Sunday Retrospective ~ February 24th 2019

During weeks three and four of my Shakespeare course we were focusing on Twelfth Night.  (Henry V this past week and next, The Bears have spent the last few days declaiming ‘Once more unto the breach’ and proudly proclaiming themselves a ‘band of brothers’; goodness only knows what is going to happen when we reach ‘Exit pursued by a Bear’.) anyway, back to the point – Twelfth Night.  One of the things we were asked to consider was what constitutes a comedy and what makes us laugh.  Well, the general view in our family is that I was born without a funny bone because almost nothing makes me laugh.  Oh, I can laugh because I’m happy, but laughing because I am amused almost never happens.

In fact, I think this might be because I was exposed to Shakespearean comedy from a very early age and the point that was being made on the course was that for Elizabethan audiences comedy was very much about structure.  We start with a certain amount of chaos, proceed to stir things up even more and then in Act Five (not that they would have called it that) we miraculously manage to bring everything to a happy(ish) conclusion.  Comedy describes the journey not the rib tickling sideshows along the way.  I am still fascinated by how this, and other narrative structures, work out and obviously never got round to taking account of the funny bits along the way.

All this is by way of a preface to telling you that yesterday I went to Stratford to see not a Shakespearean Comedy but a retelling of Molière’s Tartuffe set among Birmingham’s British Pakistani community with Tartuffe as a fundamentalist Muslim preaching reform to the paterfamilias of a modern family who have adopted a British lifestyle – even Grandma, although she would never admit it –  in an attempt to fleece them all of their money and possessions and the women of their honour as well.  Now, I could see that this was a clever (possibly in the less than positive sense of that word; I haven’t quite decided yet) way of approaching the play to make it relevant to a current audience. Recasting the family maid, Dorine, as a Bosnian Muslim cleaning lady, Darina, was a stroke of genius and Michelle Bonnard was the star of the show. But, when everyone around me was laughing away, at times uproariously, I was sat there cringing because what was happening on stage was everything I would normally avoid. People, especially the aforementioned paterfamilias, were ranting and raving, making total fools of themselves and being blackmailed before our eyes and for the life of me I couldn’t, still can’t, see why this is supposed to be funny.  All right, I go in knowing that this is a comedy and therefore also knowing that it will all come out right in the end.  Tartuffe will get his comeuppance and family harmony will be restored.   But, I’m  still not sure why this makes it all right to laugh at people who are being duped.  Perhaps it’s my Asperger’s getting in the way. I don’t know. I do know that it was one of the most uncomfortable afternoon’s I’ve spent in a long time.

My discomfort wasn’t helped by the fact that the play ended with a ‘message’.  Now I don’t know the original well enough to be able to say whether or not it finishes with a warning about marginalising people because of the way they look.  Perhaps someone can tell me.  However, here Tartuffe’s final speeches preach the idea that it is impossible for someone who looks like him to make his way in British society by any other means than that which he has chosen. And I do mean preach.  It was far too obvious an insert for it to have any real impact.  And, I wasn’t certain quite what he meant.  If he was referring specifically to his long beard then he might have been said to have a point.  But, if he was just talking about British Muslims being unable to rise to positions of power then I surely can’t have been the only one who wanted to say “er – Home Secretary”?

I know that the problem is mine.  Everyone else there was having a great time until the final message clearly made them uneasy.  Not that their dis-ease lasted for long, mind you.  The comedy police act turned up just in time to save the day and the laughs.  They were straight out of a Brian Rix farce.  Another form of humour I never really understood.

Why did I go?  You may well ask.  But I live in hope that one day there will be a flash of light and suddenly all will be revealed to me. I will be able to join in with the mirth around me and be one of the crowd.  Unfortunately, it didn’t happen yesterday.

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Sunday Retrospective ~ February 17th 2019

It’s been a busy week!  It started with a visit to the dentist, never a good move.  In this case even less of a good move than usual as we ended up planning an intensive programme of further visits over the next six months or so.  There’s a passage in one of Helene Hanff’s books where she tells how she has been intending to visit London only to discover that she is going to have to spend her savings on dental treatment instead. I know just how she must have felt.  As I watched the projected costs mounting I could hear Jolyon Bear (he who keeps hold of the purse strings) in my head telling me that it is going to be the library for me for the next year or two.

