Monday, March 28, 2016

Celebrating Shakespeare

"To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man."
-- William Shakespeare

Did you know that this year is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death? It's hard to imagine a world without Shakespeare. He gave us so many riches -- language, poetry, drama, love stories, tragedies, comedies, and countless memorable characters. His plays continue to captivate us. There are celebrations occurring all around the world to mark the anniversary. Here in the states, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. will be the most exciting place to celebrate the Bard. The Wonder of Will: 400 Years of Shakespeare will celebrate Shakespeare and his extraordinary legacy through lectures, exhibitions, special events, and performances throughout the year. The First Folio, which is the book that gave us Shakespeare, is going on the road and will be traveling all around the country. Go here to see the schedule. This precious tome will make an appearance in California in June at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. I hope to make it there! Here are some highlights of what is happening at the Folger:

1) "Shakespeare, The Story of an Icon": Despite the fact that there are no photographs of Shakespeare or recordings of his voice, this exhibition creates a vivid portrait of the man through a stunning array of documents from his own lifetime. Go here to see a fantastic time-lapsed installation of this exhibition.

2) "Shakespeare's Life Stories": a lecture by renowned Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt.

3) "Shakespeare Unlimited": a series of podcasts by scholars exploring why Shakespeare's stories still resonate. They examine how the works, written so long ago, still speak to us today. I have listened to a couple of these and they are fascinating.

Go here to learn more.

And in Britain...

As you can imagine they are going all out in England. Lectures, performances, exhibitions, screenings, you name it. The schedule really is impressive. Go here to learn all that Shakespeare 400 has planned. Some highlights:

1) Exhibitions: "Shakespeare in Ten Acts" at The British Library. This will be a landmark exhibition on the making of an icon, charting Shakespeare's constant reinvention across the centuries.

2) Performances: "Much Ado About Nothing" in London. This production is set in 1945 at the end of World War II.

3) Talks: "The Grace of Plants: Shakespeare and Botany" at the Southwark Cathedral

4) Talks: "Shakespeare on Film." This series of talks will explore the inspirational influence of Shakespeare on filmmakers across the world, featuring films from the silent era, award-winning adaptations and contemporary interpretations of the Bard's work.

Go here to learn more.

Lily James and Richard Madden in the upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet

This summer Kenneth Branagh is directing a production of Romeo and Juliet in London starring Lily James, Richard Madden, and Derek Jacobi. This should be fabulous. Go here to learn more.

Ralph Fiennes in "The Tempest," 2011

I began to think about the memorable live performances of Shakespeare I have seen over the years. Here are a few that were breathtaking:

The Tempest with Ralph Fiennes at Theatre Royal Haymarket in London
A Midsummer Night's Dream with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson at the Mark Taper Theater in Los Angeles  
King Lear at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival in Oregon
Much Ado About Nothing at the Globe Theater in London
Othello at UCLA in Los Angeles

I also adore Prokofiev's ballet of Romeo and Juliet and see it whenever I have a chance.

And there have been so many beautiful film adaptations -- Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet and Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet and Henry V. Kenneth Branagh has given us many great Shakespeare productions, both on film and on the stage. His upcoming stage production of Romeo and Juliet will continue the tradition.

By the way, researching this blog post was a perfect example of falling down the rabbit hole of the Internet. But it turned out to be a good thing. After sitting in awe (and feeling a bit overwhelmed!) as page after page of links on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare came up, I whittled it down to a few that looked fabulous. I then saw one from the Huffington Post which I almost skipped. Thank goodness I clicked that one as it led me to the discovery that right here in Los Angeles there will be a fabulous one night only performance An Evening of Shakespeare: Murder, Lust, & Madness  in honor of the anniversary. If you live in L.A. and love the Bard, be sure to get a ticket before it sells out. This should be amazing!

I hope all this whets your appetite for attending some of these wonderful events in honor of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare. It should be a glorious year-long celebration and a look into why Shakespeare continues to matter. It is sure to remind us of why the Bard still inspires, enlightens and entertains!

Monday, March 14, 2016

Charlotte Bronte Exhbition

"I am no bird and no net ensnares me. I am a free human being with an independent will."
-- Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

Sometimes I think the National Portrait Gallery in London and I are on the same wave length. Every time I turn around they are mounting an exhibition of one my favorite writers. And because I'm planning a trip to London in the spring my radar is attuned to all that is happening there! I am very excited about a new exhibition that has just opened: "Celebrating Charlotte Bronte: 1816-1855." This year marks the 200th anniversary of her birth and the National Portrait Gallery is celebrating with an historic exhibition. I love the exhibitions put on by the National Gallery. Last year I saw one on Virginia Woolf and it was spectacular. This exhibition on Charlotte Bronte promises to be just as special. As an assistant curator at the National Portrait Gallery said, "We wanted to bring her to life because we are the museum of biographies, the museum of people, and she is one of the most important people in British Literature."

