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Hey, Shakespeare enthusiasts, have you heard? BBC Two has a new series just for you!  The Hollow Crown is an adaptation of  Shakespeare’s historical plays: Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V. Now, maybe it’s just me but I feel like they’re trying to ride the Game of Thrones wave with this one.

The films are aired in chronological order starting with Richard II in 1399 and follow the chain of bloody events to the time of Henry V. The series was commissioned by BBC Two for their Shakespeare Unlocked season, which I haven’t had a chance to check out yet, but will certainly look into as soon as I can. King Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V are played by Ben Whishaw, Jeremy Irons and Tom Hiddleston  respectively.

I’m not surprised that they decided to make Shakespeare’s history plays into films. In my opinion they are very cinematic and work much better on screen than on stage. After all, a movie can show you a battlefield or a regal castle in a way that would be impossible in the theater. And judging by the trailer, there are some astonishingly magnificent set pieces in this one.

Don’t know about you, but this is what I’ll be watching for the next few Saturdays. The series started last night, June 30th, with Richard II.    

More info over at BBC Two.

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The show is just a weekend away, so panic is setting in. I’ve started having those nightmares where you’re at the play and everything goes wrong. Like you realize that all your fellow actors have turned into pineapples and you have to do their lines for them.

Our gorgeous Chemical Imbalance poster

Lauren Wilson’s play Chemical Imbalance: A Jekyll and Hyde Play is a hilarious take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr HydeThe play, unlike the original novella, pokes fun at everything starting from the concept of duel nature (Dr. Jekyll is pretty darn evil to begin with) to our idea of what Victorians were like to the evil twin trope.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde poster from the 1880s.

Working on this play was a real treat. There is slapstick, unbridled humor and an opportunity to overact and ham it up. I was playing Plodgett  the Cook. And a Scottish cook, at that. I will be issuing a formal apology to Scotland, its people and all cooks who may have been offended by my performance. As it happens, I had to do (and I use the word ‘do’ very loosely) a Scottish accent. It was more like Chekov trying to imitate Scotty while drunk (mind the Star Trek reference).

I’ve never read the original story and can’t say if the adaptation is very different. My general impression is that Victorian gothic horror is not very subtle. The narrative is often drawn-out and dull, while the individual elements are over-dramatic. Yes, I’m looking at you, Dracula. I think thta’s why most of these stories serve as perfect comedy fodder. The line between the dramatic and ridiculous is so fine that one tiny step will take you to the other side.

We tend to think of Victorians as incredibly polite and proper and I love how Wilson uses that idea for comedic effect. All the characters are trying so hard to keep up the appearance of normalcy and propriety while there is a maniac running wild and attacking dogs and policemen. In fact, the range of crimes that Mr Hyde commits is pretty silly – he kills a dog, gets a baby damp in a fountain, tramples a Christmas wreath and flattens a pigeon. He eventually works his way up to murder, but he takes a while to get there .

It’s hard to say if Wilson was trying to use this black comedy to make a point about society and our attitude towards violent crime, but in the end the maid gives a little closing speech reminding us that when Mr Hyde was caught the “world was once again  safe for the rich and dangerous for the poor” which I thought a very apt point.  And so the status quo is reestablished.

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Since I’m a theater geek (please refer to the blog title), I do quite a bit of theater. I love directing, acting, even the occasional play-writing, but one of my ruling passions is costuming.

My theater group, Thespians Anonymous, is putting on Chemical Imbalance: A Jekyll and Hyde Play (two weeks ’til showtime) and yours truly was in charge of costumes. They were a delight. I’m not a huge fan of modern costumes, they look too much like everyday clothes; but historical costumes are always fun and a nice challenge. Especially when the setting is a semi-fictional Victorian England. You can go pretty mental with the concept. The whole scene is pretty macabre with dark shades and ruffles, lace and pearls.

