Sunday Round-Up

e2191505c671674fab7f119e0ae8ab3fWell, I have to say that I am feeling rather better about myself this weekend than last having had a successful first week on my Dickens course and not too bad a week in the book world otherwise either.

Dickens

The Dickens course got off to a flying start with a week looking at representations of the city in literature of the period up to the early nineteenth century.  I got myself worked up into a lather over the constant depiction of the city as a place of sin, mainly because I wanted to know who decided what constituted a sin and I’m afraid I rather lowered the tone of the discussion board by quoting the opening lines of Michael Hurd’s canata for children Jonah Man Jazz.  Do you know it?  The opening goes:

Nineveh city was a city of sin,

The jazzing and the jiving made a terrible din,

Beat groups playing rock and roll,

And the Lord when he heard it said, “Bless my soul”.

I wanted to know whether or not it would have been a different matter if they had been singing Bach cantatas.  It seems to me that in a lot of the cases that were coming up for discussion the question wasn’t one of sin but of the maintenance of the current power balance: People A saying to People B, “Your behaviour threatens our hold on power, therefore your behaviour is sinful. Yippee!  That means we can legitimately wipe you out”.

We haven’t got far enough for me to argue the specific case yet, but I don’t think Dickens thought of the city as sinful per se.  Rather it was the institutions that were embedded in it that concerned him and that is certainly an issue to do with power.

Reading

I haven’t got through quite as much reading as I’d hoped, but at least it is underway.  I’m halfway through Oliver Twist and find myself thinking yet again about the disservice that adaptations can do to a book.  OK, I love the musical, Oliver,  but really it doesn’t do much more than pay lip service to the original.  I think there was a rather more recent television dramatisation.  I must try and get hold of a copy of that.  The prescribed editions of Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend arrived on Friday.  They weigh in at around 800 pages apiece!  I am going to have to put some serious reading time to one side.  The required edition of Oliver Twist is out of print. Naughty!!!

Otherwise, I have finished Sarah Hall’s latest novel Wolf Border,  which I thought was a very good read but didn’t actually deserve quite the level of praise I’ve heard for it.  Certainly, I don’t understand why there were calls for it to be on the Booker list.  Nevertheless, I shall go back and read her earlier work and I’ve added her to my list of authors to explore when I want something that isn’t going to be particularly taxing.

Having taken that back to the library my late evening reading has been the most recent Rennie Airth crime novel, The Reckoning.  I wonder if you’ve come across Airth.  He publishes only infrequently, but I think this series, centred around John Madden, once of the Metropolitan Police and now a farmer who still gets caught up in police affairs, is excellent and that Airth certainly deserves to be better known.   The earlier novels are set in the interwar period and during WWII, but this one takes us just beyond, into 1947. Compared with most police procedurals they are quite books, but full of psychological insight.  If you like Laura Wilson’s Stratton series then you will enjoy these.

Prologues and Epilogues

Completely coincidentally, given what I posted about on Wednesday,  I was at a seminar session this week led by Tiffany Stern concerning the beginnings and endings of Early Modern plays.  She was asking which items should be included when she prepares a new edition of a play.  Prologues and epilogues yes, but what about things like trumpet calls?  And which dances are part of the end of the play and which are a completely separate entity?  It is a difficult question.  I can explain what is happening linguistically, but knowing that it’s a question of what is a separate particle and what is part of a shared wave doesn’t help the desperate editor.  She did, however, offer another example of an epilogue appearing at the beginning of a play, although in this instance it never pretends to be anything other than the epilogue.  In the printed edition of John Mason’s play The Turke, the epilogue is on the left hand side of the page as the frontispiece is on the right.  Just to make sure that the reader knows that this isn’t a case of the printer not knowing what an epilogue is the hard pressed workman has included the note,

This epilogue should have been printed at the end of the book but there was no spare place for it.

Apparently, Mason got it to the publisher so late that all the other pages had already been set and the only possible place to put it was on what is normally a blank page right at the very front.

These writers!  You can’t rely on them for anything!

Advertisements

My Name is Shylock

quill_n_paperI’ve just come in from Stratford having been over there this morning for a discussion on whether or not The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice, both of which are in this season’s RSC repertoire, are anti-semitic plays.  This was the last of three such discussions, each relating to current productions, that we’ve had this summer, the previous two having asked, in the case of the first whether or not the Arts in the UK are pale, stale and male and in the second whether Othello is a racist play.

