Hail and Well Met

Step inside my blog. I’m filling it with fun things and people, and you’ll fit right in next to Chico, Harpo, and Groucho. William Shakespeare will play a big part, but there’s lots of room for Doctor Who, Isaac Asimov, and people who love words. I’m here to have fun–if that sounds like you, scroll down past this and enjoy. The categories and tag clouds at the bottom should guide you to posts that may delight and intrigue. If I’ve already lost you, feel free to take a peek anyway. I may lure you to the Dark Side. I hear we have cookies. Mmmm, cookies.

Hold the gruesome

I am a longtime lover of all things geek. I’ve been following the soap operas of superheroes since I was a small child. I’ve read The Lord of the Rings every few years since fifth grade. I’d seen and read all of the plays of Shakespeare for fun before I even graduated high school. I love this stuff, and I’m glad that some of it is getting more popular, because it makes it easier for me to get my fix. Life is good for this geeky child who grew to be a geeky adult. Mostly.

I would be far more excited if this new enthusiasm for comic books, fantasy, science fiction, and Shakespeare didn’t come with an extra helping of violence. Comic books were great with an occasional “BAM”, “BOF”, and “POW”. Tolkien enthralled us with a complicated story full of temptation and magic. Doctor Who is amazing and it’s tame enough for any child to watch.

I’ve been watching the TV show Game of Thrones because I love a good fantasy. The story is unusual, and I enjoy the political intrigue of the characters as they all try to gain power over their fantastic landscape. I finally had to stop watching it because I was spending so much time putting my hand up in front of my face blocking the screen. In the time I watched I’ve seen a lot of horrific violence, and they don’t usually show it off screen. I don’t know how I lasted this long. The actors and the story had me hooked, so I tried to overlook their blatant lack of decency.

I’ve recently had to give up on the Batman franchise, too. The last one I saw had the villain torturing people, constantly breaking necks. The director included all the bone-shattering sound effects. All I had heard was that the new serious was a bit “darker”. I thought they were going to explore the character’s existential angst, but instead they went straight into depictions of far more real agonies. I saw a recent production of King Lear that was really well done, but they had to make the violent scenes particularly hard to watch. Lately I find myself asking ahead to find out if someone I know has seen something I am considering. I ask them if there is something I will regret seeing, if there is something traumatic in what I am considering watching. It shouldn’t have to be this way.

I have loved all these things when all of the violence was merely suggested. Superb writing and skillful storytelling is more than enough to make a story worth seeing again and again, but I feel like producers are trying to bring these fictions to the masses by tarting them up in viscera and gore. Shock value cannot substitute for story, and it obscures whatever story is there. I also feel like constant exposure to such heartless depictions desensitize the viewers and creates a need for violence that becomes more horrific every week. How can you shock with a beheading or a rape when that happened last week? A villain who breaks necks becomes a mere teddy bear compared to one who saws off arms. When will it stop?

It will stop when those of us who love fantasy, comic books, literature, and storytelling stand up and say enough it is enough. It will stop when we decide that we’re not going to watch programming with a veneer of vicious. It will stop when the tickets don’t sell and the ratings go down. I’m going to write the people who make this stuff and tell them I’m not going to watch it. I want it to stop. How about you?

Eat cake in his honor

Today we celebrate William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday and I couldn’t be more delighted. It’s always a good thing to honor someone who has given you so much, and it’s lovely when the wider masses get to share in your own geeky sense of joy. In honor of the event, I’m sharing some links to funny Shakespearean videos and such so you can have your own party. Enjoy!

Gather round the fire and listen

It is perhaps not surprising that a medieval historian and bookish nerd such as myself would have a lifelong fascination with Beowulf. I’m also a poet, and have a well-thumbed copy of Burton Raffel’s excellent edition which I’ve had since I was a small child. When Seamus Heaney came out with his own earthy translation a few years ago, I was prepared to hate it. Nothing could compare with the version I grew up on. I was wrong, and came to love it as much as the “original”. I read pieces of the original poem in its original language in college, and listened to recordings. I even read and enjoyed Grendel by John Gardner. I love this work.

