Much Ado About Nothing at the Cremorne Orpheum

Most of the updating to a modern setting worked. But not quite all.

Although I was very keen to see Much Ado About Nothing, I wasn’t sure how much I would like it, since I couldn’t really envisage Amy Acker in the part of Beatrice, and I was only so-so on the idea of Alexis Denisof as Benedick. But I actually really enjoyed her performance: aside from a couple of not-very-funny pratfalls, she really made me believe in the character. He was good as well, but I truly believe that Beatrice is much the more difficult part. In every production I have seen – and there have been some real dogs! – Benedick always manages to get laughs in his two soliloquy scenes, but Beatrice is much harder to get right. My favourite actors in the roles would still be Emma Thompson/Kenneth Branagh (film) and Pamela Rabe/John Howard (stage) – with an honourable mention to Sarah Parish/Damian Lewis in Shakespeare Re-told (I would love to see them do the play properly) – but Acker and Denisof were far from disappointing.

Though oddly enough, the one scene that didn’t quite work for me – and I can’t put my finger on why – was the post-wedding ‘Kill Claudio’ scene. Somehow, the emotional range just didn’t quite seem to be there.

Aside from them, the rest of the cast were good, but not outstanding. I liked Hero, and although Claudio didn’t really convince me as being a decent human being, that is always going to be a challenge with this play. Leonato, Ursula and Margaret were all fine. I quite liked Borachio, although I couldn’t really see the point of turning Conrade into a woman (unless it was purely so they could put in a sex scene). Sean Maher made a reasonable Don John, though seeing him as a (clean-shaven) villain gave me flashbacks to his line in Firefly – after being referred to as a criminal mastermind – ‘I’m thinking of growing a big black mustache. I’m a traditionalist.’ I was a bit underwhelmed with Dogberry and Verges, but they’re not really my type of humour, so they need to be done very well for me to find them funny – and cutting some of the better lines didn’t help.

But I think the only real disappointment would be Don Pedro. There was nothing actively wrong with the performance, but he didn’t seem to have any real presence – no sense that the was The Most Important Person In The Room. At times, he was almost overlookable. And while he’s not one of the key protagonists, I think if he ends up sidelined, then the play rather loses it balance.

For the most part, I felt that the modern setting worked very well. Clearly it helped that Joss Whedon has a lovely house and extensive garden! And there were some nice touches. I particularly liked the fact that Leonato having everyone stay at his house meant that (even though it was a large house) he had to put Benedick and Claudio in the room of a (not-appearing-in-the-film) little girl. The look they gave each other as they were shown in was priceless! Since IMDb tells me that Joss Whedon has an 8-year-old daughter, I’m guessing that this room – with its twin beds, soft toys, and dollhouse complete with Barbies – received little to no set dressing for the film. (In the context of the film, I guess it’s best not to ask who the room’s actual owner is – clearly not Leonato’s daughter, since ‘Hero is his only child’, and presumably he wasn’t putting guests in the room of a servant’s child!)

The arrival of the Prince’s men in large cars was less dramatic than the horseback entrance in Branagh’s film, but it was effective in a different way. And I liked the fact that Don John and his people were initially in plastic wrist restraints, which were cut off before they entered the house. The use of a smartphone to show video of Don John’s capture at the end was also a nice touch.

And I don’t think I have ever seen a production quite so awash in alcohol!

But one of the challenges of putting Shakespeare in a modern setting is whether the plot and dialogue actually clash with the surroundings. And I think Much Ado has three key problem areas in this regard:

  • The repeated emphasis on Hero’s virginity
  • Following from this, Leonato saying it would be better if she were dead
  • Benedick agreeing to Beatrice’s demand that he kill Claudio

(I don’t include Claudio’s rejecting Hero at the altar. This can work in a modern setting, if you treat the issue as not so much about virginity, as about having sex with someone the night before she is marrying someone else.)

‘Kill Claudio’ actually did kind of work. It still seemed a bit odd and unrealistic when Beatrice first said it, but when Benedick went back to his room, and got out a gun, I realised that of course (a) this is America, and people do have guns; and, more importantly, (b) they have all just come back from a war, so maybe killing people isn’t really such a foreign concept. And in any case, given Benedick’s initial reaction to Beatrice, I don’t imagine you are really meant to see it as a completely normal action.

But unfortunately, the emphasis on Hero being (or not being) a ‘maid’ did jar, and Leonato’s speech about ‘Do not live, Hero’ was completely unbelievable. Not only was all of this dialogue left in – and I’m sure some of it (especially Leonato’s speech) could have been cut – but it was further emphasised by the scene from the very start of the film in which it was clear that Beatrice, at least, is not a virgin. This created a clash that I found it was quite hard to overcome.

I found it interesting that Joss Whedon decided to place Act V Scene ii (where Benedick tells Beatrice he has challenged Claudio, and which finishes with them hearing the news that ‘Don John is the author of all’) after Act V Scene iii (in which Claudio hangs an epitaph on Hero’s tomb). Kenneth Branagh did the same thing in his film. Maybe it’s an inversion that often happens (like swapping the first two scenes of Twelfth Night), but I don’t think I’ve seen it in any stage production. What bothers me about this change, is that the visit to the tomb happens at night. So Benedick doesn’t go to see Beatrice until the next day, rather than pretty much immediately after challenging Claudio. And yet in the intervening 12+ hours, he’s somehow failed to hear the news – very much out of the information loop. Furthermore, Beatrice was shown with Hero, clearly aware of what was happening, during the night of the tomb visit (I think it was the same in Branagh’s version). So why doesn’t she let Benedick know? Unless she’s so pissed off with Claudio that she wants Benedick to kill him anyway. But that seems rather deceitful (to Benedick), and it isn’t really supported either by the words, or by her demeanour. So I really can’t see any reason for swapping the two scenes around – and plenty of reasons not to!

But in spite of these concerns, I still really enjoyed the film!

