Romeo and Juliet – A novel

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Hear, hear! A post about Richard Armitage! I come back on topic after many months. I could not miss to write something about “Romeo & Juliet – A novel”, the last Audible production performed by Mr. Armitage, written by David Hewson. Needless to say that what comes next is full of spoilers and should you prefer not to know anything about this before hearing the audiobook, you’re kindly invited to read this afterwards.

THE PERFORMANCE

Richard Armitage is brilliant. His ability to work in this medium improves with each reading. If someone should ask me “show me how good is this Armitage you admire so much” I would reply “just hear him performing the part of a stammering fifteen-year-old girl in “The Convenient Marriage”. Richard Armitage does not “imitate” voices, the result would be perhaps ridiculous, but he manages to speak with tones of voice that are like brush-strokes of the characters’ psyche, triggering our imagination. I will confess something: although I love radio dramas, I’m not very fond of audio-books. If they’re not performed by Richard Armitage they usually bore me to death, and I assure you that I’ve tried quite a few. For instance, the second hearing of “Macbeth – A novel” lingers in my Audible application and, frankly speaking, the first one required a huge effort of concentration. I have also a multi-read version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula waiting to be finished for more than a year. The only audiobook not narrated by him that I have heard several times is “A new kind of war” performed by Dominic Mafham, whose technique is similar to Richard Armitage’s; but there are no female characters in that novel, the comparison of the performances of both actors cannot be complete.

I have a favourite voice in each of Richard Armitage’s audiobooks: Damerel in “Venetia”, the aunt Betsey Trotwood in “David Copperfield” (by the way I would like very much to know if he had Lesley Manville’s performance in “Mr. Turner” in mind when rehearsing that voice) or Claudius in “Hamlet”. In Romeo & Juliet my favourite one is undoubtedly Mercutio. It reminds me his Mr. Lovelace in BBC’s Radio Drama Clarissa.

Mercutio is a brawler, an ambiguous character, with a dark, self-destructive nature. His “Queen Mab” speech has been beautifully adapted; when he walks out the Capulet’s party, drunk, with Benvolio and Romeo, his drunkard speech about the “beautiful” Anna and the tumble/fumble game of words is impregnated with tenderness and melancholy. “Death will be the death of all of us”, Mercutio said that afternoon. He’s the brimstone that will kindle the tragedy, the angel of death. His curse, “a plague on both your bloody houses”, when he lies dying sounds like a lame excuse.

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Anthony Andrews played Mercutio in BBC’s production (1978) – screencap

 

THE STORY

The novel, as the previous Macbeth and Hamlet written together with A.J.Hartley, is an attempt to “fill in the gaps” of the many unanswered questions that may arise in a three-hour play, for instance, how could Romeo and Juliet fall in love with only a few verses. The narrative rhythm is compelling and gripping. It’s very difficult during the first hearing to decide where to stop or make a pause, as I wanted to know “what will happen next”. I have appreciated the little stories behind each character, as for instance those of Friar Lawrence and his brother Nico, and the description of a real historical character I’ve read of many times, Isabella d’Este. She’s a mix between Alice’s Queen of Hearts and Ben Wishaw’s Richard II in “The Hollow Crown” (monkey included). The voice used by Richard Armitage for Isabella, with a strong Italian accent, completes the picture of how a Renaissance ruler locked in a gilded cage away from the reality lived by their subjects should be like. It is perhaps an extreme caricature of what the real Isabella d’Este was, but, as I have never feel sympathy for her (I’m rather on the side of her wicked sister-in-law) I cannot but enjoy this version.

I expected some changes in the known plot of Shakespeare’s play, therefore I was not shocked when I heard that at the end, Juliet survive. Honestly, I was definitely more outraged by the miraculous survival of Messala and the chessy happy-ending in the recent movie-version of Ben-Hur. Furthermore, Juliet’s decision of starting a new life alone and away from Verona is in harmony with this Juliet.

The main issue with this novel is that, unlike “Hamlet”, it endures very poorly further hearings. In this case, once the curiosity to know “what happens next” is over, issues arise. And an issue with a name and surname: Juliet Capulet.

