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.

Theater Review: All’s Well that Ends Well, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

For the fourth and final night of my Shakespeare Week, I attended All’s Well that Ends Well at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. This was third play I saw featuring Alex Waldmann, and the second where he was the lead (he was Orlando in As You Like It and Horatio in Hamlet). All’s Well also features Joanna Horton as Helena (she was Celia in As You Like It), and Jonathan Slinger as Parolles (he played Hamlet).

(Most of the actors in All’s Well were also in As You Like It and Hamlet. Since these three plays alternate in the same theater, many of the actors are in two or three of the plays. Since Titus Andronicus is in the smaller Swan Theatre, those actors can’t be in the other plays, as the schedules would conflict.)

All’s Well is not one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, and it’s not ofter performed. Director Nancy Meckler has said about All’s Well:

The play is neither a comedy or a tragedy and people are unsure whether its ending is a happy one. I think that is part of the reason it is called a ‘problem play’. But I am really enjoying finding unexpected and surprising clues about the characters which give lots of opportunity for visual storytelling. One of its great strengths is its characters. They are bold, complex, romantic, and funny.

Alls-Well-7-2013-361x541.jpgI find the plot a bit hard to swallow. Helena cures the king of France of a fistula, and in exchange, she asks him to give her something: she wants to marry Bertram. She had known Bertram all her life, having grown up in court with him, and being considered a daughter by Bertram’s mother. But she had never let on that she loved Bertram.

The king orders the marriage, against Bertram’s wishes, then the latter finds an excuse to go off to war to avoid consummating the marriage. Helena later goes in search of him, and sets up a bed trick while in Florence to get him to unknowingly sleep with her. At the end of the play, Bertram returns to court, meets the woman who he thought he slept with, then discovers Helena pregnant, and realizes that he loves her.

The plot is a bit contrived, and many of Shakespeare’s comedies have similar twists, but I never really got All’s Well before. In fact, it wasn’t until after the play that I realized what the point was. Talking with Alex Waldmann the following morning, he explained what he thought about Bertram:

Alls-Well-10-2013-361x541.jpg“He doesn’t just fall in love in the final lines of the play, he just realizes that she comes home pregnant and that’s the one chance that he may have to be able to make amends for all the bad things he’s done. It’s not about suddenly falling in love, it’s thinking […] this person I’ve known all my life, she’s carrying my baby, […] this is my one chance at the future.”

I admit that having seen just one filmed production of All’s Well (the BBC TV production from the 1980s), I never saw the play this way. Perhaps the comic elements of the play made it hard to realize that this was what Bertram was thinking. But the expression on Bertram’s face when he puts his hand on Helena’s pregnant belly shows all that Waldmann said above.

This is a funny play, and there was much laughter. In Act II, Scene 1, Helena explains what she wants as reward for her healing powers:

Then shalt thou give me with thy kingly hand
What husband in thy power I will command:
Exempted be from me the arrogance
To choose from forth the royal blood of France,
My low and humble name to propagate
With any branch or image of thy state;
But such a one, thy vassal, whom I know
Is free for me to ask, thee to bestow.

In Act II, Scene 3, the king offers Helena four lords to choose from to be her husband. Bertram is standing at the rear of the stage, smirking as Helena sends each of the four lords away, with great tact. But when she finally chooses Bertram, he is stunned. This entire scene is delightfully played, and Bertram shows surprise and says:

My wife, my liege! I shall beseech your highness,
In such a business give me leave to use
The help of mine own eyes.

Alls-Well-5-2013-361x541.jpgBut the play contains much more than just the relationship between Helena and Bertram. Just as Henry IV is about Prince Hal, it’s also about Falstaff; All’s Well has its own Falstaffian character in Parolles. This character, admirably played by Jonathan Slinger, is the comical sub-plot in the play. As his name suggests, he is all words (paroles means “words” in French). In this production, is the very model of a modern blustering soldier, right out of Gilbert and Sullivan, with a long mustache and a smarmy laugh. Parolles is very concerned about his clothes; in the text, he wears a number of scarves as decorations. One Lord describes him as:

the gallant militarist,–that was his own
phrase,–that had the whole theoric of war in the
knot of his scarf, and the practise in the chape of
his dagger.

