Theater Review: Macbeth with Kenneth Branagh

macbeth-branagh-head.jpgThis year’s Manchester International Festival saw a new staging of Macbeth, with Kenneth Branagh in the starring role. This limited run was performed in a deconsecrated church, and, with some 280 seats per performance, sold out in less than 10 minutes.

Fortunately, the National Theatre, through its NT Live program, broadcast a performance of this play to movie theaters in the UK, and will be broadcasting it several more times to theaters in the UK and abroad. I was able to see a performance of this production in my local cinema in York.

The “stage” for the performance was the choir and the apse of the church, with spectators sitting in pews on either side of the choir. As the production opens, the weird sisters have their brief scene through open doors at one end of the church, then, as drums and cymbals resound, lights flash and rain falls on the dirt-covered stage area as a great battle takes place. This battle isn’t seen in the original play, as the next scene is where Macbeth and Banquo discuss their victory. But this production uses the battle as the starting point for the action, and rightly so. Dead bodies litter the battleground during the next scene, and the dirt, which has become mud, is a silent yet present leitmotiv throughout the play, reminding us that the earth, the land, is what is coveted.


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This Macbeth is fast-paced, with the play coming in at around 2 hours, and the tempo nearly breathless for much of the duration. Actors come and go at either end of the choir, or through openings between two sections of seats on either side, and scene changes are quick and fluid.

Macbeth is a small play, in that much of the action concerns only a few characters: Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and the king Duncan at first; later, after Macbeth kills Duncan to become king himself, Duncan’s son Malcolm and Macduff are key characters.

For much of the play, this breakneck tempo has the action moving ahead quickly, until things suddenly begin to drag, in Act IV, Scene iii, Malcolm and Macduff discuss overthrowing Macbeth, and Macduff learns of the death of his wife and children. He vows revenge, and together, they raise an army to restore Malcolm to the throne.

This long scene drags a bit, and erases the tempo that had been maintained since the beginning of the play. Alexander Vlahos as Malcolm is stiff, and cannot keep the action moving ahead, though Ray Fearon’s Macduff is brilliant in his grief and anger.

Kenneth Branagh excels in this role; his physical and verbal prowess are both outstanding. His diction is excellent, and in spite of his fast speaking, he makes Shakespeare’s word shine. I was less impressed by Alex Kingston’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth. I felt she was too frenetic early in the play, before Macbeth killed Duncan, to pull off the madness in Act V, Scene i. I think there needed to be more contrast, and she over-acted in the latter scene, being far too obviously mad.

I particularly liked the casting of three young women as the weird sisters. Generally cast as old women, as fairy-tail witches, these three young women were powerful in their dark dresses and makeup.


Weird sisters

 
While the choice of the theater as stage was excellent, it introduced two problems. The first was unexpected; Britain was in its hottest summer in seven years, and many of the spectators could be seen fanning themselves with their programs. On the sultry night when this was filmed, together with the rankness and humidity within following the rain at the beginning of the play, it must have been uncomfortable. But those fanning programs were often distracting; several cameras were set up on one side of the choir, showing the actors with the seats on the other side behind them.

The second problem was the length of the “stage” area. This led to many scenes where actors walked, or even ran, from one end to the other, for no apparent reason. In Act IV, Scene iii, for example, Malcolm and Macduff enter the stage on the apse, and Malcolm walks all the way to the other end of the stage to talk to Macduff, who remains stationary. This occurred several times in the performance; it was as if the directors felt that the entire stage needed to be used, but there was no dramatic justification for all that movement.

Nevertheless, the play was masterfully filmed, with, as I mentioned, several cameras on one side of the choir, and a few others above the choir and in various locations. Aside from the occasional shot which began out of focus, the only production oddity was certain shots where a wide-angle lens was used to keep actors far apart on the stage in focus, which led to the distant actor being distorted. When this wide-angle lens panned, it was also a bit dizzy-making.

But the NT Live team managed to bring to the screen this powerful production from a cramped set, giving the feeling, even to those in movie theaters, of being in the middle of the action. This is an excellent Macbeth, and one worth seeing if possible.

