Monthly Archives: October 2020

Coriolanus

I discovered Shakespeare’s Coriolanus when I was looking through Ralph Fiennes’s imdb profile looking for something new to watch. I was delighted to discover that he had started directing movies, too – actor directors are my favorite directors, hands down.

Coriolanus was his directorial debut (2011), with Lonely Dragon production company (named for a line in the same play). Since the same Lonely Dragon produced his sister Martha Fiennes’s Onegin (in which Ralph stars in the title role) around 20 years ago, one can imagine this one had been on the director’s radar for a while.

With an all-star cast in the lead roles and some phenomenal crowd scenes with a rich cast of very talented Serbian supporting actors, this movie immediately became one of my favorites. Vanessa Redgrave gives the finest performance I’ve ever seen from an actress in a Shakespeare production. Her vigor and intensity in this demanding role makes the movie unforgettable.

Ralph Fiennes faces off with Gerard Butler in this action-packed interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s last works. This fan poem, based on the 27th psalm, is about their confrontation, after Coriolanus has been exiled, and has come to his mortal enemy Aufidius’s camp to offer his services, in hopes of avenging himself on the Romans who banished him.

This last redoubt is my light and my rescue.
Who among you Volscians am I to fear?
The hate I have borne you is my life’s stronghold.
Of what ancient malice should I be afraid?
When your sentries draw near me with their swords bared –
eager to disembowel their sworn enemy –
they trip and they fall, are easily disarmed.
Though all of your camp is marshaled against me,
you can see that my heart is not moved by fear.
Though pitched battle is roused against me, alone,
in my hatred I trust, my strength is enough.
Only one thing do I ask of your chieftain,
it is all that I seek, and I bare my throat –
may I dwell in the house of my soul’s first hate
all the days of my exile, and join your war,
to behold the ruin of Rome, whose Senate
condemned me at the height of my proud career.
For this hatred hides me well in its shelter
on the day of evil. I am among wolves,
whose ceaseless hunger withholds me from the crows.
On a rock of impunity, here I rise.
And now in nakedness my shaven head lifts
over these raucous enemies around me:
let me officiate in your chieftain’s tent
bloody-minded sacrifices with fell shouts.
Let my very silence hymn Aufidius.
Hear, O bitterest rival, my battle call,
and grant me this one boon – to lead your army.
Of you, the wrath that consumed my heart long said,
“Seek only my face.” I have sought no other.
Your face, livid with a self-same hate, I seek.
Do not hide your blade from me – witness my throat,
bared to your advances. Turn me not away.
You are the wreckers of dreams whose help I want.
Abandon me not to the feckless mob’s vice,
O soldier of my own spirit. Let me fight!
Though my mother, my wife, my child would spurn me,
the caste of warriors of which you are bred knows.
Teach me, brutal Aufidius, in your ways,
and lead me on a straight path back to Rome’s heart
to avenge my honor against the Senate.
Do not pass me empty-handed back to them.
For rabble-rousers incited against me,
an outrageous mob deposed me as Consul.
If I but trust to see your hatred’s fullness,
summoning hell to the land of the living –
cry hunger! cry vengeance! cry murder in Rome!
May my lonely dragon’s heart be firm and cold,
and strike at my enemies with Volsce arms.

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American Gangster

American Gangster is one of my favorite Ridley Scott movies, beautifully staged, shot and edited, chock full of charismatic characters and undeniably relevant to the world we live in today, while still being an action-packed and suspenseful escape from the everyday, with a score that keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole time.

The film is a 1970s costume drama set on the colorful streets of New York City, and stars Denzel Washington as the drug kingpin at the center of an underdog-led investigation that takes a New Jersey detective – played by Russell Crowe – on a roller coaster ride leading all the way to the war in Viet Nam.

Russell Crowe met the real Richie Roberts, and described their encounter in an interview once. Richie, as one gathers from the film, is a bit of a basket case in his personal life, not prone to the best judgment in general, but stubborn as fuck-all when it comes to doing his job, and hanging on to his own personal brand of integrity.

The film dramatizes his divorce and custody battle over his young son memorably, and this fan poem, based on the 26th Psalm, is inspired by that scene.