Favourite moment

Don John casually pinching a cupcake when leaving the wedding.

Though I also liked pretty much every scene set in the room Benedick and Claudio were sharing.

Bechdal test

Pass. There are a number of named female characters (one more than in the play, due to Conrade’s gender swap!), they do talk to each other, and it’s not always about a man.

Stars

4

Twelfth Night (William Shakespeare) – Shakespeare’s Globe production at the Apollo Theatre

Not a subtle production.

This production was quickly sold out at the Globe, so when the season finished it transferred to the Apollo Theatre, where it also sold out. Probably because it had Stephen Fry playing Malvolio.

It was all-male – apparently a revival of a very successful 2002 production. I seem to be in a minority in that I hated Mark Rylance as Olivia and Johnny Flynn as Viola. It seemed that Johnny Flynn was working so hard to maintain a falsetto voice that he didn’t have anything left to act with – certainly he didn’t give Viola any of the emotional depth that can (should!) be present. And I just found Mark Rylance over the top – not a drag-queen performance, but occasionally getting close to it. On the plus side, Viola and Sebastian did look convincingly similar.

However, I enjoyed Paul Chahidi’s Maria. Over the top, yes, but then the character is drawn with broader strokes anyway – emotional depth is possible, but not so essential. And he managed to have a very impressive cleavage!

But because of this, the storyline that I love about Twelfth Night – Viola/Olivia/Orsino – really didn’t work for me in this production, whereas (or perhaps because of this) I quite enjoyed the Sir Toby/Malvolio plot. These actors all gave solid, if not particularly nuanced, performances, with the emphasis being on broad comedy, ignoring any potential for pathos. It is, however, very arguable that this was how it was intended to be played, and trying for a different feel is to impose a 20th century sensibility on a 16th century work. (I still prefer it with pathos – and I think lines like ‘I was adored once, too’ do lend themselves to it – but I don’t think it’s fair to complain about its absence.)

The production was in Elizabethan dress, and an interesting touch was that they had the actors dressing and putting on their makeup onstage, as the audience was arriving.

Another nice touch – almost certainly a result of its originally being a Globe production – was that there was a bit of interaction with the audience. In fact, some audience members were actually seated in boxes on the stage. I’m not sure what you had to do to score one of these seats – when I made the booking, I’m pretty sure they didn’t show on the seating plan – but it certainly worked well.

There was one unfortunate incident the night we were there. During the gulling of Malvolio scene, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabian were hiding inside a frame covered in leaves. At the end of the scene, just before the interval, Sir Andrew was exiting the stage still inside the frame, and he tripped over and fell quite hard. After the interval, Mark Rylance came on stage and said that although the actor seemed okay, they thought he should see a doctor, so someone else had to take over the part for the second half.

Favourite moment

The gulling of Malvolio scene (except for Sir Andrew falling at the end). Which is weird, because normally it’s a scene I hate. But in this production it did work. Which so many of the other (better) scenes didn’t.

Bechdal test

Not sure.

The play has some great scenes between Viola and Olivia, and for the purposes of the Bechdal test, I think it is irrelevant that Olivia doesn’t realise she is talking to a woman. But it is arguable that their conversations are all about a man – Orsino at first, obviously, but then ‘Cesario’.

Stars

3

Mansfield Park and Persuasion, retold by Gill Tavner, illustrated by Ann Kronheimer (Real Reads series)

A while ago, I offered to review two “Real Reads” retellings of Jane Austen for the Jane Austen Society of Australia journal. Unfortunately my review, plus those of the people reviewing the other books in the series, took up far more space than the editor could justify allocating to them, and so she was forced to ask our permission to severely cut the reviews to just a few grabs (naturally we all quite understood her dilemma, and were happy to give such permission). However, since lack of space is not a problem with a blog, I thought I might as well post my full review here. Though be warned – it is quite long.

It would appear that the Jane Austen Real Reads are aimed at the pre-teen, probably female, demographic. So my first question is why? There are many, many good books written for girls of this age. Frances Hodgsen Burnett, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Mary Grant Bruce, Noel Streatfeild, Louise Fitzhugh, Hilary McKay, Odo Hirsch: for over a century, people have been writing books for girls that are stimulating, challenging, exciting, or simply really good stories. So is there really a need for girls to be introduced to “adult classics” at this age? Particularly since the majority won’t really want to go straight from the cut-down to the full versions: most (though, of course, not all) would probably be better off waiting until they are a few years older before reading Jane Austen. So I don’t really see the point in introducing the stories this early.

But obviously someone disagrees with me, and so we have Real Reads: “Pick up these great little versions of the world’s greatest books, and you’ll discover that Real Reads are a Real Treat.” I volunteered to read Persuasion and Mansfield Park, but I’m afraid I didn’t find them a real treat, and I’m not sure I would have even as an 11 year old. Unfortunately, I did not have a tame pre-teen to try them out on, so the following review is based purely on my own reaction to the books.

On starting to read, the first thing I realized was that, although the cover says “Jane Austen” in big letters, and “Retold by Gill Tavner” in smaller print, the key word is definitely “retold”. These are not abridged versions of the book, they are complete rewrites. The narration contains little to nothing of Jane Austen’s words, and although the dialogue fares rather better, I would say that barely 50% is from the original books.

In some ways, the storytelling reminded me of film novelizations. An author writing a book-of-the-film, who has probably had nothing to do with the original production, presents the story in a perfectly competent manner, but is not allowed to put any stamp of his/her own individuality into the retelling. Similarly, in these two Real Reads, all of the Austen narrator’s personality is removed, and it is replaced with … nothing.

The books are also very short: 54 pages each, including illustrations and a two page character list (plus another ten pages on “Taking things further”). Unsurprisingly, therefore, a number of subplots are sacrificed, and most of the rich characterisation is also lost.

