Summing Up My Shakespeare Week

In mid-September, I went to Stratford-upon-Avon for a week’s worth of Shakespeare. I saw four plays, took a tour of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s theaters, interviewed two actors from the RSC, and interviewed the doyen of Shakespeare scholars, Stanley Wells.

It was an interesting week. Stratford-upon-Avon is a lovely little town, and I stayed at the Arden Hotel, which is right across the street from the RSC. The area around the RSC is delightful, with riverside gardens, and more swans and ducks than you can imagine. Here’s a picture from the RSC’s riverside café:

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The RSC has two theaters: the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which seats 1,040 people, and the Swan Theatre, which seats 460. The first play I saw, Titus Andronicus was in the Swan, and the other three were in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. While the latter theater is twice the size of the Swan, it doesn’t seem large, since both theaters have thrust stages, with the audience on three sides of the stage. No matter where you sit, you are very close to the action.

It was a tiring week, though. With four long plays – from 2:45 for Titus Andronicus to 3:35 for Hamlet (intermissions included) – these are long evenings of sustained attention. While I’m familiar with Shakespeare’s language, I still need to pay more attention than with, say, a movie or TV series, and four plays in four days proved taxing. But these were all excellent productions, and I’m especially looking forward to seeing Hamlet again.

Here are links to all the articles I have posted if you want to catch up with my Shakespeare week events:

  • On Monday, I saw Titus Andronicus for the second time. (I had seen it already in June.) Here’s my review.
  • On Tuesday, I saw another play for the second time: As You Like It. Read my review.
  • Wednesday was Hamlet day. Read my review of this excellent production. I’m looking forward to seeing it again in a month in Newcastle.
  • On Thursday morning, I met with Stanley Wells, the renowned Shakespeare scholar and editor. Read my interview with Professor Wells.
  • On Thursday evening, I saw All’s Well that Ends Well. Here’s my review.
  • Finally, on Friday morning, I met with Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann, of the RSC. We discussed what it’s like working within the RSC, and how actors negotiate playing different roles. Read my interview.

My next visit to Stratford will be early November to see the RSC’s production of Richard II, starring David Tenant. I’ll be seeing Hamlet before that in Newcastle, which is about two hours north of York, where I live.

If you’re interested in following my writings about Shakespeare – and there will be more – you can do so from this link.

Following this visit, my partner and I decided that we will move to Stratford-upon-Avon. Not only is there a lot of Shakespeare there, but it’s an attractive town. So, if you are in or near Stratford, and know of a house for rent (3+ bedrooms, near the centre of town), please get in touch.

Interview with Shakespeare Scholar and Editor Stanley Wells

At the end of my Shakespeare week in Stratford-upon-Avon, I sat down with Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells. Professor Wells is the Honorary President of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Professor Emeritus at the University of Birmingham, the author of numerous books and articles about Shakespeare, and is general editor of the Oxford and Penguin Shakespeares. You can learn more about Professor Wells on his website, and you can follow him on Twitter.

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Photo ? The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Professor Wells discussed the Shakespeare authorship controversy, speaking and pronouncing Shakespeare, and editing Shakespeare’s texts.

Professor Wells, you and Paul Edmondson have edited a book published by Cambridge University Press, Shakespeare Beyond Doubt[1] and written a free ebook called Shakespeare Bites Back[2], defending Shakespeare in what’s called the “authorship controversy.” Why have we gotten to the point where someone of your stature has to spend time answering conspiracy theorists?

Stanley Wells: Because the conspiracy theorists are vocal and getting a lot of publicity, partly through the film Anonymous[3]. It’s a bad film, very complicated, a silly story.

I’ve taken part over the years in a lot of events to do with authorship. The event at the Inner Temple [in London] in 1988 was a fundraising event for the Globe [Theatre]. I was at an event in the Theatre Royal in Bath some years later. I’ve often broadcast to the world through television programmes about it. I think anyone who’s interested in Shakespeare naturally wants to put the Shakespearean case against who don’t agree…

But the particular catalyst for the current campaign, conducted with my friend and collaborator Paul Edmondson, is because it’s spread to the academy. There are two universities now – one in America, one in England – where you can do courses in authorship [Brunel University in London, and Concordia University in Portland, Oregon].

The one in England claims that they’re not propagating the anti-Shakespearean case. They’re claiming that they’re just studying it as an intellectual phenomenon, which is a legitimate thing to do, and which has already been done by James Shapiro in his book Contested Will[4].

Why does it matter?

Stanley Wells: It matters because history matters, because truth matters. It matters because it’s wrong for university teachers to propagate theories for which there is no basis in fact.