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Olivia Hussey as Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli’s film version – screencap

Historical novels are very difficult to write, and the alchemy to make a successful one as dark and unfathomable as the philosopher’s stone. Needless to say that “successful” does not equal to me automatically to best seller (I’m the one who abandoned “World Without End” in page 800); this is a post in a personal blog and I’m writing about what I like. I’m rather intolerant, when reading historical or period novels, with characters that are not coherent with the time and place where the novel is set. And this particular Juliet is any century in the future but late XVth. One of the most relevant woman in Italy those years was Caterina Sforza Riario. She was engaged when she was still a child, consummated her marriage as soon as nature allowed it, and by twenty she was already the mother of four children. The duty of a noble woman in that period was to get married and give birth as many heirs as possible; they were bred for that and Caterina did, although she was an intelligent, independent woman. When her husband, Girolamo Riario, died, she ruled her lands with such a competence and belligerence that she was known as “the tigress of Forlì”. She has a place in one of history’s most famous quotations. When Forlì was sieged by an army and they threatened to kill one of her sons, kept as an hostage, if she didn’t surrender the castle, her answer was to climb up the battlements, lift up her skirts, show her sex to the besiegers and shout: “kill him if you want, I have the mold here to make many more”. If I cannot imagine a woman like Caterina saying his father the Duke of Milan, that she would prefer not to marry Girolamo Riario, to me is somewhat difficult to accept a Juliet of Verona saying his father that she would not marry Paris. When she discusses with Friar Lawrence the equality of the marriage vows (I’d prefer not to comment Romeo’s reaction after her exploit), or wonders, after making love with Romeo for the first time, if the deed was not rather too quick, it takes almost an act of faith to accept this without even rising a brow.

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Caterina Sforza – wikipedia

There’s another peculiarity of this novel that is worth discussing: the abundance of words in Italian. This shouldn’t be an issue to me, speaking this language daily (although it is, for a reason that I will explain later on), but I’m afraid that this massive presence of Italian words prevent many readers to understand the text. When I listened to “Hamlet”, I only learned after reading the written version, that what I thought was “the horizon” was in fact “the Øresund”, the Northern Sea. I wonder what the average hearer will understand of the sentence “the piano nobile in the palazzo”. Perhaps those with a more vivid imagination think that one of the entertainments in Capulet’s party was to gather around a luxurious Renaissance musical instrument (never mind if pianos did not exist yet). In my opinion the words in Italian are definitely too many for an audio book (and in the case of the “piano nobile”, not even necessary). In a printed one, foreign names or words in italics may lead the readers, if they feel like, to look what that specific word mean or where a certain place is. Nevertheless in an audio format it may be misleading, when not directly irritating. Some of the Italian words are pronounced with a misplaced accent. I’m not blaming Richard Armitage for it: as someone told him how to pronounce his German lines in Berlin Station (and apparently he was told right), someone had to tell him not only how “gn” sounded like in Italian, but that the accent in “Signoria”, is in the second “i” and not in the “o”. And many other words: antica and not antica, Brancacci and not Brancacci, or Esposito and not Esposito. This last misplaced accent was the one that made me literally jump in the couch, as this recalls to Italian speakers the dubbing of old Laurel and Hardy movies. Definitely not  what David Hewson wanted to recall in anyone hearing his work.

To make Isabella d’Este sister-in-law of Lucrezia Borgia three years before their time is an artistic license, I understand the reason why the autor “anticipated” the event for narrative purposes (although I’d have appreciated a mention about this license in the afterword of the book or his posts about the novel). This “accents issue” is a big editing mistake that would have been extremely easy to avoid, and I cannot understand why in a production like this (we’re talking of Audible, not of three friends recording a fan-fiction with their phone) the foreign words have been dealt with such superficiality. At least here, unlike in “Hamlet”, Medici was the pronounced with the right accent, not with a Laurel-Hardy Medici.

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Lucrezia Borgia – Pinturicchio (Appartamenti Borgia – Vaticano)

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Thou puking folly-fallen knave!