Persuasion does a reasonable job of covering the salient plot points, although the removal of all reference to Fanny Harville means that Benwick’s personality is something of a blank. (In case you are wondering, it also means that Anne does not talk about constancy to Captain Harville, who barely appears. But she has a similar, if shorter, conversation with Admiral Croft, enabling Wentworth to overhear and write an abbreviated version of the letter we all know.) I was also a little surprised that the book actually opens with the events of the year Six, rather than presenting them in flashback. But perhaps Gill Tavner felt that her readers do not yet have the literary sophistication to cope with a non-chronological ordering: as she is a teacher, I will defer to her greater knowledge of this age group’s capabilities.

The cuts to Mansfield Park are more extreme, but then the book is longer and more plot-intensive. I was particularly struck by the curtailing of the Sotherton scenes: the various meanderings through the garden are reduced to “[Mary] wanted to discuss the matter [of Edmund taking orders] with her brother, but as he and Maria had left the group to explore a more overgrown path, she would have to wait”. And the visit to Portsmouth is removed entirely! Gill Tavner also seems to have had some trouble with Lovers’ Vows: she describes it as “inappropriate”, without explaining why, and redefines Henry’s and Maria’s characters as lovers (in the same sense as Mary’s and Edmund’s characters), rather than as a mother and her illegitimate son.

The books are full of colour illustrations: these are not unappealing, but they didn’t always seem entirely right. However, this might just mean that Fanny Price and Anne Elliot aren’t really suited to this style of illustration: I thought the cover pictures for Emma and Northanger Abbey really did capture the spirit of the books.

But, for me, perhaps the single biggest problem with these retellings is … they aren’t funny. Admittedly, Mansfield Park and Persuasion are perhaps the least “light, bright and sparkling” of Jane Austen’s books, but they nevertheless have some wonderful comic scenes and ironic authorial comments. And all of these are totally absent from Gill Tavner’s versions.

So if you lose the authorial voice, the rich characterisation and the comedy of the original novels, is there any real point to these versions? I can’t help feeling that if the objective is to introduce young readers to the Austen’s stories – and I’m still not convinced that this is a good idea, particularly for an age group this young – it might be more effective for them to watch one of the better film/television adaptations. Even where these diverge markedly from the original plot (and in some cases, the amount of divergence is no greater than Gill Tavner’s) they offer an artistic reinterpretation of the novel, rather than just a cut-down, blanded-out retelling.

This is not to say that a child reader might not enjoy Real Reads. They are competently written, and pleasant enough. But if one ignores the fact that they are based on classics, then they don’t really have a great deal to offer. It seems to me that the time spent reading them could be much better spent on Saffy’s Angel, or Something’s Fishy Hazel Green, or Harriet the Spy, or Ballet Shoes, or The Secret Garden – classic or modern, these children’s books offer a much richer reading experience than Gill Tavner’s retellings of Mansfield Park and Persuasion.

Let Austen wait until the reader is ready for the originals – be that at age 12, age 17 or age 35. And let her (or him) enjoy seeing the story unfold, without pre-knowledge of the plot. We only ever have one chance to read Jane Austen for the first time. Why spoil it?

Plays in first half of 2008

So far in 2008 I have seen 8 plays:

Blackbird (David Harrower): Sydney Theatre Company at the Wharf Theatre
The subject matter of this play is fairly confronting – a man receives an unexpected visit from a woman he had a sexual relationship with many years ago, when he was 40 and she was 12 – and apparently the first production, in Edinburgh, was very popular. But for some reason – I don’t know whether it was the cast, the direction or the play itself – I just wasn’t engaged by it. I think part of the point (aside from dealing with such a taboo subject) was to look at the layers of lies and deception gradually being stripped off, but in the end I didn’t really care what the final truths were.

As You Like It (William Shakespeare): Bell Shakespeare Company at the Playhouse (Sydney Opera House)
As You Like It has never really worked for me on the page, and I’d never actually seen a professional production before, so I was looking forward to seeing what Bell Shakespeare would do with it. And I thoroughly enjoyed it. I finally realised that Rosalind can be an engaging character, rather than a pain in the neck, and Celia came across as having a bit more backbone than I had thought. The production didn’t really change my opinion that Orlando is a bit of a thicko, but it seemed to me as if they’d just gone “OK, he’s a dork, let’s just accept that and move on”. So rather than try and make him anything more than he is, they concentrated on making him fundamentally likeable – and succeeded. Most of the rest of the cast were good fun as well, though Jacques seemed rather inconsistent between scenes (in that his personality was whatever they wanted for that particular scene, regardless of what he had been like before) but maybe that smoothed out later in the run: we saw it fairly early on. All in all, the production was a fun romp, and though I still wouldn’t put As You Like It on the same level as Twelfth Night or Much Ado, I now have more time for it than I did previously.

The Vertical Hour (David Hare): Sydney Theatre Company at the Drama Theatre (Sydney Opera House)
The problem with this was that the two main characters were self-righteous and basically unpleasant, and the number three character was nice enough but totally wet. It could have been an interesting debate about the Iraq war, and there were some good bits, but her voice was like fingernails down a blackboard, and he was a nasty manipulative piece of work, and this really made it difficult to get any empathy with either of their positions.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (William Shakespeare): Dash Arts at the Sydney Theatre
This production was by Indian and Sri Lankan actors, using a range of different languages – English, Tamil, Malayalam, Sinhalese, Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Sanskrit – without surtitles. So it helped to be moderately familiar with the text, or one might have been quite lost as to what was happening – languages would change between characters, and even within speeches. The performances and costumes were good, but what really struck me most was the athleticism of the production. The acrobatic work – apparently all done without safety harnesses – was just breathtaking.