I also love J.R.R. Tolkien. I fell in love with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings the first time I read it in fifth grade, and still have one of my original book reports on the subject. My mom saved it for me. I’ve read the books every few years after that, and I remember reading a biography of Tolkien when I was younger and staying up all night to read it in one go. I was as fascinated by his academic life as I was by his novels, and consequently read everything of his I could find, including his poetry translations. He was one of the reasons I studied medieval history, and I’ve read of his studies on Beowulf but have never yet seen his translation. I am therefore thrilled to see the buzz today–his translation is soon to be released! This is scary, but good scary. I wonder if I will like it as much as I think I will like it, and I hesitate because I doubt anything could rival the two editions I already love. On the other hand, it’s Tolkien and Beowulf. How can this fail? How can this epic not be epic? I await it as eagerly as Beowulf awaited Grendel, sitting in the mead hall listening for any sign of trouble. I shall let you know.

Breathtaking

I recently saw Coriolanus — twice. National Theatre Live broadcasts the best of British theater into cinemas across the world allowing plebians like myself to see incredible productions at affordable prices. No, they don’t pay me to say that. I’m just grateful. A few months ago I saw David Tennant in Henry II, and this month it was Tom Hiddleston and Mark Gatiss in Coriolanus.

I was nervous to see this play. I had no fear about the acting. Tom Hiddleston proved his Shakespearean brilliance in The Hollow Crown, and I love Mark Gatiss in Sherlock. As usual, the cast is flush with British notables. I was nervous about the play itself. I have a very low tolerance for violence, and Coriolanus is a play about a warrior. I wasn’t sure I could handle it, and I have not yet seen the well-reputed film version starring Ralph Fiennes. I was right to be a bit worried, as it is a bit violent, but I was able to handle the stage effects including the very dramatic staging at the end (which I won’t give away, in case you have a chance to see it).

I hadn’t seen the play in years, and so I went into the first showing with very little knowledge, but I was able to follow the plot quite easily. I love the way they did this. The play was at the Donmar Warehouse, a small black box theater. The staging was done with very minimal sets. There were a few chairs that got moved around and a ladder on the back wall of the stage, but the only other pieces of set decoration were provided by lines painted onto the stage during the production itself. Projections onto the stage completed the scenery. I love Shakespeare this way because the words and action take center stage. Too often the Bard can get buried beneath the trappings of Elizabethan grandeur. The costumes suggested Rome without going for the full-on I, Cladius effect, and the acting was just as incredible as I had anticipated it would be. Tom Hiddleston was heartbreaking as Coriolanus, and Mark Gatiss played Menenius with a bit of swishy flair. The play indulged itself in some of the homoerotic overtones available in the subtext, and I always love it when that happens. I’m gay, and it’s nice to see oneself represented on stage.

I’ve also decided I really love the play. It’s got a lot of relevance to today’s world. The people are angry because they aren’t getting the grain they need at prices they can afford. The nobles are unsympathetic, and Coriolanus is coached to be a war machine. One moment he is being applauded for his valor, the next moment he is being derided for not being someone he’s not. He’s a man who cannot win trying to please too many people. It’s not that he’s blameless, but he is in an intriguing character. I’ve got the excellent Arden edition, and I look forward to immersing myself in the particulars. And I love Menenius. He has one of the best lines of the play, describing himself as “one that converses more with the buttock of the night than with the forehead of the morning.” As a confirmed night owl, I heartily agree.

I was really delighted when the theater added an extra showing, since I walked out of the theater wanting to see this one again. I’m going to read the play and think on it, and then I will brace myself to watch the film version. Movies tend to indulge themselves in all the gory details, and I’d rather not see all the particulars, but now I love the play and want to see the film while it’s still on Netflix. A good production can make you fall in love with yet another play, another cast, another interpretation. Thank you, National Theatre Live. Thank you cast. Thank you, William Shakespeare.

