Shakespeare buffs may be surprised by “Will”

Marlow & Will. Of course they are beautiful. It’s an American show after all

Damn it’s hot; unseasonably hot even by Nevada standards. Normally the west eases into summer with the temperatures slowly rising so that by the time late August rolls around we are acclimated to the heat. But oh no, not this summer. This summer started in the triple digits and there seems to be no sign of cooling down. How hot is it, you might ask? Last night’s thunder clouds didn’t result in any dry lighting. It was as if even the lighting didn’t want to be anywhere near the scorching heat.

Compounding the heat wave issues the air conditioner in our office building isn’t working properly, forcing us to work in stifling conditions. Forget hot yoga, I’m doing hot work. For a woman of a certain age (cough, cough) this is beyond acceptable as I have my own private summer to deal with. The quote “I’m melting, I’m melting”, springs to mind as I do nothing more after work than lay under a large fan and pant. Will this horror never end?

I haven’t attempted to write these last few weeks as my brain is fried by the time I get home. I have tried to do some reading, but this summer’s choices have been duds. I think I will do a book review on what to avoid, later in the week.

I did, however, manage to watch the pilot episode of TNT’s “Will”. Between all the hype & criticism I figured I would keep an open but skeptical mind and decide for myself if this is a series worth watching. For those of you who may have missed the announcement, here is how they are selling the series:

Will tells the wild story of young William Shakespeare’s (Laurie Davidson) arrival onto the punk-rock theater scene in 16th century London — the seductive, violent world where his raw talent faced rioting audiences, religious fanatics and raucous side-shows. It’s a contemporary version of Shakespeare’s life, played to a modern soundtrack that exposes all his recklessness, lustful temptations and brilliance. 

My first thought when I originally read this was, ‘Does TNT know something scholars do not?” How do they know he was reckless and lustful (his brilliance is obvious) and so dismissed it as part of the dumbing down of the American youth. I mean really, is this the best we can hope for as far as showing Shakespeare to a young TV audience? But then again, we are talking about America so, you know…

Someone mentioned to me that if this turns out to be a gateway to an interest in Shakespeare, it couldn’t be all that bad, could it?

Thanks to Amazon video, I was able to purchase the first episode. So, fan overhead, a glass of ice water at my side, I got through the entire show without falling asleep or screaming at my TV.

Without giving some of the plot away (what little plot there is) here are my initial thoughts.

The set and wardrobe designs are bright, I mean dazzling! For 16th century London where most everyone was poor and shabby, all the characters were dressed as if Yves Saint Laurent personally picked out their clothes. The only difference between the well off and the poor was the amount of dirt rubbed into the designer clothing. This brilliance of color on every pixel of the screen didn’t pull me in; it was actually a little jarring at first. But, as the London scene unfolded I realized the desired effect wasn’t to pull the viewer into 16th century London, but to 70’s London, more specifically the underground punk scene. This begs the question, if the producers want to modernize Shakespeare for young audience, why the punk era? How many kids born after 1990 know anything about mosh pits and rooster comb hairstyles? And yes, we get both in this show.

Having it set in the Hip-Hop era would have made a little more sense. And given that one scene was a takeoff on a rap battle (battle of words in this case) may have played better. Not that I am complaining, the punk era worked for me, but I’m old enough to have been in a mosh pit and spent hours listening to The Clash (the background music of choice for” Will”).

And of course, this being an American show, the entire young cast is beautiful; complete with dazzling white teeth. This has led to some criticism of the show by others, so I won’t go to deep into this topic. Only to say that I was not as surprised by this as others were. Again, we are talking about American TV.

The plot was on the thin side, but then again, how much plot can you have when it involves a young 16th century playwright and his quest to become famous? The opening scene informs us Will is a married man with three children so there cannot be a love interest, right? Wrong! On his very first day in London Shakespeare meets a woman who finds him attractive, and he her. We see where this is going… And of course it gets there quickly.

There is some tension built around the religious persecution of Catholics. We are led to believe that Shakespeare’s family has strong Catholic views, and even though it may mean death, his father instructs him to deliver a letter to his uncle; a letter that if falling in the wrong hands would out the family as Catholic Doesn’t this man have his own raven? Oops, sorry, wrong show. But the explanation as to why the Catholics are being rounded up and tortured is brief and if one is not paying close attention is lost. If I remember correctly it is an eight-sentence discussion between two men. If this is to be the sub-plot then I would have expected more because those who are not history majors may wonder what all the fuss is about.  

