Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Lines Written After Reading “Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant”

I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?

—— From Henry IV, Part One, Act iii, Scene 1

Owen Glendower dissed by Hotspur, Henry IV, Part One, Act III, Scene 1

From Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant

…the two of them made some mutual arrangement. Then they smiled at each other, again without any sense of surprise or excitement, as if long on famiiar terms, and the waitress retired from the table. Barnby handed the stump of pencil back to Maclintick. We vacated the restaurant.

‘Like Glendower, Barnby,’ said Maclintick, ‘you can call spirits from the vasty deep. With Hotspur, I ask you, will they come?’

‘That’s to be seen,’ said Barnby. ‘By the way, what is her name? I forgot to ask.’


— Anthony Powell

Glendower Calls the Spirits

The world we touch and smell and taste,
The world we hear and see
Pays homage to the vasty deep
In which it soon will be,

But giving memory its due
(Which is to say: a lot),
The things we touch, smell, taste and hear
And see are all it’s not.


Guilty Creatures Sitting at a Play

We parked along Topanga to our own peril and that of our car.Our weekend’s pleasure was to descend into the twisty deeps of Topanga Canyon where the Theatricum Botanicum is mounting a production of Hamlet. We chose an afternoon performance to enjoy the sunlight dappled by the stately eucalyptuses on the theater’s bosky grounds.

Like the lamented Hamburger Hamlet but not like it at all.We arrived early enough to gad about those bosky grounds, to snag bottles of water at “The Hamlet Hut,” and to resist the urgings of a group of madrigal singers to “lhude sing cuccu.” Thus well prepped for Elizabethan fun, we allowed ourselves to be herded with the rest of the audience-to-be into Theatriucum Botanicum’s lovely amphitheater in the woods.

Actors are not actual size.Before the rousing show began I took this fuzzy photo of part of the stage with my phone. The ghost of Hamlet’s father walks on the roof of that many-doored structure. King Claudius tries (and fails) to pray on the balcony while Hamlet considers stabbing him. Ophelia, the last we see of her, is lhude singing cuccu and skipping up the trail to the right — the same trail down which sprints a screaming Queen Gertrude bringing her eyewitness report of Ophelia’s drowning. Fortinbras’s army marches all over the steeply rising woods above center stage. This is all to say: the natural setting of the theater gets used right up.

We mere observers were not allowed to photograph the actual play because it’s an Equity Production and they have rules. Also because it’s rude. So I cut out pictures of the great actors Edwin Booth, David Garrick and Thomas Keene — all being melancholy and Danish — then glued them to the photo to give you a feeling for the show. Now imagine beautiful cool breezes, the occasional motorcycle on Topanga, a funnier than usual scene with the gravedigger, a first-rate Polonius, and a real clanging swordfight for a finale and you have it.

Back to Basics

Enormous Debby is Very Hungry

Enormous Debby shook us up a bit as we sped eastward on Highway 134. After the initial shock, though, we understood she meant us no harm. She only wanted to identify the truck she emblazoned as a certified carter of Little Debby Snack Cakes. Was the cargo thousands of little cakes we wondered? Or was it one enormous Snack Cake sufficient for the appetite of the mighty lass whose frank, guileless smile charmed the hearts of so many motorists today?

Her other duty — unbeknownst to her — is to welcome you back to NICE WORK, which awakens from its month-long slumber, ready to tell you of the nice work we find in our wholly unstructured wanderings through the halls of art, literature, drama, and (more likely) the refuse heaps of joke shows, cop books, bric-a-brac, funny animals and advertising art. We have let this happy place, our Arts ‘n’ Entertainment website, languish these many days while we did our patriotic duty of casting tomaters at that sanctimonious sap at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

We return now to our first weblove: NICE WORK.

We are back we say — and so says Enormous Debby. Thank you, Enormous Debby.

Just to prove our heart is in the right place, look you: Here is a nifty panoramic shot of the set of Cymbeline as we viewed it yesterday before the play’s final performance by the redoubtable troupe at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum:

Cymbeline Set at Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon

As you can see, it is an outdoor theater. You will find gnats here, but they will not find you if you prepare properly with an appropriate spray. The stage and tiers of benches nestle in a natural amphitheater amid the sycamores of Topanga Canyon — “Where it is always 1971™” To see the picture much larger, click on these magic words: I WISH TO SEE THE PICTURE MUCH LARGER.

The Gangs of Old York

No, that's not Black Adder

Sure, you’ve meant to read Shakespeare’s history plays — especially those eight plays having to do with the War of the Roses — but the same thing always stops you: You can never remember which of the roses, the York or the Lancaster, was red and which white. Allow me to pry up that stumbling block and roll it to the side of the road. As a public service NiceWork offers this handy mnemonic device which will forever affix the rose colors of those feuding Dukedoms forever in your mind:

Burt LANCASTER drove a RED Ferrari.
There are many WHITE Bichon Frises in New YORK City.

If that doesn’t help, you might want to pick up this classic production of Shakepeare’s king cycle: An Age of KIngs, an epic TV mini-series made by the BBC way back in 1960. It ran to great acclaim over in Great Britain back in those pre-Beatle days, and was televised once in the US shortly thereafter, but the video tapes have languished since in the Secret BBC Memory Vault deep below the streets of London. In March 2009 the doors of the Vault parted and out stepped, blinking in the sun, pretty much an entire generation of British actors, wondering what had happened in the nearly half century that had passed while they were suspended in time.


Some became famous. Look! There’s one now on the back of the DVD case: A young Sean Connery playing Harry “Hotspur” Percy. And look again: in the starbar along the bottom you can see a young Judi Dench (M) wearing a lofty veiled hat and chatting up, um, Blackadder, I think.