ITunes Tip: Rip CDs in Mono in iTunes

Many fans of older music probably have a lot of CDs in mono. Early classical recordings, old blues discs, and jazz up until the 1950s was all recorded in mono. Even later music is available in mono mixes, notably many of The Beatles’ recordings and early discs by Bob Dylan. If you rip these discs in iTunes, they are generally ripped in stereo. iTunes’ settings suggest that you can choose to rip with channels determined “automatically,” but this never results in mono files when I rip mono CDs; I always get stereo. (I don’t mean that the music is in stereo, rather that iTunes creates stereo files where the two channels are exactly the same.)


You may want to rip in mono to save space. There’s no reason to rip a mono CD in stereo; the resulting files contain exactly the same data on two channels rather than one, and take up twice as much space.

To rip in mono, you need to choose Mono from the Channels menu in the Import Settings > Custom window. And you need to remember to make this change both before and after ripping any mono CDs you have. Note that to choose a bit rate for mono rips, you need to choose the double of that bit rate. In other words, if you choose 256 kbps, the mono files will be 128 kbps; the bit rate you choose is the stereo bit rate.

One thing to keep in mind is that if you use iTunes Match, make sure you don’t choose a bit rate below 192 kbps (which will result in 96 kbps mono files). ITunes Match won’t accept files that are less than 96 kbps, so you won’t be able to match those files.

(For those who are curious, my latest mono rips are several discs of the 17-CD set of Schubert Lieder on Record and the 9-disc RIAS Bach Cantatas Project, containing recordings of Bach cantatas by Karl Ristenpart, from 1949-1952.)

iWant: A “Music Videos” Library in iTunes

iTunes’ library contains a number of sub-libraries for the different files it contains: there’s Music, Movies, TV Shows, Books, and others. (There are also libraries for non-media content, such as apps, and ringtones, which are only meant to be used on an iPhone.) But one thing that’s missing is a Music Videos library. Music videos get mixed in with your Music library, under the genre, artist and album (if any) they are tagged with.

You can set any type of content to reside in a specific library. For audio content, you can choose Music, Podcast, iTunes U, Audiobook or Voice Memo. For video, you can choose Music Video, Movie, TV Show, Podcast or iTunes U. You can do this for any track by selecting it, pressing Command-I (or Control-I on Windows), then clicking on the Options tab. Choose the library where you want to store the file from the Media Kind menu.



I can understand the idea behind having music videos mixed in with music; they are often part of an album, or if they are pop songs, most iTunes users probably want to play them when they’re listening to music. But it would make more sense if they were in their own library, especially if you have a lot of them.

I have a number of music DVDs that I have ripped, along with some music videos that I’ve gotten with iTunes Store purchases, and I have them as Movies, because it’s just more logical. But they’re not movies; they may actually be TV shows (technically), or simply videos of concerts, operas or other performances. I put many of them as TV Shows, because they have multiple discs, such as the Barenboim on Beethoven set in the screen shot below. Organizing this with each disc as its own movie wouldn’t make sense. The same would be the case for, say, a long opera that is on two discs, or the Grateful Dead’s Closing of Winterland, which is on three discs.



I would like to see a Music Videos library, and give users the options, somewhere in iTunes’ preferences, to either store music videos there or in their Music library. For those who have a lot of videos, it makes sense.

(Note: you can create a Music Videos genre if you wish, and still keep these files in your Music library. Instead of being sorted with the albums they come from, or the artists on them, they’d be in their own genre and easier to spot. But having a separate library is still one step easier.)

Grateful Dead to Release Sunshine Daydream, 8/27/72 Film and CD Set

Sunshine day dream bluray 1200 exclusive

Deadheads, get out your credit cards! This September will finally see an official release of 8/27/72 and Sunshine Daydream. After more than 40 years, we’ll finally get a crystal-clear recording of this iconic show, and a DVD or Blu-Ray of the Sunshine Daydream movie, shot that day.

Most Deadheads know that this show, from Veneta, Oregon, is one of the best the band ever played. Performed as a benefit for Ken Kesey’s family creamery, The Field Trip, as it was advertised, was played in a field in front of 20,000 sunburned Deadheads, as temperatures passed 100 degrees, and water was scarce. There was magic in the air, that day, though; or at least good acid. Because the Dead played one of their best, tightest shows, with amazing renditions of Playin’ in the Band, China > Rider, and one of the best versions of Dark Star ever.