The cast of Chemical Imbalance, Thespians Anonymous. Image by Stuart D. McQuade

The men are proper Victorian gentlemen, albeit late-Victorian pushing on Edwardian. Thank God, men’s fashion has been chnaging so very little over the decades. The older ladies are flirting with the Belle Époque, while the younger ones are ready to embrace the Gibson Girl look.

Matrons Euphronia Jekyll & Lady Throckmortonshire. Image byby Stuart D. McQuade

You can read my full post about the costumes and see more fabulous pictures HERE.

Photographs by Stuart D. McQuade.
Please do not copy or reproduce without permission. 

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She Stoops to Conquer, written by Oliver Goldsmith in 1773, is currently playing in London’s National Theater. It’s a hilarious comedy of courtship and chaos directed by Jamie Lloyd, and something I recommend to anyone who needs a good laugh.

Here are some behind the scenes pictures:

The cast of She Stoops to Conquer is rehearsing the musical number

Pretty, witty Kate Hardcastle (Katherine Kelly)

Hastings (John Heffernan) is clearly channeling retro Doctor Who

Actor David Fynn is taking it easy as Tony Lumpkin

Cush Jumbo (Miss Constance Neville) is a serious young lady

Oh, Tony, don't push her away!

Director Jamie Lloyd with the concept board behind him

Tony has no love for his cousin Constance

Mr Hardcastle (Steve Pemberton) takes his place in a large leather chair

That shirt. That jacket. The combination is priceless.

Miss Kate is deep in thought

For Tony, ladies of quality are always in the background

The concept board for this play is amazing

Sophie Thompson as the loud and vulgar Mrs Hardcastle

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Last week I went to see a play. At a movie theater. London’s National Theatre came up with a very high-tech way to bring their shows to a broader audience, many of whom live abroad. Their plays are broadcasted live in a number of theaters around the world. Last year I went to see their production of Frankenstein which was absolutely mind blowing!

This year I missed a few of their shows, but last Thursday managed to get a ticket to Oliver Goldsmith’s  She Stoops to Conquer. And what can I say? It was hilarious! And I don’t mean a chuckle here and there or a pleasant smile at a witticism. I mean out-loud, roaring laughter for 3 hours straight.

The story is as follows, a wealthy country gentleman Hardcastle (Steve Pemberton) wants to marry his daughter Kate (Katherine Kelly) to the son of an old friend. But because of a  practical joke played  by his stepson Tony Lumpkin (David Fynn), he is mistaken for an innkeeper and his daughter is take for a barmaid by the perspective bridegroom Marlow (Harry Hadden-Paton). This turns to be a blessing in disguise because while Marlow is incredibly shy around upper-class women, he’s quite the charmer with girls of a different sort. As Hardcastle  grows more and more incensed by the rude behavior of his prospective son-in-law, his daughter is quite taken with her confused suitor. At the same time, her cousin Constance (Cush Jumbo) is trying to claim her dowry and run away with her sweetheart Hastings (John Heffernan), as Mrs. Hardcastle (Sophie Thompson) schemes to marry her off to her son Tony. Chaos ensues.

Hastings (John Heffernan) surrounded by servants who all want to give him boots

This is definitely one of those plays that has aged well. Even though it was written in the 18th century, it feels as fresh and as funny today as it must have been two hundred years ago. Director Jamie Lloyd went for very broad humor. Every one is hamming it up to the max; there is no subtle acting in sight.

Hardcastle (Steve Pemberton) and his daughter Kate (Katherine Kelly)

Kate is a wonderful heroine – funny, saucy and resourceful.  ‘Stoops to conquer’ really defines her personality; Kate is very much a negotiator. She gives a little to get a lot both with her father and her groom. Marlow, on the other hand, makes for a wonderful neurotic (did they have neurosis in the 18th century?) hero. He’s a bumbling fool around high-class ladies, but quite the rake among the simple folk. Sophie Thompson, whom I loved in Emma, plays a wonderful Mrs. Hardcastle. She speaks in a strange bellowing accent, probably imitating what she thinks is a way a fine lady in London would speak, and has the most peculiar gestures and facial expressions. Tony Lumpkin is a lovable buffoon. But the person who really steals the show is John Heffernan as Hastings. He is sweet, devoted to his beloved, a bit dopey and naive but very kind and generous. To me he was the emotional core of the whole play; and with his almost equally dopey, though determined sweetheart Constance, in many scenes outshone the main couple.