The boys from Baker Street

The third season of Sherlock is currently showing here in the United States, and it’s also streaming for the moment at PBS.org. I’ve already gobbled up all three episodes like the highly-anticipated brain candy they are. I love the series, not only for its humor, but also for its intensity. Sherlock Holmes, when done right, is not a warm and fuzzy fellow. The character makes us question the sometimes fragile line between brilliance and madness, and also reminds us that many are not comfortable with intelligence. The smarter a person is, the more likely that person is to be on the margins or at the very least, to need the right group of friends and comrades.

I like this series, too, because it delves deeper into the psychology behind Watson. The good doctor is not merely window dressing to the famous detective. He is an essential part of the solution to every problem. He is also the close friend to a very challenging fellow. I am really enjoying where the writers have been taking the narrative.

I also find this show fascinating for its use of technology in storytelling–Sherlock sees facts like data clouds around those he examines. The social media is often made visible, becoming the physical presence it so often really embodies in today’s world. Sherlock is out on the edge of modern storytelling with a classic character from the Victorian age. I could also mention that the acting is incredible, which it is, but that only skims that surface of the glory that is Sherlock. Here in the U.S. the first two series are on Netflix. Try to catch the third while it’s still available. Once you’ve had a taste, you won’t want to wait to see the whole thing. It’s been renewed for a fourth series. I’ll try to be patient.

Sound and fury

I just saw Thor: The Dark World (2013). I enjoy comic book movies full of fun villains and elaborate costumes, and this one had top notch special effects, gorgeous costumes, and intricate sets. The actors were really good. There were even some brief funny quips and gags, and I won’t spoil them by discussing them here. I should have enjoyed it more than I did, but in the end the movie was like an exquisite automaton dressed in high drag. There didn’t seem to be a plot beyond the obvious–one side was the good guys and the other side was the bad guys. There was an ancient threat, but nothing was made very clear. The whole experience was incredibly frustrating.

Now that we have so many bells and whistles at our disposal, I think many directors forget the essentials. Writing is one of those essentials. Without good writing you’ve got a wealth of dazzling ornaments without a Christmas tree to hold them up. I was thinking about Shakespeare as I watched this–part of the brilliance of the plays is their plots–there is so much going on in most Shakespeare plays that they can easily delight in a bare-bones black-box theater with few props. They can be easily changed to suit different time periods and theater budgets. They stand on their own.

The plays also have beautiful language, and that can be another way to dazzle without substance. Books such as Catcher in the Rye and Lolita work not just on language but on plot. A lot of writers forget this. I’m all for breathtaking feats of language, but writers like J.R.R. Tolkien and Isaac Asimov made you want to read on to see what happened next, not because their words were fancy, but because they made you care. If this movie had succeeded on plot, I would have enjoyed the effects more, because I would have cared what happened to the characters. I would have understood what they were going through, and identified with the situation. Instead I feel bamboozled–I got sound and fury and empty spots of stardust. It could have been so much better, if someone had only cared about the writing. Here’s hoping that next time they’ll take care of the essentials before they add in all the fancy glitz and glam. They’re already advertising the sequel. I’m not sure I’m going to bother to see it.

Seriously, I want this

As a writer and Shakespeare lover whose adoration is more plentiful than her budget, I find lots of creative ways to surround myself with reminders of Shakespeare. My favorite t-shirt, now wearing to threads, is from a Shakespeare festival via the local thrift shop. My kitchen walls are adorned with posters to local Shakespeare productions most of which have been rescued from telephone poles or from promotional walls once the runs were over. I hope to eventually have at least one from each play.

I also find it fun to see what’s available in case I’ve ever got some spare ducats to spend on Shakespeare swag. There’s a t-shirt out there that blends the Bard with the current zombie craze. It says “alas poor Yorick, I ate his brains”. We are amused. I have also found one thing I really, really want, and as soon as my budget allows for shipping from England to Seattle I shall have it. There is an incredible tube map put out by the Royal Shakespeare Company that traces the different sorts of characters in Shakespeare’s plays and their interactions. It’s fascinating, it’s colorful, it’s fun. It can also be somewhat ghoulish but then again, so can Shakespeare.  You can check out the map here if you want to see it or in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s online shop if you want to buy it. You, too, can begin to covet. Enjoy!

