Cymbeline is a play that I’d never read, never seen, and generally knew nothing about until last Tuesday night. It’s one of Shakespeare’s kind of obscure C-list plays that’s seldom performed, and I had no idea what I was in for when the lights dimmed and the show started. The production was, strictly speaking, an adaptation of Cymbeline. While the original play was there, the director had added in a piano player/narrator type character who contextualized and commented on what was happening in the play (honestly, I did not find this to be a particularly interesting addition). I enjoyed the production quite a bit, but afterwards I completely understood why Cymbeline is so seldom performed: it’s an utter mess.
Make no mistake, it’s a really entertaining mess, but I’m pretty sure that Shakespeare just kind whipped up to amuse himself as it contains themes, riffs, and bits from just about every other Shakespeare play. A dottering old king like a la King Lear? Check. A conniving queen like the one from Macbeth? Check. A dude who is duped into thinking that his wife is cheating on him by a lying, manipulative douchebag and who subsequently wants to kill said wife a la Othello? Check. That drug from Romeo and Juliet that makes you seem dead even though you’re not? Check. Female-to-male cross dressing straight out of Twelfth Night? Check. Mistaken identity and misunderstandings in the spirit of Much Ado About Nothing? Check.
The various plots of Cymbeline ping-pong about ancient Britain, down to Rome, and back again, and Celts, Centurions, and hilarious Welsh hillbillies all show up, because why the hell not. Then, after a big battle that seems to happen just so the play can have a climax, all of the various plots are resolved in one big end scene that wraps it all up with a crowd-pleasing happy ending. Cymbeline is disjointed, messy, weird, thematically unstable, and I kind of loved it. It is like Shakespeare made a Girl Talk track out of all of his previous works, sat back, and then let the crowd eat it up.
It’s certainly not as affecting as King Lear, as magical as the Tempest, or as funny as Much Ado. Cymbeline is, though, of a glorious example of everything getting put in the Bard-blender and then being served up as a frothy drama-smoothie. It is,and I use this term wholly unironically, totally epic.
Weird, sexy, dark shit. Black leather and nasty violence, bloody messes and flamboyant costumes. Recently I saw two movies that had these enticing properties in spades upon spades. One of them was actually good, and the other was enjoyable trash. Repo! The Genetic Opera is not a good movie. I did, however, find it immensely enjoyable. The film very much wants to be the next Rocky Horror Picture Show, and its earnest desire to supplant that flick as the reigning midnight movie is actually sort of cute. Rocky Horror, though, is ultimately a fun little romp about exciting underwear with not much in the way of blood and gore. Repo!, though, more than outperforms Rocky Horror when it comes to blood, gore, and sheer fuck up-edness.
The plot, such as it is, focuses on Anthony Stewart Head (you know, Giles from Buffy) as a futuristic repo man who extracts designer organs from deadbeats who can’t pay their surgery bill. Also, there’s some implied sibling fucking and a neon-blue corpse-based designer drug in their somewhere. Also, Sarah Brighton sings (oh yeah- it’s a rock opera with songs of dubious musical quality) and Paris Hilton’s face falls off. It is awesome. It’s not good, artful, or redeeming, but it kicks ass. I would recommend watching it with lots of booze and lots of friends. My group peppered the screen with MST3K style retorts, and we frequently had to stop for “booze breaks.” Repo! isn’t the next Rocky Horror, but the world is a bit more nifty because of its existence.
Titus, though, is an actual good movie. This is surprising, given the source material, Titus Andronicus, considered one of Shakespeare’s worst plays. The Bard wrote it very early in his career, and I suspect that the budding playwright was thinking of little else besides how to pack the house with rabble. This is several orders of magnitude down from, say, King Lear. Titus Andronicus is grindhouse Shakespeare. Heads and hands are lopped of characters, rape and insanity feature prominently, someone gets their tongue ripped from their head, an absurd body count mounts, cannibalism and slaughter ensue, and there’s even some blaxploitation in there.
Director Julie Taymor obviously realized this, so Titus is an insane, weird, costume-heavy, gory, version of the play that gleefully slams anachronisms together, mixing gladiator armor with overcoats, vibing together the aesthetics of ancient and fascist Rome in a blend of insanity that just sort of works with the over-the-top source material. Anthony Hopkins plays the title character with more than a little of his Hannibal Lecter-y scenery chewing, and it’s an entirely appropriate leading performance to go with all of the swirly weird shit, severed limbs, casual murder, and general shininess that pervades the film. If you like Shakespeare (or just movies with really nice costumes and/or orgies) see it. That old Elizabethian hack would be proud.
