Saturday, 12 February 2011

Naturism | Music/Theatre | The Naked Shakespeare

Yesterday, I went to Propeller’s potentially unprecedented Shakespearean double-header, Richard III and The Comedy of Errors, at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry. (Critics have, indcidentally, had a lot of fun attempting to make sense of why one of WS’s lumbering, blood-soaked masterpieces has been lashed to one of the weakest, lightest comedies, Susannah Clapp (lol etc.) pointing out that ‘each has a variation on the theme of forging – in Richard’s case in a double sense – an identity’ without also acknowledging the fact that the forging of identity is a concept that makes its way into every single one of Shakespeare’s shitting plays. One of the Propeller stage managers, who’s a pal of mine, had a more prosaic explanation: the company likes to tour with a new play alongside one it’s done for a while before, for obvious reasons. But nice try Ms. Clapp.)

Richard was excellent, a just-about self-contained, enjoyably un-WarsoftheRosesy marriage of Hostel, the asylum in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Morten Lauridsen-esque vocal arrangements, muscular verse-speaking, ingenious stagecraft, adornment that didn’t overstay its welcome and moments of genuinely unsettling callousness. With a powerful, attractive Richard at its heart who reminded me of Greg Davies from the Inbetweeners and Giles from Buffy at the same time.

Comedy was an extraordinary mess that managed to channel layers and layers of pantomime ridiculousness into a sorta frustrated energy that had its characters getting every bit as pissed off as readers and watchers of the play can only become in the face of one joke being repeated again and again and again. Rubbish play. And this was pretty funny. A thoroughly enjoyable double-bill, in other words, the coupling working for company-imaginative-energy-based, rather than textual-association-based reasons. Proper ensemble stuff etc.

Anyway, all that’s not important. What’s important is that Dr Pinch, a tiny part of Comedy inflated to gigantic proportions by a combination of excessive direction and an actor called Tony Bell who, let’s put it this way, makes the most of his roles (ruining the beginning of the second half of Richard in the process) ran across the stage as the second play reached a screeching climax, stark naked, with an actual, lit firework stuck up his arse. And as he did so, the words NAKED and SHAKESPEARE meshed together in my head and I realised that it wasn’t the first time this had happened (the words, not the firework). That, indeed, the concept of a Naked Shakespeare had been a more RECURRING MOTIF in the landscape of my cultural experience than most. Perhaps, I thought to myself, this trail of Naked Shakespeares could lead me to some sort of ultimate Shakespearean truth…

Number One, The Naked Shakespeare, by Peter Blegvad
Silkworms favourite, the avant-pop gentleman and scholar Peter Blegvad, released a splendid, now thrillingly dated-sounding record called The Naked Shakespeare in 1983. Its title track is a strummed, ambiguous little thing with lyrics that have never been available on the internet. UNTIL NOW:

The naked Shakespeare.
He’d like to know what happens now
Yeah but there are rules.
What’s taking place here?
He knows there’s absence at the prow
And it’s a ship of fools.

What to take?
What does it take?
To rectify a boy’s mistake
(How can he break the chain?)
Learn to give and to take again.
The naked Shakespeare.

The naked Shakespeare.
He haunts the neighbourhoods he knew
There’s just a few.
He made his best mistakes here
And now the family comes unglued
That spells his doom.

What to take?
What does it take?
To rectify a boy’s mistake
(How can he break the chain?)
He can only fake the pain he feels

She can only [follow lawyers?]
She calls him by his name
Hey, shake a leg there Shakespeare,
She calls, and takes care for him
Holds the daylight, in his frame of [here?]
The naked Shakespeare.
The naked Shakespeare.
The naked Shakespeare.

Our trail begins with a Naked Shakespeare that seems, like many of Blegvad’s creations, to be born out of wordplay, this one only making proper sense during lines like ‘shake a leg there Shakespeare’ and rhyming couplets (‘best mistakes here’). Sandwiched on either side by XTC-ish twists and turns about Weird Monkeys and a lady called Irma and Belgvad’s ‘weapon’, this Naked Shakespeare represents a sorta elegiac clarity on a record full of silliness, a combination of innocence and a great man in decline (a la Edward Bond’s Bingo) which has Shakespeare reduced to a few clever lines and a overriding sense of nostalgia.

Number two, Romeo and Juliet by Franco Zeffirelli

Show Zeffirelli’s R&J to a classroom full of thirteen-year-old boys and they will emerge, blinking and bellowing two words. Bum. And tits. Why? Because of one of the most famous scenes in sixties cinema, starring Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, that's why:


It’s difficult not to talk about this Naked Shakespeare in terms of Zeffirellian controversy – as is ever the case with a guy who spent his twilight years as an MP in Berlusconi’s bunga-bunga party whilst defending Roman Catholic policy on homosexuality and offering himself as an ‘image consultant’ to the Pope despite being the gayest man of all time. Bruce Robinson based Richard Griffiths’ Uncle Monty in Withnail And I (‘I mean to have you, even if it must be burglary’) on his experiences of being directed by Zeffirelli (he played Benvolio in R&J) and detecting that sort of influence via the sustained cinematic emphasis on Leonard Whiting’s seventeen-year-old rear is, well, the obvious thing to do. Even more controversial was/is the fact that it is a fifteen-year-old Olivia Hussey in the bedroom scene, a state of affairs that Zeffirelli had to ask permission for, somewhat understandably. Sniggering speculation aside, it is an astonishingly beautiful sequence in which human skin takes on the honeyed, flawless quality of Titian’s Venus of Urbino. This is a Naked Shakespeare dappled with morning where Blegvad’s is with, I guess, evening.


Number Three, Acorn Productions' Naked Shakespeare

I must admit I’d never heard of this Portland-based theatre company until I came across this whilst researching the Blegvad record. It’s a convenient anecdotal entry-point into the concept of a completely unadorned, minimalist, purist-textual Shakespeare that becomes fashionable every 20 years or so, until people realise that, short of a McKellen and a Dench (as appeared at the RSC’s Other Place in a tiny, bare-bones Macbeth in 1979) this Naked Shakespeare isn’t a great deal of fun.

Fun. Perhaps that was what annoyed me about Propeller’s Dr Pinch. The fact that its conception of a Naked Shakespeare manifested in a single, rather rudimentary gag. The concept of nakedness in Shakespeare has serious ramifications, be that in terms of the decision to strip bare a stage, to expose the lithe, adolescent fragility of a pair of protagonists, or to point towards a conception of Shakespeare that goes beyond omniscience and genius and attempts to find the human. Nakedness on a stage or in a film or in conjunction with an idol has the potential to be the one thing that an audience remembers about their experience of something – whether they intend to or not. It is a fact of human response. So don’t waste it on a firework.
Silly and insignificant as Comedy is, I still don’t want to leave a production scratching my head and thinking, so both hands were cupping the front of him. So how in God’s name was he holding the thing in there?

Sam Kinchin-Smith
Music Editor

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