It matters because history matters, because truth matters.

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CD Review: The Essential Shakespeare Live, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

51KHGZTS1HL._SX385_.jpgDuring my recent Shakespeare week, I spent a bit of time browsing in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s shop. They sell books, DVDs, programs, mugs, pencils and posters. But they also have a handful of audio recordings. They have several of the Arkangel full-cast Shakespeare recordings, and some sets by Naxos Audiobooks, but they also had two 2-disc sets of recordings from the RSC.

Made up of live recordings of RSC performances, each of the sets includes excerpts from a number of plays, from 1959 through 2008. They feature a wide range of actors, from Paul Robeson in Othello to David Tennant in Hamlet, by way of Ian Richardson, Ben Kinglsey, Ian Holm, David Suchet, Peggy Ashcroft, Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen, Alan Rickman, Anthony Sher, Patrick Stewart, Janet Suzman, Jonathan Pryce, Harriet Walter, Judi Dench and Ian McKellen.

51bPY4wFY4L._SX385_.jpgRecording quality is variable. These are all “audience” recordings, made live, so you can hear the audience laughing and coughing, but that does not detract from the quality of the material. If anything, it makes it more realistic. (The Arkangel and Naxos recordings I mentioned earlier are studio recordings.)

There are two sets: The Essential Shakespeare Live (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) and The Essential Shakespeare Live Encore (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). If you’re a Shakespeare fan, or if you’re an actor, and are interested in hearing how great actors have performed the plays over the past six decades, these sets are both very interesting to listen to. Note that each set includes a book with the texts that are spoken.

Here are the tracklists:

The Essential Shakespeare Live

DISC ONE
1 Othello [1959] (featuring Paul Robeson)
2 Henry IV Part 1 [1964] (featuring Ian Holm)
3 The Winter’s Tale [1971] (featuring Judi Dench)
4 A Midsummer Night’s Dream [1972] (featuring Ben Kingsley)
5 Love’s Labour’s Lost [1975] (featuring Ian Richardson)
6 The Merchant of Venice [1981] (featuring David Suchet)
7 Measure for Measure [1984] (featuring Juliet Stevenson)
8 Macbeth [1987] (featuring Jonathan Pryce)
9 Much Ado about Nothing [1991] (featuring Roger Allam)
10 Troilus and Cressida [1991] (featuring Simon Russell Beale)
11 The Two Gentlemen of Verona [1992] (featuring Richard Moore)

DISC TWO
1 Henry VIII (All is True) [1996] (featuring Ian Hogg)
2 Timon of Athens [1999] (featuring Michael Pennington)
3 King John [2001] (featuring Trevor Cooper)
4 Pericles [2002] (featuring Roger Frost)
5 The Taming of the Shrew [2003] (featuring Ian Gelder)
6 Cymbeline [2003] (featuring Emma Fielding)
7 Antony and Cleopatra [2006] (featuring Patrick Stewart)
8 King Lear [2007] (featuring Ian McKellen)
9 Henry V [2008] (featuring Geoffrey Streatfeild)
10 Hamlet [2008] (featuring David Tennant)

The Essential Shakespeare Live Encore

DISC ONE
1. Coriolanus (featuring Laurence Olivier)
2. Wars of the Roses (featuring Peggy Ashcroft)
3. King Lear [1964] (featuring Paul Scofield)
4. Hamlet (featuring David Warner)
5. Twelfth Night (featuring Donald Sinden)
6. Julius Caesar (featuring Patrick Stewart)
7. Antony and Cleopatra (featuring Janet Suzman)
8. Richard II (featuring Richard Pasco & Ian Richardson)
9. Romeo and Juliet (featuring Ian McKellen & Francesca Annis)

DISC TWO
1. Henry V (featuring Emrys James)
2. Henry V (featuring Alan Howard)
3. Comedy of Errors (featuring Roger Rees)
4. The Tempest (featuring Derek Jacobi & Mark Rylance)
5. Richard III (featuring Antony Sher)
6. As You Like It (featuring Alan Rickman)
7. The Merry Wives of Windsor (featuring Janet Dale)
8. Titus Andronicus (featuring Brian Cox)
9. Henry IV Part 1 (featuring Robert Stephens)
10. Henry VI Part 3 (featuring David Oyelowo)
11. All’s Well that Ends Well (featuring Judi Dench)

Coming Soon: Bob Dylan, The Complete Album Collection Vol. 1

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Do you have all of Bob Dylan’s music? 35 studio albums, 6 live albums, and more, will be available on November 5, in the Complete Album Collection Vol. 1. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) This massive collection, optimistically entitled Vol. 1, includes 14 remastered albums, and the first North American release of the 1973 Dylan album.

