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Last Saturday evening, the BBC broadcast the 3rd in the current series of The Hollow Crown, Richard III.

It features Benedict Cumberbatch as the scheming, murderous monarch, Judi Dench as his mother, the Duchess of York, and Sophie Okonedo as Margaret of Anjou, widow of Henry VI.

The play follows on from the 2 previous episodes (compressed from the 3 Henry VI plays) and it helps to have watched the earlier ones to build up an understanding of the background, the characters, and their relationships, but this is the big one, where Richard III comes into his wicked, murderous own.

It's a very good adaptation. Cumberbatch revels in the role, particularly his soliloquies, spoken directly to the camera, drawing us in to his plots.

Between times, he spends a lot of time brooding over a chess board, drumming his fingers, never satisfied or safe.

They play is, of course, pretty bleak, but there are nevertheless moments of humour - the scene in which the Mayor of London and others arrive to 'persuade' Richard to take the throne is very funny.


The final showdown, at the Battle of Bosworth Field, is as grim as it comes, with endless acres of blood and rain and mud.


Richmond (Luke Treadaway) naturally turns up, looking impossibly clean-cut and noble, and, inevitably, defeats Richard.


This is, of course, entirely consistent with Shakespeare's play, if not with history (the victory is true, of course. The nobility, less so)

It's well worth seeing.

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We are well into the Wars of the Roses now - battles are two-a-penny, Warwick the Kingmaker is busy manipulating things, and foolish, vacillating Clarence is changing sides every five minutes.



And of course, Richard of York's younger son, Richard, is  limping around, dressed entirely in black and soliloquising about his dastardly ambitions, and looking sideways under his eyebrows.



People are getting stabbed and decapitated all over the place, Margaret of Anjou is demonstrating that she is a far better general, and on the whole, better suited than her husband to be a medieval monarch.

Margaret of Anjou (Sophie Okonedo)

It is all extremely well done, and very graphic, in the representation of the sheer, vicsious bloodiness of the Wars of the Roses.

We left the action just after the new King, Edward IV, upsets pretty much everyone by marrying a dowerless, English  widow rather than  making the political marriage arranged for him, and after Margaret and Henry's son is killed.

With this cheerful starting point, we shall be heading into Richard III, the final part of this 'series' of 'The Hollow Crown', next week.

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Yesterday, 23rd April 2016, was the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare's death, and the Royal Shakespeare Company and the BBC collaborated on a celebration, which was broadcast live on BBC2 and to cinemas.

Naturally, I watched. It was fantastic.

It was introduced by Catherine Tate and David Tennant (who of course, as well as their performances together on Doctor Who, appeared as Benedict and Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing in 2011)




The evening featured wonderful snippets of Shakespeare's plays, but also other art inspired by him, such as Ballet -  Tyrone Singleton, of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, who danced Othello, was particularly impressive  (I enjoyed that more than the Romeo and Juliet pas-de-deux)


There was also opera (The English National Opera, giving parts of Berlioz's 'Beatrice et Benedict' and Verdi's 'Falstaff') and more music and dance - Akala, Rufus Wainwright, Gregory Porter, Rufus Hound and Henry Goodman performing 'Brush up your Shakespeare', and Joseph Fiennes wandering around Stratford upon Avon with his hands in his pockets, giving a potted biography of the man himself.

Al Murray as Bottom (C) BBC

There were, of course, some wonderful performances - Judi Dench and Al Murray, as Titania and Bottom, Harriet Walter as Cleopatra, Meera Syall as Beatrice.

And, one of the biggest highlights of the evening, Paapa Essiedu (currently appearing as Hamlet at the RSC, and doing so exceptionally well) came in in order to give the 'To be, or not to be' soliloquy, and was, alas, rudely interrupted...



(If the video won't play for you, Paapa is interrupted by Tim Minchin wishing to give advice about the speech, followed in turn by Benedict Cumberbatch (mistaken by all for Eddie Redmayne) Harriet Walter, David Tennant, Rory Kinnear, Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench ("It is I, Hamlet the Dame") and finally, Prince Charles...

