Theatre The Complete Walk was a "festival" of short films which appeared on giant screens in and around the Thames and throughout Liverpool on the weekend of the 23rd & 24th April to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare's death, each providing reworkings or excerpts of each of the plays from his canon.
Working that weekend so unable to do the local tour, I'm pleased to see that they're slowly being uploaded as clips to the BBC's Shakespeare website.
They're available here, as full versions available and then just clips.
Lunch. £4.50. Hayloft restaurant, Erddig Hall, Erddig, Wrexham LL13 0YT. Telephone: 01978 355314. Website.
Erddig’s story is all about relationships – those of the family, the servants and the wider community. It is unpretentious, unconventional and unexpected, always offering a friendly welcome.Heritage On the day before the EU referendum or "let's not be Werner Herzog's penguin" I decided to visit a nearby country and so hello Wales, hello Wrexham and hello Erddig, the next National Trust property on my trail.
It was home to a family that took an almost curatorial attitude to their possessions. Many are recorded in verse, as are generations of servants whose portraits were commissioned by the family. With their working areas almost unchanged, Erddig is a place where servants and their lives are not forgotten.
Some necessary route talk first. Train to Chester from Lime Street, train to Wrexham General from Chester, the Cardiff train in fact. Short walk across town to the bus station, to Stand One where the number 2 bus leaves from as directed by the National Trust website. Twenty minutes early, I wander around town and buy a chicken salad sandwich from the Co-op. Eventually the bus leaves with the driver promising to shout when we reach the road to the house. On reaching here, I ask him for times of the bus back assuming it would be the 2 again which runs hourly. "Every ten minutes" he tells me, "All the buses come this way." Ok.
A brown sign points towards Erddig. One mile it says, and I follow. A little way in I reach a cross roads with another couple of signs. One points towards the house and garden, the other towards "Felin Puleston" whatever that is. So I quite logically follow the house and garden sign. I walk, I walk, and I walk some more. I walk past this view:
I walk past this sassy sign:
But there's no real indication I'm going in the right direction other than the cars I'm persistently dodging. At one point I panic and try to phone the house but there's just answering machines at the end of the line. Eventually I reach another Erddig sign. I follow this. Which leads to more walking.
About half an hour later I reached Erddig. My first reaction is to explain my troubles to the volunteers in reception. They know, oh, they know. Also it turns out that I'd gone the long way around. I should have walked the other way towards "Felin Puleston" which would have halved the journey and they drew over a site map to point me in the correct direction out.
I didn't need it in the end. After my visit, just as I was starting to follow the directions (after first walking the wrong way due to having the map upside down), one of the volunteers from inside the house pulled up in her car and offered me a lift and took my all the way back to the outskirts of Chester where she lived. Which meant I got to do some bonus charity shopping in Chester at the end of the day (the BBC series How We Build Britain with David Dimbleby on dvd and a t-shirt for a Malaysian Four Seasons Resort are now mine) and I was home much earlier than I would have been.
Erddig then. The quick version. The house was originally built in the 1680s for Joshua Edisbury the High Sheriff of Denbighshire. It was so expensive it bankrupted him, but as a volunteer explained during a tour of the gardens which began my visit, not before he asked his brother who was in government to pull money from the general exchequer to help clear his debts. They both ended up in jail.
Erddig was then bought in 1716 by the London lawyer John Mellor for reasons which have never been explained since he'd never even been to Wales. In any case with the help of his nephew Simon Yorke, he extended the house on either side, filled it with all mod cons including a chapel and then unfortunately died in 1733 before he'd really had a chance to make use of it.
Simon picked it up in the will and so began just under two hundred and fifty years of ownership by the Yorke family which eventually ended in 1973 when it became too much of responsibility for the final owner Philip Yorke III thanks to general decrepitude and the local colliery having mined underneath the house creating subsidence. He gave the house to the National Trust who thanks to a public appeal and compensation from the coal industry were able to renovate the place and buttress the foundations and opened it to the public in 1977.
