The Bard, a Rabbit, and Ninglun


PLAYS MENTIONED: A Comedy of Errors; Hamlet (Branagh); King John; Hamlet; King Lear; Macbeth; Twelfth Night (Bollywood version); As You Like It; Twelfth Night (Bell Shakespeare); Henry VI.

neil_by_rabbitBetween September 2002 and September 2004, one of the greatest delights in my life was sharing Shakespeare with my friend Mister Rabbit. Even with a slight hiatus in early 2004, we managed to see or read a rather amazing number of plays. The Ninglun/Rabbit Shakespeare Festival was a great success. Unfortunately, the last play we were to see, Measure for Measure, fell victim to a dispute between us, the details of which need not concern us here though I am still sad about it. 😦

The Wars of the Roses, a rare production of a version, at least, of Henry VI, proved to be the final one for us, and even that The Rabbit missed through illness.

20 September 2002: Last night I went to the Sydney Opera House to see William Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors, an experience I shared with a person whose appearance had recently changed. I had my best jacket taken from me and included as a prop in the magic show that preceded, but segued beautifully into, the performance. It was only slightly worrying to see it attacked with scissors, have a pink feather boa removed from its lining, and a rubber chicken. It was a romp of a performance, with immaculate timing (especially from the actor playing a “slow” Dromio of Syracuse) and several occasions where what had not been clear to me in the text became crystal clear in performance.

The old print of the “discovery” scene in A Comedy of Errors below is much more melodramatic than what we saw on September 20th 2002, where the “Orientalism” was light and parodic.


13 November 2002: We watched that marathon movie Hamlet (1996) yesterday. That is, of course, Kenneth Branagh’s full-text version which runs for 243 minutes! I am definitely a fan; I found it wonderful, especially for the sense it made of the non-Hamlet bits of the play (most of Act IV for example), for the complex presentation of Claudius and Gertrude, for the believability of Ophelia, and for much more besides. Tedious? You have to be joking.

20 November 2002:

This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
But when it first did help to wound itself.
Now these her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them: nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.

Stirring stuff, eh! Yes, a Shakespeare play I had never read before — King John — which we finished reading today, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Perhaps this line appeals more:

There is so hot a summer in my bosom,
That all my bowels crumble up to dust:
I am a scribbled form, drawn with a pen
Upon a parchment, and against this fire
Do I shrink up.

Which is what you say when a monk has just poisoned you. I was disappointed though that Robin Hood did not appear in the play once, but there was a Bastard, and (at least as I understood him) a rather camp assassin named Hubert.

March 01 2003: If you are long-term addict of my Diary (and there are some!) you will recall what a good time Mr R and I had at A Comedy of Errors at the Opera House September. Not that my jacket had such a good time then, come to think of it. So we were both looking forward to seeing Hamlet (also done by the Bell Shakespeare Company) at the Opera House last night.


I have to report that Hamlet really is a long play; even though maybe twenty to thirty minutes were cut, the experience (including interval) was still four hours long. And it was performed at a cracking pace, at times perhaps too cracking.

First the plusses, of which there are many. The staging was imaginative and very functional; I would say it was a textbook example of the power of theatrical lighting, and the choreography (or whatever you call the placing of characters on the stage, and the general spectacle) was first-rate. The handling of the ghost scenes, especially the one where Hamlet is given his task, was as good as it gets. The role of Polonius was brilliantly done. Claudius was OK, but the Kenneth Branagh film has for me forever defined that role, and the Bell Claudius was not nearly as good. Gertrude was strangely forgettable. Ophelia really shone in the flower scene (just before she goes off to drown herself) and the Grave Digger scene was just superb.

And yet… While the young actor playing Hamlet has some good credits to his name, I was not happy with the casting, or perhaps with the interpretation. His madness was comic rather than edgy, and the intellectual Hamlet did not appear at all. Nonetheless, he sustained the necessary energy for his marathon part, and there were plenty of occasions where difficult sections of text were made most comprehensible, if at too great a sacrifice of the mystery and poetry. I felt Hamlet’s vocal range was not up to the part.

It was a curiously comic rendition of the play, which raises interesting thoughts about the undoubted comic elements in the play.

It was a preview performance that we saw, with remarkably few glitches; I think I detected one right near the end when a sound effect came before its cue. We had excellent seats, just one row back from John Bell and family; his son was taking notes.


Scene from the Bell Shakespeare Hamlet: should I kill him now?

Mister Rabbit had some ideas of his own about it, but since I hope he will do his own review, I’ll leave them unreported. I know he was rather weary by the end, but then this year he came to it as a working man at the end of a long day, while last year he was a man of leisure — well, a student; I am sure that makes a difference.

It won’t be our last Shakespeare together though. I am not sure next time that I will have a massive BLT at almost midnight, I have to say, but perhaps the next play (Macbeth?) will not be on a working day. It was still a wonderful outing, as it would have to be, wouldn’t it?