The exhibition will include the author's letters, journals, and drawings as well as a first edition of Jane Eyre. There will be 26 personal items from the Bronte Parsonage Museum, the Bronte sisters' home, on display alongside portraits from the National Portrait Gallery's collection. It is the museum's largest-ever loan, with some of the paintings, drawings, letters and journals previously unseen. Key items in the exhibition include the famous "little books" written by the Bronte sisters as children.

But the centerpiece of the exhibition will be the only surviving group portrait of Charlotte and her sisters painted by their brother Branwell. This haunting painting of the Bronte sisters, which includes Branwell's own ghostly shadow in the middle, resides in the National Portrait Gallery and is a piece I visit whenever I am there. I have been reading the Bronte novels and biographies since my early twenties. The story of their lives is almost as riveting as their novels. They all died young: Anne at 29, Emily at 30, Branwell at 31, and Charlotte at 38, just two months after getting married. And yet she and her sisters wrote classic novels that will live forever.

This portrait is fascinating because it is the only one to show the three sisters together. It seems that Branwell began sketching himself only to change his mind immediately. And it is a painting that was almost lost. It was found folded carelessly on top of a cupboard in 1906 by the second wife of Charlotte's husband Reverend A.B Nicholls. The museum acquired it in 1914.

For this exhibition experts have worked hard to show the most accurate image of what Branwell's picture would have looked like before he painted a solid pillar over his own face and took himself out of the family group. The curators have used the latest technology to show what the original image looked like in its most detail yet and tell the full story of how it came to the public eye. They will explore the intriguing story of its discovery folded on top of a cupboard, subsequent acquisition by the gallery and restoration.

Juliet Barker, former curator of the Bronte Parsonage Museum and Bronte biographer has written, "It is the iconic portrait of the Brontes and anything more we can learn about it is obviously of great interest."

I look forward to learning about the new research on this piece. It will be so interesting to see it in the context of the many personal treasures from the Bronte Parsonage Museum. I have always wanted to visit Haworth and hope to make it there one day. In the meantime, I have been reading a fascinating book on the Brontes: The Bronte Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects by Deborah Lutz. The author examines the meaningful  objects in the Bronte family home and through them recreates the sisters' daily lives. It will be wonderful to see some of these objects at the National Portrait Gallery. They are sure to illuminate Charlotte Bronte's life. The curators wanted to illustrate her literary career and success but also her home life which is lesser known. I cannot wait to see this exhibition!

The Bronte sisters lived in Yorkshire
Go here to see a beautiful series of photos of this part of England

Since this is the two hundredth anniversary of Charlotte Bronte's birth, I am planning to reread Jane Eyre. Have you read it lately?

Monday, March 7, 2016

A Film Adaptation Lives On

Last week I was reminded of the satisfaction of seeing a truly great film. It was "Sense and Sensibility" on the big screen at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, part of an Alan Rickman retrospective. The Ang Lee film, made in 1995, has stood the test of time. The first time I saw it I thought it was one of the most beautiful films I had ever seen. This time I was equally swept away by its beauty. When I heard that Alan Rickman had passed away, it was the first film that came to mind. How smart of the people at the Aero theater to put together this timely retrospective!

Alan Rickman plays Colonel Brandon, the kind and eligible bachelor who falls in love with Kate Winslet's Marianne Dashwood. Despite her sister Elinor's advice to behave in a more moderate way, Marianne does not try to hide her feelings. She ignores the wonderful Brandon and has eyes only for Willoughby, the handsome and dashing young man who leads her to believe they will marry. Like all Austen's heroines, Marianne eventually comes to her senses and falls in love with the good guy. Her journey to that realization, with all its missteps and life lessons, is a very satisfying story. I adore this Jane Austen book. Alan Rickman plays the role of Brandon with an understated strength and attractiveness. When he and Marianne finally get together in the end, everyone in the audience is weeping. But if truth be told, I was emotional throughout the entire film.

Here are a few reasons this film moved me:

1) First and foremost: Alan Rickman. The screening was a tribute to the late Alan Rickman and everyone in the theater felt his loss. When his name appeared in the credits, the audience cheered. I think we were all cheering with tears in our eyes.