Then I had my first assignment to write for my Shakespeare course – only 500 words, but that actually made it all the more difficult.  I just about managed it (518) in as much as I answered the question, but there was no room for eloquence and I always feel that anything you write should take account of the “music” of the words as well as the content.  This felt more like a simple check list of the points I needed to make than anything else.  Submitting it electronically was fun too as the instructions provided bore very little resemblance to what actually happened when I tried to download it onto the University site.  In the end one of the other students (a software engineer) and I found a way to get round the problem but IT support and I are going to have words tomorrow morning.  A Russell Group University should not be making mistakes like that.

So, all in all there has been very little time for reading or blogging this week.  I have just finished Mari Hannah’s latest Oliver and Stone novel, The Scandal, which comes out at the beginning of March so I will leave a review until nearer the publication date. I like Hannah’s work very much and for the most part this was no exception.  My one quibble was that she stood on a particular soapbox and thumped a particular drum rather too loudly and obviously and weakened her argument as a result, but more later.

I am also halfway through Diane Setterfield’s second novel, Bellman and Black which is next week’s Book Group choice.  I was one of the few people who didn’t like The Thirteenth Tale.  I was getting along fine with it until about three quarters of the way through and then the plot lost credibility for me and I felt cheated.  I was getting along fine with this book too until yesterday when it suddenly took a turn that left me feeling a bit grubby for reading it, so I’m not certain how I’m going to respond to what I still have left to read.  Still, at least there will be something to talk about next Wednesday. One of the things that I am most interested in is how unusual a choice it is for the person whose turn it was to select the book.  I’m also interested in the fact that I feel that way.  Perhaps we stereotype each other as particular categories of readers too easily.  It’s a lazy way of thinking.

Sunday Retrospective ~February 10th 2019

So, on to Twelfth Night this week for my online course.  I am much happier studying this play than I was with Macbeth.  It was the first Shakespeare I ever saw on stage and was as responsible as anything for lighting in me the muse of fire (Henry V  next on the list) that has never since dimmed for a moment.  Actually, that first performance was staged by an all-girls’ school which, when you think about it, adds all sorts of interesting dynamics to the gender complexities that are at the heart of the play. Whereas Shakespeare had a boy playing a girl dressed as a man and being wooed by a girl who was also a boy while falling in love with a man who really was a man, that production had a girl playing a girl dressed as a boy being wooed by a girl who was also a girl but falling in love with a girl who was playing a man. Get your head round that, if you can. The last theatre production I saw played around with any number of homosexual innuendos but I’m willing to bet that that first staging, at the beginning of the 1960s and in an eminently respectable grammar school, didn’t have a lesbian overtone to be seen.  The focus of our study this coming week is the question of gender both on the Elizabethan stage and in the society in general.  I might bring that early staging up and see what others have to say about it.  Stirring again, you will notice.

Where my personal reading is concerned I have just finished Jo Spain’s latest book, Dirty Little Secrets. Spain is a writer I discovered last year through her Tom Reynolds’ series which, like this standalone novel, is set in the Irish Republic. I’m not a great lover of standalone thrillers, but I have enjoyed this author’s work so much that I thought it would be worthwhile giving this one a go; I wasn’t disappointed.  This may be in part because although it is a not one of the series, it is very much along the lines of a police procedure. It is, however, also due to the writers ability to unwrap mysteries slowly in front of her audience and allow them to play along with the detection game as well.

Olive is dead. More to the point, Olive has been dead for three months and none of her neighbours, in a small gated community, have noticed. It is only with the blue bottles and the smell become overpowering that the police are finally called in. They were community, however, is something of a misnomer, because the residents of Withered Vale have never exactly bonded. Each home keeps very much to itself, much to the annoyance of Olive, who would like to be part of the lives of her neighbours.   But would you want Olive involved in your life? As the story unfolds, told partially in flashback and from multiple perspectives, it becomes apparent that Olive has a way of ferreting out details of each household’s past and, whatever the circumstances, turning them into the dirty little secrets of the title.

Olive is dead, but is it a natural death, a terrible accident or was she murdered?  Frank Brazil, shortly to retire and happy just to put in a day’s work and go home, is called in with his partner Emma to try and find the answer.  But Frank and Emma each have their own secrets and as the investigation continues they, like the residents of Withered Vale, will find that by turning something into a secret you give it a power over you that it doesn’t necessarily merit.  It is the power that those secrets have, and the way in which they are coloured by the mind of the individual who either hoards them or discovers them, which lies at the heart of the book.  You may, as I did, realise who killed Olive some time before you get to the end of the novel, but that won’t stop you reading on because you will be as eager as I was to discover whether or not the other residents of the Vale will find the courage to face their secrets, acknowledge them openly and thereby deny them the power to continue controlling their lives.  Jo Spain is an excellent storyteller and if you haven’t yet discovered her work, then I seriously recommend her to you.