Rock ‘n’ Roll (Tom Stoppard): Sydney Theatre Company at the Sydney Theatre
Michael thought this play was baby boomer self indulgence. I quite enjoyed it, though it would have been better if Matthew Newton (Jan) had had more charisma (or any). But I thought William Zappa (Max) was fine, and Genevieve Picot (Eleanor and then Esme) was very good. I thought the moment where (as Eleanor, suffering from breast cancer) rips off her wig and tears open the front of her dress was very powerful – far more confronting than any single moment in, for example, Blackbird. I might have got more out of the play if I had been more familiar with Czech history: the play starts in the late 60s and finishes in about 1990, and I knew absolutely nothing about what was happening in Prague through this period (nor did I have any idea that Plastic People of the Universe – a group whose name I was vaguely familiar with – were Czech). But the play did inspire me to look it up afterwards. Which has to be considered a Good Thing.

The Serpent’s Teeth (Daniel Keene): Sydney Theatre Company at the Drama Theatre (Sydney Opera House)
This was actually two one-act plays, dealing with different aspects of war. The first one, Citizens, was set at the dividing wall of an unnamed country beset by war. It was a series of vignettes of citizens walking past the wall, getting on with their day-to-day lives in the face of hardships – an old man and his grandson taking a tree to the next village, and bringing a different one back, a married, pregnant couple walking to a new home, a woman carrying her dog to find a vet. It had some very compelling moments – the bit where the husband and wife are arguing, and spill part of their last bottle of water made the whole audience gasp – but there was somehow something a bit distancing about it. In spite of being about “the human spirit”, it was intellectually interesting, but for the most part not emotionally gripping.

The second one, Soldiers, was set in an Australian airbase (or something), where the families of five dead soldiers are awaiting the return of the bodies – a mix of wives, siblings, parents, children, etc. This one really was emotionally compelling. At some stage, most of the characters had a “poem” – sort of Ancient-Greek style theatre – which I found a bit stylised and not really successful. But the interactions between family members, and between members of different families, were very powerful.

As with just about every other STC Actors Company production, the standouts were Amber McMahon, Hayley McElhinney, Pamela Rabe and John Gaden, with Peter Carroll also putting in excellent performances in each half.

The Great (Tony McNamara): Sydney Theatre Company at the Wharf Theatre
This play about Catherine the Great was not very historically accurate, and had many intentional anachronisms (not to mention a truly remarkable number of horse references in the first act) but it was hugely fun. Robin McLeavy, who played young Catherine in the first act and her daughter Natalie in the second, was very funny, and Liz Alexander (the older, second-act Catherine) filled the stage with personality. Toby Schmitz as the second-act Orlo was wittily amusing but also emotionally resonant at times.Toby Schmitz was funny as Peter in the first half (though he seemed to have watched Hugh Laurie in Blackadder III way too many times) and okay as the son, Didi, in the second act. I thought the play was at its best when delivering clever dialogue and court intrigues, and at its weakest in the more emotional scenes (excepting some of the older Orlo’s). In particular, I found the love-of-Catherine’s life plotline not very successful. Overall, though, it was a fun play, if not particularly deep and meaningful.

Hamlet (William Shakespeare): Bell Shakespeare Company at the Drama Theatre (Sydney Opera House)
This production has had very good reviews, but it didn’t really work for me. Brendan Cowell’s Hamlet was very “big” (for want of a better word): he wasn’t actually chewing the scenery, but he was certainly very out there. I would like to see something a bit more intimate and introspective. And I didn’t think the scenes with the ghost were very successful: they were using a sort of split-stage effect (which the Cheek-By-Jowel Othello also used) with the ghost on one side of the stage, and everyone else on the other side, but rather than looking at the ghost, they were looking straight ahead, as if the ghost were in the audience. On the other hand, I enjoyed Colin Moody’s Claudius, and Heather Mitchell’s Gertrude was okay, up until her rather overdone death scene (it’s a bit of a worry when the audience actually laughs). Ophelia was pleasant, but not very strong, and R and G were basically a comedy act. The fencing in the duel scene wasn’t very impressive.

2006 in Review

Films

I saw 22 films this year. The high points were probably Casino Royale, Flags of our Fathers and Superman Returns. The biggest disappointment was X-Men: The Last Stand, because it was so much weaker than the first two X-Men films. However, the actual Worst Film would be a competition between Lord of War (which I saw on a plane, so didn’t actually waste any money on), Tristan + Isolde and Mission: Impossible III.

Plays

I saw 12 plays in 2006 (though I only actually blogged 9 of them). Ten were from the Sydney Theatre Company subscriptions (although one of these – The History Boys – was actually a National Theatre of Great Britain production). Of the other two, one was the Russian production of Twelfth Night, which was here for the Sydney Festival, and the other was You Never Can Tell, which I saw in London. My favourites were probably Twelfth Night and Woman in Mind, and the worst was unquestionably The Lost Echo.

Books

I’ve been very slack about blogging books this year. However, in August I set up – and have been maintaining – a What I’m Reading book log. So I know that from August to the end of the year, I read 81 books – though two of them I gave up on, and another two I haven’t yet finished. 47 of them were first-time reads, and 34 were re-reads. Alternatively, I could sort them by target audience (48 adult, 9 young adult, 24 children) or by genre (25 fantasy/science fiction, 15 crime/thriller, 7 non-fiction, and the rest a variety).

It was quite a good year for new-books-by-favourite-authors. George R. R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows (book 4 in A Song of Ice and Fire) was a bit of a let down, but I don’t think it would have been possible to maintain the intensity of the third book in the series, and I still have high hopes for the rest of the story. Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Sharing Knife: Beguilement was enjoyable, but only half a story (the other half comes out this year), and I still prefer her Vorkosigan books. Jaclyn Moriarty’s The Betrayal of Bindy Mackenzie was interesting, but unlikely to become my favourite of her books. On the other hand, On the Jellicoe Road could end up being my favourite Melina Marchetta. The other exciting event was Under Orders – the first new Dick Francis in six years. It wasn’t his best work, but it was a long way from the structural mess of his last couple.