I was really glad that they decided to go with an 18th centurylook for the play. First, because I love 18th century costumes. And second, because this play just doesn’t need to be updated. Though the theme can easily translate into a modern setting, it works just as well as a historical play.

Rich heiress Constance Neville (Cush Jumbo)

The costumes were absolutely gorgeous! Everything from powdered bouffant of Mrs Hardcastle to the richly embroidered but distressed outfit of Tony Lumpkin to the exquisite dress worn by Constance made from sari fabric and decorated with tiny bells, looked absolutely perfect. I can write more about the costumes, but I feel like they deserve their own post.

What are they doing back there?

I often get very uppity about classical plays being remade for a modern audience with excessive amount of sexual innuendos and nudity, but unlike many other productions, She Stoops to Conquer really works as a bawdy comedy probably because it was written as one. There is no shortage of cleavage on display or very suggestive gestures and poses, but they work very well and only add to the general atmosphere of confused and rowdy fun.

If you haven’t seen this play already, I highly recommend you check it out.

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A Woman of No Importance was commissioned by the actor-manager of London’s Haymarket Theater, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, after the success of Lady Windermere’s Fan. Wilde wrote the play during the summer of 1892 and it opened in April 1893.

The play, as it is usual for Oscar Wilde’s plays, is about the decadent and cynical leisured aristocrats who gather for amusement in a country house. Among them is a clever and witty dandy Lord Illingworth,who takes a shining to a young man, Gerald Arbuthnot, and hires him to be his secretary. Mrs. Arbuthnot, Gerald’s mother, a pious and seemingly respectable widow, is invited to the house to hear the good news about her son’s new position. However, on arrival, she realizes that the man who offered her son this post is also the man who seduced her and is Gerald’s father. Lord Illingworth is delighted to find out that he has a grown son and decides that this is the perfect time to start caring about him.

MRS. ARBUTHNOT. Stop, Gerald, stop! He is your own father!

Mrs. Arbuthnot wants to prevent her son from going with Lord Illingworth but finds herself in a hopeless situation realizing that because of his moral upbringing and upright character,  if she were to reveal to her son that Lord Illingworth is his father, Gerald would be the first to condemn her. The irony of this is not lost on Lord Illingworth. But when Mrs. Arbuthnot all but gives up,  Lord Illingworth makes a grave mistake. He makes a pass at Hester Worsley, a young, idealistic and opinionated American heiress. This young ‘puritan’ is outraged by this behavior and Gerald, who is in love with her, challenges Lord Illingworth.

MRS. ARBUTHNOT. There is no room in my boy's life for you. He is not interested in YOU.

Bloodshed is prevented by Mrs. Arbuthnot, who admits that  the man is Gerald’s father. After everyone has cooled off a bit, Gerald tries to persuade his mother to marry Lord Illingworth, since that is the only way she can reclaim respectability, but Mrs. Arbuthnot flat out refuses. Hester  sides with Mrs. Arbuthnot and asks them to come with her to America where they can start a new life. The play ends with Lord Illingworth trying to claim his son once again, but is told by Mrs. Arbuthnot that neither she nor her son need him anymore.  Lord Illingworth leaves, shamed and made redundant. At the end of the play he turns into a man of no importance.

The play may not be one of Wilde’s finest, but it has an array of great comedic characters and plenty of witticisms. The first act, which is often criticized for its lack of action, works very well as a contrast to the melodramatic and emotionally charged final acts. The insipid group of aristocrats with their petty problems sitting around and exchanging pleasant nothings sets up the mood for the rest of the play. These people never find out what drama is playing out between the main characters and they go about their business oblivious to almost everything except their own pleasure.