In two long scenes in Act IV, Parolles is taken “prisoner” by his own men, blindfolded so they can’t see him, and they speak to him with odd accents, asking him to give up information about his army. Which he does, and then is shamed when he sees who had been interrogating him.

Jonathan Slinger, who just the night before was a visceral Hamlet, comes across here as an excellent comic actor, and the whole Parolles side plot is a delightful bit of the play that had the audience laughing a great deal.

When the play began, I felt that Joanna Horton was a bit wooden, but I realized that this was part of the style of the production; it was played a bit like an Edwardian farce. As the play goes on, Helena gets more confident, and her delivery changes, as her character grows. She finishes as a strong character who has been through great difficulty, standing up for what she wants in a very masculine world.

Greg Hicks (Claudius in Hamlet) was also excellent as the king of France, first seen in a wheelchair with doctors and nurses around him, then later dancing a very acrobatic corante after he is healed.

The staging was very sparse; the entire stage was bare, with actors adding and removing furniture as needed, and at the back of the stage, a backdrop occasionally revealed a sort of fishtank-like structure, which was used in different ways, as a small room.

This was a delightful production, and the audience loved it. I came away with more appreciation for this play that I hadn’t particularly liked before, and especially an appreciation for the quality of this company, who I saw three times in three different plays.

Watch Act I, Scene 3 off All’s Well that Ends Well:

Thoughts on a Week of Shakespeare

I’ve returned home from my Shakespeare week, a five-day adventure in Stratford-upon-Avon, seeing four Shakespeare plays at the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was a very interesting week, with four great performances, and meetings with the renowned Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells, and two actors from the current RSC productions, Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann. (I’ll be posting a review of the fourth play I saw, All’s Well that Ends Well, along with interviews with Stanley Wells and Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann soon.)

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, you don’t really notice, since they both have thrust stages, with the audience on three sides of the stage. No matter where you sit, you are very close to the action.

This 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 to be taxing. But these were four excellent productions, and I’d especially like to see Hamlet again.

So, stay tuned for more about my Shakespeare week. I’ll post a review of All’s Well that Ends Well soon, and I’ll post interviews next week.

It’s worth noting, for those too far from Stratford, that three of the current RSC productions will be touring at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle upon Tyne, from 18 October to 9 November. I’m hoping to head up there to see Hamlet again; Newcastle is actually closer to where I live than Stratford.

See all my posts about Shakespeare.

Theater Review: Hamlet by the Royal Shakespeare Company

For day three of my Shakespeare week, I attended the big one, Hamlet. Running a total of 3:35 (with a 20-minute intermission), I can’t remember the last time a theatrical performance went by so quickly. While I tend to get antsy after a while in the theater, or when seeing long movies, this Hamlet was so gripping that it felt like it was just an hour long.

Hamlet-7-2013-361x541.jpgEvery Hamlet is defined by the actor who plays the title role, and this production is no exception. Jonathan Slinger’s performance was breathtaking. The energy he puts into the role, and his portrayal of Hamlet’s slow slide toward tragedy, are astounding.

But this comes with a price. At times, this Hamlet seemed like a one-man show, where the rest of the cast restrained themselves in reaction to Slinger’s commanding presence. Hamlet is not on stage the entire time, of course, but even when he’s not visible, his presence is felt. The only exception to this was the parts in Act IV, when Hamlet is away to England. The scenes with Claudius, Gertrude and Ophelia had these characters become much more dynamic.