I think my favourite new author for the year would be Donna Andrews. Her chick-lit/detective story crossovers are a lot of fun, if not exactly great literature. I read them from the library, and I’ll hold off on buying them until I know for sure I want to re-read them, but I’m certainly hanging out for the latest (No Nest for the Wicket) to come out in paperback and turn up in the library. Other new (to me) authors included Naomi Novik (Anne McCaffrey meets Patrick O’Brien), Anthony Horowitz (James Bond for teenagers – and with some clearly conscious Fleming homages, which I’m sure people who’ve only seen the films don’t get) and Stella Rimington (spy stories by a former head of MI5). They were all enjoyable enough to read more than one of their books, but I didn’t get overly excited by any of them.

She’s the Man at Hoyts, Broadway

She’s the Man, as all the publicity points out, follows the tradition of Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You in translating a classic work into an American high-school setting. In this case, the classic work is Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – my absolute favourite play, so, even though the trailer didn’t inspire me with confidence, I was determined to see this film. And ultimately, I was pleasantly surprised (at least relative to my expectations).

Twelfth Night is clearly the primary source for the plot, but there are a few other films/plays it calls to mind. It seems to owe a certain amount to Bend it Like Beckham: not only that soccer is the sport of choice, but also in the situation of an athletic daughter and a mother who wants her to be more feminine. The scene when they are learning to be debutantes is reminiscent of the opening of Mulan – and the film also shares with Mulan a distressing tendancy to find “humour” in having the heroine grossly overact when she is disguised as a boy (more about this later!) Finally, the scene in which Viola (disguised as Sebastian) is trying to show Duke how to talk to girls by “pretending” to be a girl for him to practise on, could be straight out of As You Like It.

The main thing I didn’t like about this film was the number of times Viola overdid it when she was pretending to be a boy (Viola the character, that is, not Amanda Bynes the actress). Productions of Twelfth Night have been known to show Viola having difficulties with the mannerisms and activites of masculinity, but this can only go so far, as it’s not specifically there in the text. But there are no holds barred in She’s the Man. Particuarly early on, Viola often speaks with an exaggeratedly deep, hearty voice, and stagey manner, and with lines that are so unconvincing it’s impossible that a halfway intelligent character could think they would make her fit in with the men. It’s the humour of embarrasment, which I loathe, and this was a particularly unsubtle and puerile version, and totally cringeworthy. At least in Mulan there were only two scenes involving this, but in She’s the Man it kept recurring throughout the entire film. She wasn’t like that all the time, but it was much, much too often for my taste.

The other thing I found repellent was the character of Eunice. Does anybody really wear that type of external mouth brace? And having made her as unattractive and awkward as possible, they then burdened her with a neurotic personality as well. I found it very tasteless – and from a plot point of view, there was absolutely no reason why Toby should be even vaguely interested in her. The other character I didn’t like was the principal, but he wasn’t actually offensive, just chronically unfunny: someone like Joss Whedon would have written a much better version (eg Principal Flutie in the first season of Buffy).

OK, now for the stuff I did like. I thought it was quite a clever adaptation of the plot. It didn’t match exactly point for point (e.g. Viola specifically disguised herself as Sebastian, rather than just as a random youth – though, contrary to the impression the trailer gives, he doesn’t know she’s doing it) and some of the characters were changed (I got a bit of a shock when Olivia went out with Duke to make “Sebastian” jealous). But in general the central triangle was nicely done. And there were a few fun jokes for people who know the play – e.g. Malcolm having a pet tarantula called Malvolio, and everyone going to “Cesario’s”. Plus the “some are born great” speech was included in full.

Even aside from the cringe-comedy, much of the humour was fairly broad. Some of this I didn’t like (e.g. the scene where Viola is trying not to let Monique see her too closely), but for the most part I was able to connect with my inner teenager and have a good time. So I enjoyed the not-appearing-in-Twelfth Night bit where Viola is trying to be both herself and Sebastian at the fair, the time when Viola and Duke leap onto the beds to escape the tarantula and then freak when they find themselves embracing, the inevitable men’s change room scenes and even the moment when Viola gets a soccer ball in the groin and takes a few seconds to realise what her reaction should be. And as well as the broad comedy, there were some funny one-liners, such as the deadpan delivery of “Is it me or does this soccer game have more nudity than most?”

But I think the main reason I enjoyed it was that the two leads were so charismatic. Some of the reviewers don’t seem to like Amanda Bynes, but for me she filled the screen with personality every time she appeared. She had a lovely smile, and was a nice combination of bounciness and determination and blind panic and (where appropriate) wistfulness. And (except in the cringe-making scenes) she was also very funny. Channing Tatum wasn’t as central, and didn’t have the same range, but he was very decorative, appealing in the scenes when he was showing his “sensitive” side, and good at the end when he thinks “Sebastian” has betrayed him, and then learns the truth about Viola. The scenes they had alone together, and the relationship they presented, were some of the best parts of the film.

The critics are somewhat divided over She’s the Man, but on average more seem to dislike it than like it – and while some absolutely loathe it, even the ones that like it don’t give it a complete rave. On At the Movies, David found it “jaw-droppingly awful” and only gave it half a star, while Margaret (somewhat to her surprise) enjoyed it and gave it three and a half. For me, it was definitely worth more than half a star, though I’m not sure I’d go quite as high as Margaret did: some parts were jaw-droppingly awful, and the stuff that I did like wasn’t enough to completely block this out.

But it’s a pity, because I think it did have the potential to be a really good adaptation – maybe up there with Clueless (though a higher suspension of disbelief would have been required). Much of the plot and character transposition was cleverly done, and most of the actors were very engaging. If only there had been less time spent on cringe-making slapstick comedy, and more on clever dialogue (of which there was some) and the relationships between the characters. After all, the relationships have plenty of comic as well as romantic potential: I’m not just talking about the main triangle, but also Viola and her mother, Monique, etc – the comedy here could range from subtle to extremely broad, without necessarily spending too much time on the humour of embarrassment.

