Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Shakespeare's Macbeth: A Media Guide

I have recently produced Macbeth: A Media Guide. Here is an extract from the introduction:

Although the main focus in this guide is on the most influential film and TV versions of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, other audio and web-resources are also recommended. However, this guide begins by offering links to learning resources for younger children who are studying Shakespeare for the first time. Contemporary re-mediation is constantly refashioning the Shakespearean canon, drawn to the creative risk of playing with the brand and mixing up the source code, or simply aiming to make the drama more accessible to new audiences in a digital age.

We have moved a long way since Mary and Charles Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare was the primary choice for children. In fact, there is a long tradition of lavishly illustrated editions of Shakespeare, revealing that the text was seldom required to function on its own (Richmond, 2008; Rokison 2013). For instance, high quality media resources have been produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Shakespeare Learning Zone and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which have been expertly matched to various levels of learning, often employing elements of contemporary popular culture. Naomi Miller has remarked, ‘children and young adults represent an enormous potential market for Shakespearean material’ (2). 

Yet there are now so many resources available that guidance might be helpful for stressed-out teachers and for students driven crazy by the constant drilling of exams. While there have been 400 reputable films based on plays by Shakespeare, the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) lists an astonishing 1,451 films credits for William Shakespeare (Writer). Evidently, commercial forces have capitalised on Shakespeare as a popular brand, just as the more media-oriented academics have followed in their path.

Nonetheless, there are perennial concerns that children are being denied access to authentic “Shakespeare”, if they rely on animations, abridgements, or heavily remixed appropriations. While there are problems with a reliance on clips that fragment the total effect of a full-length drama, Boose & Burt (1997) argued that ‘this shift to a cultural studies approach opens new possibilities for a kind of Shakespeare criticism with wider appeal to a non-academic public’ (10). At the end of the guide there is a bibliography of academic books and articles which have discussed the presentation, appropriation and adaptation of Macbeth on screen and in other media.

In fact, film versions of Macbeth date back to the earliest days of silent film (1916). Since then we have witnessed British and Hollywood versions of the play with a wide variety of famous actors and directors attempting to put their stamp on the Scottish Tragedy. Notable also is the global dimension as more films, clips and resources become easier to access through YouTube. Increasingly, live performances are also being documented and are sometimes distributed online streaming, or via DVD.

More recently we have had animations and even robotic versions of the play. Students can work through teacher-led exam focused close analysis of the text, or watch short clips of amateur and professional actors offering their interpretations.

Please help me to expand this very rough guide by filling in the gaps with your own recommendations.

1. Resources for schools                                                                             
2. Recordings of live performances                                                         
3. Podcasts                                                                                               
4. Feature-length films                                                                           
5. Audio recordings                                                                                 
6. History / context / discussion                                                              
7. Lectures                                                                                               
8. Other film adaptations                                                                        
9. Games and quizzes                                                                              
10. Further reading                                                                              

Friday, 19 April 2019

Emancipatory Gothic - Jekyll and Hyde

Immense creative opportunities arise from the adaptation of literary texts to stage productions, but too often they are merely slavish imitations and contribute only to heritage theatre. Fortunately, playwright Evan Placey has chosen to use R. L. Stevenson’s late nineteenth-century source text for inspiration in a way that connects with a range of highly contemporary issues. It’s a brilliantly thought-provoking production that contributes to current debates about science and gender, patriarchy and heteronormativity, women’s liberation, and social media as an outlet for misogyny and as an opportunity for emancipation. On an another level, it is a deeply emotional experience that is embodied in the actors’ ability to communicate issues with an emotional urgency. 

The play exposes how performances and scripts create gender roles and suggests how they can be re-written. In particular, the second half of the play provides a stronger emphasis on (post)modern perspectives as we increasingly experience the liberating role of fan fiction in the transformation of classic texts. However, if it is starting to sound like a theatre of ideas and aesthetics, don’t be mistaken! It’s a highly physical performance and a call to action, with a reminder that actions speak louder than words, or perhaps that words should not be trusted (Nullius in verba is mentioned in the play — the motto of the Royal Society). 

There is perhaps a grotesque element that looks back to the infamous SCUM group, which published a radical feminist manifesto by Valerie Solanas in 1967, asserting that men had ruined the world and only women could fix it. Clearly the struggle against the oppression of women is an ongoing battle. The play also explores sexuality, taking hints from the homosocial aspect of Jekyll’s circle of male friends in Stevenson’s novella. Indeed, Enfield is explicitly exposed as a user of rent boys, for instance, and as someone who uses his status to put himself above and beyond the harsh Victorian laws that punished gay men at that time. In satirical terms there was a recurrent theme of hypocritical men, caught in a double life. Historical oppression is revived, but there is also a sense that narratives can be recomposed with multiple voices, a phenomenon that is becoming popular as “fan fiction”.