As they indicate in the leaflet, what it lacks for in architectural distinctiveness, it makes up for in possessions and social history. The current cataloguing and recording project indicates that when Philip III passed the house on (with the understanding that nothing be added or removed) there were over 30,000 objects in the collection.
But the key point of interest is how across the centuries, the various owners of the house kept records of all the servants they employed with paintings and photographed portraits, each commemorated by lengthy rhyming verse biographies, endless stanzas extolling the virtues of cooks, stable lads, gardeners and footmen. They all still on display in rooms and corridors just as they were when the house was passed on in the 70s and they really are a curiosity, notably a painting of the coach boy who stands out by being a person of colour.
It's for this reason that visitors enter the house through the servants areas in reverse to as usually occurs in stately homes. In renovating the house, the chosen period was early in the 20th century when Philip II became a father and Erddig became a family home.
None of the family were really art collectors. Although the house is filled with paintings, they're mainly portraits by minor artists and reproductions of other works lots of "after" designations and "British School". To bury the headline, their two star items are this portrait of Philip Yorke I MP (1743–1804) by Gainsborough and of John Mellor the second owner of the house in which Gainsborough overpainted everything but the face in an attempt to improve on original artist Charles Jervas's work. Both are a cut above anything else on display. The collection is available to view on the ArtUK website. Plenty of them are attempts by members of the family including this rather nice image of a kingfisher in the frost.
My favourite room in the house is undoubtedly "the state bedroom" which was latterly joked as being so named because of the state it was in due to rain water damage, messing up the bed and walls. A photo in the guide book shows it to have indeed been in a horrendous state, certainly worse than most of the rest of the house.
The key item is the bed, which was purchased by John Mellor in the 1720s from a London furniture maker and then travelled up country to the house. After the damage it incurred in the 60s, the V&A, who judged it to be one of the most important examples of that type of furniture in the county agreed to restore it on the understanding that when it turned the room would be protected by a glass walk through rather like a quarantine room in a research facility.
This gorgeous room, decorated with 18th century hand painted wallpaper, containing a coromandel lacquer screen is only viewable through this protective glass which just adds to the feeling of standing in some kind of time capsule viewing a moment in the past. You could image Dave Bowman from 2001: A Space Odyssey shuffling in wandering of the monolith has changed the breakfast order.
The house is in a constant state of renovation. Some rooms are barely accessible, the Tapesty and Chinese Rooms require a volunteer to unlock a rope for entry and they stand watching as you look around although there's more than enough time to gawp at the orientalist fixtures, tapestries illustrating aspects of the empire actually produced in the Soho Factories for Mellor in the 1920s. The Music Room is mostly under wraps and other locations, such as the library, are being used for storage, all of which is necessary but breaks the illusion a bit for visitors.
But for all that it's probably at least worth a visit for the gardens, which after being left to overgrow for years have recently been redesigned by the Trust's head gardener to resemble an earlier period and now resemble something you might find in a French chateau. To look out of the window is to imagine yourself in Versaille or Marienbad. How do you grow topiary like that?
Film The only occasion I saw Citizen Kane in an auditorium was in screen six of the then newly refurbished Odeon cinema on London Road in Liverpool.
For a period they decided they were "fanatical about film" and in order to somehow demonstrate this, they decided to run a series of repertory screenings during weekday afternoons and one week that included a print of Citizen Kane. My guess is it was on tour from the BFI although I can't easily find any evidence of this.
Having already watched the film a few times, I still wanted to see it projected and having enjoyed The Blair Witch Project (despite the booing of fellow audience members) which had been presented in its correct aspect ratio was pretty hopeful Kane would receive the same treatment.
It wasn't. Soon as the film began with the top and bottom actually being project on the ceiling and floor of the screen with the middle of the image on the screen, I knew I was sunk.
There were about ten people in the screen (an audience which explains why these screenings were discontinued pretty quickly) and no one moved.
I did. I ran to the back of the screen and out the door but there was no one around and the long walk to the foyer would have meant missing a whole chunk of the film.
