Watch Sir Ian McKellen’s 1979 Master Class on Macbeth’s Final Monologue

If only we could have had a teacher as insightful as Sir Ian McKellen explain some Shakespeare to us at an impressionable age.

Above, a 38-year-old McKellen breaks down Macbeth’s famous final soliloquy as part of a 1978 master class in Acting Shakespeare.

He makes it clear early on that relying on Iambic pentameter to convey the meaning of the verse will not cut it.


Instead, he calls upon actors to apply the power of their intellect to every line, analyzing metaphors and imagery, while also noting punctuation, word choice, and of course, the events leading up to the speech.

In this way, he says, “the actor is the playwright and the character simultaneously.”

McKellen was, at the time, deeply immersed in Macbeth, playing the title role opposite Judi Dench in a bare bones Royal Shakespeare Company production that opened in the company’s Stratford studio before transferring to the West End. As McKellen recalled in a longer meditation on the trickiness of staging this particular tragedy:

It was beautifully done on the cheap in The Other Place, the old tin hut along from the main theatre. John Napier‘s entire set cost £200 and the costumes were a ragbag of second-hand clothes. My uniform jacket had buttons embossed with ‘Birmingham Fire Service’; my long, leather coat didn’t fit, nor did Banquo‘s so we had to wear them slung over the shoulder; Judi Dench, as Lady Macbeth, wore a dyed tea-towel on her head. Somehow it was magic: and black magic, too. A priest used to sit on the front row, whenever he could scrounge a ticket, holding out his crucifix to protect the cast from the evil we were raising.

The New York Times raved about the production, declaring McKellen “the best equipped British actor of his generations:”

Mr. McKellen’s Macbeth is witty; not merely the horror but the absurdity of his actions strikes him from the outset, and he can regard his downfall as an inexorable joke. His wife pulls him along a road that he would travel anyway and he can allow himself scruples, knowing that she will be there to mop them up. Once her prosaic, limited ambition is achieved, she is of no more use to him and he shrugs her off; “she would have died hereafter” is a moment of exasperation that dares our laughter.

What fuels him most is envy, reaching incredulously forward (“The seed of Banquo kings?”) and backward to color the despair of “Duncan is in his grave.” The words, and the mind behind them, are rancid, and it is this mood that takes possession of his last scenes. Everything disgusts him, and his only reason for fighting to the death is that the thought of subjection is the most disgusting of all.

McKellen begins his examination of the text by noting how “she would have died hereafter” sets up the final soliloquy’s preoccupation with time, and its passage.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

McKellen makes a true meal of  “out, out, brief candle”,  relating it to Lady Macbeth’s final appearance, the fools proceeding to their dusty death earlier in the monologue, and Elizabethan stage lighting.

He speculates that Shakespeare’s description of life as a “poor player” was a deliberate attempt by the playwright to give the actor an interpretive hook they could relate to. In performance, the theatrical metaphor should remind the audience that they’re watching a pretense even as they’re invested in the character’s fate.

The production’s success inspired director Trevor Nunn to film it. McKellen recalled that everyone was already so well acquainted with the material, it took just two weeks to get it in the can:

The claustrophobia of the stage production was exactly captured. Trevor had used a similar technique with Antony and Cleopatra on the box. No one else should ever be allowed to televise Shakespeare…There is so much I was proud of: discovering how to play a soliloquy direct into the eyes of everyone in the audience; making them laugh at Macbeth’s gallows humor; working alongside Judi Dench’s finest performance.

For more expert advice from McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Ben Kingsley and other notables, watch the RSC’s 9-part Playing Shakespeare series here.

– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and creator, most recently of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The “West Side Story” Story — Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #114

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Did it make sense for Steven Spielberg to remake one of our nation’s most beloved musicals (with music by Bernstein and Sondheim!), attempting to fix the parts that did not age well politically? Is the new version a modern classic or a doomed Frankenstein?

Your host Mark Linsenmayer is joined by Broadway scholar, theater critic, and actor Ron Fassler; Remakes, Reboots, and Revivals co-host Nicole Pometti; and Broadway actor and long-time PEL friend BIll Youmans.