13 April 2003:Today has really been very very good, except for one episode.

Lunch at Mother Chu’s Taiwanese Gourmet — crowded and rather like a railway carriage — did yield excellent Chinese green tea served in the glass as Chinese people really have it; the wontons were the best I have ever had, and my companion’s seafood dish seemed acceptable enough.

Much window shopping (even including my emerging unscathed from a couple of bookshops) followed as there were a couple of hours to kill before King Lear, which I was looking forward to as I had never (believe it or not) seen it in live theatre before. No, I was anticipating a bit more ambivalently than that, as there is a school of thought that says the play cannot be staged. Then, the Genesian Theatre (right) is small and only semiprofessional, so I had wondered what the performances would be like.

I need not have worried. The staging was very intelligent, and some of the performances were outstanding. A most promising young red-head played Edmund the Bastard: he just owned the stage whenever he appeared. Lear was more than passable, and it is an extraordinarily difficult role. The dreaded Gloucester leaping from the cliff at Dover actually worked, and that is a critical test of a director, I feel. Much blood and gore accompanied the eye-gouging and the Bastard’s demise. And the final scene of Lear over the body of Cordelia was, I found, extraordinarily moving; some schoolgirls who had giggled inappropriately earlier in the performance must have been drawn in by it too because you could have heard a pin drop.


An almost naked mad Poor Tom suddenly appeared next to my companion at one point in the play. I forgot to ask his reaction to that… (We had very good seats, and the cast made good use of the audience space as well as the proscenium.) There were weaknesses. The Fool overdid his foolery, but in quieter moments was not too bad. My companion said Regan (or was it Goneril?) reminded him of some female solicitors he had met recently. Cordelia looked good, but was not quite so good whenever she opened her mouth. She made an excellent corpse though.

In all, it was a terrific day, and my companion parted (happy, I think) from me at Town Hall Station. And that’s when the rot set in, because I decided, it being about 7.30 pm, to have a burger at Burger King on George Street. Not that there was anything wrong with the burger. My desire to eat quietly and savour the day’s events, if not the burger, was quickly broken by one of those panhandlers materialising behind me as I sat and demanding a dollar. OK, he was polite and quickly moved on, so I returned to my burger. Then came the bag lady from hell, fat, big boobs, handbag, bad attitude, and some kind of mental condition.

BL: “How are you tonight?” (Sitting herself on the chair next to me.)

N: “Fine. Go away please.”

BL: “Why should I go away?”

N: “Because I didn’t ask you to sit there. Now, go

BL: “Why are you telling me to go away?”

N: “Because I don’t want you there, now go away.”

BL: “You’re nasty!”

She goes away and glares at me from a distance. When I get up to leave she makes as if to follow me. I lose her and catch a bus home. Uncharitable I know, but all I could think was “f*cking pest. You really make this a sweet tourist experience, don’t you?”

But it was still a good day. No cops in sight though: aren’t they supposed to be constantly roaming around that part of George Street?

23 June 2003: Yesterday was number three in the projected 2003 Rabbit/Ninglun Season of Shakespeare: Macbeth, performed by Company B, a leading Sydney company based at the extremely handy Belvoir Theatre. (Director: Michael Kantor; Macbeth: Jacek Koman; Lady Macbeth: Catherine McClements; Murderers and assorted other roles: Rebecca Massey and Lucia Mastrantone.)

It was disturbing to have the very familiar opening of the play tampered with and the lines from Scene 2 spoken by the ubiquitous, and quite brilliant, Tweedledum and Tweedledee pair, Rebecca Massey and Lucia Mastrantone, who were doing amazing things with what might have been lap top computers. So one would think we were about to see a travesty of Macbeth and it nearly was. As The Australian critic wrote (cited on the Belvoir link above):

In Michael KantorΓ―’s simple, savage Macbeth, the text is pared to the bone for the sake of the action.

The program quotes Polish critic Jan Kott: “there is only one theme in Macbeth: murder.” The acting is gothic — “like the Addams family”, said my partner, “except that Morticia and Gomez are really hot for each other”.

Jan Kott’s famous 1960s Polish interpretation of the play does seem to have been a strong influence, and I could not help thinking the look (in traditional and justified red and black) reflected German expressionism, especially The Cabinet of Dr Caligari:


Actually the staging and lighting were quite brilliant, especially in the swift if truncated second half. So Polish critical readings and a rather heavy dose of Polish accents, both from Macbeth and Banquo, especially Banquo, who sounded just like my doctor. Nonetheless, Koman (could that be a distant relative of the Rabbit?) did ample justice to the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech, and Lady Macbeth was very good indeed, though her rather Australian accent jarred a little, especially when set against the Polish, and the unexpectedly Scottish Lucia Mastrantone.