A lot of reviews say that this film is aimed at younger-end teenagers: it’s notable that the parties and drug/alcohol references of Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You are replaced with a fund-raiser fair and a debutante presentation. And I guess the younger demographic is supposed to really get into the slapstick, whereas the changes I want would have shifted the film to a higher-end teenager chick flick/date movie. So maybe it wasn’t what the filmmakers wanted to do – but with the material they had to work with, they could have done it, and it might have been really good.

I find it interesting that She’s the Man was much more about issues of masculinity and femininity than Twelfth Night. Not that I’m saying gender is irrelevant in Twelfth Night, but it seems to me that it is much more driven by individual personality. You have two completely self-absorbed, self-deluded people, who get a complete shake-up when a self-aware, empathic and intelligent outsider enters their lives (I’m reminded of an expression used in Grosse Pointe Blank: “Shakabuku … a swift, spiritual kick to the head that alters your reality forever”). In spite of the gender differentiation, Orsino and Olivia are very similar in personality; and Viola’s gender is only one part of what makes her what she is.

But the driving force behind She’s the Man is less Viola’s individual personality than the fact that because she is a woman she is more in touch with her emotions, and more able to talk about them. This is what attracts Olivia to her, and is also why Duke is able to open up and express his own “sensitive” side in a way that he can’t to his actual male friends. The counterpart of this is that a lot of the embarrasment-comedy (the stuff I objected to above) arises from Viola’s difficulties with finding an acceptable form of masculinity. Much of the “humour” occurs when she shows a feminine response, and then, in an attempt to recover from this, overreacts with what she thinks is masculine response, but which is so exaggerated as to be just as much at odds with Duke and the others: “What does your heart tell you? … I mean, which one would you rather see naked?”

I’m not sure that these ideas about gender actually go anywhere, but I found it an interesting line of thought …

Twelfth Night (William Shakespeare) – Chekhov International Theatre Festival in co-operation with Cheek by Jowl at the Theatre Royal

It seems a bit ironic that a week after seeing an English translation of The Cherry Orchard, I should see a Russian translation of Twelfth Night. The audience seemed to be a mix of people who had come because it was Shakespeare, and people who had come because it was Russian. I guess you don’t get a lot of Russian-language theatre in Sydney.

We weren’t sitting in the best position to read the surtitles, but that didn’t matter too much, as I’m sufficiently familiar with the play that I could just glance at them now and then, and enjoy the performances while the sound of the words washed over me. I hadn’t realised until now just what a beautiful language Russian is.

As well as being in Russian, this was an all-male production, and there was little attempt to disguise the sexuality of the actors. Olivia and Maria were both in skirts, but Olivia, in particular, had a very male haircut, which looked rather incongruous. And when Viola was wearing a dress, the boy-shorts underwear was very obvious. Ages ago, I remember reading a piece about Shakespearean theatre, which said that when a female character dresses as a male, for the audience this was simply a removal of disguise. I hadn’t actually realised the full psychological impact of this until now. In some ways, Viola was much more ambiguous than usual, simply because it was so much easier to think of her as male.

This production was from the same director as Othello a couple of years ago, and some of the same techniques were used: mostly empty stage, rather minimalist costumes, and particularly the way one scene sort of bled into the next one (ie the new scene would start even as the previous scene was still finishing). Although it doesn’t always work, this can be very effective.

I enjoyed all the performances. There were some interesting casting decisions – particularly the fact that Malvolio was quite young, and one of the two best-looking of the actors (the other being Sir Andrew!), so he did actually have some small basis for believing Olivia was in love with him.

The character of Fabian was completely dropped, with Feste taking over much of his part (though, oddly, the line about Toby marrying Maria was spoken by Maria herself). I’m not sure how I feel about this. He’s a bit of an add-on character who seems to appear out of nowhere to take over Feste’s part in the conspiracy (Jasper Fforde makes a joke about it in one of his Thursday Next books – that Feste has run away, so Fabian will have to cover for him). And yet, while the character was probably created for the practical reason that they had a leftover actor who needed a part (and, in this production, cut in order to save paying another actor), it does serve to keep Feste a bit more independent – on good terms with everyone, but not actually part of any of the inner circles. Which, for me, is very much the essence of his character.

It was hard to tell for sure how much of the play was cut. Certainly lines were missing from the surtitles, but I have a suspicion that in at least some cases, the actors still spoke them. The ending was interesting. There was a hint at first that Orsino wasn’t totally comfortable with Viola as a woman (he instinctively snatched his hands away from her when she reached out for him) but this seemed to disappear. More oddly, it seemed as if they were going to cut Malvolio’s “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” line. And then right at the end, when everyone was dressed in happy, light coloured clothes, Malvolio came back on in his servant’s dress, served them all drinks, and then came to the front of the stage and said “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” in a really menacing tone. At which point, the play ended. One can only wonder what might have been in the drinks he served!

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang at Hoyts, Broadway

I really enjoyed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. I thought it was funny and clever, but not so impressed with its own cleverness that it lost its appeal (which can sometimes be a problem with films like this). The dialogue was great, and Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jnr’s delivery was spot-on.

It’s very influenced by Raymond Chandler – all the chapter titles are the titles of Chandler books/short stories – but it could not be more different from the other Chandler-influenced movie I have seen recently, Sin City (see my comments on it). The two films may have come from some of the same places, but they found totally different things in those places, and then took them in completely different directions.

Pride and Prejudice at Hoyts, Broadway

[Warning - really, really long, and with numerous spoilers.]

Well, of course, the big question is Why? The BBC production of Pride and Prejudice is only ten years old: while not perfect, it was in many ways excellent, and for vast numbers of people it’s the definitive film/TV version of Austen’s novel.

I wasn’t actually looking forward to the new film of Pride and Prejudice, as I’d heard a number of things I didn’t like the sound of, and I thought the trailer for it was awful. In fact, not unlike Elizabeth with Darcy, I was determined to dislike it. Well, although I didn’t have the complete turnaround of Elizabeth, I’m forced to admit I enjoyed it far more than I had anticipated.