It does not, however, include the Bootleg series, which is up to Volume 10, and those releases will presumably be in Vol. 2 of this series, together with whatever future albums Bob releases.

At around $255, or £150, this is not a cheap set, but if you don’t have all of Dylan’s music, it’s worth it.

There’s also a limited edition set available from the Official Bob Dylan Store, which includes a “harmonica” USB stick case, and the USB stick contains all the music in 320 kbps MP3 and 24-bit FLAC files.

I know what my birthday present will be this year…

Apple Refunds Purchasers of Split Breaking Bad Season 5

breaking-bad-season-52.pngI recently wrote about how Apple had split the final season of Breaking Bad into two parts to get people who had paid for season five last year to pay again. Shortly after I posted that article, someone filed a class action lawsuit against Apple for this deceptive practice.

As I pointed out, AMC, the network which airs Breaking Bad, and the actors and creator of the show, have always referred to the second part of the fifth season as part of season 5, but Apple was selling it as Breaking Bad, The Final Season.

I today received the following email from iTunes Support:

“We apologize for any confusion the naming of “Season 5” and “The Final Season” of Breaking Bad might have caused you. While the names of the seasons and episodes associated with them were not chosen by iTunes, we’d like to offer you “The Final Season” on us by providing you with the iTunes code below in the amount of $22.99. This credit can also be used for any other content on the iTunes Store. Thank you for your purchase.”

Whether or not Apple intended to deceive purchasers, the point remains that the description of the season pass for season 5, which you can see to the left, made it clear that this season pass included all episodes of season 5. I don’t think this was Apple’s fault, but they will certainly need to rethink their wording for season passes. Breaking Bad is not the only series that has been split like this, and I’m sure others will complain about not receiving what they expected from a season pass.

In any case, I welcome Apple’s resolution of this issue.

How the Over-Genrification of Music Is Bad for Listeners and Musicians

Three things recently made me think about music and genres.

  1. I regularly get emails from people asking how they can apply multiple genres, or sub-genres, to music in their iTunes library.
  2. Browsing stations in iTunes Radio, I was amazed by some of the genres listed.
  3. Reading the latest issue of a music magazine, I read the following: “It seems almost surreal that, not long ago, her work was being described as lo-fi.”

Notwithstanding the use of the word “surreal” in that sentence, my first thought was, “WTF is lo-fi?”

I’m not young. When I was growing up, there were a number of music genres, but far fewer than today. There was rock, jazz, classical, pop, and even things like disco and soul. Within the rock genre, you had southern rock, blues rock, and folk-rock, among others. When punk came along, it was its own genre, as was new-wave (that odd combination of electro-pop and black clothes) and rap.

001.pngBut it was nothing like today. Now there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of genres in pop music. Lo-fi? Dubstep? Downtempo? Nu Gaze? Alt-folk? Grindcore? This extends to jazz as well, with a number of genres, which indicate eras as much as styles (and they aren’t new, to be honest). You have things like be-bop, but what happened to fusion? iTunes Radio doesn’t list that, but it was big for a while. (It’s fair to say that labeling some music “smooth jazz” is a good idea, because it ensures that I’ll avoid it.) And what does “alternative” even mean any more?

The problem with these sub-sub-genres is that they’re only understood by in-groups. If you’re not a fan of lo-fi – whatever that is – then you may simply ignore anything labeled with that moniker. For example, some years ago, I heard a fair amount of music by a band whose music is described as “post rock.” That was enough for me to avoid any music that used that label in the future. Or jam bands; I’m a big fan of several jam bands, but that name says very little about the type of music a specific band plays. Some may be jazzy, others rock, others country-based; the term jam band only says that they jam, nothing else.

These genres were probably adopted to try and give a more granular description of music, in a world where popular music is overwhelming broad. And they may be the fault of the music press; writing about music, describing wheat music sounds like, is very difficult, so these may be shortcuts for music journalists with limited options.

Yes, in the decade of my teens, the 1970s, there was much less music being produced and sold, so it was probably easier to label. But over-genrification just makes it hard for anyone unfamiliar with a musical style or genre to be able to approach it. Sure, you can listen to music, then try and figure out why it’s been labeled with a certain genre, but getting listeners to that first step is a big hurdle, as all indie musicians know.

And there’s the rub. If listeners are turned off because they get confused, and feel they’re on the outside, they may not try to listen to new bands. Artists need listeners, and need to do everything they can to get their music heard. Using arcane genres just alienates listeners, who may find it much simpler to just turn on the radio. And we know what that leads to.