Fans of the Brit TV series All Creatures Great and Small may be flabbergasted — aye, dumbstruck — to see a youthful, svelte Robert Hardy playing Henry (“We happy few, we band of brothers”) the Fifth — not what you’d expect if you’d grown used to him as the portly, blustering vetrinarian Siegfried. But there you go; that’s him (not Blackadder after all) on the front of the DVD case.

There's James Bond again, upper left, cut off a bit.

In his eight plays Shakespeare condensed to about twenty hours (give or take an alarum and excursion) all the action-packed years of English history from 1398 — when Richard II unwisely exiles the young Duke of Hereford, who returns, much honked off, with an army all his own and introducing himself as Henry IV — to the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, during which evil Richard III offers his “kingdom for a horse” but, far from getting a horse, instead gets stabbed by Elizabeth I’s grandfather.

The producers of An Age of Kings further condense the condensation to fifteen hours of TV. Those fifteen hours have been skillfully compressed onto five discs; those five discs slipped into one box.

The Burghers of Calais

Bronze group by Rodin. Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena CA

From 1346 to 1347 England’s King Edward III laid siege to the city of Calais.

The citizens of Calais were by now near starvation; the commander had already expelled “all poore and meane people” — those who could not contribute to the defence of the town and simply constituted extra mouths to feed — to the number of 1,700. Further resistance was pointless. [Garrison commander Jean de Vienne] now signalled his readiness to surrender, provided only that the King would promise safe conduct for all the citizens. Edward first refused point-blank: Calais had cost him vast quantities of money and the lives of countless soldiers and sailors, together with almost a year of his own. But when his two envoys, Lord Basset and Sir Walter Manny, returned to report that in that event the city would continue to resist, he relented. Manny was sent back to Jean de Vienne with new conditions: six of the principal citizens must present themselves before the King, barefoot and bare-headed, with halters round their necks and the keys of the city and of the castle in their hands. With them he would do as he pleased; the rest of the population would be spared.

The English terms were proclaimed in the marketplace, and immediately the richest of all the burghers, Master Eustache de Sainte-Pierre, stepped forward. Five others joined him. There and then the six stripped to their shirts and breeches, donned the halters, took the keys and made their way to the gates, led by Jean de Vienne himself mounted on a pony, his sword reversed in token of submission. On their arrival before the King they knelt before him, presented him with the keys and begged for mercy. Edward refused to listen, and ordered their immediate execution. Sir Walter pleaded with him in vain. Only when Queen Philippa, then heavily pregnant, threw herself on her knees before her husband and begged him to spare them did he finally relent.

You can learn the entire story of the 14th century Siege of Calais as well as read about the lives and times of the English Kings from Edward II all the way to Henry VII in John Julius Norwich’s lively Shakespeare’s Kings — from which the lengthy quote above was filched. Norwich examines the eight (plus one) “history plays” of Shakespeare, outlining the bare (albeit sometimes hair-raising) facts as determined by punctilious historians and comparing them with the story as made zippy by Shakespeare who, after all, had a theater to keep filled with satisfied customers.

The photo at the top of this post is of a grouping of six slightly larger-than-life-sized bronzes by Rodin from 1889 entitled The Burghers of Calais. It stands near the entrance of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, CA.

Shakespeare’s Kings
The Great Plays and the History of England in the Middle Ages: 1337-1485
by John Julius Norwich
(Scribner Book Company, Paperback, 432pp.)

NW Review of Netflix Movie Blurb

Gee, Unca' Richard, things sure have been going swell, ain't they?'

Here’s the description of Laurence Olivier’s Richard III on the Netflix envelope:

In a Machiavellian masterstroke, Richard III plays relatives against each other and ascends to the throne amid the War of the Roses. But things start to go bad when he murders two young princes he’d imprisoned in the infamous Tower of London.

“…things start to go bad…”?? IWUTPOTVEFWM! (I Writhe Upon Two Paces Of The Vilest Earth, Filled With Merriment.)

Paper Bullets of the Brain

Keland Scher in motion as Verges in 'Much Ado About Nothing' - First Folio, Oak Brook, 2008Like all theater companies, the First Folio Shakespeare Festival prohibits photography during their perfomances. But how was I to know that while I was taking a picture of the set of Much Ado About Nothing the guy who plays Verges would come scampering out to warm up the audience with a pre-play comedy and juggling act? I apologize to First Folio if I have accidently broken the non-photography rule, but the hyper-kinetic actor came zipping into the frame before I knew he was there. If he appears blurred here, it’s because he was blurred in real life as he dashed around the picnicking audience begging food, moving blankets, making people perform juggling tricks with him, and STEALING MY HAT!

You know the play, Much Ado: Basically, we have the little world of Leonato’s villa and Don Pedro’s officers conniving with the author to get everyone happily married despite their best efforts to remain miserable. The most stubborn holdouts — and for that reason, by the Law of Comedy, the hardest to fall — are Benedick and Beatrice (Nick Sandys and Melissa Carlson) who engage in a long-standing feud expressed as a fusillade of zingers — “paper bullets of the brain” as Benedick terms them. Well, of course everything works out satisfactorily, though you have to wonder about Leonato’s dire prediction that, “if they were but a week married, they would talk themselves mad.” May be.

First Folio puts on a Shakespeare play each summer outdoors on the grounds of the Peabody Estate in Oak Brook, IL. We’ve been to three of them — The Tempest, the best Richard III that I ever hope to see, and now Much Ado — and loved each one more than the last. Too bad we won’t be around Chicago to watch the company grow. If you live in the area and you like theater at all, do yourself a favor and take our places on the lawn.

The set of 'Much Ado' at intermission.