Theatre in Wales

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Shakespeare The Director's Cut Volume 2 The Histories

Theatre Director Book

Michael Bogdanov , Capercaille Books , May 25, 2017
Theatre Director Book by Michael Bogdanov This second volume of Michael Bogdanov on Shakespeare was published two years after the first. It includes a few quotations of recommendation for the first volume which are apposite. Michael Pennington is not quite a voice of objectivity but he has a nice summary. “He is at once scholar, provocateur, puritan and Lord of Misrule.” Willy Maley, a Professor of Renaissance Studies, praises the practitioner's knowledge as to what works on stage. But more importantly the performance is “never losing sight of what is most politically resonant and socially engaged. The meat is moist closest to the bone, and these are choice cuts from a master.”

The histories under discussion are the five monarchs from Richard II to Richard III. Again it is a slim 160 pages, slim but tough-minded. Once again there is knowledge of the background; so it not just Holinshed's history but the second volume of 1587. Bogdanov knows the texts where the Welsh language has ceased to appear. Geoffrey of Monmouth, who was crucial for the plot of “King Lear”, can be seen in the rebels' defeat in “Henry IV, Part I.” Shakespeare's partiality for things Welsh might have been the influence of his school teacher, Thomas Jenkins. Then again his grandmother was Alys Griffin from a possibly exalted lineage of Wales.

There is no introduction by Peter Stead for this volume but in its place a twenty-two page introduction to the English Shakespeare Company. It set sail with £100,000 from the Arts Council of Great Britain and similar amounts from the Allied Irish Bank and the Canadian Mervishes. Prior to that “I had been doing mediocre work at the National Theatre.” The results were a wonder. Soon the director-founder has Michael Billington in for a critical punching with John Peter swift to follow. Richard II becomes a Regency dandy of a Beau Brummell kind. Jack Cade has spiky red hair and a Union Jack t-shirt. A mass by Byrd accompanies a battle scene. Berg's atonal violin concerto is used to suggest disintegration.

The span of government has changed but its dilemmas persist. On the fifth page of the book Northumberland is criticising the waste and incompetence in the management of the public finances. Ross lambasts the “grievous taxes” in pursuit of war and private extravagance. The remoteness of power is unchanged. John of Gaunt: “A thousand flatterers sit within thy crown/ Whose compass is no bigger than thy head.”

Richard II was ripe material for the stage for his cronyism and readiness to murder and three other plays were performed in Shakespeare's time. Elizabeth did not care for its portrayal of a court filled with favourites and flatterers. At the end Bogdanov sees much sympathy in the fallen king. “I did waste time and now doth time waste me/ For now hath time made me his numbering clock."

Falstaff dominates the next stage. The nine early years in Ireland were crucial for Bogdanov and he sees the fat knight as decidedly un-English. He likens him to Dylan Thomas or Brendan Behan. He has little time for Prince Hal and has a swing at Michael Billington over what he sees as a textual misreading of a Hytner production. The war in France was won more by luck than judgement. Harfleur is the scene of atrocity.

Henry VI is notable for the emergence on stage of female power. It also sees the political order under most threat. Jack Cade is “a cross between democratic utopianism and fascist dictatorship.” Over fifty thousand died at the Battle of Towton, a number greater, the author reminds us, than any before or since in a battle on British territory. Richard of Gloucester is at first just the ultimate arbiter of realpolitik with his “I will break a thousand oaths to reign one year." Later he becomes a prefiguring exemplar for modern nihilism, a Nietzchean uebermensch. Bogdanov irreverently evokes Schwarzenegger and the early Eastwood.

Shakespeare through the Bogdanov telescope is not a figure of remote time. Then as now “sanguine, rational people succumb to the rush of adrenalin that the sound of drum and shell stir in the blood.” The writer is generous with quotation from the plays. The writing is informal. Fluellen “produces a leek of Max Boycean proportions.” The Henry VI's “sprawl and brawl and run wildly up and down the field like a kid with a new pair of football boots that are too big.” He himself says there is too much Blair in the text but he is an excitable writer. But most of all Bogdanov is excited by Shakespeare and that excitement jumps off the page.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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