DSC_0315I am trying to write a decent post about my experience in the Globe theatre. Writing is becoming very difficult to me from the last months. It’s like if something obstructs what used to be a fluid, even if chaotic, current. Now I fidget nervously in front of the screen, the words are pulled out like using a forceps.

This restlessness is now, after my London trip, even more acute than before. I feel also a little bit depressed (I use the italics as the real meaning of the word is something much more serious), or rather, under a kind of psychic stendealhian syndrome increased by a deep sense of frustration for being employed in a work I don’t like (but that I have, and nowadays in Italy is something to be absolutely grateful for), in an office where I carry on my shoulders 90% of the daily work (with a retribution 50% lower of the three thinking minds).

It’s hard when you’ve tasted three days of what you would like your life to be to come back to the real world. I know, the Bard himself wrote that if all the year were holidays to sport would be as tedious as to work, but I’m absolutely sure that, should I have a whole year of sport I will never be bored. There are too many books to read, to many plays and films to see, too many museums and galleries to visit.

Nevertheless, even if brief and intense, it would have been much worst if I couldn’t have made that trip. Should I have planned it for this weekend, right now I would need the bard’s insult generator (by the way, it works also as post titles provider). Three days ago Terminal 3 of Fiumicino’s airport has been seriously damaged by a fire, and 50% of Friday flights, including the one I took, have been cancelled.

 

 

Tomorrow in the battle think on me

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No one ever expects that they might some day find themselves with a dead woman in their arms, a woman whose face they will never see again, but whose name they will remember.

Javier Marías is one of the most successful Spanish writers, but, as usual, I have waited too long to read his works. I have started last January with his last novel, “Así empieza lo malo” (Thus bad begins); my brother asked me what I wanted for Christmas and I told him that any of Marias’ books would be fine. I would follow at last Arturo Pérez-Reverte advise and read one of the books of his mate Marías. Both are colleagues in the Real Academia Española de la Lengua, and very close friends; so close that they have shared a character in their last novels.

The first thing I thought when I started reading was “Why have I waited so long?” and the second “lucky me, I have still so many of his novels to read!”. Marias is a translator, has been a teacher in Oxford University and is an avid cinephile; one of the characters of “Así empieza lo malo” is a producer of old B-Movies, and the novel is full of cameos of classic Hollywood era actors. The most memorable one is Herbert Lom’s.

Herbert Lom is mostly known for his role as Peter Seller’s long suffering boss in The Pink Panther movies, but I prefer this character: Napoleon in War and Peace. (click for source)

My “why have I waited so long” reaction after reading Marias is due to the fact that we share two big commong interests: English literature and cinema. His love for both of them are a constant presence in his works. The title of “Así empieza lo malo” is a quote from Hamlet, Thus bad begins, and worst remains behind, and, another easy recognisable one, from Richard III, gives the title to “Mañana en la batalla piensa en mí”

tomorrow in the battle think on me, and fall thy edgeless sword, despair and die

What has Richard III and his ghosts before the battle of Bosworth have to do with a dead woman? Nothing, apparently, but, on the contrary, everything. Because it is the “ghost” of the dead woman the absolute protagonist of the story narrated by Victor, the man whose arms she died in. BBC4 has produced a two chapter radio drama based on this novel. Unfortunately I was able to record only the second; in this clip you will hear Victor, interpreted by Julian Rhind-Tutt, remembering that night with Marta.

Víctor first reaction to her death is to run away, leaving her dead body in the same flat where her two-year-old son sleeps. Her husband is in a business trip to London; Victor finds the address and the telephone number of his hotel in a note by the phone, but he has not the courage to call and, without knowing why, he leaves the apartment taking with him the note with the phone number and address.