After seeing King Lear last week and still eager to shovel dollops of culture into my brain, I rented a movie that I’ve been meaning to see for a while: Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, an adaptation of Lear that resets the story in Edo-era Japan. I’ve liked the other Kurosawa movies that I’ve seen, and I saw little reason why this one wouldn’t be awesome. It does, after all, take a crushingly dark tale of crushing darkness and then amp up the kickassitude by adding samurai. It had to be awesome, right?
Short review: Ran is awesome!
Longer review: Ran is fucking awesome!!!
Somewhat more thorough review: Ran is a remarkably clean and direct movie. I can see how that could be taken as something of a backhanded compliment, but I don’t mean anything of the sort. When I say that it’s “clean and direct” I mean that it takes a story of intrigue, betrayal, shifting alliances, and high emotion and presents it all in a remarkably non-messy way. There are a lot of things going on, and a lot of really dramatic shit happening, and I kept thinking while I was watching it that there was a lot of potential for the story to get muddled. There was no muddle, though. That’s a big, big deal, that kind of clarity and directness.
I also had a great deal of appreciation for how it was all shot. Most of the scenes had several people in the frame at once, and they tended to react to each other, not the camera. I also don’t remember seeing any close-up shots. Close ups, I think, are somewhat overused. Directors seem to have this attitude of “How should I show the audience that there is emotion going on? Am I going to trust the strength of the narrative? No! I’m going to zoom in uncomfortably close on someone’s face!” Most of the time, though, closeups are really not that compelling. Unless you’ve got an actor who can really pull it off, I don’t think most directors should bother with them.
Oftentimes, I got the impression that I was watching a play that had been filmed, and I mean that in a good way. The actors were all in the frame together, reacting to each other, and even if they were just sitting at attention they didn’t vanish from the action- the director was thinking about the whole scene, not just what happened to be moving about at the time. That’s not something you see very often, and I was impressed by the weird and wonderful stylistic difference between Ran and, well, most everything else.
So it’s well made. Very well made. It’s emotionally compelling, and I was more than a little emotionally effected at the end. It’s great. In and of itself, it’s utterly phenomenal.
But how does it compare to King Lear? Obviously, this must be scored and quantified.
A Few Ways in Which Ran is Totally Better Than King Lear
1. The Cordelia character is actually interesting. Cordelia is one of the weakest bits about Lear. She’s basically Pretty Princess Perfectpants and about as compelling as a Hallmark card. Ran‘s equivalent of Cordelia, Saburo, is someone who actively calls out his dad on his bs, and is somewhat of a swaggering, mouthy guy. Totally better than a stupid little princess.
2. The Fool doesn’t weirdly disappear. One thing that’s always bugged me about Lear: Where the hell is the Fool at the end of the play? Did he get lost in the storm? Wander off? What? I’ve always thought that he got eaten by the bear from The Winter’s Tale, but my theory is not widely subscribed to. In Ran, he’s actually around until the very end, which is more consistent.
3. Evil femme-fatale! Sure, Lear has Goneril and Regan, but they’re not quite this dark. Lady Kaede, a manipulative superbitch who bends men to her will by pouring honeyed words into their ears and also having sex with them, may not exactly be a paragon of feminism, but she was fun to watch. She’s eeeeeeeeevil! 4. Samurai doing the wave! Really. I’m not kidding. It just sort of comes out of nowhere. A Few Ways in which Ran is Not as Good as King Lear 1. Not enough eye gouging! When I saw King Lear with my friend L, she mentioned that her favorite line in all of Shakespeare was “Out, vile jelly!” spoken triumphantly by Cornwall as he gouges out Glouster’s eyes. Ran does not have an eye-removal scene, which sort of made me sad. There is a guy who’s had his eyes gouged out, but it’s just not the same.
2. No Edmund! Edmund is awesome. I think he’s one of Shakespeare’s more fun villains, a clever, conniving charismatic evildoer who, in some productions, gets to make out with Goneril and Regan. Plotting complicated, scheming webs of evil while doing the deed of darkness with a pair of very naughty girls sounds like a fun time to me, and I was disappointed that he wasn’t around. Lady Kaede sort of made up for it, though. 3. No clever disguises! One of the reason why the storm scene is so awesome is that everyone’s either in disguise or insane except for the Fool, a bit of dramatic irony that has fueled thousands of high school English papers. Edgar was pretty much excised, though, and the Kent character in Ran spent barely a scene in his disguise. Working in alternate identities may have bogged down Ran a bit, but I still missed them a little.