I would have loved it if they had managed to get Maxine Peake, too

Sadly, the video stops at that point, and doesn't show Paapa going on to give the full speech, which cannot have been easy, following directly on from the sketch!

Sir Ian McKellen

And directly afterwards, Sir Ian McKellen gave 'The Migrant's Speech' from Sir Thomas More:



Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding tooth ports and costs for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you. You had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.

It was beautifully done.

I would have loved to have been in the audience at Stratford,but as I couldn't be, I'm glad they broadcast it.I believe the full thing is available on BBC iPlayer for the next month.
Happy Birthday, Master Shakespeare!

( I may also have spent some time watching Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Irons in 'The Hollow Crown', and am looking forward to the next ones, the first of which is going to be shown early next month)
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Last Thursday, the Barbican Hamlet was broadcast live to cinemas, and I went to see it.



As you know, I saw it live back in August (see here) and I was really interested to see it again, and to see what had changed, and how different the play appeared on film. There are a few of the other NT Broadcasts which I've both on stage an screen, and it's never the same.  (Not necessarily worse or better, just different)



I think that this production, being so big, and with such a cinematic set, worked well as a broadcast.




Some of the things which I have found annoying about some of the other broadcasts, such as the habit of zooming in on primary characters and missing much of the subtle background action, were still present here, but I found it less irritating in this production than in others, as it cut out some of the things I found irritating about the live show, such as the excessive use of over-elaborate props. It did however also mean that there were some subtleties lost - the gradual disintegration of Elsinore was far less obvious, for instance.



I did think that the production has improved as the actors have settled into it - the friendship between Horatio and Hamlet seemed closer and more plausible (although I am still not a fan of nerdy backpacker Horatio) and I thought Ophelia's scenes, particularly after Polonius's death, were stronger, although as a character (though not the actor) is not, in my view, one of Shakespeare's better creations!

I enjoyed seeing it again.

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Over a year ago, I read that Benedict Cumberbatch, of Sherlock, Frankenstein and Smaug fame, was to play Hamlet, live, at the Barbican Theatre in London this year. And I have a group of friends who, like me, like going to the theater- we've previously seen David Tennant in Hamlet, and more recently, in Richard II, and agreed that seeing Mr Cumberbatch's Hamlet would be a good thing to do.


So, with some difficulty, I managed to buy the maximum 6 tickets permitted, (it later turned out that the show was the fastest seller in, well, pretty much ever. I was lucky that there were only a couple of hundred people ahead of me in the queue when I booked - later that day there were lover 10,000)


And a year went by, and on 15th August I reached the point where I was sitting in the stalls, in the Barbican theatre, waiting for the Prince of Denmark.. As the man says 'the readiness is all'


So, was it worth the wait?

I think so.


It should be mentioned that we saw the play on 15th August, which was (although not made clear when we booked, or on our tickets) a preview, 10 days into the run.


The play opens, not with the usual scene of Bernardo and Marcellus on the ramparts of Elsinore, but instead with Hamlet, alone on stage, looking though tea-chests (apparently paced with childhood items) while Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy” plays on an old gramophone player. (The music familiar to many of us as the music from the film 'Moulin Rouge'), establishing him as, at the very least, a little melancholic.

We then moved to a the wedding breakfast, with vast displays of white flowers and of hunting trophies, as Claudius deals with the ambassadors to Norway, Laertes' wish to return to college, an Hamlet's own moodiness.

Hamlet: Scene 2 (official pic by Johan Persson)

Shortly after this picture was taken, Hamlet starts walking on the table and giving the  'O, that this too, too solid flesh..' soliloquy  (with the rest of the cast moved in slow-motion, which I thought was an effective way of allowing the soliloquies to be given, and to be clearly internal,  despite the number of other people on stage.)

Claudius - a trustworthy King

(photo credit as before)

Very effective.

