Tuesday, February 26, 2008

THE BEST WAY TO PERFORM SHAKESPEARE



Here's two version's of the Crispian's Day speech from Shakespeare's "Henry V." If you're like most people then you prefer the newer Branagh version (above), which is acted more naturally and some would say more believably. Branagh's is also more filmic, at least at the start. You feel like you're right there on the edge of the woods with King Harry. Me, I prefer the stodgy, static, orator's version served up by Olivier (below).

Watch both and compare. If you have time to watch Olivier's entire ten minute clip then take a close look at the charge of the mounted knights at the end. It's the best charge I've ever seen on film.





I prefer Olivier's version, not only because he was a better orator, but because he had more awareness of the subtext of the piece. In my opinion Shakespeare bought into the Greek idea that the form that language takes coveys meaning, not just the content. "I saw as through a glass darkly" conveys more than "I had difficulty understanding what I was looking at," even though the literal meaning is identical. The first is beautiful and poetic and makes us feel the speaker can be trusted. The first quote gives us pleasure and a glimpse into a better, more aristocratic world. The second conveys only information.

The thing is, that if you're using language that's better than the way people really speak, then you have to deliver those lines in a better way than people really speak.
You have to use artifice that everyone accepts as real, but actually isn't. That's what Olivier did in this film.

Of course Olivier took it to an extreme. He figured that naturalistic sets would seem jarring if they were a backdrop to artificial dialogue, so he made the sets and costumes deliberately stage-like. Everything in Olivier's film is subordinated to Shakespeare's beautiful words. I think he did the right thing. What do you think?

25 comments:

I.D.R.C. said...

Olivier eats Branagh for breakfast. I have to say the music bed doesn't help any, either. Neither does the faux-realism.

And when they go in for the close-up on Branagh, I thought I was looking at Andy Richter.

Dave_the_Turnip said...

Hmm, well i see your reasoning for preferring Olivier, but personally i found Brennagh's version to not only be more captivating, but entertaining as well.

A good example is the joke said to King Harry at the end of his speech after he hears the French have arrived. In Brennagh's version, it's said with an air of humour and the crowd of soldiers has a good laugh. In Olivier's version, while the actor had a smirk on his face while he said these lines, there wasn't the same feeling of 'this is breaking the tension these men feel'.

Though yes, that charge scene, and pretty much everything in that clip to do with fighting was pretty bloody well done.

Jenny said...

I greatly prefer Olivier's version, for many reasons. I just think it's a better film, and that Olivier is a better actor, frankly(although Branagh is no slouch at all).

But you're mistaken to suggest that all of "Henry V" is deliberately artificial; in fact, it's something else, something very cool that Olivier decided to do, to play with: he starts us in the "real" Globe theatre, then the play's "set" becomes gradually more dimensional and has greater scope and reality--until, on the fields of battle--it BURSTS into full-out realism, men & horses on location outdoors, no backdrops, no stagey stuff at ALL.

Brilliant! It creeps up on you, lulling you into the story that way, then explodes. Just magnificent.

I haven't watched the film in a while, but as I know the end puts us back where we started, at the Globe onstage--with the beautiful Renee Asherson's french princess suddenly turning into a young BOY in drag in the final scene(as was the custom then for actors), I think after the battle and victory the film slowly reverts back again, scene by scene, to backdrops, flats, and whatnot till we've reversed to the plain stage again at the close. I'm almost positive that that's what it does. Just a great concept that could only be done on film.
And not forgetting the fantastic Technicolor.
I've seen this in the theatre, at the Nuart and elsewhere a few times; the campfire scene(where some "common" foot soldiers ponder their likely deaths the next day in battle and ruminate on what responsibility the King will bear for them-while the disguised King Harry evesdrops, greatly moved) is so well played it made me CRY the first time I watched it.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Jenny: I love your description of the art direction. Somebody should hire you to write the back cover for the DVD.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Dave: Yeah, there are nice and insightful touches all over the Branagh film. The really tough nut to crack is the tennis ball scene where the legalistic arguments for the war are established.

Booo Tooons Ltd. said...