So I slunk back in my chair and watched it as is. At a certain point an usher did visit briefly but not long enough to notice that anything was wrong even as Orson Welles's artificially bald pate disappeared off the top of the screen. Greg Toland designed the look of Kane to highlight the ceilings. On this day it didn't matter.
Afterwards I went to the box office to complain. The person at the counter didn't have a clue what I was talking about. Just suggested I filled in a comments card, which I did with many forceful words, then asked to speak to the manager.
After explaining the business to the manager I was still met with a blank face. The manager who didn't understand anything of anything I was saying to them, of aspect ratios and matting and ceilings, said simply that it was "projected in that way because it was how the film had been supplied to them" and that was that. They did give me a refund, so there is that.
Fifteen years later (at least) (I don't quite remember when this incident happened), I wonder about the extent to which this has changed.
Apart from ITV and some of the minor freeview channels, films tend to be presented in their correct aspect ratio on television and in streaming services. 99.9% of the time this is also true of blu-ray or dvd (even to the point in some cases of preserving IMAX sequences and cutting between the two).
The Grand Budapest Hotel, a hugely popular film, even plays around with aspect ratios as it portrays different time periods.
How much has this educated audiences to aspect ratios and the importance thereof?
I don't know. Kane's an old film and the academy ratio is rarely utilized in film now apart from in artsier cases. Plus it requires the viewer to know which ratio a film was originally shot and edited in and even as such works are pillar boxed on widescreen televisions, do people really know how that should be replicated in cinema screenings?
I tend to be so attuned to this that I can usually tell if a film's been cropped for television to fit the 16:9 frame but it doesn't seem to bother others. It's perplexing.
Theatre Let's begin at the ending or indeed further than the ending into the credits which include the following statement: "The text of HAMLET was created for the 2009 production starring Jude Law and directed by Michael Grandage which played London and New York". Does this happen much? It's certainly the first time I remember seeing a production in which, rather than the director and possibly actors taking a view on the text of the play themselves, effectively pulling something prepared earlier from the shelf. To an extent, doesn't this mean that you're interpreting someone else's interpretation rather than Shakespeare's own words?
The statement appears on the Royal Exchange's own website and was presumably in the original programme, but deliberately ignoring such things before watching any production so as to preserve some surprises, I had spent the duration considering the bold textual choices of stage director Sarah Frankcom when in fact it's Michael Grandage's thought process which should be considered. It's certainly made me retrospectively rethink my opinion on the production and the role of the actors and director. Without having seen Grandage's production, how am I to know how much of what I've just seen, such as cutting Fortinbras, was down to the current director and how much is a simple replication of 2009? Yes, I could go glance at some reviews, but one shouldn't really need to.
So it's to Grandage we look for the choice to shift "To Be Or Not To Be" far later in the play to just after the closet scene, making it a meditation on that act as much as Hamlet's own mortality, though chilling emphasis given on the latter due to the Prince brandishing the revolver which did the deed, weakly pressing it to his temple. It's fine and I'd be interested to see how it fits in the original staging. But this textual purist is also bound to say it's not what Shakespeare wrote and unbalances our understanding of his psychology at that moment and the extent to which his feigning madness and shifted off into something else, which is something I'm not sure this production ever really takes a view on.
The one big textual decision which can be attributed to Frankcom is also wrapped in the casting which is to regender a large number of roles to female, most prominently Polonia, Marcella, Rosencrantz and the Gravediggers with pronouns necessarily edited to compensate. Sometimes a syllable is dropped so "gentleman" becomes "lady" and in one case an extra joke is added as Hamlet on first seeing the Gravedigger initially hails "Whose grave's this sirra?" without reaction before quickly changing it to "Whose grave's this madame?" For the most part it's invisible and only now and then does it disrupt the rhythm of the pentameter but not the extent of creating too much of an imbalance, an imperfect if necessary solution.