This production was supposed to be more “realistic” than earlier versions – which I take to mean less “chocolate box” in look. Not a totally new idea: it’s also the approach that was taken with the 1995 Persuasion. Some of the ideas (such as showing the Bennet household as being a bit run-down) were quite nice, though at times I think they took it a bit far. I know the estate includes a farm, but I wouldn’t have thought it would be quite so close to the house. I also couldn’t make up my mind about whether or not I liked the crush of people, and very loud music, of the Meryton Assembly: it felt over the top, but, for all I know, it could have been spot-on accurate. My knowledge of How Things Worked at that time is gleaned almost exclusively from fiction, rather than from reading actual historical descriptions.

The other aspect of “realism” was mud and bad weather. Obviously, part of this is straight from the book, and an important plot point (Jane riding through the rain, and Elizabeth walking through the mud), so is hardly innovative. But I thought having Darcy’s first proposal outside, in a raging storm, was completely unnecessary, added nothing, and, frankly, pretty much spoiled the scene for me.

For all the vaunted “realism” there were numerous occasions of appalling historical insensitivity: as Sandra Hall said in today’s Sydney Morning Herald review, the director is “careless with the customs and conventions that were part of the fabric of Austen’s world”. Generally, this seems to have been done to make things less subtle, and more “accessible” to the 21st Century viewer (or, occasionally, for a cheap laugh), and so meant ignoring the rules of propriety. There was an article by Natasha Walter in The Guardian (reprinted in the Sun Herald of 9 October, but there doesn’t appear to be any online version available) which made the excellent point that:

Once you start to lose the fence of decorum around the characters’ desires, you run the risk of losing the tension of the novels, the tension between outward convention and inner emotion that gives them their energy.

There was, of course, one glaring example of this in the 1995 BBC production: the infamous lake scene. This kind-of, sort-of worked, in that I can believe that Darcy might go swimming in his own lake, on his own grounds, although I find it rather less believable that he would then casually stroll up to the house, given that it is open to visitors. However, it did work to heighten the embarrasment and sexual tension of the meeting with Elizabeth: very unsubtle, but most effective.

In the new film, however, there were far more breaches of decorum, ranging from minor technical inaccuracies (e.g. a footman announcing “Miss Bennet, Miss Bennet and Miss Bennet”, and Miss Bingley commenting on the mud on Elizabeth’s dress but not mentioning that her hair is down) to much more serious changes. In my opinion (remember: my knowledge comes from fiction rather than history books) some of the worst offences were:

  • Wickham and Elizabeth sitting under a tree together with, apparently, nobody else for miles around.
  • Darcy just walking through the door of the Collins’ house (after dark, and without even ringing the bell) to give Elizabeth his letter.
  • Elizabeth getting separated from the Gardiners and the housekeeper at Pemberley (and the Gardiners leaving without her!), and then listening through a door to Georgiana’s playing.
  • Lady Catherine arriving at the Bennets’ late at night, when everyone has gone to bed.
  • Darcy’s final proposal scene occurring because Elizabeth (unable to sleep) has gone out for an early morning walk Most Improperly Dressed, and bumped into Darcy – also unable to sleep, and also Improperly Dressed. (One also has to ask with this scene where they actually were – still within the Bennet property, or halfway between Longbourn and Netherfield? One or both of them had walked an awfully long way, particularly considering their casual attire!) And it would have been nice if Darcy could have gone home to change before seeing Mr Bennet.

My reactions to these errors varied. In some cases, I felt the change was completely unnecessary (e.g. the Lady Catherine scene and Darcy giving the letter) or could have been easily modified (e.g. in the Wickham scene by showing Kitty and Lydia nearby, but out of earshot). The actual performances in all of these scenes were very good, but I just couldn’t surrender to them because part of my brain was screaming out about how wrong the setting was.

Then there were scenes that were wrong, but there did at least seem to be a point to them. The best example of this is Pemberley. I thought Elizabeth listening at the door was very wrong (though an ongoing theme in the film!), but seeing Darcy and Georgiana when they think they are unobserved was a very effective way of shortcutting the scenes in the book that show the “human” side of Darcy. I also really loved the bit afterwards, when Elizabeth and Darcy are completely unable to say what they are feeling, so they fall back on the standard social niceties. Probably there would have been a way to present this in a more appropriate setting, but at least there was some reason for the change.

And then there was the scene that intellectually I loathed, but emotionally I responded to 100%: Darcy’s final proposal. It was like Austen dialogue (well, some Austen dialogue) in a Bronte setting. It was in every way wrong, it was unnecessary, it was unsubtle … but in spite of all this I was completely sucked in by it. I’m angry because I think the scene would have worked just as well in the correct setting (due to fine performances by both actors), but I would be lying if I said that the change spoiled it for me.

Ignoring anachronisms, and ignoring the fact that they chopped up the Austen dialogue something horrible, I thought most of the alterations made to the plot were reasonable compromises to get the film down to a sensible length. A fair amount of subtlety was lost, but that was pretty much bound to happen. One change I didn’t much like, though, was Elizabeth not telling Jane about Darcy’s proposal, but then almost telling her about how her feelings have changed. And I really didn’t like the whole family overhearing the full conversation between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine.

In terms of characters and performances, I hated Mr Bennet: he was far too old, and he seemed a bit slimy. In the book I think you’re meant to like him, even as you recognise that he isn’t a very good father, but something about Donald Sutherland’s performance just creeped me out. I thought Bingley was a bit too much of a dork, and even thicker than he is in the book (which is quite an achievement, really!), although I loved the longshot scene between him and Darcy just before he proposes to Jane.