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I love quote hunting when reading

Víctor cannot turn the page and forget, even if he hardly knew Marta at all (it was their third date when she died); it is not only remorse for leaving along the child, but something more. He feels himself haunted; Victor uses this word in English when explaining to his friend Ruiberriz why he can’t get rid of Marta’s presence. Had she not died they would probably have split after some more dates, but nevertheless Víctor wants to know everything about what happened after he left. He’s a ghost writer (in this novel not a single word is written by chance) and through Ruibérriz he manages to be asked to write an speech together with Marta’s father for an unidentified member of the royal family (most probably the king himself, mentioned with nicknames as “only the lonely”, “the lone ranger”, or “the one”). Víctor meets other members of Marta’s family, her sister and also the widower, with whom he will have a long chat when the husband will learn that it was Víctor the stranger who was with her that night. He will reach his goal, he will know everything about that night in Madrid, what happened there and what was happening that very night in London while he was watching another man’s son sleeping in his craddle when his little toy planes were fighting noiseless battles in a black sky. That night when Víctor remembered, watching those planes, a sentence murmured by some ghosts in an old movie in his tv during a sleepless night: tomorrow in the battle think on me.

Marias is a master of the stream of consciousness technique; Tomorrow in the battle think on me is a superbly written piece of literature, a must-read.

The Antonio enigma

WP_20150209_001Almost everything is scheduled for my London trip. Theatre tickets purchased, plane and hotel booked (and payed), there is just a single unknown detail left: who will play Antonio in Globe’s Merchant of Venice? A complex character, torn by his love for Bassanio and his hatred for Shylock.

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The unfathomable Jeremy Irons as the one and only Antonio on screen

Antonio may seem weak, the mature man pathetically in love with a younger one who ignores him, but he’s not. In his very first lines he presents himself in a love-driven melancholia, as someone who thinks that his part to play in the world “is a sad one”. But we must not forget that there’s another Antonio, the one that, as Shylock will remind him later, “call(ed) me misbeliever, cut-throat dog and spat upon my Jewish gaberdine”, and also one of the most successful merchants in the city of merchants, a leading man. Who has just one and only weakness, Bassanio.

Daniel Laplaine will play Bassanio. Source: Daily Mail
Jonathan Pryce will be Shylock. Image from Berlinale website

Who’s Gonzago?

A quick note just to link this article in Italian about the identity of the protagonist of the “Death of Gonzago” played by the travelling actors in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and in the audio-book Hamlet.

This theory, which strengthens the one of the doubts about the identity of who actually wrote Shakespeare plays, identifies Gonzago as Francesco Maria I della Rovere, duke of Urbino and husband of Eleonora Gonzaga. He died in 1538 in misterious circumstances, and a barbier was condemned for killing the duke “pouring a venomouos liquid in his ears”. In the play represented in Elsinore, the murdered king says that has been married thirty years to his queen, the same time as Francesco and Eleonora Gonzaga.

Twelfth Night and Lorenzo il Magnifico

St. James' Park - London

The same concept, the uncertainty about the future, the frailty of youth, the need to enjoy life…  beautifully expressed in two different languages.

What is love? ’tis not hereafter
Present mirth hath present laughter
What’s to come still unsure;
In delay, there lies no plenty,
Then come kiss me, sweet-and-twenty
Youth’s a stuff will not endure

William Shakespeare, the song of Twelfth Night (XVIth century)

Quant’è bella giovinezza,
che si fugge tuttavia!
chi vuol esser lieto, sia:
di doman non c’è certezza.

Lorenzo de’ Medici, known as  il Magnifico (XVth century) “Canzona di Bacco” (Song of Bacchus): How beautiful youth is albeit it runs away! Who wants to be happy, be it so, as there’s no certainty of tomorrow. 

Did Shakespeare knew about that poem of Lorenzo il Magnifico? Maybe don’t but similarities are striken.

