony that continues to this day. (OT: This is not Shakespeare, but James Purefoy’s Antony in HBO’s Rome is amazing. I love that they didn’t try to show his speech over Caesar’s body, though, because they could never beat Shakespeare.)

My second-to-last pick is Olivier’s Richard III, made in 1955. Why, you may ask, when I have made known my distaste of Shakespeare’s felonious mis-characterization of King Richard III (in the name of Tudor propaganda) many, many times, and with varying degrees of anger? Well, because it’s still a damn good play. And because Laurence Olivier is a damn fine actor. Also, because it’s on Hulu as part of their Criterion Collection! Yay, Hulu!

Finally…and this may shock a number of you, I’m going to Japan. No, this is not Branagh’s version of As You Like It, which I do recommend. In fact, I could recommend versions of Shakespeare until my eyes bleed. There’s Zeffirelli’s version of Romeo and Juliet as well as Baz Lurhmann’s from 1996, staring Leonardo diCaprio and Claire Danes. Al Pacino plays Shylock in a 2004 version of The Merchant of Venice that somehow managed to keep me from getting too angry at the whole notion of Shylock’s stereotypical existence. There are so many versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I don’t know that I can pick one (though the 1935 version is…well, it’s got Cagney as Bottom, and that should tell you enough). I haven’t even mentioned Orson Welles! Oh God, Orson Welles. Why do we seem to remember you solely for Citizen Kane?! But if I went through every version of Shakespeare worth mentioning, I’d be here forever, so instead…I go to Japan. And Akira Kurosawa.

Kurosawa is not just the director of Seven Samurai (which later became The Magnificent Seven in the West and DOESN’T NEED A REMAKE, HOLLYWOOD, EVEN IF IT WILL HAVE CHRIS PRATT IN IT!), and other such wonderfully Japanese movies. He also did a version of Macbeth that will haunt you. You will find yourself thinking about it for days afterward, loving both the fact that the movie is spectacular and the sheer universality of Shakespeare’s themes. Throne of Blood is not just a version of Macbeth set in the Far East; it is completely reworked to fit the political and social realities of a post-WW2 Japan. Shakespeare is turned into a condemnation of postwar imperialism and the leaders who’d led the nation into such a disastrous war, all for glory. And Throne of Blood‘s Lady Macbeth…man. What a performance. It is just SO GOOD. And proof that Shakespeare is not just an amazing English playwright, but an amazing storyteller the world over.

Wow. I…did not intend to write this much, guys. I also did not intend to take this long to write this. I got caught up in the research I was doing, I guess. I’ve watched a lot of Shakespeare adaptations (where I live affords me little chance to see him live, so I’ve made do), so it took me a while to go through and pick the ones I loved the most. I hope you guys enjoy these. Some of them are easy to find (Netflix and Hulu and YouTube, oh my!) and others are a bit of a search, but trust me…they’re all worth it.

Next week, we bring you Taming of the Shrew! I promise to find something worthwhile to say that I haven’t said before. Until then, happy viewing!


ps: If all else fails, watch Doctor Who! As mentioned already, Love’s Labour’s Lost is featured in Series 3, Episode 2, titled The Shakespeare Code. Want to watch it? Here you go!