Jane, on the other hand, was quite good; and Mary, Kitty and Lydia, though very minor parts, still had their moments. I thought Mrs Bennet was much better than in the 1995 BBC production, and Wickham was great – he was actually good looking (if a bit of an Orlando Bloom wannabe) but in a completely different style from Darcy, and he didn’t seem to have “I am a lying cad” tattooed on his forehead. It was quite believable that Elizabeth would fall for him, and it’s a pity his part was one of those largely sacrificed in the interest of getting through all of the plot. Georgiana was a completely different character from in the book, but given that she had about a minute of screen time, I think it was an acceptable and necessary change.

But, of course, the key roles are Elizabeth and Darcy – if they’re not right, then there’s just no point.

Keira Knightley was better than I’d expected, though she can’t top Jennifer Ehle. Her performance had a lot of the liveliness of Pirates of the Caribbean, though naturally it was much less over the top. But she was just far too pretty for the role. There is absolutely no way you would say Jane was the beauty of the family: at best, she and Elizabeth were equivalent. And I think maybe Keira Knightley was a bit too modern looking. She had a way of scrunching up her nose when she smiled that just didn’t look quite right (though I’m not sure why – people had the same facial muscles 200 years ago, and she only did it when she was with family members and close friends, not in Society). She also giggled rather a lot: sometimes this worked in showing Elizabeth’s personality (and youth!), but at times it jarred a bit. On the other hand, she certainly has “fine eyes”, and I think she moved better in the period dress than, for example, Frances O’Connor in Mansfield Park (who strode around as if she was more accustomed to wearing jeans).

Matthew MacFadyen’s performance was interesting. In At the Movies, David Stratton said he liked the vulnerability MacFadyen gave to Darcy. I can’t disagree that the vulnerability made him an appealing character, but I tend to think maybe it shouldn’t have been so visible in the early scenes – probably not until the first proposal, in fact. And with Keira Knightley being too beautiful for Elizabeth, I think the film really needed someone more physically striking as Darcy. Because what I think was lost was the sense of exclusivity about Darcy. At the start, he’s unpleasant, but he’s also special and out of reach, so ultimately there’s a real sense of how amazing it is that Elizabeth is the one woman to break through his reserve and humanise him. Of all Austen’s heroes, he’s probably the one most like a fairy tale prince. But in this film, you could see the humanity right from the start – he seemed awkward rather than aloof, depressed rather than haughty, and at times almost shy and uncertain rather than standoffish and confident. And because his looks didn’t make him stand out among the other men to the same extent that hers made her stand out among the other women, well, he just didn’t seem quite special enough.

This makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy his performance, but I really did. It’s just … it wasn’t Darcy as I see him. I think I would have absolutely loved the performance if I hadn’t read the book. As it was, I only mostly loved it.

I can’t really say whether I liked this production more or less than the BBC version. I can only say I liked it differently. And – unlike Mansfield Park and the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma – it’s one I probably will be adding to my DVD collection. But it will never replace the book!

P.S. 3 November

Having now re-watched most of the BBC version, I can say that I definitely like it more than the new film. It has a lot more of Austen’s dialogue, very well delivered. The new film is a very enjoyable romantic comedy, but it’s missing many of the fine touches that make the book special.

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

This book sounded like such a great idea. And I loved the opening (“Each of us has a private Austen”) and the descriptions of each of the character’s Austens. There were also some really funny bits in the book – one of my favourites is:

“You’ve read The Mysteries of Udolpho?” Allegra asked.

“Black veils and Laurentina’s skeleton? You bet. Didn’t you think it sounded good?”

We had not. We’d though it sounded overheated, overdone, old-fashionedly lurid. We’d thought it sounded ridiculous.

Actually it hadn’t occurred to any of us to read it. Some of us hadn’t even realized it was a real book.

“The mother in Pride and Prejudice, on the other hand …”

“Don’t give anything away,” Grigg said. “I haven’t read it yet.”

Grigg had never read Pride and Prejudice.

Grigg had never read Pride and Prejudice.

Grigg had read The Mysteries of Udolpho and God knows how much science fiction – there were books all over the cottage – but he’d never found the time or the inclination to read Pride and Prejudice. We really didn’t know what to say.

Overall, though, the book was basically disappointing. I think the main problem was that I just didn’t like any of the characters, and I didn’t actually care what happened to them. In particular, I was all set up to really like Prudie (anyone whose favourite Austen is Persuasion has me on their side right from the start), and was disappointed when she turned out to be a completely unappealing character.

I’ve heard it described as “chick-lit with pretensions”, and also as “not very good chick-lit”. My experience of chick-lit is not vast – I think the only two proper examples of it I have read are I Don’t Know How She Does It and The Other Side of the Story. For me, both of these books had the same problem as The Jane Austen Book Club – I just didn’t want to spend time with the characters. A lot of the emphasis seemed to be on them wanting to have it all, and messing up in their attempts to do so. It may all be very modern, and empowering, and realistic – but honestly, if I want to read a “girl” book, I’d much rather give my time to someone like Georgette Heyer. Her values may be old fashioned, but at least she creates characters I can enjoy reading about.

Even though I didn’t enjoy the book much, when I heard that Karen Joy Fowler was giving a talk at Stanton Library (10 minutes walk from work) last week, I thought I might as well go along. And I actually enjoyed the talk. She had a lot of interesting and amusing anecdotes – and it was good to learn that she was, in fact, a Jane Austen fan from way back.

I particularly enjoyed the story of how she came to write The Jane Austen Book Club. She was in a book shop, and she saw a sign on the wall for the “Jane Austen Book Club”. Thinking it was an advertisement for a book, she thought it was a wonderful idea, and immediately decided to buy it. When she got a bit closer to the sign, she realised it was an ad for an actual book club. And she was quite disappointed to learn that this book she had been looking forward to reading didn’t actually exist. Then, on the way home, she realised this meant she could write it herself.

It was a nice talk, and she seemed like a nice person. I just wish I liked her book more. Because it is a really good idea, but now that she’s written it there’s no chance for someone else to do it better.

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