(Picture: St. James’ Park – London – 2012)

Repetitia Iuvant

Othelloiagomovie

 

In 1995 I came to Rome as an Erasmus student. As I was studying English and American literature the obvious choice of my classmates were to go to British universities but I decided to come here so I could study and learn two languages at the price of one, as many lessons were in English. During that year, I had the most fulfilling academic experience of my long years as student: an entire year studying Othello with Agostino Lombardo. In Italy, Mr. Lombardo was the most appreciated Shakespearian scholar and translator, and assisting to his lessons was a privilege and indeed the classroom was always filled with people when he gave them. I’ve learned a lot of things thanks to Mr. Lombardo but the greatest lesson he gave me was to realise that, in life, the wisest is the humblest. That year coincided with the release of Oliver Parker’s version of Othello with Lawrence Fishburne and Kenneth Brannagh, therefore, during those months I had a “Othellian-full-immersion”.

Now, almost twenty years later, I’m enjoying a Hamlet’s-month, thanks to BBC’s Drama of the Week. I’ve heard all five episodes through their website and now I’m downloading the podcasts when available. During my walks, in the subway or in the train I hear them again, and again, and again. I must confess that audio books have never appealed me very much, as I prefer reading. But it is quite impossible for me to walk and read at the same time, therefore since I commute using the public transport I have more than one hour a day in which I can’t do anything more than walk and hear. I  thought that  I could not be able to “see” the play just “hearing”, but I was wrong; and I thought also that, being Shakespearian English not the easiest thing to understand, that I will miss many things. Again, I was wrong. As Romans said, “Repetitia Iuvant”, or, “repeating helps”. Every time I catch a new detail, something that I was not aware of during the first hearings. I enjoy the play as when I heard for the first time the absolute beauty of the actor’s voices… To me that is such a gift, something  I will never get tired of. My congratulations to all the cast, the director, the composer of the music, the sound editor… all of them.

Therefore by next month I will be as prepared on Hamlet as I was in June 1996 on Othello. I just hope that I won’t forget the several “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” or the “by Heaven, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me!” as quickly as I forgot many of the things I’ve learnt with Agostino Lombardo of the Othello.

My “Hamlet’s month” will be prolonged until the end of May. On the 20th will be available an audiobook called “Hamlet”, written by A.J.Hartley. Audiobook of which I would never have known the existence if it wasn’t for “LaEffe TV”. By the way, La EffeTv is an Italian tv channel that belongs to “La Feltrinelli”, one of the main Italian book publishers; my former teacher, Agostino Lombardo, published his Shakespeare’s translations in “La Feltrinelli”. And what has to do “LaEffe TV” with the audiobook? Last December, watching it, I’ve seen North & South and Richard Armitage for the first time, I started following his career and he reads that audiobook. Therefore, if I had not made zapping once certain night of December my Hamlet’s month will have finished after downloading and hearing several times all BBC’s podcasts.  I love pulling Ariadne’s threads.

I long so much to hear the whole book, some samples have been already published and I must say that I really like what I’ve heard. Richard Armitage himself talked rather enthusiastically of it in an interview, and I rely on his opinion as a reader. As he is no longer in the position to “say yes to everything” (or at least I hope not) what he said about the book, and how passionately talked about it, awoke my curiosity.  I have defined that work as a top-quality-fan-fic. Should the authors read me, by one of the many internet’s mysterious ways, are gently prayed not to take that as an insult. Even though some times that term is used in a denigratory way, the authors have done the same thing fanfics writers do: try to answer the thousands of unanswered questions that you pose when watching or reading something you like. What happened before? And after?  What was doing that character when he was not in stage? That is, to fill in the blanks, and even to twist the character’s psychology or resurrect the dead. Of course, the authors are more prepared that the average internet fan-fic writer (including myself), they are professionals and what they have created is really good. Although I admit that a high percentage of the fan-fic in internet is a real crap (including my own), please allow me to say the same for some of the books present in my library: they are an insult to the forests that have been cut down to print them. At least I don’t have any tree in my conscience.

And, to end the post, as far as Richard Armitage’s reading is concerned… I bow to thee, sir. I am sincerely speechless. It takes a real good actor to make a reading like that.

EDIT April 6th: it seems I will just have a single Hamlet podcast. RADIO 4 Drama of the week podcasts just a single episode per week of any of the dramas aired. I will console myself hearing John Hurt as old Dante Alighieri’s in the Inferno of The Divine Comedy… Alas! I suffer so much!