"The thing is, that if you're using language that's better than the way people really speak, then you have to deliver those lines in a better way than people really speak."


Interesting point. And one of the reasons I love Shakespearre is because he writes his dialogue to be performed with a very broad inflection. It's written to be performed more or less a certain way.

That's why for me, the HAMLET and ROMEO AND JULIET films were not as good as they could've been. Branagh and Leo kind of phoned it in, because they made it try to sound natural and modern in terms of cadence.

It's like this HORTON HEARS A WHO that Pixar did. They take something designed to adhere to a certain time period and a product of that time, and modernize it without honoring what made it great in the first place.

But at least Branagh can direct the hell out of a movie, unlike Mel Gibson's crazy ass. Anyway....

Thanks for the great thinker-type post, Eddie!

- trevor.

Jenny said...

Hey! Pixar most certainly did NOT do "Horton Hears a Who"! It's a Blue Sky(east coast studio)production.
Sorry, had to get that out. I'm sure neither place would want their projects misattributed, though.

Eddie-thank you. That's nice of you to say. I very much enjoyed the rest of your analysis, and concur.

Iambic pentameter isn't "speech" in the way we do it--or even the way it was done in 1600 at all. Shakespeare wrote I think the greatest poetry ever(now there's an original thought, lol).
I'm always stunned by the beauty as well as the perfectly understandable nature of his dialogue when a great or even just good actor speaks it. It's hard, but even we plebes can do it with practice and instruction(and I think it's well worth it-Shakespeare should be read aloud to be enjoyed, if not actually done on stage. As you know people commonly read his works aloud en famille a hundred years ago and more, and it's such awfully hard stuff to absorb just silently reading on the printed page, too-at least I find it so).

That said, Branagh still has the chops and training that Olivier did(probably more training in fact), but he chose to make it more "real" in his film, and that's entirely fine--just not as IMHO interesting and fantastic as the 1945 version(isn't that the year? It's early & I'm not up to looking it up-lazy!).

Anonymous said...

If only Terrytoons would have hired Olivier to voice Clint Clobber, that character would have better stood the test of time.

Some Guy said...

I've only seen two Branagh films but I do like that he uses the film medium to an advantage. Otherwise, it is but a taped stage play. The two mediums use a different language.

Note that I don't think he uses the film medium particularly well. He botched the To Be or Not To Be scene and the rogue and Villian scene in Hamlet.

But I still like Branagh, he has reverence for his source material, unlike that hack, Baz Luhrmann.

pappy d said...

I have to respectfully disagree, Eddie. The comparison is kind of like apples & onions, but neither performance lacks subtext.

The subtext in the Olivier version is WWII & it suffers dramatically because of the life-or-death need of the filmmakers to make good propaganda out of the play.

In the later production, you have a sense of how very much the odds are stacked against the British. They're deep in France, supply lines cut off, exhausted, demoralised, outpowered & outnumbered. Branaugh's St. Crispin's day speech is full of bravery & defiance but has a subtext of fear that brings the viewer into a reality in the moment. It has the effect of turning morale 180 degrees & galvanising his ragged army for the fight. In WWII Britain this grim situation was too close to the truth to portray in a popular entertainment.

Olivier's speech sounds more like he's reflecting the general confidence of his men (& the official optimism of the Home Office). It's good acting, but the dramatic stakes are drastically lower.

Using Mamet's notion of a scene being a negociation, Branaugh's character is desperately exhorting his men not to run away. Olivier is urging the movie audience to keep a stiff upper lip & trust in the government.

I really don't remember how the Olivier version handled the campfire scene, but in the play, touching the audience's emotions wasn't the point. It was to contrast noble morality with common morality & it's comforting fantasy of magical punishment waiting for the winners of the world.

Branaugh's Agincourt is more historical,too. Those sharpened stakes played a big part in the battle. The field sloped down as it neared Henry's position at the edge of the wood. The morning fog obscured the stakes until the armored French knights were right on top of them. They fought in the fog & it's entirely reasonable that Henry doesn't know he's won when the herald comes to seek terms of surrender.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Jenny: I like Branagh a lot but in my opinion he's not really in Olivier's league. Nobody is. Olivier was the best Shakespearean of the film era, better even than Gielgud and Richardson.