Mrs. Allonby, Lady Stutfield and Miss Hester Worsley by Yale Repertory Theatre, 2008

We have Lady Hunstanton who is a well-meaning, but generally clueless hostess; Lady Caroline, overprotective of her husband, who has problems with names and is rather traditional;  Lady Stutfield who is a bit naive and very silly;  Mr. Kelvil a politician and a moralist who has very poor social skills, a meek Archdeacon Daubeny; Lord Alfred Rufford who is constantly in debt and Sir John Pontefract, Lady Caroline’s quiet and weary husband.

Mrs. Arbuthnot, Gerald Arbuthnot and Lord Illingworth by Yale Repertory Theatre, 2008

However, the supporting cast is a lot more exciting and interesting than our main characters. Hester is very judgmental and self-righteous, while Gerald is pretty naive and uninteresting. Lord Illingworth is too cold to be a fun character and he seems to be trying too hard most of the time.

A poster for a production of' 'A Woman of No Importance' by Birmingham School of Acting, 2011

The subject matter and the tone of the play also feel very dated. The social mores have changed quite a bit since the late 19th century and the opinions of the characters, even the sympathetic ones, seem very archaic. The play suffers from Victorian moralizing and extreme melodrama. It is not easy to do and is not easy to do well.

I would stay away from re-imaginings or postmodern productions of this play. The text is so thoroughly a product of the late 19th century that it is almost impossible to imagine it in any other setting. Though, I would say that 1920s with its decadence could be a good place to set it in. The 50s, with its moral and social rigidity, is another era that would work for this play. If trying to avoid late Victorian fashions and the cost and difficulty of making them, these two time periods could be good alternatives.

All in all, A Woman of No Importance is an interesting piece on Victorian morality written by a man who was condemned, imprisoned and then exiled for not falling in line with said morality. This is not a comedy of sparkling wit; the undertones are too dark and the one-liners are delivered primarily by the villain of the piece. But if done right, it could still make people think about the the value we place on conventional morality and how it affects people’s lives.

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Read A Woman of No Importance online 

Find out more about A Woman of No Importance 

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The Widow from Valencia (La viuda valenciana) was written by the great Spanish playwright Lope de Vega. The first version of the play was probably written around 1604, around the time when the author was visiting Valencia. It was rewritten between 1618-1619 and eventually published in the fourteenth part of Lope de Vega’s Comedias.

I could not find an English translation of The Widow from Valencia, which is a real shame, because it’s a fun play with great characters, apt comments about marriage, love and honor as well as great story loosely based on the myth of Cupid and Psyche.

Leonarda, a young and beautiful widow residing in Valencia, is devastated by the death of her husband and vows never to marry again. She shuts herself up in her house, devoting all her time and energy to pious thoughts, pious books and pious images.  She remains unmoved by her three illustrious, if somewhat buffoonish suitors, LisandroOtón, and Valerio, and her uncle, who is constantly trying to get her married off again. But her resolution doesn’t last; she sees a young man named Camilo and falls madly in love with him. To enjoy her love and to avoid scandal she comes up with a clever plan. The young man is invited to her house,  but is made to cover his eyes and is only allowed to visit her at night in a dark chamber with herself and two of her servants wearing masks at all times.

Camilo is brought to Leonarda, La viuda valenciana (Estudio 1, 2010)

Camilo, who has become disillusioned with his love for a city woman Celia, decides to embark on this adventure when prompted by Leonarda’s masked page Urban. In the dark of the night, with the widow’s face hidden behind a mask, Camilo meets her and falls in love with her. Their love proceeds with all the usual trappings including jealousies, frustrations and fear of detection. In the end, all is happily resolved with the marriages of Leonarda and Camilo, Celia and Camilo’s servant Floro and Urban and Leonarda’s maid Martha. The ex-suitors have no ill-will towards the happy couple and the uncle is just glad that the widow has finally found a husband.