Obviously Cumberbatch is the headliner in the production, but the cast as a whole is very strong:



Ciaran Hinds' Claudius doesn't really let the menacing, dangerous side of the character out in the earlier scenes of the play, but as the play progresses and he begins to fear Hamlet, and his own conscience, he becomes more obviously threatening.


Kobna Holdbrook-Smith was a hugely powerful and commanding Laertes. Given that he has a relatively small amount of time on stage, he packed one hell of a punch.

I don't think I have seen Holdbrook-Smith before but will definitely be looking out for him in future!

Laertes
Other characters were also, generally, pretty strong - Anastasia Hille as Gertrude made a great foil for Hamlet's flamboyance, and her reaction to Ophelia's madness and death was beautifully done.

Gertrude and Hamlet
I was a little less impressed with Ophelia (Sian Brooke) and with Horatio (Leo Bill) as characters, although I think n both cases this was a fault in the production not in the actors. In neither case did their relationships with Hamlet quite 'jell', for me. Ophelia's madness was beautifully done in its subtle contrast with Hamlet's own feigned madness, but she was less convincing as a object of his love, or even as a 'safe' friend for the emotionally immature Hamlet of this production.
Ophelia
Horatio seemed affectionate but a little distant until the very end of the play, and as a result his anguish at Hamlet's death seemed less consistent with his earlier relationship than it sometimes does. I would love to see the production again, and see whether this changes as Cumberbatch and Bill settle into working together. We did, after all, see a production only 11 performances into the run. I'm planning to see the NTLive broadcast on 15th October, and will be curious to see how the production changes.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstein got what was coming to them.

What of the man himself?

I was *very* impressed.Cumberbatch's Hamlet has moments of pure, 'Sherlock' style intellect, (Hamlet's reaction to the Ghost' command to the soldiers to 'swear' is perfect!) lots of physical work, and much more humour than you normally see in Hamlet.

This Cumberbatch chap is pretty got with the acting. I think he will go far. Who knows, perhaps he will even make it to Hollywood one day!

And the show is worth seeing for the toy fort part alone.

Which brings me on to the set.
Which is huge. The Barbican stage is BIG, and this set takes full advantage of that. And there is a lot going on. The set is the Palace, huge, and formal (and gradually cracking and  deteriorating over the course of the play, mirroring the destruction of the lives of those on stage, and that part really works. There is a sweeping staircase, and a balcony to one side of the stage, which works well for all the plotting.
I was less enamoured of the set dressing - lots of white garlands for the wedding breakfast, and lots of flowers, bizarrely arranged in brass instruments , for the play-within-a-play, as well  as an entire mini-theatre, and a war room. Again, it may be that the scene changes will get a little slicker over time, but I did find some of them a little distracting. I will admit, however, that full size toy fort in which Hamlet plays, establishing his madness, was a lot of fun!
Over all, it's a very good production, with a very strong ensemble cast, some interesting cuts and changes in the text, and just a few too many props! I was happy to see that although some well known lines were cut (Polonius, I'm looking at you) and others appeared in unexpected places, Fortinbras made the cut. There were probably even some sledded Polacks in the wings, if one only knew where to look.
Laertes and Hamlet. Not going to end well.
Oh, and Benedict knocked over a case of swords during the curtain call, proving he is human, and then very tidily picked them up off the floor before taking his bow!
I am very glad that I got to see it, and I'm looking forward to seeing it again at the cinema. And even if you can't see the show lie, do go to the broadcast if you get a chance.  I give it 4.5 / 5 stars. (half off for the flowers-inna-tuba)

(edited to add: the NT Live trailer is up on youtube- well worth listening to!)
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Saturday was mostly spent running errands - my car now has nice new brake discs and pads, and as had something underneath tightened slightly so there is no longer a tiny oil leak, I've bought the last few christmas gifts and have posted most of the ones which need posting (one more to go!) and bought various bits and pieces of food (I am hosting christmas this year, for the first time!)