Judge me if you will, my case is before you.
For I have worked my beat with integrity,
trusting the even-handedness of the law.
I will go my own way – I shall not stumble.
Test me, if you doubt my word – you can try me.
Burn through what’s left of my conscience and my heart.
I’ll take whatever’s left of your kindness back
and carry on with my honesty intact.
I have not joined in with the double-dealers
nor have I fallen in with the criminals.
I despised the racketeering rank-and-file,
never mixing with those cynical bag men.
Just let my reputation stand unsullied
when I present myself in court, your honor,
and let me take this moment to be thankful
for the law’s impartiality and truth.
Judge, I have faithfully served the public good
placing the spirit of the law above all.
Do not stifle my work against offenders
by painting me with the same brush, rank with blood,
from hands that are grasping and deep into plots,
their right hand caught out, stuffed with cash from their bribes.
But do what you will, my integrity stands.
Redeem my hard work, if you respect courage.
I have planted both feet fast on level ground.
In all my endeavors, I honor the law.

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Javert

On Wednesday of this week, October 14, Herbert Kretzmer, the lyricist who wrote the English-language songs for Broadway (and Hollywood)’s adaptation of a little-known French musical we now know as Les Mis, died just a few days after his 95th birthday.

The NYT obit describes Kretzmer’s beginnings as “a South African journalist who sold his accordion to buy passage to Europe” in the 1950s. In London he distinguished himself as a film and theater critic, and it was while supporting himself as a critic that he took up music again, much to the critics’ dismay. Les Mis offended the sensibilities of most of the critics who reviewed it, but audiences loved it anyways – opening in 1987, the Broadway musical ran for 16 years.

I still remember when Les Mis first came to my home town – everyone at my elementary school was buzzing about it! I never saw it until Les Mis came to Hollywood, and even then I might’ve missed it if Russell Crowe hadn’t joined the cast, but I melted for Crowe’s Javert. Here’s an adaptation of the 25th Psalm in honor of Herbert Kretzmer’s lyrics for Javert’s “Stars.”

To you, the sentinel stars, I lift my heart.
Your order I trust. Let me not be ashamed,
let me take on this fugitive face to face.
Yes, let those who love righteousness not be mocked.
Bring the lawless to heel, with his crimes laid bare.
Your ways in the heavens are my example,
in your courses you shine, your aims straight and sure.
Lead me in this darkness and show me the way,
for you are the watchers, who find those who stray.
To you alone I have always looked for faith.
Recalling your constancy, silent and bright,
your celestial kindness, guarding the night,
forget my lowly birth and my parents’ crimes.
You lifted my gaze from life in the gutters;
for the sake of your goodness, I serve the law.
Pure and upright are the gates of paradise –
you show those who fall the whirling, flaming sword.
The heavens lead the lowly, teach them justice,
and show the motherless that all is not lost.
All your laws’ precepts signal gentleness, truth,
and safety for the virtuous among us.
For the sake of these fair memories, O stars,
may you forgive this failure in my duty.
Whosoever the seeker who fears the law,
your light will guide him, showing him how to choose.
His life will want for nothing, for your bounty
will invest him and his progeny and theirs.
The stars will guide only those who fear trespass,
and to you through my oath I choose to be bound.
My eyes I raised each night to seek your guidance,
freed by your help from corruption’s bitter nets.
Turn to me, my night sky’s shining gaze, grant me
grace in my affliction, searching the gutters
alone in the dark. The strain has grown too great,
from this abyss of failure bring me away.
Witness my struggle and my hesitation
and grant me forbearance, for I have failed you.
See you my enemies teeming here below
who, with outrages to decency, spite me?
Safeguard my honor at this awful impasse.
Let me not falter now – I shelter in you.
May uprightness – integrity – preserve me,
for at this precipice, I offer you all.
Redeem, you stars, our Paris from corruption.

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Richard II

William Butler Yeats has written at length and eloquently about the dynamic relationship between Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke in the prequel to Shakespeare’s Henriad, and the full text of his remarks on seeing these plays at Stratford-on-Avon is available at Project Gutenberg, but here I just want to quote him briefly on his enthusiasm for the theater-going experience itself:

“One passes through quiet streets, where gabled and red-tiled houses remember the Middle Age, to a theatre that has been made not to make money, but for the pleasure of making it, like the market houses that set the traveller chuckling; nor does one find it among hurrying cabs and ringing pavements, but in a green garden by a river side. Inside I have to be content for a while with a chair, for I am unexpected, and there is not an empty seat but this; and yet there is no one who has come merely because one must go somewhere after dinner. All day, too, one does not hear or see an incongruous or noisy thing, but spends the hours reading the plays, and the wise and foolish things men have said of them, in the library of the theatre, with its oak-panelled walls and leaded windows of tinted glass; or one rows by reedy banks and by old farmhouses, and by old churches among great trees. .. In London the first man one meets puts any high dream out of one’s head, for he will talk to one of something at once vapid and exciting, some one of those many subjects of thought that build up our social unity. But here [at Stratford] he gives back one’s dream like a mirror. If we do not talk of the plays, we talk of the theatre, and how more people may be got to come and our isolation from common things makes the future become grandiose and important. One man tells how the theatre and the library were at their foundation but part of a scheme the future is to fulfil.”

