Must-See Musicals DVD Collection

For someone who loves musicals, I really haven’t seen many filmed versions. It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve seen The Sound of Music, for example. Last Christmas I asked for a box set of Must-See Musicals in an attempt to rectify this.

The set consists of 15 classic musicals in a striking yellow box, spanning the years from 1933 to 1962. It was great to be able to watch some musicals that I’d only ever seen on stage, including 42nd Street, Meet Me In St Louis and Singing In the Rain, as well as High Society, Gypsy, Annie Get Your Gun, Calamity Jane and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers.

Some of them I wasn’t all that keen on. I thought On Moonlight Bay, April In Paris and Love Me Or Leave Me were a little bit dull, and A Star is Born was spoilt by being a full-length version including stills that had been added in without sound, really taking you out of the movie.

There are no extras (apart from A Star Is Born) and there’s nothing to suggest the films have been restored in any way – but if you just want the films you can’t go wrong. On balance, it’s a great collection for anyone wanting to improve their knowledge of classic musicals.

Shakespeare Live from the RSC

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past few months, you will be aware that it was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on Saturday. Celebrations were going on up and down the country, and the highlight for me was the Shakespeare Live show streamed live from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon, to cinemas and on BBC2, where I watched from the sofa in my pyjamas.

I followed what people were saying on Twitter, and responses were mixed. I thought a lot of people would have preferred more actual Shakespeare, with actors performing scenes from his plays. Personally, though, I liked the variety: it showed how Shakespeare had inspired so many different people, from jazz musicians to comedians to ballet composers, and judging by other responses on Twitter, it engaged a lot of people who weren’t previously Shakespeare fans. In any case, I think the best way to see Shakespeare is in the context of a whole play: just seeing one or two scenes doesn’t have the same impact. That said, some of my favourite segments were those involving Shakespeare’s scenes, so what do I know?!

I have compiled an entirely personal, just-for-fun list of seven of my favourite moments from the show.

1. Catherine Tate’s ‘Seven Ages’ speech
Presenting the show with her Much Ado About Nothing co-star David Tennant, Tate delivered the famous ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech with the help of seven real people from the area: including a newborn baby, a local schoolboy, a serving soldier, and a retired RSC production manager.

2. Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff in Macbeth
I would like to see these two in a full production of Macbeth now, please. They are both fantastic actors and they did this scene proud.

3. Judi Dench and Al Murray in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Dame Judi and the Pub Landlord in a scene together? Unexpected, but it worked SO well.

4. The Horrible Histories Shakespeare sketch
“Who are you?” “William…” “..Shoppingtrolley?” Irreverent and hugely funny, this sketch in which Shakespeare showed up at a pub where Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe were drinking together was brilliant.

5. Henry Goodman and Rufus Hound’s ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’
I love musicals anyway, so this was a given, but the pair’s performance was excellent, very tongue-in-cheek.

6. Sir Ian McKellen’s speech from Sir Thomas More
Sir Ian’s delivery of the hugely topical speech about refugees was poignant and perfectly-timed.

7. The ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ sketch
For me, this was hands-down the best part of the evening. From Tim Minchin’s “I’ll never play Hamlet in Stratford because I’m ginger!” to Judi Dench’s “I am Hamlet, the Dame” and Prince Charles’s closing intervention, it was a joy from start to finish, poking fun at theatrical conventions in a hilarious and irreverent way. Best of all was, after all that, when eight of the nine Hamlets (Minchin, Dench, HRH, Rory Kinnear, Benedict Cumberbatch, Harriet Walter, David Tennant and Ian McKellen) had departed the stage, Paapa Essiedu, who is currently playing the role at the RSC, delivered the famous speech in such a moving, fresh and thoughtful way that it reminded me no matter how many first-class Hamlets have been and gone, there are always plenty of greats left to come.

As a bonus, my final highlight of the night was reading the tweets of the Samuel French publishing account.

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Samuel Beckett’s Quad and Nacht und Träume

I’ve been watching a couple of television plays by Samuel Beckett, Quad and Nacht und Träume. Quad was written, first produced and broadcast in 1981. It is a really strange production, which involves four cloaked individuals moving around a square in an odd formation. The piece is performed twice, the second piece in black and white and without music.

Nacht und Träume (Night and Dreams) was the last television play written and directed by Samuel Beckett. It was written and recorded in 1982, with the mime artist Helfrid Foron playing both parts. It is a strange, haunting play, wordless, with the only sound that of a male voice humming, then singing, Schubert’s Nacht und Träume. The composer was one of Beckett’s favourites.

Samuel Beckett’s “Film”

Samuel Beckett’s only screenplay, Film, was written in 1963 and filmed in New York the following year. I watched it online at UbuWeb. Beckett originally wanted Charlie Chaplin to play the lead (referred to only as “O”) but this didn’t work out, and the role eventually went to Buster Keaton.

The film differed slightly from the script as written, but it was approved by Beckett as he was on set at the time. I read the script as part of my edition of his Collected Works, but this was the first time I had seen it on screen.

The film explores one man’s bid to escape from an all-seeing eye – perhaps meant to represent the camera itself. It is almost totally silent, and is a rather eerie experience. It’s short, but memorable: simple on the surface, but I’m sure it would repay careful study.

Macbeth (2015)

I don’t normally visit the cinema these days, but I had to make an exception for Justin Kerzel’s new film of Macbeth. Against a beautiful backdrop of scenery, filled with rich colours, the play runs its course in a compelling production, beginning with the burial of the couple’s child: an artistic liberty which lends depth to the Macbeths’ characters and influences Lady Macbeth in particular.

Michael Fassbender is very strong as Macbeth, entirely believable as a successful army leader and compelling as he is steeped deeper and deeper into bloody betrayal. Marion Cotillard is superb as Lady Macbeth, compelling in her wickedness and human and sympathetic in her grief. Her “mad” scene in particular, which sees her return to her former home and deliver her speech quietly, crouching on the floor, seeing the figure of her child playing before her, is touching and sad.

The play has been cut to fit into its two-hour running time, and it flows superbly. I particularly liked the ending of the film, with its insinuation that the Scottish throne itself is cursed and the bloodshed will continue. An excellent addition to the canon of filmed Shakespeare.

 

Beckett on Screen – Television Pieces

As part of the International Beckett Season I popped along to the Barbican to attend a screening of some of the pieces Samuel Beckett wrote for television. Created specially for this medium, they struck me as being quite static – not a criticism, but an observation – making them more suited to the screen rather than the stage.

Eh Joe stars Jack McGowran, shut in a room while the voice of a woman he once loved (Sian Phillips) affects him deeply. As the camera draws ever closer to the actor’s face, the intensity of his emotions become even more apparent. This short piece was directed by Alan Gibson and was released in 1966.

Directed by Donald McWhinnie and Anthony Page, the 1977 Ghost Trio (named after Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Trio which can be heard in the piece) is similarly haunting, with repetitive movements and a lonely atmosphere.

…but the clouds…, created at the same time, is a meditation on absence featuring Ronald Pickup and Billie Whitelaw, who mouths words from The Tower, a poem by Yeats that inspired the title.

Finally, Beginning to End, directed by Chloe Gibson in 1966, stars Jack McGowran who dramatises various Beckett prose works.

Taken together, the pieces were powerful and thought-provoking, though I think I’d have to think and read about them a fair bit more to really understand them.