Ron regales us with facts about the original 1957 musical and the 1961 acclaimed film version. We consider the choices for the new film in filming, choreography, casting, and how the script was completely rewritten by playwright Tony Kushner with lots of consultation with the Puerto Rican community to ensure that the representational mistakes of the older versions were corrected. Also, why is this not doing so well at the box office, and what does this mean?

We also touch on other recent movie musicals including In the Heights and Cats, and think about in general how genres and tropes popular in the past are faring today.

Some of the articles we considered in preparing for this episode included:

This episode includes bonus discussion you can access by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop or by choosing a paid subscription through Apple Podcasts. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

 

An Introduction to Japanese Kabuki Theatre, Featuring 20th-Century Masters of the Form (1964)

The English language has adopted kabuki as an adjective, applied to situations where exaggerated appearances and performances are everything. Business, politics, media: name any realm of modernity, and the myriad ways in which its affairs can turn kabuki will spring to mind. A highly stylized form of dance-drama originating in the seventeenth century, it continues to stand today as a pillar of classical Japanese culture — and indeed, according to UNESCO, one piece of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The worldwide regard for kabuki owes in part to self-promotional efforts on the part of Japan, whose Ministry of Foreign Affairs commissioned the half-hour introductory film above.

Produced in 1964, Kabuki: The Classic Theatre of Japan holds up as a representation of the art, as well as a view of some of the mid-20th century’s master practitioners. These actors include Jitsukawa Enjaku III, Nakamura Utaemon VI, and Ichikawa Danjūrō XI, whose stage names reflect their place in an unbroken professional lineage.


In fact, Ichikawa Danjūrō XI is a predecessor of Ichikawa Ebizō XI, previously featured here on Open Culture for his work in kabuki Star Wars adaptations. The generations shown here didn’t go in for such pop-cultural hybridization, but rather plays from the traditional kabuki repertoire like ShibarakuMusume Dōjōji, and Sukeroku, scenes from all three of which appear in the film.

“Through elaborate costumes and vivid makeup, through beautifully stylized acting and exaggerated vocalization, and highlighted with picturesque settings and colorful music, the kabuki actors create dramatic effects of extraordinary intensity within a framework of pure entertainment,” explains the narrator. And as in the early performances of Shakespeare, all the roles are played by males, specialists known as onnagata. “Because the emphasis in kabuki is on artistic performance, not realism, the onnagata is considered more capable of expressing true femininity than is possible for an actress.” This may have struck Western viewers in the 1960s as an odd notion, but the sheer foreignness of kabuki — cultural, geographical, and temporal — must have been as captivating back then as it remains today, no matter how long we’ve been throwing its name around.

Related Content:

Japanese Kabuki Actors Captured in 18th-Century Woodblock Prints by the Mysterious & Masterful Artist Sharaku

Kabuki Star Wars: Watch The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi Reinterpreted by Japan’s Most Famous Kabuki Actor

World Shakespeare Festival Presents 37 Plays by the Bard in 37 Languages: Watch Them Online

A Page of Madness: The Lost, Avant Garde Masterpiece from the Early Days of Japanese Cinema (1926)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Airline Toilets Theatre Company: Watch One Man Stage Comical Shows in Airplane Bathrooms

When COVID 19 struck, theater lovers were faced with a choice.

Let go entirely, or expand our definitions of what constitutes “theater.”

We’ve had 14 months to get used to the idea of performances staged in closetsin podcast form, or as phone calls hinging on audience participation.

We’re sick of Zoom, but we no longer consider it mandatory for the players to inhabit the same space as each other or the audience.


This is all old news to Peter Brooke Turner, a member of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and the founder of the Airline Toilets Theatre Company.

The ATTC’s repertoire consists of great works of literature, song and dance… performed exclusively in aircraft lavatories, a true feat when one considers that Turner, impresario and sole company member, is 6’8”.

2015’s inaugural production, above, remains among the company’s most ambitious —  a 50th anniversary recreation of Bob Dylan’s 1965 promotional film clip for Subterranean Homesick Blues, shot on various flights throughout the Ukulele Orchestra’s US tour.

Before long, Turner’s carry-on was stuffed with props and costumes — a toga, three self-adhesive Abraham Lincoln beards, a fat suit, a plastic cigar, cardboard face masks of Jimi Hendrix and Queen’s Brian May, and a numbers of inflatables, including a woman, a horse, and a not particularly realistic handgun.