I don’t know how much personal reading I will get done this week because my first assignment is due in on the 19th.  It’s only 500 words long but that in itself makes it more difficult than if I could be expansive. I do have to find time to start Diane Setterfield’s Bellman and Black for my next book group.  Am I going to enjoy it?

Hagseed ~ Margaret Atwood

I have made it very clear over the past few years that I don’t approve of the Hogarth Press’s retelling of Shakespeare. For me the playwright’s works stand (or sometimes fall) on their own merits and I don’t see the point of attempting a rewrite.  I’m aware that this is perhaps not always a defensible position, given that nine times out of ten what Shakespeare himself was doing was rewriting the works of other people, but nevertheless  it’s my position and I’m sticking with it.  I wasn’t, therefore, best pleased when my Book Group selected Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest, Hagseed, for February’s meeting. The more so because Atwood isn’t exactly one of my favourite writers either.  Well, we must all be prepared to hold up our hands from time to time and admit that we were wrong and this is my time to do exactly that, because I have to say that I loved it.

Atwood’s starting point is the Shakespeare festival in the Canadian town of Makeshiweg, I suspect a thinly disguised Stratford Ontario, where the director Felix Phillips is planning his production of The Tempest, a production he will never get to stage because he is just about to be forced out of office by Tony and Sal, two self-seeking associates who have taken advantage of the fact that Felix has concentrated solely on his creative work and given no thought to the other aspects of running a theatre company such as where is the money going to come from.  In this, Felix is just like the character he is preparing to play, Prospero, who is forced out of his dukedom because he has devoted himself to the Liberal Arts and neglected the duties of a ruler. At one point a character remarked that Felix makes crime easy and it is certainly true that he contributes as much to his own downfall as do those who depose him.

Deserted by his erstwhile friends, Felix takes himself off to a tumbledown countryside shack, presumably the cave of the island, where for eight years he thinks of little but survival, his daughter Miranda, now dead but still with him in his imagination and the possibility of revenge.  However, salvation of a sort comes when he is approached about running a Literacy Through Literature programme in the Fletcher County Correctional Institute.  Here he introduces the medium category prisoners to the works of Shakespeare, exploring those plays that he thinks will speak to their lives, their situations, in ways that enable them to identify with the characters involved. They start with Julius Caesar and we know that they have also explored Macbeth and Richard III. And then Felix’s moment comes.  Tony and Sal, now influential politicians, are to pay the Institute a visit and thus present Felix with the opportunity to exact his revenge.  Like Prospero, his enemies will be present on his turf and he will be in a position to manipulate them and bring about their downfall.  But how to persuade his ‘actors’ to perform The Tempest?  After all, there are fairies!

Something we were all agreed on was that Felix is a brilliant teacher.  The first thing he does when embarking on a new production is to ban the use of any swear words that aren’t in the play itself.  The prisoners can give free rein to any oaths that Shakespeare included but are ‘fined’ for modern equivalents. Can you think of any better way to get a group of mainly poorly educated men to do a close reading of a text?  He also encourages them to reimagine the characters and their situations for their own times and gives them  relative freedom to re-write areas of the play in their own words. Some of the raps they come up with for Caliban are superb.  I absolutely loved the way in which these men brought the text to life in their own terms.  It also means that if you come to the novel not knowing the story of The Tempest it really doesn’t matter because you will pick it up along with them.

Whether or not Felix is successful in his bid to revenge himself on Tony and Sal you must find out for yourselves. I was more interested in how successful Atwood was in reimagining the play for the twenty-first century and as far as I’m concerned she manages this on two levels. Firstly, I think her recreation of the actual story itself is, if not wholly believable, certainly as believable as the original and thoroughly entertaining. Felix manipulates his actors every bit as effectively as does Prospero and his enemies are made to rue the day they turfed him out of his ruling position. However, I also think she picks up on the theory that in writing The Tempest, Shakespeare was saying farewell to the theatre himself.  Although that isn’t going to happen immediately, I get the feeling that by the end of the novel Felix is realising that his time working on the stage is limited and that he will have to hand over the reins to people such as 8Handz Anne-Marie and Freddie, who follow him from the Institute back to Makeshiweg.  Is it a coincidence that the place where he creates his joint productions with his company of felons is called Fletcher, given that the only plays that Shakespeare would offer the King’s Men after The Tempest were written in collaboration with his successor as company playwright, John Fletcher?