It wasn’t quite a travesty; in some ways it was interesting, but it was very uneven. The Sydney Morning Herald critic says it may have tried too hard, and there is some truth in that. And I missed the bits cut from the Witches’ speeches, though I rather liked the witches being played by an older man, a moderately young man, and a young boy. Their choreography was excellent, and really, I was very taken with Mesdames Massey and Mastrantone, even if Shakespeare hadn’t quite thought of them. They subsumed the witches in a way, and perhaps made the demonic more pervasive in the play than it usually is.

19 July 2003:

The year is 1890. Viola has been shipwrecked in a strange new place – India. Her brother Sebastian is presumed dead. She decides to deal with her grief by disguising herself as a boy and working for the dashing Duke Orsino, whom she promptly falls in love with. The Duke in turn lusts after the Lady Olivia, who becomes infatuated with the boy who is really a girl who comes to woo her on the Duke’s behalf.Add to this mix a household full of madcap relatives and servants and the scene is set for a true comedy of errors in which revelry, disguise, delusion, obsession and true and false love are revealed.

Come with us on a fast paced, intense romp through a sexy new world in this exciting interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s best loved comedies. Traditional theatricality is challenged as we see what truly lies beneath the surface of each of the characters that inhabit this fresh Indian world. Drawing on many theatrical influences through to Bollywood musicals and the inspiration of India, nothing and no one is what they seem and anything can and does happen in this delightful bittersweet comedy.

This production contains nudity and sexual references.


That is the blurb from the New Theatre at Newtown for their production of Twelfth Night. Since, it seems, I will be seeing it tomorrow as part of the Rabbit/Ninglun 2003 Shakespeare Festival πŸ˜‰ I will let you know…


20 July 2003: The nude Indian Twelfth Night at the New Theatre was certainly Indian, but not very nude. Sir Toby Belch (a rather young one) staggered on stage in the buff and was dressing as he made his opening speeches. More challenging than the fact the play was originally set in Illyria rather than India was the fact that Malvolio was a lesbian in a sari. But strangely enough it worked, and she was very good. So was Feste, whom The Rabbit and I had seen before as Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest quite a while ago.


Not what we saw, but the look is right! This production captured the play’s ambivalent ending beautifully, paused, and then the curtain calls were done as a Bollywood extravaganza. Odd, but very good; Mr R and I both came out of the theatre finding our world just that much better for the experience we had just had. What more can you want?


September 2003: “Bell Shakespeare’s As You Like It is an intriguing production, with a strong emphasis on the unconscious quest for meaning. We could all do with a Forest of Arden like this in our lives.” That sounds good. It has already been on in Melbourne, you know. This time it is not John Bell directing, but one Lindy Davies. I must confess the name didn’t mean anything to me, but apparently she was a founding member of La Mama (later The Pram Factory) in Melbourne, where playwrights like David Williamson got their start. “Among her proponents is Cate Blanchett, whose direction by Davies in the 1992 NIDA graduation production of Sophocles’ Electra provided a template from which Blanchett approaches all her acting work to this day.”

Sydney Scope, a lively little coffee-shop takeaway magazine, has its own delightful version of As You Like It this month. A sample:

There was once an evil bastard named Frederick, who took all of his brother’s titles and real estate and told him to get out of town or he’d bash him brutally. And so the brother, who had formerly been known as “Duke”, went into the Forest of Arden, where he lived the life of a scrounging forest bum.

The banished brother’s daughter, Rosalind, remained with Celia, Frederick’s daughter, and despite the family bunfight the two girls got along famously.

One day they went to the wrestling together, to see an extremely popular fighter called Charles, who everyone knew to be a vicious bit of goods. By contrast, Charles’s opposition, Orlando, seemed a bit on the feminine side for this sort of caper – slight, youthful, not frightening at all. Convinced that Orlando was going to have his account closed for him, Rosalind and Celia decided to speak to him, just to hear a dead man talking. After a while, they began to feel sorry for this charming young bloke, so they urged him to get the hell out of the ring and hoof it before he was surely destroyed. But their protests fell on deaf ears…

I think this month’s Shakespeare will cap the Ninglun-Rabbit season beautifully.

Next day: Last night Mr Rabbit and I went from the Shakespeare to a Shakespeare in a most fitting climax to our twelve month season of Bardolatry. First was fish and chips at the Shakespeare Hotel in Devonshire Street Surry Hills, where the barman had a quote from Henry V on his T-shirt, then a brief encounter at Central for Mr Rabbit, and finally we went by taxi to the Opera House for As You Like It.