2) The book "Sense and Sensibility." It is classic Austen and one of my favorites. As always, her themes are love and money. Two sisters fall hopelessly in love -- one with a scoundrel and the other with a man who is secretly engaged to another woman. Marianne and Elinor Dashwood are polar opposites in temperament and before they can find happiness, they both need to change. Growing up in one of England's great country houses, they are set adrift when their father dies and leaves them and their mother penniless. The house passes by law to the eldest male heir, a son from Mr. Dashwood's former marriage. John Dashwood promises his dying father to take care of the soon to be impoverished Dashwood women. But by the end of a simple carriage ride with his wife Fanny, she has talked him out of giving them a penny.

A generous cousin Mr. Jennings offers them a cottage on his estate which they rent and begin a new and more modest life. Young women looking for love and finding their way in the world -- this was a topic Jane Austen did so well. It occurs in every one of her books. The film is an exquisite adaptation of this marvelous book. Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay for which she won an Oscar. Ang Lee directed it with incredible sensitivity and skill.  Anyone who loves Austen will love this film.

3) The cast is incredible -- Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet are both excellent. As was the rest of this amazing cast: Hugh Grant, Jemma Jones, Robert Hardy, Hugh Laurie, Harriet Walter and Alan Rickman. But Kate Winslet's portrayal of Marianne was simply breathtaking. She was only twenty years old at the time and this was her second film. She was a natural; she captured all the passion, stubbornness, and vulnerability of Marianne. Both her inner and outer life were there for us to see. She wore her heart on her sleeve, just as the character does in the book. And has any actress shed more believable tears?

4) The love story. When Marianne runs out into the storm (for the second time!) and the Colonel comes to her rescue, it is a poignant moment. He is so in love with her and wants nothing more than to protect her. Now that she has been abandoned by Willoughby, chastened by the ways of the world and in need of help, Brandon is happy to be of service. Slowly she begins to appreciate him and return his love. Unlike the breathless infatuation she had with Willoughby, this will be a more measured romance and one that will undoubtedly bring her much more happiness.

5) The realization that "Sense and Sensibility" is a landmark Austen film. It was one of the first, along with the BBC adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice," in the avalanche of Austen- inspired movies and television productions in the last twenty years. It started a trend that continues to this day.

6) The other memorable characters:  Edward Ferrars, Mrs. Dashwood, Margaret Dashwood, Lucy Steele, the wonderful Sir John Middleton, Mrs. Jennings, Mr. and Mrs. Palmer. They all warm my heart and are classic Austen characters.

7) The breathtaking scenery, haunting music, and exquisite cinematography. Not only does every outdoor and interior scene look like a painting, but each character's face is shot in the most gorgeous way.

8) Being reminded that the best books stay with us as do the best films. When the two come together, it is a very happy marriage.

You never know what pleasures you will discover when you revisit a favorite movie!

Are you a fan of Jane Austen's books?
Do you have a favorite Austen film adaptation?

Friday, March 4, 2016

Downton Abbey Finale

What will you be doing Sunday night? Silly question, I know. We will all be tuned in to watch the very last episode of "Downton Abbey"! Oh, I will miss it! It's hard to believe this series is coming to an end. Will you be celebrating with a party or watching in your pajamas? I will probably be doing the latter. Which ever way you choose to honor the occasion, I suggest you have a box of tissues nearby. I have been very careful to stay away from spoilers, but it's hard not to imagine some emotional moments.

What am I hoping for? A happy ending for Edith and Thomas, two characters who have suffered a lot over the last six seasons. The penultimate episode found them both hitting rock bottom which means there's only one direction for them to go and that is up. And I think we all hope Mary will become a nicer person. We'll see what happens. One thing is for certain -- this show has been a phenomenon unlike anything in recent memory. And the finale should be one of the most watched television events in history. I can't wait to learn how many people tune in. I am very excited to see how Julian Fellowes wraps it all up. His ability to create compelling narratives, appealing characters, historic events, period details and magical settings has been awe-inspiring. The costumes, the music, the drama -- it's been a joy to watch. And it doesn't hurt that the show is filmed in a stunning castle in the glorious English countryside!

What will Julian Fellowes do next? I have heard he is developing a new television show called "The Gilded Age," inspired by the novels of Edith Wharton. It will be interesting to follow his career. He is so talented. Wishing you a fun-filled "Downton Abbey" weekend!

What are your hopes for the final episode?
Go here for an entertaining recap of the whole series.