The dynamics do change. As with Julie Taymor's film of The Tempest, the connections between Polonia and her children reverse with Laertes becoming the favoured of the two, the relationship with Ophelia markedly resembling that between Lorelai and her mother in Gilmore Girls, especially during the embarkation scene which is set around a dinner table similar to the one which Rory's forced to eat at every Friday night. The style of Polonia actress Gillian Bevan's hair even resembles Emily Gilmore actress Kelly Bishop. Bevan's the standout of the production actually, dominating the stage, with the advise scene become a moment in which genuine wisdom is being imparted, albeit with Laertes forced to listen as a condition for receiving her credit card.
Although I've seen criticisms about the decision to not regender Hamlet too, but because Peake's blistering in the title role, suspension of disbelief is easy. Aspects of the performance are problematic, with moments in which Peake is working against the text, or parodying its more masculine aspects, but for the most part its a study in grief, how someone has to deal with so many changes in the house within this foreshortened timescale. There's a telling look from Peake when she's asked or more likely ordered to stay at Elsinore rather than return to college which shows that an escape plan has been snatched away, underscoring the notion that "Denmark's a prison". Hamlet's being held against his will.
Nevertheless there is a sense in places that some decisions were never quite worked out in rehearsal in favour of the grander set pieces. As well as whether Hamlet's actually mad or not, his relationship to Kate West's Ophelia's also poorly developed, the nunnery scene feeling very make-do and actually oddly rushed through. Similarly his friendship with Horatio, so rich in other productions never quite gels. This isn't a plea for some LGBT+ shading but the text calls for certain things and the performances don't quite rise to them. Although it's also true that in the film version, the editing always favours Peake and so it's possible elements of either of their performances have been lost. The full power of John Shrapnel's Claudius isn't demonstrated until he's alone and commanding the space, his motivations unspooling like Richard III.
More than most filmed production, it seems as though the reaction to seeing the piece in situ could have differed to on television (or indeed at the cinema which was where this recording was originally designed - it's even described in some publicity as "Hamlet The Film". Although recorded in front of an audience (and can't we, cough, here, cough, it, beep, beep) they're largely invisible within the darkness of the space, with lighting which keeps the illumination of the actors to the minimum required for a given scene. Like the television version of the RSC production of Macbeth with McKellen and Dench, the characters emerge and disappear into to the black, and there's rarely sense that anything exists beyond.
Some of the staging is beautiful and beautifully shot. When Hamlet meets the Ghost of his father (doubled by Shrapnel), lightbulbs are lowers from the ceiling creating an orange glow across the actors faces familiar to anyone who's seen the interior of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (it's notable that light bulbs were also a feature of Adrian Noble's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream representing the Forest of Arden). A camera has also been mounted in the gods, so scenes often begin from above or punctuated by overhead shots to emphasise the action. When Hamlet rips up Ophelia's remembrances and throws them at her, it's in slow motion. The home viewer is in a privileged rather than audience position. During fishmonger, Polonia even breaks the fourth wall.
For all that, Yorick is a mess. The performances are fine, great even. Grandage's script privileges us with a rare viewing of both gravediggers and all their banter, both female with the key clown played with a very good scouse accent. One of the few occasions I laughed here was during the back and forth with Hamlet in relation to whose grave it is. But Frankcom has gone symbolic, with dirt or some such replaced with a jumble of clothing with Yorick's skull represented by a cardigan with knot in the middle (pictured). When Ophelia's funeral arrives, her body is represented by the blouse she was wearing during the madness scene and its lain on the ground, the whole business just looks silly, plus it feels wrong that Peake be denied the opportunity to play with an actual skull.
Ultimately not the best production I've seen but it thrums along to its own rhythm. It takes a special production for me to really become involved in the story any more having seen it so many times, and although there are too many Brechtian distancing effects on this occasion, the compensation of hearing the text performed well is its own reward. Having Peake play Hamlet doesn't feel controversial and she's more convincing than many of her male counterparts. Ideally in future there'll be much more gender neutral casting across all productions so long as there's enough leeway in the text and Hamlet's the most accessible of the lot. Now I'm imagining what Catherine Tate, Gugu Mbatha-Raw or even, yes, Romola Garai would do with the role.