Slinger’s Hamlet is fierce and truculent. In the first scenes of this modern-dress production, he looks like an accountant, with his suit and tie, and his middle-aged glasses. (You can see this in the video at the end of this article, from Act I, Scene 2.) After he sees his father’s ghost, he changes into a fencing suit, for most of the rest of the play. (Director David Farr’s set for the play is a gymnasium, with rapiers on the walls, and lines drawn on the floor for fencing.) Slinger’s acting is very physical, showing Hamlet’s (real or feigned?) madness not only in words, but also in gestures. He hops and skips across the stage, does a Groucho Marx walk behind one character, and generally acts like a clown.

It is easy to slip into ridicule when playing Hamlet in this way, but I never felt that Slinger crossed the line. He wears his madness on his sleeve, and goes into manic excess at times, but it always seemed in character. As a contrast, Ophelia’s madness (played by the wonderful Pippa Nixon) seemed understated, almost as though it was a feminine counterpoint to Hamlet’s more effusive folly.

The production used some interesting ideas to underscore the themes of the play. At the back of the stage, on an arch, is the slogan “Mens sana in corpore sano,” a healthy mind in a healthy body. And the burial scene, which takes place at the front of the scene, leaves Ophelia’s body visible – yet ignored by the rest of the players – until the very end. The presence of her body provides an interesting context to the duel at the end of the play.



Some elements of the staging bothered me. The lighting was often dim, using neon-type lights on the “ceiling” of the fencing room. The use of music during some of the speeches was intrusive, especially as I was sitting all the way at the front, too close to the speakers (the musicians were playing above the stage, but were not visible, and the music was amplified through speakers). And why did it rain on the stage for about ten seconds at the very end?

Textually, I found it interesting that the play ended with Horatio’s lines:

Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince:
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!
Why does the drum come hither?

This cuts out the whole bit where Fortinbras instructs his soldiers to bear away Hamlet’s body “like a soldier.” I’ve never quite understood the point of that ending, but this choice seems ever more perplexing. Why not just end the play with Hamlet saying:

The rest is silence.

Hamlet-14-2013-361x541.jpgI haven’t said much about the other actors in the play, but I would like to mention Pippa Nixon, whose Ophelia was striking. I was all the more impressed having seen her the night before as Rosalind, in As You Like It. Her ability to shift between those two characters is impressive, and the way she changed from what looked to be a gawky university student (when she first comes on stage, she bears an armful of books and note books), to the mad Ophelia in a wedding dress, was stunning.

Greg Hicks was excellent as Claudius, and it was only during the cabinet scene that I realized that he was also the ghost. This was an interesting choice of casting, creating a great deal of ambiguity about what Hamlet saw (or thought he saw). But since it wasn’t obvious at the beginning, it didn’t click for me until after the play was over, when I confirmed, in the program, that it was the same actor playing both roles.

Alex Waldmann’s Horatio was very good, but he seems to have lost many of his lines. The letter from Hamlet about escaping from pirates was trimmed, and Horatio’s part seemed overall to be much shorter than usual.

But, in the end, this was Jonathan Slinger’s show. He played a convincing Hamlet, one that went very far, but never too far, and one that had me on the edge of my seat for much of the play.

Watch Jonathan Slinger in Act I, Scene 2 of Hamlet:

Theater Review: As You Like It, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

Last night I attended the second play in my Shakespeare week: As You Like It. After the bloody revenge of Titus Andronicus, the light-hearted comedy and love story of As You Like it was a welcome change.

Rosalind and Orlando are both unhappy in court. Orlando regrets that, being the third son of his father, he has none of the advantages of the first son, and Rosalind is not liked because she as the daughter of the Duke who had been banished. She is only allowed to stay because she is such close friends with Celia, the usurper’s daughter.

Rosalind meets Orlando at a wrestling match, and it is love at first sight. Pippa Nixon as Rosalind is goggle-eyed and Alex Waldmann is tongue-tied, as their budding romance begins a bit like a screwball comedy.