Though the show was not bad, I’m just not sure it will work. The characters are far too stereotypical to be interesting. The torture and brutality may wear thin (I’m told later in the series there is a bear baiting scene in which the poor creature is disemboweled), and the plot is so thin you can see right through it.

But yet, I encourage those of you who are fans of Shakespeare to at least watch the first episode because surprisingly, there are a few smart scenes that only true Shakespeare buffs can, and will appreciate. It was fun to “see” Robert Greene calling Shakespeare an “upstart crow” and losing face while doing so. I am sure the anti-Stratfordians would not appreciate the idea of Shakespeare writing a play and giving credit to Marlow, but I snickered.I wish it the show was a little more interesting, because it is obvious someone on the writing staff knows their Shakespeare.

“Will” is not a show I care to watch, but to be fair to TNT, I am not into any show (save GOT) that uses graphic violence as a plot device. I’m not opposed to it, I’m just over it (sorry Walking Dead). Others may not be so sensitive.

I cannot tell if this will bring about an interest in Shakespeare; there was no reciting of any of his work in the first episode. Perhaps as the story processes there will be brief scenes involving his work and making it relevant to today’s youth. But even if it doesn’t I can think of worse ways to spend time out of the summer heat. Reading a poorly written book comes to mind.

 

Does our mind a prison make? Hag-Seed a review

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About a year ago Hogarth Publishing reached out to a group of authors for what seemed like an impossible task; take a Shakespeare play and redo it for a modern audience. Eight authors took up the challenge: Tracy Chevalier; Margaret Atwood; Howard Jacobs; Anne Tyler; Jeanette Winterson; Edward St Aubyn; Gillain Flynn, and Joe Nesbo. You can read about it here http://hogarthshakespeare.com/

Although the lineup is impressive the news was met by a lot of criticism by authors, scholars, and the public alike. Why attempt to update the master when it is clear that his works still hold up? There were many an online discussions about the subject, and blog posts blasting the idea of modernizing Shakespeare. I had to laugh at the hypocrisy of one author who took a dim view to the Hogarth’s undertaking while making sure to let his readers knew he would be retelling Hamlet from Marcellus’ point of view.

The publishing house did not do its self any favors by the lack of explanation of how the authors were going to go about it. Many understood it to mean that these eight authors thought themselves worthy of changing words and scenes. The outcry over the “retooling” went on a little to long before it was announced in subsequent interviews that the author were simply taking the plots and retelling them as modern works literature.

Yet the unease that many felt was not allayed when the first go, Winterson’s book, The Gap of Time based on The Winter’s Tale, did not do well with mature book readers and critics alike. I picked it up while at the library one day and found that it read like a sappy young-adult novel, complete with short sentences and a heroine that sounded like a Disney Princess. I had to agree with the critics of the endeavor; if this was to be the norm then this was not going to turn out well. At least that was my opinion at the time. Oh but soon, I would learn just how wrong I was at least when it comes to Atwood’s book, Hag-Seed based on the Tempest.

Now, I have to be honest. I am no fan of Atwood. I read her book The Handmaiden’s Tale years ago and found it mildly disturbing. But I understand that she is a popular author so when the favorable reviews for Hag-Seed started popping up I simply chalked it up to her popularity with the masses. But once again Twitter prompted me to do a double take. Readers from all over started posting about how good it was. And so, one rainy day I decided to see what all the fuss was about.

One of my favorite things about the Amazon Kindle app is the ability to download a free book sample. So on this rainy day, I downloaded the sample and started reading. And to my amazement, I couldn’t put it down. Oh I had to read this book! The first two pages pull you in and demand your complete attention. Felix, the Prospero of this book had placed a spell on me, but not enough for me to purchase the Kindle edition. $13.00 for the opportunity to read a book that cannot be placed in a shelf of honor or passed to a close friend? Never!

I refuse to pay over $9.00 for a Kindle book (and even that hurts) so I searched my local library for a copy. The one and only copy was checked out but due back in a few days so I reserved it, and picked it up the following Friday. By Sunday morning I had finished the book.

From the publisher:

Felix is at the top of his game as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. His productions have amazed and confounded. Now he’s staging a Tempest like no other: not only will it boost his reputation, it will heal emotional wounds.

Or that was the plan. Instead, after an act of unforeseen treachery, Felix is living in exile in a backwoods hovel, haunted by memories of his beloved lost daughter, Miranda. And also brewing revenge.