And now the Bell Shakespeare’s As You Like It (brilliantly directed by Lindy Davies), and it was definitely a climax, far and away the best production we have seen so far. In fact, as damned close to perfect as I could imagine. Mister Rabbit’s day had been a bit fraught in some ways, and it had been a hot week: I suspect we were both a bit tired. I should add Mr R was fronting up for the second night in a row at the Opera House, having been to a symphony concert (also good and possibly in even better company) the night before. But we were just buzzing when that final chorus sent us on our way: yes, it was a very musical As You Like It, Alan John’s music being just one of the plusses. There were touches of post-modern appropriation about the production — I hadn’t realised Hymen was actually a Hindu god before πŸ˜‰ — but they were just right somehow. And I didn’t miss a word of the text. Oh, just do yourself a favour if you are in Sydney and go and see it. You’d be a fool not to. Even if it is just to see as nice a smooth male torso as you could hope for in the wrestling scene, where the moves and falls were spectacular and well rehearsed… Not that I notice such things as torsos, of course.

Touchstone and the melancholy Jaques were both wonderful, but then so was everyone!

And as for Mister Rabbit: he was just the ideal person to have shared all this with, and I would have never done it without him. I have never in my life seen so many Shakespeare plays in a twelve month period. It really has made 2003 memorable for me. The gods willing, we might even do it next year. πŸ™‚

Shakespeare survives very well indeed in this 21st century. Nothing dead about that particular white male. Even when his plays get given an Indian/postcolonial makeover. πŸ˜‰



24 September 2004: I won’t do you a full review of the Bell Shakespeare Company’s production of Twelfth Night: it was superb – don’t miss any opportunity to see it. I absolutely disagree with The Age reviewer: “Despite some felicitous moments and fine individual performances, the production lacks clarity and coherence and is too rarely actually funny… this is a muddled and rather dull production that fails to live up to expectations.” Helen Thomson must have been sucking lemons. I know I laughed and so did the Rabbit… Except that I had some doubts about the way it began. There is a pic of that opening above. The Rabbit and I were in the front row and got just a little bit wet.

But the real joy was not just seeing the play. It was one of the best nights I have had for a very long time. Life is all the better as a consequence. πŸ™‚

08 March 2005: Henry VI: As John Bell points out in the program, it is rarely one gets to see Shakespeare’s very early Henry VI plays, and it appears that no Australian company has ever produced them before. Because The Rabbit was unable to go, I decided to see the first of the plays only, in this version called Harry the Sixth, being an abridged version of Henry VI Part One and Henry VI Part Two Acts I to IV. An epilogue in Shakespeare style effectively ended this first play just before Jack Cade’s rebellion. Abbreviating the three plays – all substantial works in their own right – took Bell eight months, according to The Australian (link below).


The stylised war and fight scenes ranged from the broad and comic (the effete French were hilarious) to the spectacular. Fight director Nigel Poulton did a splendid job, not without its risky moments, it seems. It is interesting that The Australian highlights the fight scenes too. It is fair to say that the play is mostly fight scenes, when it isn’t complex intrigues involving a rather alarming number of characters. This production made sense of who is who by judicious use of colour in the costumes, as well as by very clever grouping of characters on the arena-like set.

I guess my favourite character was Queen Margaret, played by Blazey Best, whom we saw before in The Comedy of Errors and who was also in The Servant of Two Masters. Tottering about in stilettos and wearing a vinyl/leather raincoat of amazing tartishness, she really made sense of the role. Henry, played by Joe Manning (As You Like It), was young and indecisive, but showed considerable development towards the end of the play. I thought Manning did very well.

The splendid comic scene of Simpcox’s false miracle was done with all the comic flair one associates with Bell, and Joan of Arc in a shopping trolley actually worked…

Just sorry The Rabbit was unable to go. I would have enjoyed watching both plays, as I probably would have stayed had he been there, and discussing them with him after. Still, I am grateful I saw what I did. And seeing the next day was not one of my better ones, as it happens, maybe it is as well I came back early.

William Shakespeare’s social observations were just as relevant today as they were in the 16th century, says Bell Shakespeare theatre company founder John Bell.Bell said he wanted something “pretty big and splashy” for the theatre’s 15th anniversary and believed the latest production, War of the Roses which premieres on Thursday, reflected many issues relevant to the world today.

“Shakespeare said that the whole point of theatre was to reflect the times you live in,” Bell said.

“And so it is important that we make as many modern parallels as possible and show that the politics, the sexual politics and relationships, nothing has changed.”

War of the Roses, Bell’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry VI Trilogy, marks the 15th anniversary production for the theatre company, which is known for modernising Shakespeare’s plays.

Great memories, and a shame that silliness, really, mine as much as anyone’s, cut it short. I suspect The Rabbit’s Shakespeare-going did not come to an end though. I certainly hope not.

Update 11 June 2007

It seems The Rabbit has continued (resumed?) his Shakespeare-going. That’s good. However, that entry is now [February 2008] unavailable.