You may have seen footage of the Sunshine Daydream movie, filmed by John Norris, Phil DeGuere, and Sam Field, who caught the music and the vibes, but never had the money to get the footage edited correctly. Mediocre quality transfers have circulated for years, but finally, the Dead have restored the film, and the 16-track soundboard tapes, to create what looks and sounds amazing. Here’s a clip:

After the amazing Europe ’72 and May ’77 sets, this amazing show is yet another wonderful release from the Dead. Now, if they can only find a tape of 5/8/77 and release that…

It’s Time to Get Rid of DRM on Ebooks

If you read ebooks as I do, you probably know that you are limited in the way you use them. If you buy an ebook from Apple, you can only read it on an Apple device. If you buy a Kindle, you can read it on a Kindle, or an Apple device (because of the Kindle app for iOS, and for OS X), but you’re still limited in what you do with the book. You can’t sell it or lend it, and you’re locked into a specific platform.

My latest Macworld article looks at this. I think that Apple should lead the way in getting rid of DRM on ebooks, the way the company spearheaded the drive to remove DRM from music.

It’s worth noting that my Take Control ebooks – including the just-out Take Control of LaunchBar – have no DRM, so you can read them on whatever device you want.

Theater Review: Henry VI, by the Globe Theatre, in York

If you saw my recent review of the RSC’s Titus Andronicus, you’ve figured out that I’m a Shakespeare fan. Since I moved to the UK, just under three months ago, I’ve seen four Shakespeare plays, and have tickets to see a few more. This is part of my project to see every Shakespeare play live at least once, as soon as possible.

But you will also have seen, in the Titus review, that I said that “Henry VI Part I was an insipid performance, with wooden actors and uninteresting staging.” Last night, I went to see Henry VI Part II, at York’s Theatre Royal. It was as bad is the first part, so much so that my girlfriend and I left at the interval (intermission). What’s going on here? Why are these performances so bad?

I haven’t ruled out the possibility that I’m missing something. Being aware of early music performance practice, I wonder if the Globe company isn’t trying to do some sort of “authentic” performance. While this is possible, it still doesn’t jibe with what they’re doing on stage. The actors are, for the most part, stiff and wooden, except when one of them turns on the ham amplifier. Some of the actors are simply bad – I won’t mention names – and sound as if they are simply declaiming their lines. Others show emotion, enough to invalidate the hypothesis of some sort of original performance style.

To be fair, these early history plays are not the most interesting. Yet Henry VI was written around the same time as Titus Andronicus, and the RSC production of that play was unforgettable. (It’s so good, I’m planning to see it again in September.) There is little scintillating language in Henry VI, the plots are tangled and confusing, and at both performances, it was hard to follow what was going on. This was compounded in Part I, where several actors played two roles, one of an English character, the other of a Frenchman.

Another thing I wonder is whether the Globe company can play on a normal stage. The Globe Theatre in London has a thrust stage – where the stage reaches out into the audience, so the actors are playing in the middle of the spectators – as does the RSC’s two theaters in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Perhaps being forced to use a standard stage limits them in their movements and actions. It was almost painful to see, at times, a dozen characters standing stock-still on the stage as one or two characters were speaking.

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One element that was particularly poor was when, in Act II, Scene I, four falconers stood on stage, holding their arms up with invisible hawks, going, “Caw, caw.” But the shark-jumping moment came at the end of the first part of the play, just before the interval. In Act IV, Scene I, Suffolk is executed. In this production, he is led up to the top of one of two metallic scaffolds on the stage which represent towers. His head is lopped off, and a rubber head is dropped onto the stage just before the lights on stage are extinguished. But the dropping of this head is funny, and, at what should be a very serious moment in the play, the audience laughed quite loudly. Doing something like this to provoke laughter, at this point in the play, makes no sense.

I found little in this play to be enjoyable. Even assuming that the Henry VI plays are among Shakespeare’s weakest, I feel the Globe should have done much more to try to make these plays interesting. I note that the York performances were the first on a tour of these plays. I wonder if things will change as they go on, and especially whether they’d be better when they play in their home theater. But it’s more than just the stage. Most of the actors don’t seem invested in their parts, and the ones who are stand in stark contrast to the blandness of the rest of the troupe.