The panel this morning included Justin Audibert, who directed the current production of The Jew of Malta, Patsy Ferran, who is playing Portia and the novelist Howard Jacobson, who is writing a modern version of Shakespeare’s play as part of a project to reimagine the entire canon as novels for the 2016 celebrations.  Given the outgoing nature of each of those participants it was a lively discussion and a number of ideas were raised that I shall want to consider in greater detail later in the year.  This coming term I am teaching Love’s Labour’s Lost but after Christmas it will be The Merchant of Venice  and then after Easter, Othello.

Today, I just want to think about the panel’s immediate response to the question posed in the title of the session as it applies to Shylock. The unanimous view of the panel was that Shakespeare’s play, at least, is not anti-semitic.  Yes, it presents a man who has some of the attributes that an Elizabethan audience would probably have associated with a member of the Jewish race but Justin Audibert offered what sounds to me like a very good reason for Shakespeare having gone down that route.  The Jew of Malta, Marlowe’s play, was first produced in 1592 and records tell us that it was a box office bonanza.  He (and I) could just imagine Shakespeare storing that information away and thinking “one day, just you wait, one day….”.  Come 1596, when we think The Merchant was first performed, he knew what his audience would expect and to some extent would have had to give it to them, especially if his company wanted their own financial gold mine.

But, when you look at Shylock and compare him with Barabas there are so many very apparent reasons as to why he might justly feel he was being persecuted that in the first half of the play at least you might well argue that this is Shakespeare’s anti-anti-semitic play.  Patsy Ferran noted that the key concept behind the current production was ‘people behaving badly’ and in the early scenes it definitely isn’t Shylock whose actions should be called into question.  And, we also have to ask whether he ever thought that there was even the remotest possibility that he would call in the bond.  Antonio is expecting thrice the necessary funds in less than two thirds of the time allowed.  No, to call this an anti-semitic play seems to me to take a far too simplistic approach.

However, what I did find myself thinking about was a comment made by Hugh Quarshie during the earlier discussion about Othello.  It was widely reported that Quarshie was reluctant to take on the role of Othello because of the way in which he felt it portrayed men of colour and during the debate he wondered about why so many black actors were eager to play the part.  He compared this to the way in which several great Jewish actors (although he didn’t name any) had turned down the role of Shylock because it was seen as anti-semitic.  Well, he might be right, I’m not in a position to know, and I suppose, these days, it does depend to a large extent on the way in which the director decides s/he wants to shape their production, but I must have seen this play at least a dozen times and I can’t remember a Shylock I haven’t ended up sympathising with.  Portia might speak loftily about the quality of mercy but neither she nor anyone else in that court scene offers Shylock so much as one solitary drop of the stuff and at the moment when he is told that he must forcibly convert to Christianity there is nearly always an audible intake of breath from the audience who recognise the sheer effrontery of such a demand.

I have a lot more thinking to do about this, although I will probably have to shelve it until after Love’s Labour’s Lost,  but I would be really interested to know if any of you have seen The Merchant of Venice produced as an anti-semitic play and if so how successful an approach it was.  One of the strands in my approach to a play is to look at the production history as it relates to the context in which those stagings took place and it would be helpful to collect any examples you might recall.

Theatre Weekend

Book-Wise-16x20-600pxSorry, I seem to have been missing in action this past week. I managed to get myself into a situation where I had half a dozen deadlines to meet all at pretty much the same time and I had to turn my back on everything else just to make sure that I didn’t let anyone down.  And now, when it would be nice to settle down to some uninterrupted reading, I find myself in the middle of an unplanned theatre weekend, when I’m seeing five plays in as many days.

Tomorrow, I’m going over to Stratford to see two plays, one by Alice Birch and the other by Timberlake Wertenbaker, which are part of a programme of new work intended to be a present day response to The Roaring Girls season in the Swan Theatre. This season comprises three plays contemporary with Shakespeare’s work, which each features a strong woman in the main role, The Roaring Girl, Arden of Faversham and The White Devil.  Four playwrights have been asked to respond to the phrase, first coined by American historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, well behaved women seldom make history.  I’m also going to be attending a series of conversations about what it means to be a Roaring Girl today and how difficult it is for women to stand up and be heard not just in the theatre, but in all walks of life.  This is the first of four such events between now and the beginning of September and I have to say I’m very much looking forward to each one of them.

Then, on Sunday, I’m going to a NTLive screening of Alan Ayckbourn’s A Small Family Business.  I’m having a bit of a private Ayckbourne season just at present, having been to see Woman in Mind only last Saturday.  None of Ayckbourn’s plays are as frivolous as they might at first seem when you begin to dig beneath the surface, but Woman in Mind is the playwright at his bleakest and so I’m hoping for something on Sunday that will at least make me laugh at the same time as it makes me think.