This play is not a literary masterpiece like The Dog in the Manger – it has too many unnecessary scenes and characters, plot threads that lead nowhere, and the resolution comes too quickly and abruptly to be wholly satisfying, yet the language is doubtlessly beautiful, the plot is engaging and the characters are interesting.

Aitana Sánchez-Gijón as Leonarda

Unlike most English plays, Spanish plays, and this one in particular, is driven by the female, not the male, protagonist. She is at the center of the narrative, she is the primary planner and schemer and she is the one the audience is asked to identify and sympathize with. Leonarda is clever, willful and strong.  She is also flawed, which certainly makes her even more compelling. She sets out to be the most pious woman in Valencia, but falls short of this goal. Yet she embraces her love and feels no shame about it. She is keenly aware of the disgrace that would befall her if her love is discovered and takes precautions to avoid detection. When she thinks that her secret may be discovered she comes up with another ruse   putting the honor of another person in danger and claiming that to protect one’s reputation it is acceptable to smear someone else. Camilo, the ‘blind’ lover, is both a valiant knight who protects those who are weaker and an adventurer who is not afraid to pursue an unseen lady, but also a callous lover who has left his old girlfriend and is now going after another. At the end, when her is frustrated with loving an unseen lady he had dubbed Diana, he is not above bringing a hidden lamp and discovering the identity of his secret mistress against her wishes.

The Widow from Valencia plays out the myth of Cupid and Psyche, but switches the genders around. In this version it is the lady and not the man who remains unseen and it is the man’s and not the woman’s curiosity that is the central conflict of the story. Interestingly, while Psyche’s curiosity is treated as a character flaw that nearly destroys all chances of happiness, Camilo’s curiosity is not condemned; it is deemed natural; and in the end his desire to know and his subterfuge bring about the happy ending.

Is this happily-ever-after or the begging of a horrible and abusive relationship?

The issue of marriage and love take center stage in this play. One of the opening scenes of the play is Leonarda’s argument with her uncle regarding marriage. She, as a widow, who in the 17th century had a lot more rights and privileges than a maid or a married woman, delivers a very apt speech regarding the precarious state of marriage and how it puts women at the mercy of unscrupulous and abusive husbands. Throughout the play she never even mentions a desire to wed her lover Camilo.She seems perfectly happy with the arrangement where she can see him and enjoy his company without being tied up in marriage or endangering her honor. In the end, it is Camilo’s rash act and her discovery that forces her to pronounce to her uncle that she and Camilo are engaged to be married. There is no guarantee that the two would be happy in this state and that her dark predictions regarding marriage would not come true.

There's nothing Leonarda would not do to protect her honor

Honor is another persistent theme in the play. Leonarda’s uncle warns her about the dangers of her widowhood. He points out that even if she does nothing wrong, her honor would be in danger from the gossips and insinuations of others. This proves to be true when the three rejected suitors, feeling that their own honor has been injured, begin a smear campaign against the widow implying that she is involved in an illicit relationship with her page. To guard her own honor, Leonarda endangers the honor of her cousin and also shows contempt for Celia, who makes a scene in the middle of the street because of her jealousy over Camilo. Honor is shown to be both precious and fragile. It is also shown to be at the mercy of others. It can be taken away easily and there would be almost no way to get it back once it is lost.

The Widow of Valencia, Teatres de la Generalitat (2009)

The play has many dark undertones – the uncertainty of marriage, the danger of putting too much emphasis on honor, the unstable nature of love – yet the overall tone of The Widow from Valencia is light and breezy, and a little decadent. With masks and secret lovers and all sorts of pleasures that come with masked anonymity. While it may be modernized and updated, it bests suits a historical or faux-historical setting where rigid norms of behavior live side by side with love affairs and fun romps.

Find out more about Lope de Vega and his works.

Read an essay about The Widow from Valencia (only in Spanish). 

Hear the music from The Widow from Valencia ballt by Aram Khachaturian.

 

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