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The Isle is Full of Noises

August 3, 2012

News comes that the Bodleian Library in Oxford is going to make its First Folio available online:

It got me thinking about the productions I’ve seen over the years. It’s odd that the one that sticks most in my mind is an Italian version of Hamlet in the Gate Theatre. The Players arrived in Elsinore, promptly took a break, complete with madeira cake and steaming coffee, and encouraged the audience to do the same – leaving poor Hamlet to an almost empty house, muttering ‘To be or not to be’. Yorick put in an appearance as a gravedigger. Horatio was a blind seer. ‘All for Hecuba’ transmuted into ‘What about Cuba?’. I happened to be sitting in the front row and wondered at the empty seats beside me. Come the play within the play, I knew.  Gertrude, Hamlet and Claudius sat down beside us with a few nods and we ‘happy few’ became part of the scene. Dead Ophelia became a black veil, carried up the aisle for burial onstage. It was a bloody marvellous production.

I remember the tone of John Nettle’s voice as he delivered Leontes’  line ‘ O, she’s warm!’ when Hermione came back to life at the end of The Winter’s Taleduring another Dublin Theatre Festival. And I was dug in at the Gaiety Theatre for the three productions presented by a young, ambitious Kenneth Branagh and the Renaissance Theatre Company – which later expanded into a film rep. company. The music for All’s Well That Ends Well was composed by Patrick Doyle, both in the theatre and later on film.

Branagh as Henry V

 Branagh’s film of Henry V is still a favourite, as is the St Crispin’s Day speech.

Some of the most recent films of Shakespeare’s plays have been great encounters – including Zefferelli’s film of the opera Otello . The title role was sung by the magnificent Placido Domingo.

Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard is great craic. Keep an eye out for Alec  Baldwin and Kevin Spacey!

Al as Richard III

All of which leads me to the Folio – the words. Favourite plays are fine;  lists can change with a mood, a whim, or on seeing an innovative production. But the words never change.

So, favourite speeches and lines.  Here’s a few…

‘Twas her brother that, in pure kindness to his horse, buttr’d his hay’.  John Hurt’s Fool tries to bring a smile to Laurence Olivier’s Lear in a 1980’s Channel  4 production.  Lear Act 2 Scene IV.

Judi Dench as Mistress Quickly

Mistress Quickly recounts the death of Falstaff in Henry V Act 2 Scene III –    ‘How now, Sir John! quoth I. ‘What, man, be o’ good cheer.’ So ‘a cried out ‘God,God,God!’ three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him ‘a should not think of God; I hop’d there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So ‘ a bade me lay more clothes on his feet; I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and so upward and upward, and all was as cold as any stone.’

In Hamlet Act 2  Scene II Hamlet puts across the blues –  ‘I have of late – but wherefore I know not – lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’er-hanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire – why, it appeareth no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.’   

(Those words, psychedelia fans, were put to good use in the musical Hair.)

And yet, and yet ,and yet –  there follows such a lyrical commentary on humankind:  ‘ What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action, how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!

Hamlet’s The Man.

And, from The Tempest, dear old Prospero’s observation: ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.’ 

John Gielgud as Prospero

So, a final word to the The Tempest’s Caliban: ‘ Be not afeared. The isle is full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not…’

That might be Shakespeare on Shakespeare.

As with all good writers, Shakespeare deserves to be read aloud.

Find a Folio. Fill the isle with noise!

What’s your favourite speech from Shakespeare?

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