This all surprises me, as I have seen several DVDs of the Globe performing in their own theater, all of which have been very well done. There’s a real disconnect here between what the Globe can do, and what they’ve done with the Henry VI plays.

I won’t be going to see Part III, and hope to be able to get a refund for my unused tickets. There were plenty of empty seats at Part I; there seemed to be more at Part II; I wonder how many people will stick it out and see Part III.

(An aside: the York Theatre Royal is extremely uncomfortable. I’m six feet tall, and I felt, sitting in the theatre, like being on an airplane. Even my girlfriend, who is about six inches shorter than me, found the legroom too limited. I may not go back to that theatre.)

Kirk’s Eight Rules of Effective Podcasting

Note: I originally posted this in March, 2006, and it continues to be a popular article on my site. I’m re-posting it now, because podcasting hasn’t changed very much, and these rules can still apply to podcasts, even though the “genre” has matured greatly in the past seven years. I’ve updated this in 2017 to mention my own podcast.


The buzz has been around podcasting since Apple’s embracing of the medium in iTunes, which provides easy access to thousands of podcasts. Since Apple added podcast features to iTunes, podcasts have become almost mainstream, and the first for-cash podcasts have recently arisen. But not everyone listens to podcasts, and many people check out a few and leave them behind. Some podcasts do things very wrong, and, after listening for a few minutes, listeners simply switch to something else. Here are a few rules that should help podcasters get people to tune into their shows.

  1. Have something to say. You can certainly just ramble for a half-hour, but unless you have a unique voice (or are really funny) people won’t come back. If you make a podcast just to provide the drivel that’s on your blog, don’t bother; stick to text. It’ll save you time, and it’s easier to find out what you have to say.

  2. Be prepared. Make notes before you start talking; only a rare few can improvise for a half-hour or an hour. In fact, few people can really improvise for more than a few minutes. Make detailed notes, and, if you’re interviewing someone, prepare questions in advance. However, don’t let notes or questions keep you from diverging if you find something better to say.

  3. Be short and simple. Too many podcasts try to fill an hour with whatever it takes to fill that time. You will be much more likely to get listeners to try out your podcasts if they are short. This does not mean that one-hour podcasts won’t work; but you may want to have occasional shorter podcasts – say 20 to 30 minutes – to attract listeners who might be turned off by the idea of devoting one hour of their lives to an unknown program. If listeners like the shortcasts, then they’ll stick around for the longcasts.

  4. Be clear. Use good recording equipment; listeners are used the radio-quality broadcasts, and if it sounds like you recorded your podcast in the bathroom, they won’t stay long. Learn how to record, edit, and produce your podcast. Also, if you’re interviewing someone, don’t interrupt. Learn when to talk and when to let the guest speak. You can edit later.

  5. Be yourself. Unless you’re a professional journalist or radio broadcaster, you won’t make people think you are. Don’t try using that “radio voice”, and don’t try to talk about things you don’t know about. Do talk about what turns you on: even if it’s a hobby, such as beekeeping, an impassioned delivery by someone who knows the subject can be interesting.

  6. Be unique. The best podcasts are the ones that are unique or original. People won’t listen in just because you copy Rush Limbaugh or Al Franken (update: or Marc Maron); but if you are unique, you’ll find an audience. Don’t copy in style or content. Podcasting, like writing, is creative.

  7. Provide detailed program notes. On my podcast The Next Track, I’m careful to include links to everything we discuss on the show. Since we cover both music and audio equipment, it’s a help to listeners to have links to the hardware and records we talk about. This also allows me to use Amazon affiliate links, to monetize the show (a bit).

  8. Don’t stick in music just to fill time, or to punctuate your show. If you have music in the show, use it as music, not filler. And choose good music, not the cheezy royalty-free muzak that floats around. (Though be aware of the copyright implications of using commercial music. In short, you can’t.) For example, Magnatune lets you use any of their music for free in non-commercial podcasts. Their FAQ says, “If your podcast is non-commercial (most are) then you can use Magnatune’s music for free in your podcasts. Choose the license type “non-commercial” and agree to the terms of the Creative Commons license.”