One of the many indirect casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the economic base of the theater world in London, in Stratford, and throughout the UK, and not only the UK. As David Tennant and Judi Dench recently warned in a radio interview, if aid for the theater arts is not forthcoming by Christmas, these theaters may not open again.

I say this as an American who hopes to contribute to the tourism industry in London and Stratford as a visiting theater-goer someday. Please, support your theaters while you still can!

Here’s a bit of fan poetry for a stage production of Richard II starring David Tennant, filmed for the Royal Shakespeare Company and now available on DVD. It is based loosely on the 24th Psalm, and informed by behind-the-scenes extras from the RSC that are available on YouTube.

The king’s is the earth in his hand, its fullness,
this world and all who inhabit fair England.
For not all the rough, rude sea can wash away
the balm that anoints the line of succession.
Who shall take up the hollow crown, stand in state,
and face down those who hound the throne’s majesty?
A forsworn king’s pale hands and his naked heart,
he who attests to his people the bare truth
of his conceits, and colors nothing over.
He shall make over the bounty of the state
on behalf of an unmoved Saviour above.
This is the generation of wars to come,
among those who search out England’s beating heart.
Lift up your heads, at Flint castle’s rugged gates,
and rise up, you hinds above the great portals,
that you meet the king’s entrance gloriously.
Who is this king whose glory burns like a sun?
The anointed and eclipsed, fresh from battle,
the vanquished Richard, valiant unto the end.
Lift up your heads, at Westminster Hall’s forced gates,
and lift the palace’s eternal portals,
that the last true heir of Edward may stand tall.
Who is this wry and delicate setting sun?
The flower of divine right, at last undone.

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A Thousand and One Arabian Nights

This poem adds little to the charm of the 23rd Psalm, by adapting the words to the story of Joshua Connor’s presence in his son Arthur’s thoughts during their separation, in the war film The Water Diviner, written for and directed by Russell Crowe. (Now’s your chance to vote for Russell Crowe and The Water Diviner in the AACTA Audience Choice Awards!)

If you haven’t seen it: the way the film tells the story of this connection, we meet Joshua completing a hard day’s work and coming home to read his absent sons a bedtime story from A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, to comfort his distraught wife, who hasn’t accepted the news that all three boys were killed – on the same day – in the famous battle of Gallipoli.

This children’s book will reappear more than once as the story of their father’s search for peace unfolds, in an epic adventure that is also a love story, in the sense that all songs, as Russell Crowe often tells us, are actually love songs.

Again, if you haven’t seen the movie yet, this poem comes with a spoiler alert.

Though loss holds me back, your love is my shepherd,
in echoing silences, I shall not want.
In rocky pastures I follow, unerring,
by quiet signs led to the welling waters.
My life hung about me like dust and soot – then,
love led me back by unfamiliar alleys,
into a sanctity I struggled to trust.
When we laid past the trenches, in no-man’s-land,
for myself and my brothers I feared no harm,
for your love abides with us in everything.
Your marvellous welter of magical tales –
it was these memories we called up, in need.
You set out a moveable feast within us,
we smiled, slapped our backs, in the face of our foes.
Your hand on my back restores a spent courage
in me that had flowed out in shame and remorse.
Where can’t your magic carpet pursue me, if
all the days of my life, you are constant, here?
We two can go together, father and son,
for many long days our roads will not yet part.

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Filed under Acting, Directing, Music, Poetry, Roll Credits, The Water Diviner

Don Carlos

Photo credit: Richard Davenport, The Guardian

This poem, an adaptation of the 21st Psalm, is a tribute to the friendship story at the heart of Schiller’s Don Carlos, a play that captivated Dostoevsky’s imagination in his schoolboy days. A certain actor had taken the stage in this play and in Schiller’s The Robbers with an energy and emotive range and candor previously unheard of in the Moscow theater world, and Dostoevsky’s letters to his best friend at the time, and his copious fan references to Schiller’s plays in his later novels, testify to the lasting impression his performances made on the young writer’s mind.