(An aside: did he jump or was he pushed?  The times in the theatre world of the 1610s they were a changing. Tragicomedy was all the rage, a genre in which Fletcher excelled, but which was not really Shakespeare’s forte.  Were takings falling?  Was it suggested to Shakespeare that a structured retirement plan might be a good idea?  I simply ask the question.)

Anyway, you will have gathered that I really enjoyed this novel and would recommend it to anyone. However, I did go off and have a look at the reviews and found something that I thought was very interesting indeed. While the press reviews that I found were all positive, in fact ‘positively’ glowing, there were a number of very scathing reviews from what I will call more academic sources. These criticisms centred around the fact that the reviewers expected Atwood to offer a more positive view of First Nation characters and those who would normally be seen as the underdogs in society.  They really objected to the way that she presented the prisoners. I found this very worrying. It was as if they felt that having brought Atwood onto the syllabus precisely because many of her novels do indeed address such subjects, they now had the right to dictate that she should only write to their expectations.  An academic’s role is to offer insights into a writer’s work, not to own it, not to control it.  My other book group numbers among its members several such academics. I think I might just put this on next year’s schedule and see what sort of a discussion ensues. Nothing like having a good stir now and then.

Sunday Retrospective ~ January 27th 2019

I’ve spent most of this week immersed in Shakespeare. The group I’m teaching is just coming to the end of a sequence of sessions on King Lear, one of my favourite plays.  We’ve been looking at the production history and as you might imagine there have been more than a few stagings to consider. However, there have been a couple of periods when it has been absent from the stage.  In 1810 it was banned because it was thought that audiences would draw a parallel between Lear’s madness and that of George III.  When the King died in 1820 producers fell over themselves to be the first to stage it again.  Then, it fell out of favour at the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth centuries after Henry Irving flopped in the part.  I find it fascinating that one man could so dominate the theatre scene that his failure in a role could see it ignored for eighteen years.  Presumably there had to be something wrong with the play itself if Irving was unable to rise to its demands.

Of course, for most of the period between 1681 and the middle of the nineteenth century it wasn’t so much Shakespeare’s version of the Lear story that was staged as the adaptation made by Nahum Tate, probably the most well-known of the many ‘re-writes’ of Shakespeare’s play’s that graced eighteenth and nineteenth century theatres. Among many other changes Tate is best known for his alteration of the ending.  In his version both Lear and Cordelia live, Cordelia marries Edgar and they rule in her father’s stead.  Lear, Kent and Gloucester go off and live in ‘a cool cell’.  I take it that is a reference to the temperature rather than an indication that they were having a rave up every night.

So, I have enjoyed teaching King Lear.  However, my other contact with the Bard this week has been via the material I’ve been asked to tackle for the first week of an on-line course which for the opening fortnight is concentrating on one of my least favourite plays, Macbeth.  I have a theory about Macbeth.  I don’t think we have all the play as Shakespeare wrote it.  It is much shorter than any of the other tragedies, in fact I’ve seen it played without an interval in just over two hours. The only text we have is that which is in the First Folio and I suspect that all Heminges and Condell had to work with was what we would call a prompt copy, cut down to fit ‘the two hour traffic of our stage’.  By-laws meant that performances had to be over by a certain time and a four hour version of Shakespeare’s latest opus just wasn’t going to cut it. This, I think, is the reason that Macbeth as a character is so hard to make work psychologically.  He’s lost a lot of the stages in his downward spiral. What Burbage thought of having his part slashed like that, goodness only knows. Certainly, although I must have seen upwards of a dozen productions, I have only seen one that I thought successful; that was Trevor Nunn’s staging with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench and that only worked when it was in the confined area of The Other Place where a sense of claustrophobic evil could be built up.  Moved into the Main House it lost all its power. So, I have been ploughing my way through the play this week and trying, without much success, to drum up some enthusiasm for the on-line discussion that is part of the course.  Fortunately, the other plays involved are all favourites: Twelfth Night, Henry V, Measure for Measure and The Winter’s Tale.

All this Bardolodry has severely cut into my reading time and so the only book that I’ve completed has been Olivia Isaac-Henry’s Someone You Know, which I reviewed earlier in the week.  I’m not a thriller reader at the best of times and I don’t think that this is the best of times.  The thriller is the ‘in’ genre at the moment and as a result I rather think publishers are taking on board novels that they might otherwise have had second thoughts about. While Someone You Know is not by any means a bad book, I’m not sure it would have stuck out enough to attract attention if there weren’t a demand for this type of novel and to be honest I wouldn’t have finished it if I hadn’t had a personal connection to the author.  I am not looking forward to my next meeting with one of the book’s dedicatees.