Each of the two – Orlando accompanied by his faithful servant Adam, and Rosalind by her cousin Celia – head out for new lands. Coincidentally, they both end up in Arden forest, a magical place.

Much love-making ensues, as Rosalind, dressed as a man, convinces Orlando to woo her, as if she were the Rosalind that he loves, and to whom he leaves verses on many trees in the forest. But there are other parallel love stories, with three couples. One involves Touchstone, the fool that Rosalind and Celia brought with them. Nicolas Tennant in this role is a delight, bringing comic relief to every scene he is in. Another pairing occurs between a couple of shepherds, and a fourth between Oliver, Orlando’s elder brother, and Celia. It’s a bit hard to follow, but in this production, directed by Maria Aberg, everything makes sense; as much as it can, in this play full of coincidences.

The setting of the court features people in dark suits and dresses – and thumping electronica as a soundtrack – and the forest has a ragtag band of outcasts, dressed as modern hippies, replete with acoustic guitars, to sing the songs in the play. The RSC commissioned original music by singer-songwriter Laura Marling (iTunes), which works well with the tone of the play.

But it’s the acting that stands out. Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann are a brilliant couple, and have true chemistry, even though Rosalind is disguised as a man. The “trick” of getting Orlando to woo her in her manly guise is but a vehicle for this Elizabethan romcom, and it works well here.


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But the play drags a bit at the beginning. The court scenes, the wrestling match, and all the preparations for the two lovers leaving court, are a bit drab and slow. When they reach the forest, however, everything changes, and the pace quickens, the acting sparkles, and the actors clearly enjoy themselves. As the play draws to a close, with four weddings, and much singing and dancing, it becomes one of those magical moments in the theater where everything is just right.


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I had seen As You Like It in May, and my opinion of my first viewing hasn’t changed. I had a seat in the front row for last night’s performance, at the side of the stage. Being that close to the actors allowed me to better see the brilliant comic timing of Pippa Nixon, and I also better appreciated how excellent Joanna Horton was as Celia. She was especially appreciated during a song she sings of Orlando’s verses to Rosalind; she got a rousing round of applause from the audience.

And the male actors are also excellent. Alex Waldmann has just the right amount of cluelessness as the tongue-tied lover at the beginning of the play, and the verbal skills of the more loquacious lover in the forest. And Nicolas Tennant’s Touchstone is a memorable character, who, even in a wonderful bit of dumb show following the intermission, brought down the house.


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This is a delightful play, which manages to have that touch of magic that every love story contains. Most of the audience left the theatre with smiles on their faces. A wonderful time was had by all, cast and audience alike.

Watch Act III, Scene 2, with Orlando and Rosalind.

Theatre Review: Titus Andronicus by the Royal Shakespeare Company (Redux)

Titus-2013-10-361x541(1)Last night, as part of my Shakespeare week, I attended the RSC’s production of Titus Andronicus. I first saw this production in June, and wanted to see it again (see this article for a review, and an audio recording of a discussion with the director and two of the leading actors).

Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s bloodiest play. A classic revenge tragedy, one killing leads to another, and another, and another, and the finale leads to almost everyone dying.

But reducing Titus to a body count (as the RSC does in this infographic) oversimplifies this play. In this production, directed by Michael Fentiman, one sees how Titus becomes mad following the rape and mutilation of his daughter, Lavinia. This act of violence, perpetrated by the two sons of the Goth queen Tamora – who, now the empress of Rome, is getting revenge for Titus having caused the death of her first-born son – leads Titus to take his own revenge.

Stephen Boxer as Titus Andronicus is brilliant, as he shifts from war-weary, on his return to Rome from battle, to a wounded father who has seen his daughter mutilated. Boxer’s ability to show that madness, not just in his words, but also in his actions and the way he moves, helps draw a character torn by grief, yet unable to express that grief in tears.