Young Dostoevsky left the theater determined to learn German, so that he could read Schiller in the original rather than in translation. In their correspondence he and his best friend role played the idyllic friendships that motivated these two plays and Homer’s Iliad. This is a side of Dostoevsky one rarely sees, and I have a gem of a book of literary criticism to thank for it – Schiller in Russian Literature, by Edmund Kostka.

I read Don Carlos in order to be able to appreciate those fan references in The Brothers Karamazov, and because it came in a volume together with Schiller’s Mary Stuart, which I wanted to read because David Tennant was recently in the film Mary, Queen of Scots (it’s on my watch list). I found an excellent blank verse translation and found myself captivated, too.

In this scene, Don Carlos, the Spanish prince, has been imprisoned at his best friend the Marquise of Posa’s command. The prince has long lived in the shadow of a disapproving father who married the woman Prince Carlos had been betrothed to, after the death of the prince’s mother. In his turn, the prince disapproves of his father’s autocratic and clerical rule, and the burning of heretics and routing of nascent democracy in Spain’s rebellious territories in Flanders. Now his secret infatuation with his mother-in-law is on the verge of becoming public, and his best friend has mysteriously risen in the king’s favor. Trusting his friend to steer the king toward better statesmanship even if he must sacrifice their friendship to achieve this influence, Don Carlos vacillates between pleading for his own life, which clearly hangs by a thread, and extending to the Marquise his blind faith in the values they both share.

Posa, where are you? Have you forsaken us?
Shut up far from hope, in anguish I roar.
Posa, I sought you by day – still no answer,
by night – only restless exhaustion, alone.
And now you are renowned in the King’s favors.
In you the monarch invests his guarded praise,
he listens, and you work to set his soul free.
To you he turned when all others seemed faithless,
in you he trusted and was not put to shame.
But I am reduced to this – I am no prince,
a disgrace in his eyes, by the court reviled.
All who see me taken thus are disgusted –
I see their lips twist up, and their heads shaking.
Who turns to the truth, the truth will set him free.
Honor will save him, for honor safeguards truth.
For you drew me out of the cave and turned me,
brought me safe into the glaring light of day.
Into your arms fate cast me from my first test,
your friendship filled my life, from my mother’s womb.
Do not be distant, please, do not hide your face,
for my hour of desperation is come,
for between us if there were worlds, none would help.
Armed guards have seized me, their armor surrounds me,
the captains of Spain have turned their spears toward me.
They showed me their teeth and they gaped against me –
all Spain confronts me, a ravening lion.
You gave the order. My limbs turned to water,
arrested at your feet, I obeyed, splayed out.
My heart curled like a wax tablet, now effaced,
softer than beating flesh, melting in my breast.
My palate went dry as a grave’s crude ceiling,
and sealed my tongue to my jaw, meat on a hook,
and in with the dust of the dead you thrust me.
For the courtiers rushed to encircle me,
a pack of scavengers crowded around me,
like a lion they bound me up, hand and foot.
They seemed to be tallying up all my bones.
It is they who turned their eyes and stared at me.
They divvied up all that I had – my garments,
indeed they cast lots for my clothes, the jackals.
But you, Posa, in this bleak void, be not far.
Root and stem of my strength, make haste to my side!
Redeem my naked life from my father’s sword,
safeguard me from scavenging court flatterers.
Prise me from the grip of murderous clerics.
With the ringing of silver trumpets reply.
Let me cry your name to my beloved Queen,
in my last words to her, let me praise Posa.
Those who quake before the King’s favorite, praise him!
All the flower of Spain, revere the Marquise!
And be afraid of him, all knights of Madrid!
For he has not stood aloof from nor despised
the plight of the heretics burned in Flanders,
and has not covered his eyes to our clerics;
when free men at bay cried out to him, he heard.
For you I give praise before Madrid’s people.
Our vows I fulfill – for the King is in awe.
The lowly will finally taste freedom in Spain.
Those who seek help will praise the noble Marquise.
May this day mark your triumph – be glad, my friend.
All the cities of Europe will remember
and return our people to honor and grace.
All the burghers and princes of blood and kings
will concede that your rule has been just and sane.
For in your hands the King’s trust resides today –
and through him you will transform this proud nation.
Have faith, for on earth as in heaven bow down
the souls of all peoples before a just lord.
Before him who governs with virtue will kneel
Spain’s soldiers and all who go down to the dust,
on his soul will they lay their lives when undone.
My children, too, would have needed your guidance.
Your legacy must stand in mine’s stead, my friend.
All Spain will acclaim the fruits of your labors,
for with my consent, your ascendancy comes.

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