In gothic horror terms, the awakening of Frankenstein’s monster and the transformation of Jekyll into Hyde have become iconic cinematic moments that exceed their origins in Shelley’s or Stevenson’s text. This metamorphosis potentially presents a problem in a large theatre space. However, with support from Sarah Worth (Movement Director) the transformation scenes have a remarkable impact, as the focus shifts to a collective sense of empowerment that vibrantly occupies the vast space of the theatre with a strong message about the need for liberation. The young actors embraced the challenge with a strong ensemble performance. Moreover, the physical strength and power associated with Hyde in Stevenson’s text finds a modern parallel in the street protests which are supplemented by increasing energy and violence of the women’s actions. The counter-patriarchal violence also reveals the enactment or revenge for the many women who are still victims because their abuse is overlooked by the establishment. 

Stevenson’s source text had few roles for women. In the original there was a sentimental maid who recounted the violent killing of Sir Danvers Carew, before fainting; another was the ‘ivory-faced and silvery-haired old woman … an evil face, smoothed by hypocrisy’.  In contrast, Evan Placey’s version provides considerable opportunities for women to play a major role, challenging the tired gender stereotypes of traditional Gothic fiction. Strong performances resonated with the audience, from the domestic fragility of Jekyll (Niamh Franklin), to the assertiveness of the pleasure driven and grotesquely violent Hyde (Sophie Mae Reynolds); powerful and memorable acting was also contributed by Elijah McDowell, Thomas Manion, Miles Dunkley, Peter Harrison and Daniel J. Kenton in multiple roles. The company also drew on the strength and contribution of Brandon Hinds, Leah Jones, Ella Kirk, Renee Kelly, Sophie Wellawize, Kate Holmes, Katie Huffer, Scarlett Taylor, Maly Hussain and Shawnalee Stewart. 

A key element that helped to maintain the aesthetic coherence of the plot was the monumental musical score provided by Iain Armstrong. The range of music helped to create an atmosphere for key scenes and transformational moments; it also supported the general mood of mystery, intrigue and horror. More generally, the music also gave the story an epic sensationalism, almost Hollywood big screen, perhaps in the psychological tradition of Hitchcock or a Bernard Hermann thriller. But there were also many sound contrasts, from the liturgical worship to the urgent chanting of street protestors. In summary, the music bridged the inner crisis of the private psyche and the vibrant clashes in the public arena. 

The set design (Cecilia Carey) and lighting (Simon Bond) worked exceptionally well on several levels. Overlapping spaces indicated the double standard of Victorian life: the privacy and respectability of the home as a domestic space of the family; the riotous world of transgressive pleasure offered by the bar / brothel. Also highly effective was the height and lighting given to the laboratory, and the increasing depth of the space as the audience is drawn deeper into the core of the mystery. At the end of the play a more modern minimalism suggests that perhaps finally, hopefully, the rotten core of patriarchal society has been stripped back to reveal some hidden truths about gender and violence. Altogether a stimulating play and a highly engaging performance by a talented ensemble of young actors directed by Tessa Walker. Overall, the Birmingham Rep has employed a creative team that has brought the best out of these young actors.

© Dr Ian McCormick.

[Theatre Review: Jekyll and Hyde, by Evan Placey, based on the novella by R.L Stevenson. Birmingham Repertory Theatre / The Young REP. Directed by Tesssa Walker. Premiรจre: 18 April 2019.]
Sat 20 Apr 19
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Tue 23 Apr 19
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Wed 24 Apr 19
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Thu 25 Apr 19
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Thu 25 Apr 19
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Fri 26 Apr 19
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Sat 27 Apr 19
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Sat 27 Apr 19
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A timely new take on the chilling tale.
Harriet Jekyll's investigation into her husband's mysterious death has taken her into a dark and dangerous world. A gothic world of science, taverns and misogyny that no decent Victorian woman has dared to enter before.
It's a world that she's desperate to change but to do so, she must embrace the creature she's changing into. As she sets about her blood-thirsty mission, her actions start to bleed into the present day.
Award-winning writer Evan Placey (Girls Like That, Orange Polar Bear) combines contemporary chills and gothic horror in his re-imaging of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic story directed by Tessa Walker (The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe and The Hundred And One Dalmatians) and performed by The Young REP.


Director Tessa Walker
Associate Director Philip Morris
Designer Cecilia Carey
Lighting Designer Simon Bond
Sound Designer/Composer Iain Armstrong
Movement Director Sarah Worth
Associate Movement Director Lucy Wild
Fight Director Alison de Burgh
Voice Coach Barbara Houseman