Do You Miss the .com Button on the iOS 7 Keyboard? Use This Trick

iOS 7 has changed the keyboard you can use when typing on your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch. One of the changes is the removal of the .com button; the button that let you type “.com” with a single keypress when entering web addresses.

While this button won’t be coming back soon, there’s a way to type .com with one-and-a-half keypresses. When you’re in a web browser, and want to type .com, just tap and hold the . button to the right of the space bar, and you’ll see a popup menu which lets you choose from a number of top-level domains: as you can see below, I can choose from .us, .org, .edu, .net and .com.

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If your region settings are not set to United States, you’ll have some different options: for example, if you’re in the United Kingdom, you’ll see .co.uk; if you’re in France, you’ll see .fr; and so on.

(By the way, this isn’t new; it’s been part of iOS for a long time. But since the .com button has disappeared, many people who didn’t know about this tip will benefit.)

There are other typing shortcuts you can use with this same technique. See iOS 7 Quick Typing Tips: Quickly Type Capital Letters and Punctuation

Also, iOS 7 keyboards are contextual; they change according to which app you use. See this article for more.

Interview with Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann of the Royal Shakespeare Company

I met with Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann on Friday, September 13, at the end of my Shakespeare week. We sat down for a conversation at the offices of the RSC. I had seen Pippa Nixon in two plays: As You Like It and Hamlet. I had seen Alex Waldmann in three plays: As You Like It, Hamlet and All’s Well that Ends Well.

AYLI-3958.jpgHow do you keep up the energy doing more than one play a week?

Pippa Nixon: The most [performances] I’m doing is five, and the minimum is three. That’s as of a couple of months ago; before that, I was doing eight shows a week. Alex is doing eight shows right now. It’s a pretty grueling schedule here.

[To Alex Waldmann] You look tired.

Alex Waldmann: I am tired this morning. It is tiring, because I was doing eight shows a week and rehearsing in the day, so the days would be 10 in the morning to 11 at night. It is hard work, and they work you really hard here, but it beats doing a proper job.

We’re really lucky to do what we do. When you come out and there’s a thousand people watching and hopefully having a good time, that’s a really nice thing to be able to do. Especially with a show like As You Like It, you get a lot of energy back from the audience, so you end up feeling more awake at the end than you do at the beginning.

I don’t much like the beginning of As You Like It with all the exposition, but when you get into the forest, everything changes. The finish of the play with the music and dancing is magical.

ALL0483.jpgAlex Waldmann: I know a lot of people don’t particularly enjoy the first half-hour of the play, and we did want to […] make it particularly bleak and alienating. I think in order to earn the joy at the end you have to make clear that Rosalind and Orlando don’t go to Arden [Forest] looking for a good time, they go to save their own lives. They’re going to be killed if they stay at the court, and we need to make that clear in order to have that huge journey and have the audience go on the same journey as the characters.

What is it like being in a company like the RSC? How different is it to be in a company doing more than one play at a time? Is there cross-fertilisation among the actors and plays?

Pippa Nixon: When you take the job on, you know that you’re going to be in Stratford-upon-Avon for at least six months. It asks for a specific type of actor, because not every actor wants to leave London or be away from friends or family for that amount of time. A lot of people in the company have young families that they bring up here. That already starts to change the people that you’re in the company with.

We rehearse two plays at the same time. We rehearsed As You Like It and Hamlet, and we had twelve weeks to rehearse those two plays, which is a long time. Normally for a play standing on its own, you might have four or five weeks in London. But saying that, these are two massive plays, and it takes that amount of time when you’re doing two at the same time to completely internalize it.

Both of us are fortunate that we’ve got to the point of playing lead roles, but it’s the people that have smaller roles that we take our hats off [to] all the time. Alex was saying to me yesterday that in Hamlet, there’s an actor in our company that is just so in it the whole time, and stands in one scene, at the back of the set, with a gun, completely in character. You won’t be able to see him because there’s smoke, and the lights and the set are pretty dark and he’s just constantly on it. I think that within this company there are loads of people like that who are doing all three plays, could be understudying in all three plays. Some people in our company have been rehearsing since December 17, and didn’t stop until the middle of August.

Both of us are fortunate that we’ve got to the point of playing lead roles

You do two plays: you put Hamlet on, then you put As You Like It on, you understudy the understudy run for Hamlet and the understudy run for As You Like It, and the rehearsals for All’s Well and the understudy run for All’s Well finished in August. It’s grueling. It’s a massive commitment. Some people, their only period of not working is probably between 11 o’clock at night and 9:30 in the morning.

