A “Richard III” a bit tired with the weight

This weak piping time of peace.

As Krannert’s season of classics continues, I am beginning to understand what they mean with that heading. As in any student production, there was a lot of variability, but the leads Ann (Kalyn N. C. Rivers) and James (Julian Parker) held down the fort. The famous scene from both the Shakespearean source text and this appropriation–Richard wooing Lady Anne–was particularly enjoyable. Parker wields a wealth of raw talent and clearly has a bright future ahead. But at the season’s heart, rather than considering a canon, all the works so far are interested in meta-theatre–plays that consider the conditions of theatre. This is one of the two tired themes of Carlyle Brown’s The African Company Presents Richard III, despite the valiant attempt by a student-and-professional ensemble. The other somewhat tired theme African Company explores is that of social justice theatre.

In essence, the general critical understand of this play is that it makes the case that Shakespeare, an artist working in a developing world, makes more sense in the modern world when performed by non-white actors. And yet there is no success at the end: the company’s theatre is closed, the actors sent to jail, and the formation of the couple is deferred. For me, the question this production posed was what do we do with theatre that has a clear social justice agenda? I always struggle with Feminist, and Post-Colonial adaptations in that the social constructionism agenda feels significant but in practice, flatlines. This play just didn’t encourage alternative readings aside from the racially-inflected, nor did it suggest other avenues of complexity. A good play or film stays with me for a while, working its way into my day dreams or intermittent moments of undirected thought. This play didn’t, perhaps because it encouraged me to take away only one potential message.

“Richard III and The Ghosts” by William Blake (1806).

This play is part of a current trend in Shakespeare adaptations that asks who gets to play Shakespeare, and who is entitled to rewrite Shakespeare. Krannert’s malleable Studio Theatre was turned into a partial stage with a traditional proscenium arch overhead–two performance spaces. Perhaps I am too much a product of my own cultural make-up, but a play considering its own conditions and milieu feels disjointed for a theatre-going public that has greatly shrunk and/or changed in the last century with the advent of the cinema and television. Spectatorship has changed in ways we are still struggling to articulate and pin down.

Like David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre, sometimes these kinds of plays feel as if they are written only for an audience made up of fellow actors. My lack-luster response is likely due to a lack of interest in and knowledge of theories of social constructionism, such as gender and race studies. However, intertextuality is something I am interested in–those conversations between texts. The play suggests that it is interested in ideas concerning who has the right to perform Shakespeare. But here, the Bard functions more as a textual vessel or framework than actually considered by the play. This kind of artistic narcissism doesn’t encourage creative or exploratory thought–a quality one assumes is fundamental in constructing a season interested in what it means to be part of a canon. So, while well considered in execution, sadly African Company comes up dry.

“Gnomeo and Juliet” delivers some much-needed cinematic joy

Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?
Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy

This February has been quite the month for love and William Shakespeare. The recent children’s film Gnomeo and Juliet, produced by Elton John and directed by Kelly Asbury (of Shrek franchise fame), has been killing at the box office for the last month. The combination of Shakespeare and John’s pop culture collateral clearly makes for a pleasurable and profitable experience. The film brought in $25 million in its opening weekend and has grossed nearly $56 million to date, according to BoxOfficeMojo.

This film wants nothing more that to be a sumptuous cinematic experience. The animation is absolutely stunning, particularly in the realistic texturizing of the clay gnomes. The evidence of wear that each unique figure possesses in the form of chipped paint or a broken hats reveals their individuality and experience in the world of the red and blue gardens, almost like scars on the battle-weary soldier. The detailed texture of the gnomes contrasts nicely with the animated naturalism of the flora, the manufactured materiality of the plastic flamingo, Featherstone, and the racing lawn mowers. In this way the film works to rewrite the domestic imagery of the English suburbs with an accessible life all of their own.

The production budget for the visual aspects of this film was surely rivaled by that for the voice actors and soundtrack. It is simply bursting with glitterati voice actors from across the pond, including Michael Caine, James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Jim Cummings, and Maggie Smith. Ozzy Osbourne plays a lovingly deranged garden fawn, Hulk Hogan advertises Terrafirminator (an atomic lawn mower whose name I just love), and even Dolly Parton makes a cameo appearance as a busty gnome all her own. This is not to mention the Elton John-infused soundtrack, which adapts his biggest hits for the occasion. Even if it is a bit heavy-handed with its use of “Crocodile Rock,” the music and cameos as well as the numerous cultural references (I even spotted a Brokeback Mountain quip in there) makes the film, like Toy Story and Shrek, equally fun for parents and their kids.

In fact, the only controversial part of the film has to do with its use of the Shakespearean source material. It makes due homage to the form with a cute opening scene of a gnome attempting the original prologue. There is also an interesting moment where Gnomeo (James McAvoy) debates with a statue of the Bard (Sir Patrick Stewart) over the ending of the original Romeo and Juliet. Gnomeo hates the sad ending, and so is reinvigorated to take action and change his. Stewart clearly takes no small amount of glee in the tongue-in-cheek part. However, this funny little moment isn’t entirely necessary to the plot, and seems to try to do due deference to the angry purists by situating itself in the continuum of adaptations of this ever-perennial play.

I actually liked this little move as it illustrates a very valid question implicitly posed by the film: Who has the authority to rewrite Shakespeare? The remark is often made that Romeo and Juliet is a comedy until Tybalt gets killed, and then the tragic structure takes hold. This film, like the play itself, tempts us to imagine both the potential grief and the potential joy of equally viable alternate realities. The film does not shirk from the consequences of danger, suggesting that a gnome who is entirely smashed is really dead; There is a long hold on Juliet’s demolished pedestal, suggesting that she and Gnomeo may too have met a tragic end.

While Shakespeare may have chosen a tragic course, this film chooses a comedic one in accordance with their target audience and financial goals. The acknowledgement of both tragic and comic potential outcomes, and the valorization of individual agency to influence those outcomes, reveals a fundamental difference between a Renaissance worldview and our own. Furthermore, it makes for a lush and pleasurable retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story with a few happy surprises along the way.

  • This film is currently playing in most major UK and US theaters, but check here for international release dates.