I do like police procedurals’ however and the more so when they are as well written as those by James Oswald.  I’ve just started the ninth in his Edinburgh series, Cold As The Grave and once I’ve whipped round everyone else’s blogs to see what they are up to I’m going to spend the rest of this wild Sunday curled up in my chair and being suitable scared by the wicked Jane Louise Dee who is back in harness again proving that unfortunately real evil is unlikely ever to be completely defeated.  I wonder if she was one of the original wyrd sisters?

Then it’s back to Shakespeare, not only for another week of Macbeth but also for a dose of The Tempest via Margaret Atwood’s Hagseed, her retelling of the play for the Hogarth series.  This is my next book group choice and if I’m honest, not one I’m looking forward to.  I have a fundamental problem with trying to rewrite Shakespeare in this way and although I know that this is reckoned to be the best of those so far published I am still very uneasy about the project.  I’m also not really a great fan of Atwood.  Oh well, maybe this will be the book that will convince me I am wrong about both Hogarth’s endeavours and the author.  Or maybe not!

Twinned With….

IMG_0093This term I am teaching Twelfth Night, the last of Shakespeare’s so called romantic comedies. My Shakespeare classes have been going for seven or eight years now, but it has taken a long time for Twelfth Night to come round, mainly because I was specifically asked to focus initially on plays that the groups would know less well and everyone seems to have at seen at least one production of this play if not to have actively studied it at some point.  However, having most recently tackled Timon of Athens and Pericles I put my foot down this year and decided that we were going to focus on two of my favourite plays.  Twelfth Night will be succeeded by The Winter’s Tale.

Twelfth Night was the first play that I saw on stage.  I was eleven.  I fell in love with it then and have never seen any reason to change my mind that it is a masterpiece.  However, as is the case with so many of Shakespeare’s plays, it defies simple categorisation.  It is always placed in with the Comedies and undoubtedly there are many comic elements, especially the scenes with Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Maria.  But, it comes at a point in the canon when Shakespeare’s thoughts are moving away from comedy and history writing.  Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida are already in his mind and much of this play is clearly underscored by melancholy.  In its final moments Feste bids us remember that the rain it raineth every day.  The next time we hear those words they will be in the mouth of Lear’s Fool as he and his master stand desolate on the blasted heath.

The wonder of studying any Shakespeare play is that each time you come back to it you discover something new because you are a different person, and this time round, perhaps because I have so recently been reading Linda Grant’s novel The Dark Circle, I’ve found myself focusing on the relationship between the twins, Viola and Sebastian.  In Grant’s novel fraternal twins are discovered to have contracted TB and as a result are hospitalised.  At one point it looks as if they are about to be separated and this causes them very real distress.  In all their nineteen years they have never slept apart.  Their reaction made me look more closely at what Shakespeare’s twins are going through and also made me rethink the way we normally talk about what was going on in the playwright’s own life around the time he was writing the play.  The date assigned to Twelfth Night is 1600.  Four years earlier, Hamnet, Shakespeare’s only son, had died, aged eleven.  There has been much written about the way in which the death of his son affected Shakespeare but what we rarely speculate on is the way in which it must have affected Hamnet’s sister, Judith.  For eleven years they had probably been together almost every single day.  What must she have felt when suddenly half of herself was ripped away?  Grant’s twins give us some idea.  And, when you look closely at this play, it is clear that Shakespeare was aware of his daughter’s distress.  Indeed, possibly of his elder daughter’s devastation at the loss as well.  Viola isn’t the only young woman to have lost a brother, Olivia is in mourning for her sibling too.  This time round I find I am reading Twelfth Night in part, at least, as a reflection on the love Shakespeare’s girls had for their brother and the yawning gap that his death has left in their lives.

Twins in literature have always interested me. Of course, they turn up regularly in children’s fiction, especially in the sort of school stories that I was reading in the late 50s and early 60s. There were the twins at St Clare’s, the Bobbsey twins and I remember an entire series of what I suppose I should call faction books, each one centred around twins from a different country. If not that numerous in adult fiction, I was still able, this summer, to offer a trio of novels featuring a twosome as one choice for the annual Summer School that I run in August: Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland and Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. I know that the third of those is a bit of a cheat and if I repeat the choice next year I’d like to come up with something more definitely ‘twinny’. I can’t put the Grant in because many of the people who come to the Summer School will have already read it, so do you have any other suggestions?  The only restriction is that the book has to be easily available in paperback, so nothing too recent and nothing likely to be out of print and difficult to source.  We have to be able to get hold of at least fifteen copies.