After twelve years, revenge finally arrives in the shape of a theatre course at a nearby prison. Here, Felix and his inmate actors will put on his Tempest and snare the traitors who destroyed him. It’s magic! But will it remake Felix as his enemies fall?

This re-imaging of The Tempest has everything a good novel should. An unforgettable character in Felix, a haunting character in Miranda, Felix’s long dead daughter that he cannot let go of, and some light comic relief peppered throughout the story in the guise of the inmates. But the most remarkable thing about this book is Atwood’s keen insight into The Tempest and what it can mean to a modern audience.

Atwood gives us a sympathetic character in Felix. He is man who cannot let of his past, and it becomes his prison. He lost his three year old daughter Miranda to a fever because he was too self-absorbed to notice her illness. He allows Miranda to haunt him. He imagines she is still with him, and over the years he sees her as she would be had she lived. They talk and play Chess. Being a mere wisp of a ghost she cannot leave the house Felix lives in, so she too is imprisoned.

Felix spends his days in a local correctional center producing Shakespeare plays staring the inmates. It is here that Felix hatches a plan for revenge on those who were instrumental to his downfall. And this thirst for revenge is yet another prison as Felix cannot move forward or move from his lowly station. Yet it is the inmates and an unwitting subject caught in Felix’s revenge that finally help him break free.

For those who love to study and even teach Shakespeare, the scenes in which Felix and the inmates discuss the play make the book worth reading. He encourages them to find all of the prisons within the play and they have a serious discussion about what constitutes a prison. Is it a place? Yes. A state of mind? Most certainly. But most importantly to the inmates and to the original play, it is usually circumstances beyond our control.

Arial and Caliban have always lived on the island, but it is not until Prospero shows up do they both find themselves trapped. The inmates identify with these two characters as they see society in the character of Prospero. One inmate noted that Prospero shouldn’t have been surprised when Caliban turned on him and tried to rape Miranda. Prospero made him feel as if he belonged and then “turned natural” when it came to wanting Miranda. “She was the only woman there. What else was he supposed to do”?

Felix does not allow his incarcerated actors to swear so he devises a plan that allows them to pick out Shakespearean insults and fling them at will. Flesh-eater, and a pox o’ your throat, you bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog (or several versions of this phrase) are favored by the inmates.

It is in the middle of the book that the inmates take center stage as they work though the play and its message. And it is here that the book really has its heart. It’s just too bad Atwood did not take more time to develop these characters. I felt she used them and then tossed them aside, much like prison inmates feel used by society. Maybe that was her intention, but I felt she could have given us one or two stand-out characters that we could grapple with and debate over just as we debate over Caliban and his role in The Tempest.

This sub-plot of the inmate’s education makes up for the larger plot of revenge. When we get to the revenge scenes we find that Atwood, always imaginative, stretches the bounds of credibility. But in this she is forgiven because the book ends on such a heartfelt note.

It cannot be easy to take on Shakespeare. To look at one of his plays and think, “hum..how can I modernize this, how can I make it appealing to a larger audience?”

Thankfully Atwood does not take us scene by scene or even try to recreate the absurdity of the shipwrecked fools. Doing so would have cheapened her book. The setting is no place for fools; prison life is subject to too many harsh realities and dangers. But this is also what makes this endeavor a little dangerous. By eliminating characters and scenes (and adding a few of her own to the play-within the book) there is the danger that readers may think they’ve read The Tempest, or at least a stand-in for the play, when in fact they’ve hardly scratched the surface. No, Atwood’s book is a nod to Shakespeare, and nothing else.

This is a fine book, and I do recommend it. However, I am not sure Atwood has met Hogarth’s original intent, if their intent was to modernize his plays. But then, their intent is a still a little ambiguous. The one line from the About section their website reads: The Hogarth Shakespeare project sees Shakespeare’s works retold by acclaimed and bestselling novelists of today. I am still unsure of what this means. You will just have to read the book for yourself and decide if this book is up to the unnecessary task of retelling Shakespeare’s story. Yes, I think the task is unnecessary, but if it produces books like Hag-Seed, I think the endeavor is at least worthy of consideration.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret Hag-Seed Random House. October 11, 2016. Print Edition

Hogarth Shakespeare Online http://hogarthshakespeare.com/

Next up, I thought we would start talking about Shakespeare’s work, in the original. We are going to go thru the plays alphabetically one by one, finding one or two points for consideration and how they relate to our modern era. First up All’s Well that Ends Well and the study of obsession.  Stay tuned!