Staging solo, site specific mini productions struck Turner as a far more amusing prospect than remaining in his seat, watching a movie:

I don’t like passive consumerism — I’d rather make my own movie than watch some CGI blockbuster on a plane. 90% of touring is NOT performing but sitting around on a plane/train/bus staring into space — I’m just trying to do something creative to make the time pass. 

With advance planning, the simpler productions can make it into the can on a single take.

The James Bond Tribute, below, which called for costume changes, puppets and cardboard masks of Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and Daniel Craig, was shot in segments — London to Frankfurt, Singapore to Auckland, and Singapore to London.

Rather than projecting for the benefit of folks in the non-existent back row, Turner prefers to lip synch prerecorded lines, fed to him via earbud. This helps dial down the suspicions of flight attendants and fellow passengers. Once the “occupied” light comes on, he reckons he has between 7 to 10 minutes to take care of business. Should anyone question the length of his stay, or his large bag of costumes and props, his excuse is that “I suffer from haemorrhoids and need to change my pants. (Believe me, this is a conversation no one wants to take further.)”

Watch a playlist of the Best of the Airline Toilets Theater Company here.

Related Content: 

Drift: Passenger Shoots Striking Short Film Out of Airplane Window

Pre-Flight Safety Demonstration Gets Performed as a Modern Dance: A Creative Video from a Taiwanese Airline

Artist Nina Katchadourian Creates Flemish Style Self-Portraits in Airplane Lavatory

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her June 7 for a Necromancers of the Public Domain: The Periodical Cicada, a free virtual variety honoring the 17-Year Cicadas of Brood X. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Lou Reed Concert Film Berlin Streaming Free Online for the Next Week

Last laughs can be sweet, and according to music journalist, Anthony DeCurtis, his friend, the late Lou Reed, “reveled” in the critical drubbing that greeted his 3rd solo album, 1973’s Berlin.

Not immediately, however.

Berlin, which followed hard on the heels of Reed’s widely adored Transformer, had a painful, protracted delivery.

This was due in part due to RCA execs getting cold feet about releasing Reed’s grim concept record as a double album. This necessitated a lot of pruning, a week before deadline.

Producer Bob Ezrin, who had planted the idea for a concept album based on a track from Reed’s eponymous first solo effort, was detoxing in the hospital, and thus not present for the final mastering.


But much of the hell leading to Berlin’s release was a hell of Reed’s own making.

His dependence on drugs and alcohol hampered the writing process, as per Reed’s first wife, Bettye Kronstad, who filed for divorce midway through the process.

If you want a glimpse of what that marriage’s final days might have been like, look to Berlin.

Kronstad was distressed to find many private details from their relationship on display in the tragic rock opera. There was some fictionalization, but Reed also put his thumb on the scales when it suited him, in songs like “The Kids,” which recast Kronstad’s late mother in a particularly unfair way.

Reed once took a shot at the album’s critical reception, suggesting that people didn’t like it because its depiction of a miserable couple, whose union is marred by infidelity, domestic abuse, addiction, and suicide, was “too real”:

It’s not like a TV program where all the bad things that happen to people are tolerable. Life isn’t like that. And neither is the album.

Sometimes he bluffed:

I have never been interested in critical receptions, deceptions, hellos, goodbyes, huzzahs, hurrahs. I don’t read them, so I don’t care.

At other times, he raged:

There are people I’ll never forgive for the way they fucked me over with Berlin. The way that album was overlooked was the biggest disappointment I ever faced.

In a more vulnerable mood, he admitted:

Berlin was a big flop and it made me very sad. The way that album was overlooked was probably the biggest disappointment I ever faced. I pulled the blinds shut at that point, and they’ve remained closed.

Unsurprisingly, his early plans for staging a theatrical companion piece to the album, with possible participation by Andy Warhol, were shelved.

34 years later…

Cue director Julian Schnabelthe Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and St. Ann’s Warehouse, the New York City venue that had previously co-commissioned Songs for Drella, a musical Warhol tribute by Reed and John Cale.

In 2006, Reed took centerstage in Brooklyn for a 5-night theatrical run of Berlin that also featured a 35-piece ensemble, original guitarist Steve Hunter, and dreamy videos by the director’s daughter, Lola, starring Emmanuelle Seigner as an abstract sketch of the doomed protagonist, Caroline.