To sum up, creating a good podcast is like creating any type of quality content, be it music, words or audio. With a fair amount of intention, originality and creativity, you can share your thoughts with others through podcasts. But only the good survive; so if you want to reach an audience, do your best to make sure that people come back for more.

Theater Review: Titus Andronicus, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

Strictly by chance, I ended up seeing two Shakespeare plays on two consecutive days this week. The first was Henry VI, Part I, here in York, performed by Shakespeare’s Globe. This is the first of three plays, and I’ll be seeing the next two on the two coming Wednesdays.

Then on Thursday, I attended an event for bloggers at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre (the smaller of two RSC theatres) in Stratford-upon-Avon, seeing their current production of Titus Andronicus, and attending a question and answer session after the performance with director Michael Fentiman, and actors Rose Reynolds (Lavinia), Katy Stephens (Tamora) and Stephen Boxer (Titus). It has been an interesting week.

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Rose Reynolds and Stephen Boxer at a question and answer session after the performance.

While Henry VI Part I was an insipid performance, with wooden actors and uninteresting staging, Titus Andronicus was a revelation. Both of these plays are among Shakespeare’s earliest, and Shakespeare may have collaborated with other authors when writing them. Henry VI was probably written in 1591, and Titus Andronicus between 1590 and 1593. Both are considered to be among Shakespeare’s weaker plays, as well, and Harold Bloom, in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, is very critical of Titus Andronicus. Bloom says that “Everything and everyone on stage is very remote from us, the rigid Titus most of all,” and, “I don’t think I’d see the play again unless Mel Brooks directed it, with his company of zanies, or perhaps it could be made into a musical.”

My experience with Titus Andronicus was limited to the 1985 BBC version, which greatly tones down the blood and gore which is at the heart of the story, and is also devoid of any humor. I also have the 1999 film Titus, directed by Julie Taymore, with Anthony Hopkins as Titus. I watched a half-hour of it a few days before going to Stratford, but didn’t get around to watching the entire movie; it didn’t grab me.

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Visual Skeuomorphism is Dead; What About Audio Skeuomorphism?

Apple has proudly ditched skeuomorphism in its forthcoming OS X Mavericks and iOS 7; that’s the use of interface elements that look like items in the real world. In OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, this includes things like the fake leather in Calendar; the green felt in Game Center; and the faux hardcover binding in Contacts. iOS has some of these too: Game Center has the same green felt; Voice Memos shows an old-timey microphone; and Find Friends has stitched leather. Both OSs have horrid yellow, lined paper in Notes, and other elements of skeuomorphism can be seen here and there.

IMG_0645So if Apple’s ditched visual skeuomorphism, why not get rid of the audio version as well. On iOS, this includes keyboard clicks, lock sounds, and the whoosh you hear when sending emails. OS X has a number of “user interface sound effects,” which you can turn off en masse in the Sound preference pane. (On iOS, you can turn them off individually.)

But if we’re agreeing that showing a faux leather-bound book in an app’s interface is outdated, how long before we get rid of the sounds? While it’s useful to have some sort of feedback when your email gets sent, does it have to be a “whoosh,” the sound of something flying? And does the iOS camera – or any camera – need to have a shutter sound when you take a photo?

I think it’s time to go beyond these quaint, old-fashioned sounds and come up with some new forms of beeps to alert a user when something has happened. Personally, I’ve turned off most sounds on my iPhone, other than a ringtone and voice mail and text message alerts, and I only have a system beep on my Macs.

Playlist Assist Replicates Old iTunes Playlist Window

One of the things that irked many users when iTunes 11 was released was the inability to open more than one window. Some users kept an iTunes Store window open all the time; others liked to open playlists in their own windows, to make it easier to drag tracks to them and edit their contents.

AppleScript maestro Doug Adams has released the $5 Playlist Assist, a new tool which replicates some of the old iTunes playlist window features. Playlist Assist gives you a floating window that you can use to create and edit playlists. But you can also get track info, change tags, play tracks using Quick Look, and export playlists.


playlist-assist

I’ve been using this for a while in beta, and I’m quite impressed by its flexibility. If you want a great tool for creating and editing playlists, you need Playlist Assist.