Pseudonym said...

I found one piece of Jenny's description particularly interesting.

And not forgetting the fantastic Technicolor.

This is one of the few films where the flat-lighting cardboard-cutout Technicolor actually works to its advantage, instead of being a liability as it is in most films of the era. You remember that you're still watching a play, even though it's a very "realistic" staging.

I thought Branagh's versions of the comedies were pretty good, especially "Much Ado About Nothing". But the histories really leave something to be desired.

There's nothing "realistic", or accurate, about Shakespeare's histories. That's something that Olivier really understood. I suspect that Branagh understood it too, but no studio would let him do it that way.

Jenny said...

Heh, but I never said he was in Larry's league-just that he might well have had more training. And you can't say Ken ain't good(nor did you)!

But my favorite Olivier Shakespeare perf, far and away, is his Richard III.
Dare I say I found the evil hunchbacked bewigged one fatally attractive at age 12 or so? What can I say--I know it's weird. I guess it's akin to the unspeakable love girls of today bear Alan Rickman-as-Snape in the Harry Potter films.

Dume3 said...

As much as I like Olivier's interpretations (not Branaugh's), the best film adaptations of Shakespeare are probably Akira Kurosawa's Japanese retellings--'Ran' (King Lear) and Throne of Blood (Macbeth).

Crumpled Up John! said...

I'd say I agree. I found Ken's version abit jarring and slightly unnatural. He was going for realism and pretty well got it but my natural insticts were waiting for someone to yell at him to be quiet, because nobody says anything for that long in reality without another person trying to interrupt. The pace also seemed a little to hasty and felt like they were trying to hurry the speach along. There weren't any pauses that allowed the language to seep in.
Plus Laurence has a much better voice for oratory than Branagh.

Side note. How many spellings of Branagh are there? It seems like these responses have covered them all but there must be others.

Josh "Just What the Doctor Ordered" Heisie said...

The first clip isn't there anymore.

And I can't offer a legitimate opinion here, because I'm not a fan of Shakespeare. Fun to make fun of but not fun to listen too for me. Probably because I don't want to try to figure out what theyre talking about.

I much prefer the hard-to-decipher ramblings of Uncle Remus.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Some: Who is Baz Luhrmann? Is he the guy who made Romeo+Juliet?

Pappy: Interesting, very interesting. What did Mamet say about a play being a negotiation? I think you may have explained that months ago but I can't remember what you said.

Jenny; You had a crush on Richard lll ??? Ah, that Richard was a real chick magnet.

Everybody: I'm amazed at the range of opinions about this. I guess no two fans ever like the same thing for the same reason!

Lester Hunt said...

This is more evidence that Eddie is my lost twin. Ever since the second Henry V came out, I've thought that these two speeches are perfect examples of the difference between the old style of acting and the new. The biggest difference, for me, is between the way the two actors use their voices. Olivier modulates his voice from phrase to phrase to convey changes of meaning and emotion. By comparison, Branagh's is monotonous bellowing. Of course, that is how a real commander would talk to men in the field. But so what? Art should not mimic reality, but comment on its meaning (or lack thereof).

Dume3 said...

"Who is Baz Luhrmann? Is he the guy who made Romeo+Juliet?"

Yes, and he also made Moulin Rouge. I don't care for his work.

"This is one of the few films where the flat-lighting cardboard-cutout Technicolor actually works to its advantage, instead of being a liability as it is in most films of the era."

I would hardly say it's a liability, but on the contrary, yet another thing which makes the movies of the golden age superior. Most of the 'flatness' is not the work of the lighting, but of the distance from the camera from the actors. Unlike modern directors, the golden age used longer camera angles so the actors entire body would be included in the performance.

Today, every camera man wants to cram the camera up the actors nose, or zoom in so close that we can see every pore on their face. Combine this with the tendancy to keep the backgrounds out of focus, the new fad of handheld camerawork, an excess of tracking shots, and one is left indistinct blur of images that show zero intelligence, and no knowledge of composition.