While the car was being worked on, I went over to Wells, which was looking very pretty in the winter sunshine. We had a heavy frost overnight, which was only melting as the sun got round. (the picture is of the Bishop's Palace)
It was rather chilly, but lovely to look at!

I also did the kinds of things one has to do at weekends, laundry and cleaning and the like.
In the evening, I headed back out in order to go to the cinema, to see The Imitation Game.

I first learned about Alan Turing when I went to see Derek Jacobi in a play called Breaking the Code, in Bath, in around 1987 (the play, still starring Jacobi as Turing, was made into a TV production by the BBC in around 1996).  More recently, I've had the chance to visit Bletchley Park, and 2 years ago visited the Turing exhibition at the Science Museum in London

He was an extraordinary man, and his achievements, both during the war and in relation to the development of computers, cannot be overstated.

The film is interesting, although (perhaps inevitably) takes a fair number of liberties with the facts - everything from Turning's age when his friend Christopher died, to the sub-plot about Soviet spies, to the suggestion that Turing himself would break his silence to tell a police detective about his war-time activities!

The there is also implication that Turing has Aspergers Syndrome, given scenes when, as a schoolboy, he is upset by carrots and peas touching one another, and another scene, later, when he appears not to understand that he is being invited to join his colleagues for lunch. I did find this slightly irritating - it seemed to be there in order for Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) to then teach him how to interact with other people.

However, despite these liberties, the film is still extremely good - Cumberbatch's Turing comes across as ferociously intelligent,  emotionally vulnerable, and very, very logical.

Mark Strong, as Stewart Menzies, (MI6) was delightfully smooth and Machiavellian, and Charles Dance, who played Commander Denniston was excellent as an old-school Navy type (which I suspect may be another variation on the truth. But which makes for a good drama!)

I think I shall be buying this when it comes out on DVD.

It was a very clear, cold evening, and after getting home I went out to see whether I could spot any of the Geminid Meteor shower, which was due to be at its peak. I went out a little after 10 pm, and despite only being in my back garden (with  a street light in front of my house, and other in the road behind) I nevertheless was able to see masses of stars, and saw 5 or 6 meteors in the 10 minutes or so I was out. Which was nice.

I did peer out when I woke up around 1 a.m., as I believe that peak density was due to be visible around 2, but it have become quite cloudy and overcast by that point, and I could only see a very few stars, so I decided against getting out of bed and going back outside for star-gazing!
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I had hoped that I might be able to get a ticket to see Frankenstein at the National Theatre, but sadly it sold out so fast  I missed my chance.

However, all was not lost, as there were to be two performances filmed and broadcast live to cinemas, and I did manage to get a ticket for one of them, for Thursday evening.

As you may know,one of the features of this particular production is that the actors playing Victor Frankenstein and the Creature are alternating the roles. I saw Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein and Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature, and I would love to see it with the roles reversed, to see how much changes.

The evening didn't start well, as it seems that the cinema had made a mistake and listed the show as starting at 7.30, when in fact it was 7! Luckily, this just meant that I had no time to grab anything to eat bfore the performance started, rather than meaning that I missed the start!

It is  a great play. It is in many ways more faithful to Mary Shelley's original novel than most of the film versions, in particular, the creature has, as in the novel, an articulate voice.. although not to start with!

The play starts with the Creature's "birth" and we then see him in a long, dialogue-free section of the play as he explores his body's capabilities, gradually learning to move, sit, and eventually to walk, and to explore the world around him.

We then see Frankenstein's rejection of his creation, and then the reception which the Creature gets as he goes out into the world. There was a lovely, if slightly inexplicable SteamPunk train, some fancy stage engineering and some unexpected humour to lighten the mood.

Unlike many versions of Frankenstein, this one presents a sympathetic Creature, despite his own murderous behaviour., and challenges Frankenstein's behaviour in creating, and then abandoning the creature. The Creature is the undoubted star of the show, and the issue as to who the monster is as open to question.

I thouroughly enjoyed the play, and I still want to see the live version, and the alternate version with Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature, and Jonny Lee Miller as Fankenstein.

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