The resulting concert film, which St. Ann’s Warehouse is streaming for free through November 29, proved far more popular with critics than the 1973 record had been. (Three years prior to the St Ann’s staging, Rolling Stone upgraded its original opinion of the album from career ending disaster to 344th Greatest Album of All Time.)

Stephen Holden’s glowing New York Times review of the film made multiple mention of angels and demons, as is perhaps to be expected when a work combines Lou Reed, a Sid and Nancy-ish romance, a children’s choir, and the ethereal voice of Anohni, late of Antony and the Johnsons.

Readers, see for yourself, and let us know—did RCA’s promotional poster for the original album get something right nearly 50 years ago? Is this “a film for the ears?”

Listen to the original 1973 album and the live concert version at St. Ann’s for free on Spotify.

Stream Julian Schnabel’s Lou Reed’s Berlin, Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse here through November 29.

Related Content: 

Lou Reed Sings “Sweet Jane” Live, Julian Schnabel Films It (2006)

Lou Reed’s Mixtape for Andy Warhol Discovered by Cornell University Professor: Features 12 Previously Unreleased Songs

Lou Reed Creates a List of the 10 Best Records of All Time

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

When ABBA Wrote Music for the Cold War-Themed Musical, Chess: “One of the Best Rock Scores Ever Produced for the Theatre” (1984)

Chess is amazing. The simplicity of its characters and plot (capture the king!) can be appreciated and understood by children; the complexity of its tactics can consume an adult life. Despite its medieval origins—and stumpers for us moderns like the strategic importance of a bishop on the battlefield—chess remains as much a potent allegory for power and its tactics as it was 1,500 years ago in India when it was called “chaturanga.” 

The game has inspired great works of literature, film, and arguably every creative move made by Marcel Duchamp. So why not a musical? A musical with a Cold War-era chess battle between a Bobby Fischer-like character and a Russian grandmaster loosely based on Boris Spassky, with music by the guys from ABBA and lyrics by Tim Rice?


The drama is inherent, both within the game itself and its geopolitical significance in 1984, the year the concept album above debuted in advance of the show’s first European tour, a fundraising maneuver also employed before the opening of much better-known Rice shows like Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. While Andrew Lloyd Webber may be an excellent stage composer, though not to everyone’s taste, partisans of Mamma Mia! might agree with critic William Henry, who wrote at Time that Chess, the musical is “one of the best rock scores ever produced for the theatre.”

The show itself, Henry wrote, was “difficult, demanding and rewarding” and pushed “the boundaries of the form.” According to a site documenting its history:

Chess at London’s Prince Edward Theatre was a love story set amid a world championship chess match, the tensions of the Cold War, and a media circus. It ran for three years. When the Berlin Wall fell, a radically altered version of the show was presented on Broadway and failed.

The new version, with lyrics by Richard Nelson, ran for only two months. Its unpopularity did not tarnish the reputation of Chess, which was revived to great acclaim several times afterward. The show may not have had the widespread cultural resonance of Hamilton or the gravitas of Nixon in China, but Chess has inspired devotion among musical fans, ranking seventh in a recent BBC listener poll on the top ten essential musicals. It is now, 34 years after its London debut, running in Moscow, in a Russian translation, with “rewrites,” notes MetaFilter user Shakhmaty, “that humanize its KGB antagonist.”

Chess produced the hit “I Know Him So Well,” a duet by Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson that “held the Number One spot on the UK singles charts for 4 weeks and won the Ivor Novello Award as the Best Selling Single,” Ice the Site writes. A VHS video appeared in 1985 featuring the performers on the album singing that song and others from the show like “One Night in Bangkok” (above), which also became a “worldwide smash.”

Like Mamma Mia!, Chess is a medley, of sorts— in this case of musical styles rather than greatest pop hits. A contemporary New York Times review called the concept album “a sumptuously recorded… grandiose pastiche that touches half a dozen bases, from Gilbert and Sullivan to late Rodgers and Hammerstein, from Italian opera to trendy synthesizer-based pop, all of it lavishly arranged for the London Symphony Orchestra with splashy electronic embellishments.” Hear the full album the top of the post, read a summary of the show’s plot here, and see Tim Rice and ABBA’s Bjorn Ulvaeus promote the show in 1986 on a British morning show just above.