Read more

New in iTunes: Genius Shuffle

You may recall the iTunes DJ feature in older versions of iTunes. It allowed you to either queue up music or have iTunes play music at random from a specific playlist, or from your entire Music library, and a lot of people miss this option.

iTunes 11?s Up Next replaces the queuing feature, but there was no way to make a long shuffle playlist of your music. iTunes 11.1, released yesterday, has a new feature called Genius Shuffle. This is a way of turning on shuffle for your entire music library.

To activate this, choose Controls > Genius Shuffle, or press Option-Space. You can also press the Option key and click the << button, which changes as you can see here to show a Genius icon when you press the Option key:


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Genius Shuffle is a quick way to listen to some music, when you have no idea what you want to listen to. Apparently, it looks at your entire library, and creates a playlist from the gestalt of your music tastes.

But Genius Shuffle doesn’t take all your music to create a playlist; it takes a subset of your music. For example, I started Genius Shuffle once, and it played a bunch of songs by the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Hot Tuna and others; these are all artist whose music “goes together.” The next time, I got a playlist of my jazz artists. Another time, I got a playlist of artists like David Bowie, Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel. So Genius Shuffle changes each time you restart it.

007You can see what’s coming up in the Genius Shuffle playlist by clicking on the Up Next icon in the iTunes LCD. And, as with Up Next, you can delete or re-order songs in that playlist.

If you want to create a new Genius Shuffle playlist, you can either click the Shuffle Again button you see atop the Up Next queue, or just press Option-Space again. Each new Genius Shuffle playlist will be a different genre or style of music.

In order to use Genius Shuffle, you need to have Genius activated. Go to the Store menu and choose Turn On Genius. (If you have iTunes Match on, Genius is on automatically, so you won’t have to do anything.)

One thing to know about Genius Shuffle: it does not respect the Skip When Shuffling option you can apply to tracks by selecting them and checking this box on the Options tab of the Info window. So you may end up getting Genius Shuffle playlists with music that isn’t fit for shuffling. For example, I don’t like to listen to classical music in shuffle mode, because it splits works. And I have a lot of spoken word content in my library, notably many recordings of Shakespeare plays. So these items can come up in a Genius Shuffle playlist. If this happens, just press Option-Space again to generate a new Genius Shuffle playlist.

It’s not clear how Genius Shuffle works, but I suspect it simply picks one track at random, then creates a Genius playlist from that track. It probably aims for higher rated tracks as its “seed” tracks, and for the subsequent playlists, and also probably takes into account the number of times you’ve listened to tracks, and even how recently. But I’m just speculating, based on my tests.

Genius Shuffle is an interesting idea. It’s worth trying it out to see if it works for you. And remember, if you like Genius, you can always create a Genius playlist from any song, instead of letting iTunes choose a random song. Hover your cursor over a song, click on the > icon, then choose Create Genius Playlist.

iTunes Radio and Classical Music

002If you’ve checked out the new iTunes Radio, you’ve realized that this feature is designed for songs, not for classical works. If you want to listen to classical music, you’ll find it dices and slices works into individual movements. For example, I created an iTunes Radio station to play music by Gustav Mahler. I got, in the following order: a song from Das Lied Von Der Erde, the second movement of Mahler’s 1st symphony, the fifth movement of his 5th symphony, the second movement of his 8th symphony, the first movement of his 7th symphony, and so on. You get the picture.

You might like the preset Opera station, which plays random opera arias. But for the most part, if you’re a serious listener of classical music, you won’t like iTunes Radio. If, however, you just want some background music, there are some stations that will do the trick. When you display the new station popup, scroll down and click on Classical. You’ll see a number of preset stations there that you can try.

I’ve been listening to the Contemporary Classical station for a while, and I find that somewhat interesting. It features a lot of works I’m unfamiliar with, and I don’t mind just catching a single movement as a way of discovering new works and composers. But most of the other classical stations with their movements-only approach don’t work for me.

There was a “Romantic Era Lieder” station during the prerelease period, but it’s disappeared. I quite liked that, because it was a shuffle of all the lieder on the iTunes Store. There was lots of Schubert, Wolf and Schumann, but also songs by other composers, and sung by a wide variety of singers. I hope that returns to iTunes Radio.

What about you? Have you found any good iTunes Radio classical stations, or have you created your own?


Check out my ebook, Take Control of iTunes 11: The FAQ. Buy now and you’ll get a free update very soon with full coverage of the new features in iTunes 11.1.