Shakespeare, Ralph Fiennes & comfort zones (yeah, it’s a little off topic)

I will apologize in advance if this post is somewhat less than perfectly coherent.   See, I had decided what I would write about earlier this evening – Shakespeare and my experiences reading, acting and seeing Shakespeare plays and how that all tied in with going to the Rubin Museum to see Ralph Fiennes discuss his film adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Corialanus”.    (Whew!)    But that was before I actually went to the Rubin.

Now that I am back home, I’m thinking I should talk about comfort zones as relating to my experience tonight.    But how can I not discuss Shakespeare?

So forgive me if I try to do both.

When I was in the 9th grade we read “Romeo & Juliet”.  I’m pretty sure 9th graders still read “Romeo & Juliet”.  At least they did the last time I checked, about 10 years ago.  I hated it.  I didn’t understand the language and it was like eating nails to get through it.   (It is my opinion that when you spend more time reading the footnotes than you do the actual text, something is horribly wrong.)

But in a rare moment of clarity, our teacher decided to show us Zeffirelli’s movie version of “Romeo & Juliet”, and I was transfixed.   (You all know this version of the film. It’s the one from 1968 starring Olivia Hussey & is still THE movie version of Romeo & Juliet, even though I make a great case for Baz Luhrman’s adaptation with DiCaprio & Danes, if you ever want to hear it.)   We all were.   This was partly because of the fact that the 14 year old girl has…, causing all us 14 year old 9th graders to fidget uncontrollably & giggle & re-think our opinion of this whole Shakespeare thing.

Years later, at some point while in college, between going to the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford Ontario (twice) & watching Klaus Maria Brandauer perform Hamlet in German on stage in Vienna, I became a Shakespeare fan.

Somewhere along the way I figured out that Shakespeare is not words on a page & should never be presented as such.  Shakespeare is life on stage (or life on film).

The highlight of my very first trip to NYC was sitting in the Paris Movie theater, which is still there on 58th St., watching Kenneth Branagh’s genius film version of “Henry V”.  If you’ve never seen it, you really, really should.   Look for a young and already brilliant Christian Bale along with an entire repertoire of great British actors.  On that same trip I saw Dustin Hoffman in “The Merchant of Venice” on Broadway.  (Maybe not a genius production, but still pretty good.)

Enter Ralph Fiennes, and his Tony winning performance of “Hamlet”.   By this time I was living in New York and married to my amazing husband.   My friend Anna & I went to see the show (Shakespeare is where Joshua & I agree to disagree, mostly due to English not being his first language) after reading the entire play out loud to each other in order to prime our “Shakespeare ears”.    The show was brilliant and deserved every award it got.   I wanted to run it in an endless loop in my head.  I prayed someone would film it.

Then in 2000, leaving my 4 month old, rather high-maintenance baby at home (delusional first time mother that I was, I bought the tickets months before Maya was born, thinking, “Well, she’ll be FOUR months old by then!   Of course she’ll be sleeping through the night), I went to BAM in Brooklyn to see Ralph in Shakespeare’s “Richard II”.   Truth be told, the best part of that show, in my opinion, was Linus Roache, who played Henry IV  (he kills Richard to take the throne).  But still.

So when I found out that the Shakespeare Society was honoring Ralph tonight at the Rubin Museum in Chelsea and that he would be there talking about his film adaptation of “Corialanus”  there was no doubt in my mind that I would go.


None of my friends – my standby invitees for such events – could go.   I bought the ticket anyway.

The evening was set up as follows:  Reception 6-7pm.  Presentation 7-8:30pm.    Hmmmm.   I thought about just going for the Presentation, but that seemed kind of wimpy.   Besides, it’s good to push the comfort zones a little, and walking into a room full of people I don’t know?   By myself?  And having to do something for an hour?   That qualifies as pushing my comfort zone.

Here’s where it gets good, because the first person I spoke to was an Australian woman (hello Victoria, if you’re reading this) with whom I became friends over the course of the evening.    We were laughing our heads off and having a great time, so much so that at about 6:45 I didn’t notice the arrival of a certain VIP guest until he was practically standing at my elbow.   The guest of honor, right behind me.   Voldemort in the flesh.   (Had to throw that in there for the kids.)

Pushing of comfort zone, part two.   As cameras flashed and museum curators posed with him, I set my Diet Coke on the bar and walked up, timing my approach to a pause in the chit chat.   Between planned introductions, I stepped in and held out my hand.   Cool as a cucumber, our short conversation went something like this:

Me:  Mr. Fiennes (I only call him Ralph in my blog)  I’m Amy Milstein.  We met briefly years ago at a reading you did of your mother’s books at the New School.

Ralph:   Oh yes!  I remember that. (I’m assuming he meant the reading, and not me in particular.)

Me;   Yes, it was lovely.   I’m a great admirer of your work and just wanted to say hello and thank you for coming here this evening.

Ralph:  You’re welcome.  It’s a pleasure.

I probably mumbled something else – can’t remember – and then I re-joined Victoria at the bar.

Victoria:  Oh my God!   I can’t believe you just did that!  You were so calm!

Me:  (my hands now shaking)  Yeah, I kind of can’t believe it either.  Look at my hands!

Victoria:  Did you see how everyone just stepped aside for you?  Those guys took your photo with him at least twice.   You should really be in PR!

(Note:  that’s kind of cool, since that’s what I’ll be helping Michael Ellsberg with, in some form)

Me:  It wasn’t that big of a deal.

Victoria:  Yes it was!  Do you see anybody else in this room walking up to him like that?

I looked around.  Turns out she was right. Nobody else did walk up to him of their own accord and say hello.  Of course I may have just come off as some crazy lady with no clue about protocol….

The ‘presentation’ part of the evening would have been a lot better if the interviewer had been someone who could speak coherently about Shakespeare.   It’s a tough gig, to be sure, but man if you are interviewing Ralph Fiennes on Shakespeare?   BE PREPARED.

Ralph told the audience that his first introduction to Shakespeare was from his mother, who one night as a sort of bedtime story told him, in her own words, the story of Hamlet.   The next day when he asked about it, she played him a recording of Olivier’s Hamlet speeches, and he was hooked.   He said that even though he didn’t fully understand the meaning, it ‘got in him’.

Yeah, Shakespeare is like that.

By now you’re probably sitting there thinking, “Ok, but what’s the point?”

Right.  The Point.  The point is that we should all push ourselves out of our comfort zones now and then.  Good things happen when we do.    Shakespeare, come to think of it, is uncomfortable for many people.   They don’t understand the language.   The costumes are funny (if period) or don’t seem to fit with the words coming out of the actors’ mouths (if contemporary).   But unless it’s the English itself that is the stumbling block, as in Joshua’s case, it is worth it to rent some films (Branagh’s “Henry V” or Zeffirelli’s “Romeo & Juliet” wouldn’t be a bad way to start) and get yourself out of your comfort zone while still in your living room.   Shakespeare is both intellectual and emotional, but I would say more emotional.   You might even become a fan.

And then go somewhere on your own. (If that makes you uncomfortable.)   Like I did tonight.   Maybe you’ll make a friend or say hello to someone you’ve long admired, or something else you never expected.

Like I said, good things.

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