Katy Stephens, as Tamora, the Goth who, from being Titus’ prisoner becomes empress of Rome, is cunning and deceitful, weaving her plan for revenge throughout the play. And Kevin Harvey, as Aaron the Moor, is one of Shakespeare’s vilest characters. He doubles down on that evil in his final words, as he is buried with only his head above the ground, waiting to die of starvation:

O, why should wrath be mute, and fury dumb?
I am no baby, I, that with base prayers
I should repent the evils I have done:
Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did
Would I perform, if I might have my will;
If one good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul.

Titus-Andronicus-2013-7-361x541.jpgBut the star of this production is Rose Reynolds, whose portrayal of Lavinia – Titus’ daughter, who’s hands and tongue are lopped off – is breathtaking. Having already seen the production once, I was prepared for the moment when Lavinia’s wounds are seen for the first time. She lies huddled in the center of the stage, her back to the audience, then slowly rises and turns in silence to face the spectators, and her uncle, Marcus Andronicus, standing downstage. In stark silence, Marcus recites her wounds:

Speak, gentle niece, what stern ungentle hands
Have lopp’d and hew’d and made thy body bare
Of her two branches, those sweet ornaments,
Whose circling shadows kings have sought to sleep in,
And might not gain so great a happiness
As have thy love? Why dost not speak to me?
Alas, a crimson river of warm blood,
Like to a bubbling fountain stirr’d with wind,
Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips,
Coming and going with thy honey breath.

At this moment, Lavinia opens her mouth and blood flows down her chin, and she stands there helpless. Some gasps break the silence in the audience at this point. This is a moment of utter despair for Lavinia, and Reynolds plays this perfectly. From this point on in the play, the way Reynolds walks, moves, holds her body is different; she has become this tortured creature.

Titus Andronicus is not without humor, and Titus’ madness, in particular, leads to some funny moments. But once the evil deed has been done, Titus’ tragic destiny cannot be changed. He kills Tamora’s two sons, Chiron and Demetrius, bakes them in a pie, and serves them to Saturninus, emperor of Rome, and Tamora. He kills Lavinia, then all hell breaks loose, as most of the characters at the banquet are killed, and the stage is littered with bloodied bodies.

There was much laughter from some of the younger members of the audience during this slaughter, and it’s hard to pull off this scene. When Tamora’s throat was cut, the blood squirted at least six feet in the air, and it seemed as though it was a parody. I’m not sure whether one should laugh at this or not; it’s a tragic end to a revenge tragedy, where, as in Hamlet, bodies pile up. It goes a bit overboard, but in this production, it all seems to fit.

Here’s one of the trailers for the RSC production of Titus Andronicus.

See Katy Stevens discuss her role of Tamora in Titus Andronicus:

Shakespeare Week

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that one of my interests is Shakespeare. Since I moved to England in April, I’ve been able to see two productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), in Stratford-upon-Avon. They have two wonderful theaters there, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the Swan Theatre. Both theaters are similar, but the Swan is much smaller. The former seats over 1,000, and the latter around 450.

You can’t see the stage very well from this photo of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, but it is a thrust stage, where the stage is surrounded by the audience. There are several rows of seats on each side, and there are voms – walkways – leading off the stage through the audience. The Swan is similar, just smaller.

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Because of this setup, seeing plays in both theaters is intimate, and if you’re sitting in the stalls – the ground floor level – the actors moving on and off the stage via the voms makes you feel like you’re in the middle of the action.

As I said above, I’ve seen two productions at the RSC so far: As You Like It, in May, and Titus Andronicus, in June, which I wrote about here. To feed my love for Shakespeare, I’ve planned a week-long trip to Stratford in September, to see, in this order: Titus Andronicus, As You Like It, Hamlet, and All’s Well that Ends Well. In addition, I’ll be taking two tours of the RSC, a Behind the Scenes tour and an Inside the RSC tour. I’ll be meeting with a couple of actors who are currently in two of the plays, and I hope to meet a well-known Shakespeare scholar who lives in Stratford.