The best directors of the golden age (Orson Welles, Hitchcock, Kurosawa, etc.) understood the advantages of leaving the camera alone, and using motion and cutting as occastional accents rather than predominant. Compare this with the philosophy of Michael Bay, and it isn't hard to tell which is of more artistic value.

I.D.R.C. said...

I guess no two fans ever like the same thing for the same reason!

I must confess that I don't really know what either chap was on about. Something about fighting. I responded the way a dog responds when you talk to it. Olivier made my tail wag. I think I'll follow him and see if he might have a biscuit.

The Jerk said...

one of the most important goals for an actor performing shakespeare has to be Clarity. The words Bill used in his plays are often words not in common usage today, and thus, there is a difficulty an actor must overcome, that is, how to read the lines so their intent is clearly understood by the audience. the actor's goals of "realism" or "believability" must become a lesser priority, since making the dialogue readily understandable will involve some artifice of performance that a character speaking modern english would not employ. the actor cannot do the "Brando mumble" or the audience will lose any sense of meaning and subtext. I think that while both of these actors are quite excellent at achieving clarity, Branagh's reading of the speech seems to be able to acheive a better balance between clarity and reality. Hank 5 is giving a speech to his troops here, and as such he ought to be speaking in a raised voice that can be heard by all those around, and there are points in the Crispian's speech where Olivier's tone drops low for dramatic effect, but seems to soft for all the troops to hear what he is saying.
Both actors articulate the speech well, and in "better-than correct" inflections (i noted in particular the classical pronunciation of -ed suffixes in both performances) but I must say, despite my love for Larry Olivier, that I felt the overall effect was better in Branagh's version of the scene.

pappy d said...

eddie:

Mamet's idea is that drama is conflict & in the scene, characters act & react with the goal of achieving certain ends. How these negotiations work out forms the progress or presents new obstacles in the story. That's my understanding, at least.

Both versions seem perfectly valid to me. I love a hero who's all-hero & I love a hero who's complex & subject to human frailties. Each film style suits its own interpretation. A long shot of Henry framed by heaven & his devoted followers fits Olivier's unassailable nobility & the hand-held close-ups on Branagh expose the human being who's delivering this splendid rhetoric & puts you ankle deep in the mud with him.

The Jerk said...

the one thing i don't like about some of branagh's performances is that he seems to suffer from the disease commonly known as "not Olivier" Syndrome- he reads lines or does business in ways that are less effective, simply because he wants to "do it a different way that we're used to seeing." I've seen Patrick Stewart performances that suffer the same setback. but I guess how can we fault them that? After all, who would want to fill a role that had already been played by as outstanding an actor as Olivier?

Scott H. said...

Fascinating blog Eddie. I've been thinking of writing one on Olivier's Henry V myself; it's one of my favourite movies.

I actually had to compare these two films at school. I think then I was too harsh on Branagh. No question Olivier's is the superior film, and the superior performance, but I think it's important to see Branagh's film for what it is: a quasi-companion piece to Olivier's. Certainly, almost everthing done in the 1989 film is a conscious reaction to its equivalent in the 1944 version, and Olivier had scared forty year's worth of other film actors out of even attempting the role, so Branagh's bravery in doing so is to his credit.

I think we should be wary of calling Branagh's the more 'filmic' version. Film is an encompassing medium, capable of absorbing whole other art forms - music, photography, drawing... - and Olivier's entire vision for his film is an acknowledgement of that. It explores far more cinematic possibilities than Branagh's, and I don't think we can call the '89 version 'more filmic' simply because contains more of the filmic norms.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Lester, Jerk, Dume, Pappy, Scott: I wrote a long-winded reply and it didn't print. Maybe in my haste I forgot to push Publish. Oh well, I don't have the heart to write it over again. i like the points you made, though!

It's funny how interesting this subject always is. Thinking about what we like and dislike about Shakespeare performances somehow helps to define us to ourselves. Shaw said he sometimes skimmed even the most important articles in the newspaper, but he always read anything on Shakespeare all the way through.