Postscript:  I was going to couple this post with one on the current RSC production of Twelfth Night, which I saw last Saturday.  However, having travelled back from Stratford thinking ‘my goodness, that was dire’, I woke up on Sunday morning thinking ‘no, that wasn’t just dire, it was a travesty’.  This is, therefore, one of those occasions when I have decided to answer the question ‘to review or not to review’ by very definitely not reviewing it.

‘Bond’ing

06d11e3a0263b62966ea48fc5e990cc3I aware that I haven’t been around very much over the past fortnight and I am also aware why.  The play that I am studying with my two Shakespeare groups this term is The Merchant of Venice and after wrestling with it for the past month or so it is my decided opinion that it is by far and away the most complex of Shakespeare’s plays that we have yet tackled – and yes, we have tackled Hamlet.  It’s not that there are problems with the text, none of this business of half a dozen different Quartos with variations as to where the great speeches go or if they are even there at all.  (Did you know that there is a contemporary edition of Henry V without the Choruses?)  Nor is there much debate about the date or the sources used – although there are considerably more than the usual number of possible sources.  No, it is just that there are so many ideas running around inside those twenty scenes that finding a way to bring some sort of order to a discussion has been proving very difficult indeed.

Of course, the problem isn’t helped by the fact that while the play is known as The Merchant of Venice very often a production is dominated by the figure of Shylock, and the old actor managers, who liked to play Shylock themselves, often brought the curtain down at the moment of his final exit from the stage, regardless of the fact that this truncated the play that Shakespeare actually wrote by more than two full scenes.

As it happens the first written reference we have, the entry in the Stationers Register of July 1598, names the play as

a book of the Marchaunt of Venyce or otherwise called the Jewe of Venyce

So, even within a year of its composition there seems to have been some debate as to who the focal character actually was.  But, you can’t deny the existence of those final scenes that have to do with Portia and Nerissa’s rings and if you’re teaching the play you have to be able to account for them.

So, there I was struggling along with this until quite suddenly, yesterday morning, I had what my friend Lorna calls a light bulb moment.

“Bond,” I shouted.

“Bond?” queried The Bears.  “James Bond?”

“No,” I said.  “The Bond – the concept that allows you to untangle all the multitude of ideas that the play deals with.”

“Oh,” they said and went back to eating their marmalade sandwiches and reading about the adventures of Paddington Bear.

Well, they might have been indifferent to my brainwave, but I now have a nice neat list of all the different categories of bonds that can be found within the play:

  • emotional bonds;
  • legal bonds;
  • the bonds between the state and the people;
  • the bonds (or covenants) between God and the peoples of the Old and New Testaments.

I even have sub-categories of the categories, but I won’t bore you with those.

More importantly I have a way into discussing the play which will allow me to bring all its disparate elements together and I can write my lecture notes. And, writing those is no problem at all once I know what is going in them, so I can also return to concentrating on the more important things like reading novels and writing about them here.  Thank goodness for that.

Year of the Fat Knight ~ Antony Sher

51Sdn5uTyaL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_As you will by now have gathered Shakespeare is big in my life. And, because I live only an hour’s drive away from Stratford, the same is true of the Royal Shakespeare Company.  I saw them on stage for the first time in 1962 and have been a constant visitor ever since.  I have dozens of memorable productions stowed away in my memory and not a few of them have features performances by Antony Sher.

Now, I know that Sher is something of a marmite actor: you love him, or you hate him.  I have one friend who refuses to see any further performances of Richard III because she wants nothing to diminish her memory of his 1984 interpretation.  I have other friends who pointedly avoid anything he’s in.  Personally, I am a fan.

I first saw Sher in 1982 playing the Fool to Michael Gambon’s Lear.  This was not long after I had started out on what was to prove to be a nineteen year marathon during which I studied for three successive degrees at the same time as holding down a full-time job.  Going to the theatre was about the only other activity I found time for and over that period of nearly two decades Tony Sher was one of a small number of actors who never failed to stimulate me and send me out of the theatre with new ideas careering round my brain. I didn’t always agree with his interpretations (the least said about his Malvolio the better) but he was never there just to make up the numbers.  It was fitting, then, if completely unexpected, to turn up for my third and final graduation ceremony and find that he was the Honorary Graduand.  He gave a speech that day which managed to turn what had been threatening to be a very embarrassing morning, centred round a hard-nosed plea for money from the university’s Chancellor, into what it should have been, a celebration of the achievements of the young people who had worked so hard and long for their degrees.  I wrote to him afterwards to thank him and received a very generous response.  As I say, I am a fan.