I’m looking forward to this Shakespeare week, where I will be able to see four excellent Shakespeare plays (two of which I’ve already seen), go behind the scenes at the RSC, spend some time in the attractive town of Stratford-upon-Avon, and meet up with actors and others to talk about Shakespeare. If you like Shakespeare, make sure to stop by this blog around then, as I’ll be writing a lot about the experience, with reviews of the plays, interviews, photos and more.

I’ll be posting reviews, interviews and photos here on this blog, and, if you follow me on Twitter, I’ll be using the hashtag #ShakespeareWeek in tweets about the upcoming week. To start with, you can read this review of Kenneth’s Branagh’s film version of Hamlet.

Film Review: Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet

220px-Hamlet_1996_poster.jpgBuy from Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes

Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet is not only the longest version (just under four hours, not counting the credits), but also the most sumptuous version of Shakespeare’s great revenge tragedy on film. With exterior shots of Blenheim Palace, in Woodstock, England, and interiors designed to reflect the English baroque style of that massive country house, Branagh’s Hamlet shows the king and prince of Denmark in an opulent, luxurious setting.

This Hamlet pulls out all the stops. Not only is the setting lavish, but the cast is full of recognizable names. In addition to Derek Jacobi as Claudius (Jacobi notably played Hamlet in the BBC’s television version of the play, filmed in 1980), this film features Julie Christie as Gertrude, Kate Winslet as Ophelia, Michael Maloney as Laertes, Richard Briers as Polonius, and Nicholas Farrell as Horatio. The cast also includes such well-known actors as Robin Williams, Gérard Depardieu, Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal, Rufus Sewell, Charlton Heston, Richard Attenborough, Judi Dench, John Gielgud and Ken Dodd.

So, with big names and a big set, does this Hamlet work? First, you need to settle down for the long haul. At just under four hours, this is a long film. There is an intermission (at around 2:38), so if you can’t plan to see the entire film in one sitting, you can split it at that point. Branagh based this film on a conflated version of the Hamlet text. (There is a book version of the Hamlet Screenplay – Amazon.com, Amazon UK – though this has no notes on the text. The best standard version is probably the Arden Shakespeare edition (Amazon.com, Amazon UK.) There are three main texts of Hamlet, the First Quarto of 1603, the Second Quarto of 1604, and the First Folio of 1623. There are a number of differences among the texts, and each one contains some lines that are not in the others. Branagh used all of the texts, rather than editing a specific version.

Branagh plays Hamlet splendidly, using the character’s feigned (or real?) madness as a prop, and leveraging the luxurious sets and excellent actors. While there are some areas where you could call this film bombastic, it never quite goes over the top. Branagh is, at times, very moving (the graveyard scene), and a bit excessive (the play-within-the-play), but the overall impression is that of a character fully in control of his destiny, with no other option but to head toward his tragic end.


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The cast is generally magnificent. Derek Jacobi is brilliant as Claudius, and Julie Christie is excellent as Gertrude, especially in the cabinet scene where she see’s Hamlet’s madness up close. Kate Winslet is sublime as Ophelia, and some of the smaller roles feature fine actors, such as Charlton Heston, Richard Attenborough, Judi Dench, and John Gielgud.

One element that Branagh introduces that is not in the play is flashbacks. He shows Hamlet making love to Ophelia; Claudius killing King Hamlet; Yorick playing with young Hamlet; and a number of flashbacks and flash-presents of Fortinbras, particularly as his army is preparing to storm the castle. This makes the film much more cinematic, though it does alter the story a great deal. When reading the play, or seeing it on stage, it’s clear that Hamlet is in love with Ophelia, but showing sexual relations lifts the veil on any ambiguity about their relationship, which isn’t spelled out in the play. On the other hand, showing Claudius poisoning King Hamlet is simply an illustration of what the reader or spectator knows has happened, and serves as a counterpoint for the dumb show that precedes the play-within-the-play.