That little bit of loss

Like many science fiction geeks, I know that Doctor Who is about to feature a brand new doctor. I’m excited for that, although it will be a while before I see him. I access the series through Netflix. I haven’t had a TV for years, and I limit my screen time–there’s so much fun to be had out there in the wide world, and so I try not to spend all my time watching media, no matter how good it might be.

I am therefore at a perfect place to appreciate the loss that fans are feeling with the regeneration of Matt Smith into Peter Capaldi. I am not up-to-date on the series and so I just lost David Tennant today. I’m liking Matt Smith okay so far–custardy fish fingers and all–but it’s just not the same, the gorgeous Amy Pond aside.

I’m grateful for the conceit–it has allowed the show to refresh itself over the year and keep going, but I miss all of the old doctors I had become attached to over the years. As the Doctor himself says, even though he regenerates it is like a death–he is not the same. On the other hand, I go into the relationship knowing that someday I will have to let go. Matt Smith and I will have three seasons together, however long I let them last, and then I, too, will be bidding him goodbye. A toast to you , Doctor–each and every one of you–and to all your companions, too.

Shakespeare and haiku

I’ve been playing around a little with Shakespeare and haiku lately. I recently wrote a distillation of O Mistress Mine from Twelfth Night in haiku, and you can find that post here. I’ve also experimented with haiku and Hamlet. I’ve even sent Ophelia into the realm of the short poem.

I love Shakespeare and I’ve really been enjoying writing haiku, so it’s no wonder the two crossbreed. I’ve also been studying the Bard lately as I try to learn more about plotting–who knows more about intricate plots than William Shakespeare?  I share these small tidbits in lieu of a longer post, but I’ll be back with more to say soon. In the meantime, Happy New Year!

Digital groundlings rejoice!

I am caught in a Shakespearean paradox much of the time. I love the works of Bill the Bard, and they were written for all. In this modern world we live in, however, the plays are often performed mainly for those who have the means to purchase pricey theater tickets. I am grateful for the Shakespeare in the park–but what’s a girl to do to get her fix in the winter? It’s hard to be a groundling in this day and age. I also can’t afford to travel to see the great Shakespeareans tread the boards on Britain’s stages or in New York.

National Theatre Live is one solution. They tape live performances of stage shows and show them in theaters across the world. I recently saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s first entry, and I was ecstatic to hear that they are planning to do the whole canon in the next few years. They started with Richard II, starring David Tennant in the title role. This was true spectacle! The cameras were far away from the stage but managed so that the focus was always in the right place at the right time. The show began with interviews and discussion inside the theater–it felt like being there. I got the same thrill I get when I do get a ticket to go out.

David Tennant was riveting in the role, as was Ben Whishaw in his recent portrayal as part of the Hollow Crown series. I loved them both, but they were very different. I also found the wig they had on David Tennant to be very distracting, as it didn’t look natural. The show had great music with trumpets and choral bits, and I loved that the surround sound was used to bring out footsteps and other live theater details. The lighting was superb. Images were projected onto a hanging curtain of ball chain so that the actors were able to step into the projected scenes–it looked like an entire cathedral was on stage at one point.

The one disappointment in this show was most likely directorial in nature–as the play progresses and Richard is debased from his high station he is increasingly dressed to resemble Jesus, at one point ending up in a white shift, shoeless, with outstretched arms. I am so tired of this hackneyed image. We deserve something better. I would still recommend you see this gem if it gets a repeat screening. You won’t be sorry, and keep an eye out for Coriolanus coming at the end of January from National Theatre Live and screening somewhere near you. It stars Tom Hiddleston who proved himself  a great Shakespearean in The Hollow Crown. If you’re in Seattle, this will be showing at the SIFF Theater. If you’re not in Seattle, I’m sure you already know where you can get your fix of these sorts of films.

Enjoy the plays, and make merry for the holidays! Shakespeare is a gift that keeps on giving.