I am always glad then to see another in his series of diary accounts chronicling his journey towards the creation of a new part.  There have now been three of these:  The Year of the KingWozza Shakespeare, and most recently, Year of the Fat Knight.  The first was concerned with Richard III, the second, written jointly with his partner, Greg Doran, focused on a production of Titus Andronicus staged in post Apartheid South Africa, and the third about the current production of the Henry IVs.

I love the Henry IVs.  They are up there amongst my favourite plays, especially Part II, which I think has a melancholy all of its own.  And, I have seen some cracking productions over the years.  So I was delighted when they were announced for the 2014 season with Sher cast as the reprobate, Falstaff.  I didn’t share the doubts about his ability to play the role that he seems to have had and in fact, the early sections of this journal centre around the question of whether or not he is going to agree to take the part on.  Some of the most interesting discussion focuses on why many of our greatest character actors have refused to agree to play Falstaff.  Both Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen had turned it down before it was offered to Sher and neither Olivier nor Gielgud ever played the part.  As Sher says Gielgud would have been the Don Quixote of Falstaffs and like him I’d have paid blood to see [Scofield] do it.

Once committed to the role Sher sets about discovering the Falstaff he can play and we go on the journey with him as he mines the text for indications of what it is that makes the fat knight recognisable to us as a real human being.  This is a painstaking process and for someone like me, who is of an age with the actor, one I can empathise with, especially when he talks about the growing difficulty of learning lines.  I didn’t think that there was as much analysis of the part and of the plays as there had been in the earlier books and felt this as a loss, but there is still much discussion of the rehearsal process and given that he was talking about people I have become familiar with over the past couple of seasons and spaces that I know very well, the book was nevertheless a very enjoyable read.

The added bonus where this journal is concerned is that it is now possible to go back and watch the plays again in the light of the journey Sher has laid before us.  Recordings are available and although they will never quite catch the magic of the live performance it’s a darn sight better than not being able to see it at all.  If you are a lover of Shakespeare or simply a lover of the theatre in general then I recommend a weekend spent with this book and the DVDs of the two plays.  You won’t regret the time spent.

Beware… The Green-Eyed Monster

imagesIt can have escaped very few people’s notice that 2016 is the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and celebrations of various sorts are popping up all over the place. (Question:  At what point does it become acceptable to stop mourning someone’s death and start celebrating it instead?  Is there a rule of thumb, I wonder? And why do we celebrate Shakespeare’s death only once a century but that of Guy Fawkes every year? Funny things, we humans.)

It will also have escaped the notice of very few of my blogging friends that much of my life is spent engaging with Shakespearian study in one form or another.  You won’t be surprised, therefore, to hear that I am seriously excited about all the events that are going on locally, and as I live only an hour’s drive away from Stratford that is likely to be a fair few.  I suppose, then, that I really have no right to feel aggrieved that some of the celebrations I would most like to join in with are not going to be within either my geographical or financial reach.  Well, let me tell you, rights or not, I do, and one particular set of events, which caught my attention in the weekend papers, I really regret missing.

At the Barbican in London the RSC are screening a season of films of the company’s past productions.  These are not the more recent shows which have been relayed through cinemas worldwide over the past couple of years, but rather performances, some of which go back as far as the fifties, that for one reason or another were captured on film and in some cases given only a single television airing.  I would be fascinated to view any of these, but there is one in particular that I would love to see again because it was the film of this production that was responsible for starting me off on the long road that has led to more than fifty years of  Shakespearian studies.

Talk about an act of serendipity.  It was a Thursday evening, my mother was out and I noticed in the Radio Times that there was a showing scheduled of As You Like It.  Why did I want to see it?  I have no idea, other than perhaps the fact that it was theatre and I had been a theatre addict since I was two.  But theatre in our house meant pantomimes, musicals and the occasional light comedy.  It definitely didn’t mean Shakespeare.  Well, I had always been able to wrap my father round my finger (I doubt I would have got away with it had Mom been in!) and, of course, there wasn’t the choice of viewing available then, so we watched it.