Related Content: 

When John Cage & Marcel Duchamp Played Chess on a Chessboard That Turned Chess Moves Into Electronic Music (1968)

A Beautiful Short Documentary Takes You Inside New York City’s Last Great Chess Store

Garry Kasparov Now Teaching an Online Course on Chess

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

When Edward Gorey Created Set Designs & Tony Award-Winning Costumes for a Broadway Production of Dracula (1977)

Edward Gorey and Halloween go together as well as Dracula and Halloween. Bring the three together (well, it’s almost Halloween), and you’ve got a triumvirate of classic, wicked, scary fun. The alignment of these dark stars first occurred, Olivia Rutigliano writes at CrimeReads, when a Gorey-designed production of Draculapremiered on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theater on October 20th, 1977, just in time for Halloween.” Starring Frank Langella in the title role, “the production was a smash,” and Gorey, who designed the sets, costumes, posters, playbills, and merchandise, won a Tony the following year.

To hear Gorey tell it, in Episode 4 of “Goreytelling,” an animated series of previously unheard recorded interviews with the reclusive writer/illustrator, he was “only too conscious of not being a real set designer or a real costume designer or a real anything…. I designed it the only way I could.” His seeming pain over the whole thing extends to the play itself. “I don’t know what anybody saw in it, exactly,” he says, “but it was a big hit.”


The play was first staged in 1973, and for years, Gorey says, each time a theater company decided to put it on, he was called up to consult. He dutifully turned up each time, scowling glumly and wondering why. When it finally hit Broadway, he saw two-thirds of a rehearsal and left “jaundiced.” The final product left an even more sour taste. It was, he says, “absurd,” but very lucrative. As for the Tony, he says ironically, the award turned out to be “the cross I had to bear,” an embarrassing accolade for costumes he deemed unworthy of the honor.

Rutigliano deems the set designs “gorgeous… three giant tableaux, in his familiar inky, meticulous style” and features a few photographs from a production in Houston. We would not expect otherwise from Gorey, who was always himself and always a professional. The sets have lived on in photos—some featuring Langella, some his successor, Raul Julia—in miniature models, and in the brief but sort-of compelling production of “Dracula: Starring Edward Gorey’s Toy Theatre,” just below. Gorey also created an illustrated edition of Dracula in 1996.

“It should be noted,” Goreyana writes, “that all the sets for Dracula were hand painted by talented scene shop artists. Every cross hatched line on the walls, furniture, and floor had to be recreated to size by hand.” This is indeed impressive, and Gorey is probably right: the sets, which he also seemed to loathe, were probably more deserving of the Tony than the costumes. “The overall aesthetic,” says Rutigliano, “matches the period of the original Broadway run, the 1920s.” (The production won another Tony for Most Innovative Revival.)

The original theater adaptation was commissioned by Bram Stoker’s widow, Florence, “as part of her copyright crusade against F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.” It debuted in England in 1924, then premiered on Broadway in 1927 with a then-unknown Bela Lugosi. “This production would be adapted, in turn, by the director Tod Browning into the famous 1931 Dracula film.” Gorey himself may have hated it, but the play he so meticulously brought back to life in the 70s descended, in a way, in a long, venerable, undead line, from the original Dracula himself.

via CrimeReads

Related Content: 

Edward Gorey Talks About His Love Cats & More in the Animated Series, “Goreytelling”

When Edward Gorey Designed Book Covers for Classic Novels: See His Ironic-Gothic Take on Dickens, Conrad, Poe & More

Horror Legend Christopher Lee Reads Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Watch Nosferatu, the Seminal Vampire Film, Free Online (1922)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

David Byrne’s American Utopia: A Sneak Preview of Spike Lee’s New Concert Film

First came the album and tour in 2018. Then the Broadway show in 2019. And now the latest incarnation of David Byrne’s American Utopia–the concert film directed by Spike Lee. Debuting on HBO Max on October 17th, this Spike Lee joint shows David Byrne “joined by an ensemble of 11 musicians, singers, and dancers from around the globe, inviting audiences into a joyous dreamworld where human connection, self-evolution, and social justice are paramount.” If the movie is anything like the tour, it will be sublime. For now, we’ll whet your appetite with the sneak preview above.

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