Some elements of the play are a bit excessive. Kate Winslet, as Ophelia, seen in a straitjacket and padded room, seems to be a bit too much. Billy Crystal’s New York accent – he’s one of the gravediggers – is out of place. And the final sword fight almost jumps the shark, as Branagh kills Claudius by throwing his sword, then swings from a chandelier.


But none of this detracts much from the overall impression one gets watching this version of Hamlet. This large-scale approach makes the story much bigger, and instead of the king and queen being the rulers of a handful of people (as is the case on stage), we see them in a more realistic environment. There are many ways to direct Hamlet, and this, a Hamlet of extremes, is the best example of one approach. You may prefer others; there are several on film. But if you like Hamlet, you probably won’t be disappointed by this version.

In Praise of the iPod Classic

product-white-classic.jpgAs we approach the now-familiar annual Apple new product announcement for the autumn, and await a new iPhone, it’s worth wondering what the fate of the iPod classic will be. Largely ignored in these days of touch screens and apps, the old stalwart hard-drive-filled iPod classic is, like the proverbial bunny, still ticking. It’s a great device, with lots of capacity.

I last wrote about the iPod classic about two years ago, wondering if Apple would kill off the iPod classic and shuffle. At the time, I examined Amazon.com’s list of best-selling MP3 players, and found that the iPod classic was number six in the list. As I write this article, the iPod classic is in seventh and eighteenth positions (for the two different-colored models); not bad for a device that Apple doesn’t advertise, and that is rarely mentioned in the tech press.

The rest of that best-seller list is interesting. Out of the top twenty devices, Apple has 15 of its music players present, compared with 14 two years ago. Apple is no longer number one, however; the SanDisk Sansa Clip+ 4 GB MP3 Player takes the crown. This is a low-priced device that is arguably better than the iPod shuffle, which only comes in at number 23.

Back in 2011, I said the following:

The iPod classic is the only hard-drive-based music player that Apple sells. While this is fragile (I ruined an iPod classic by dropping it once; the hard drive died), it also offers larger capacity than flash memory. However, if Apple can get the price of flash memory down enough to offer similar capacities in an iPod touch, the classic’s only trump card gets beaten. Personally, I like the classic because I have a huge library — much more than it can hold. But if Apple can sell me an iPod touch with the same capacity, 160 GB, or even more, at a comparable price, I’d go for it in a second. The iPod touch is far more versatile, yet far more expensive. The current 64 GB iPod touch lists at $400, compared to $359 for 160 GB on the iPod classic; that’s nearly three times as much capacity. I can’t see Apple offering more than 160 GB on a touch, but if they were to offer a 128 GB model for around the price of the classic, that would tempt a lot of users with big libraries. But it’s still not enough.

Some of the figures there need updating. While the iPod touch 64 GB is still $400, the iPod classic is only $249, a drop of $100 in two years, making it a bargain-priced device for the voracious listener. That’s only $20 more than the previous-version 16 GB iPod touch, which Apple still sells, and $50 less than the current iPod touch 32 GB.

To be honest, I haven’t used my iPod classic, or my iPod shuffle, for that matter, in a long time. Since I carry my iPhone with me all the time, I use that for music, especially since I got Bluetooth headphones and can listen without getting tangled in wires. But the iPod classic remains on my desk, a reminder of times past. I’m thinking of putting it in my car, which has a 1/8” jack for a portable music player. Why not have that much choice of music in a car?

Will Apple kill off the iPod classic? This time, I think they may. But in exchange, I hope they offer us an iPod touch, and even an iPhone, with 128 GB. I don’t know if I’d pay the price for that much storage in an iPhone – my current model is 32 GB, and I’m pining for 64 GB – but it would be nice to know it’s there if you have a very large music library and want to take a lot of music with you.

But the iPod classic remains the only direct descendant of the first iPod (in form factor, and technology). It’ll be a shame to see it go.