I know now that what I saw that night was a recording of the newly-formed RSC’s production of the play from 1961, with Vanessa Redgrave giving a performance as Rosalind that many critics claimed as definitive.  (Certainly, I had to wait until Pippa Nixon’s interpretation for the same company in 2013 for one that came anywhere near it.)  You can read Michael Billington’s memories of the production here.  At the time I knew nothing of the play, the company or the actors, I simply knew that from the moment the broadcast began I was hooked.  And the high point of the whole evening came when, as Rosalind/Ganymede, began to berate Phoebe for her treatment of Silvius, I realised, before it happened, that the shepherdess was going to fall helplessly in love with a woman she thought was a man.  That’s when the light bulb went on, when the fireworks began to soar, whatever metaphors you want to use.  That was the moment when I knew that all those centuries earlier Shakespeare had looked down through the ages, seen a young girl being brought up in one of Birmingham’s red light districts and had decided to write his plays just for her.  The bus to Stratford stopped at the bottom of our road.  Within days I was making a journey that was to be the start of the rest of my life.

You hear people talk about having their life changed in an instant.  Well, I am one of those people.  If I hadn’t sat down to watch that specific production on that long ago Thursday evening, I have no idea who I would be now, but I suspect it would be someone very different.  Perhaps it’s better that I don’t see the performance again but just keep it in my memory as a gift from the gods for which I will be eternally grateful.

Looking Ahead

ImageI am always envious of those readers who seem to be able to look forward to the coming year and make reading plans which they confidently forecast they are going to be able to carry out successfully.  For me this has always seemed to be the surest route to failure.  It’s a bit like the Great Expectations experience writ large.  As the year goes by so I am repeatedly faced with my inability to live up to the predictions I made with such confidence back at the beginning of January. Nevertheless, I still continue to try and beat the fates by outlining my intentions even if it is only in the broadest possible way.  So here goes for 2016.

At the top of the list go three dozen or so books many of which I don’t yet know the titles of.  These are the books that I’ll need to read for my three book groups and the August Summer School.  January’s selections are Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread,  Ian McEwan’s The Children Act and David Mitchell’s  The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  The first two will be re-reads but the Mitchell is new and I’m excited about that as I really loved The Bone Clocks and have wanted a reason to fit more of his work into the schedule ever since.

Another inescapable list will be books to do with the Shakespeare plays I shall be teaching during the year.  The groups focus on one play a term and this year we are going to be studying The Merchant of Venice, Othello and Antony and Cleopatra.  Lots of blood and violence there then.  Othello and Antony and Cleopatra were my A level texts and it will be interesting to come back to them from a very different point of view.  We don’t focus on close readings but rather on how the plays fit into the era in which they were written, their publishing history and the ways in which they have been produced on the stage from Shakespeare’s time to the present.  This year, for at least one of the plays (The Merchant of Venice) there will be an updated novel version available as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project.  Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name is due to be published in February.  I have been very sceptical about this enterprise, but having heard Jacobson talk about the book last summer I probably will read it.  Tracy Chevalier is tackling the Othello re-write, but there is no publication date as yet.

The other reading to which I am already committed is that for my course on Dorothy L Sayers.  I still have more than half a dozen of the Peter Wimsey novels to finish as well as all the short stories.  I am not a short story reader and I suspect I shall only tackle those if it becomes obvious that I can’t complete the module without doing so.  The course finishes at Easter but I’m hoping that it will jump start another project I’ve had in mind for some time. I read an inordinate amount of crime fiction but without any real direction or purpose.  What I would like to do is use the essays in The Companion to Crime Fictioas an organising tool to undertake a more deliberate exploration of the genre, be that through a chronological approach or according to sub-genre. I’m particularly interested in the ways in which plots are organised and how they are signalled to the reader.  Has that changed over time?  Are there specific features associated with specific sub-genres or perhaps specific countries of origin?  What I would really like to do is set up another book group to facilitate discussion but whether I would have the time to run a fourth is doubtful.

Over and above these, as it were, social reading commitments there is, of course, my little list.  I’ve already marked down any of my ‘must read’ authors who have books due between now and the middle of the year and as soon as I can I shall put in library reservations for them.  In any one twelve month period the number of novels I get through in this category probably runs to about thirty so, when you add that to what I’ve already outlined, you’re coming very close to the hundred odd books that I get through in a year.  Perhaps then I had better stop at this point or there will be no room for any serendipitous reads that I discover as 2016 goes on.  Will I, I wonder, have the courage to come back in twelve months time and see how well I’ve managed to stick to my forecast?  That, I suspect will depend on how successful I’ve been.