4. No Fool banter! Sure, the Fool is in the movie, but he doesn’t have nearly the sort of weirdly omniscient commentary that he has in King Lear. He is, though, quite the spry and jumpy little fellow, and fun to watch. Still, though… I like his stuff that almost breaks the fourth wall.
All in all, though, a great movie. If you like Shakespeare and/or samurai, you should see it. Quite possibly the best Shakespeare movie I’ve ever seen. Well, maybe not the best Shakespeare movie. That would be Ten Things I Hate About You. That movie rocks.
Along with The Tempest, King Lear is probably one of my two favorite Shakespeare plays. I remember, very clearly, the process of reading it for the first time.
It was my birthday, my eighteenth birthday, and I couldn’t sleep. I looked up at the clock and saw that it was three in the morning, but no part of the mechanisms of sleep complied with that. I knew that I would miss three hours of rest, that I would be a unslept and groggy on my first day of legal adulthood, so I figured that I might as well do something productive with my time. I got out King Lear, which I needed to read for English later that week. I read the whole thing before my first class started, pretty much unable to put it down. I found it surprising. It was so very, very dark that I was inescapably captivated by it. It’s a play with storms, insanity, torture and death aplenty, and I couldn’t put it down, even though I found myself getting more bummed out as I continued to read it.
The morning of my eighteenth birthday, King Lear depressed the hell out of me. Reading it for the very first time with no idea of what happened at the end gave me this feeling of “Oh god, there is nothing positive about the world.” So of course it’s become one of my favorite bits of literature ever, and I jumped at the chance to see it on Thursday in Cathedral Park.
When one thinks of the phrase “Shakespeare in the park,” one often imagines fumbled lines, missed cues, and the inarticulate trampling of iambic petameter. I showed up fully expecting the production to be very “okay” and was surprised to see that the Portland Actors Ensemble did a terrific job. In face, the “in the park” aspect of it was one of the best things about the production. The outdoor venue and public space were a serious asset for the whole thing, rather than a liability.
Take a look at that picture of the underside of the St. John’s Bridge there. You like big, creepy gothic stuff? I know I do. Well, how do you like them arches? Now imagine some old dude screaming up up at those neo-gothic arches and shouting “And thou, all-shaking thunder, smite flat the thick rotundity ‘o the world!” Get the picture? Pretty fucking sweet, huh? Even better than that, it was actually raining. Not as much as it really could have been- not enough for Lear to have a full-blown storm to rage at, but it was a nice addition, nonetheless.
It was also neat to see the actors entering and exiting from all directions. Yes, I know that having actors climb through the fourth wall is something that’s been around for quite some time, but when done right it’s still highly cool. More than having entrances and exits via the stairwell that ran through the audience, though (there it is in the picture) was that after the intermission the doorway in the arch was taken down and one could see the actors striding toward the center of the stage, sihouetted in the archway before they made their entrances. Having Edmund in shadows in the background while Glouster wailed up at the sky behind his bloody eyemask was really, really fucking cool.
By the end of the play I’d totally forgotten that I was at a free performance. No, scratch that. I hadn’t forgotten that I was at a free performance. Rather, the DIY-ness of it all just increased my enjoyment of it. They were using a public space instead of a set, fairly cheap costumes, there was ambient noise from the bridge and the street, everyone was getting rained on, and that made it all better. This wasn’t art inside some hermetic space or presented in some sort of pristine matter. The messiness of the situation granted it a certain kind of authenticity. That’s what it had- authenticity. That’s what I want, what so many people of my age and type want. Something stripped of artifice and slickness, or at least something that is conscious of such. Moreover, lack of artifice should be supplanted with a certain unfeigned enthusiasm, a truthfulness and security in one’s actions and creations, an unsentimental sincerity that seems to pervade the DIY aesthetic. Lear in the park certainly had that.
I had a blast, and am certainly planning on seeing their next performance, Henry IV Part One. Also, I rented Ran, Kurosawa’s film based on Lear. Totally epic, and the subject of a future post.