Monday sees another live screening, this time of the Globe Theatre’s production of The Tempest with Roger Allam as Prospero.  Now, there’s a treat to look forward to.  Allam has come to more general notice in the past couple of years playing DI Thursday in the Morse spin-off Endeavour, however, I’ve been watching him on stage at Stratford since the early eighties and he was Javert in Les Mis when it first opened at the Barbican in 1985.  (I can’t believe it’s been that long since I saw that play!)  He’s an actor who has just continued to grow in stature with every performance he’s given and I’ve heard great things about his Prospero – mouthwatering!

But the weekend began early, last night, when I got to see yet a third screening (and how lucky we are to get the chance to see shows this way now) in this instance of the award winning West End production of Ibsen’s Ghosts.

I have seen Ghosts before on stage.  Indeed, I was lucky enough to see it with Vanessa Redgrave in the role of Mrs Alving.  However, either that was a very different translation or I simply wasn’t old enough at the time to take in the magnitude of  the issues that Ibsen is exploring.  Ghosts was a wonderful play to see just before the Roaring Girls day tomorrow because if ever there was a woman who suddenly found it in her to roar against the constraints that society has bound her by it is Helene Alving.  I was much more stuck this time round by the feminist issues in the play and the way in which both women are fighting for their right to shape their own lives in a society that still sees them as property and where the male perspective rules with a rod of iron.  I have a suspicion that when I saw it before it was at the time when AIDs was first making an appearance, and if that is the case you can understand why a production, as I remember that doing, would lay its emphasis on the issue of sexually transmitted diseases and focus on Oswald’s inherited syphilis.  Last night, I was much more aware of two other points.  The first was the way in which a man’s good name and reputation had to be put before even common sense let alone a woman’s point of view.  Pastor Manders was so self-serving!  It was a good job we were in the cinema; had we been in the theatre I would have found it very hard not to climb on stage and strangle him. Secondly, and topically, on the day when the question of assisted suicide again went through the courts here in the UK, was the issue of euthanasia.  In the script it is left open as to whether or not Mrs Irving actually decides to use the morphine that Oswald has begged her to administer should he have a final, debilitating, syphilitic attack.  In practice, on the stage every actress is going to have to make her mind up how the play will end.  In this production the brilliant Lesley Manville eventually finds the courage to give her son the drugs that will end his suffering.  It was a stark reminder of the terrible dilemma that the families of the terminally ill can face.

So, a wonderful start to what I hope will be a magnificent weekend of theatre and associated events.  And, the reason I won’t be around much until it’s over.  See you on the other side.

Hamlet ~ MOOC

rolf-richardson-hamlet-statue-gower-memorial-stratford-upon-avon-warwickshire-england-united-kingdom-europeJust a quick post this morning to draw your attention to a new MOOC that is starting on the 13th of January.  Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Text, Performance and Culture is the first literature course to be offered by the UK MOOC platform, FutureLearn. It is being run by the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute which is part of the same University School to which I belong. Now, I can’t speak to the quality of the production values that will be involved, although if you take a look at the introductory video which you can find here then that seems to be encouraging.  However, what I can speak to is the quality of the scholarship that will have gone into the materials.  I work with these people week in and week out and I can assure you that they are amongst the leading Shakespeare scholars in the world; you won’t get better teaching anywhere. What is more, it appears from the clips that have been made available that actors from the RSC may also be involved.  The actress reading To be or not to be is Pippa Nixon, who is currently playing Ophelia and Jonathan Slinger, the current Hamlet, is also featured.

I haven’t yet sampled a FutureLearn MOOC so I don’t know how far they’ve got with developing areas such as assessment and discussion.  I do know that they themselves say they have some way to go and acknowledge that they are still learning.  You shouldn’t let that put you off, though.  This is a real opportunity to work with absolute experts.  What is more, those of us who have been struggling with the set texts for the Coursera Historical Fiction MOOC can take heart from the fact that not only is there just one text set for this module but also that it was definitely not chosen simply because the author was available to come in for a discussion.  I suppose it’s just about conceivable that someone nipped down the road, sat by the grave and asked Shakespeare whether or not Hamlet is ever really mad, but on balance I doubt it.

I’ve already signed up for this and if anyone else is thinking of doing so and would like to get together a small independent study group then I would be happy to host it.  Some of us have already done that with earlier MOOCs and it’s been a really good experience.  If you are interested then leave a note in the comments and I’ll get back to you.

Richard II ~ RSC

RSC_newSo, I’ve just come in from seeing David Tennant as Richard II at the RSC and I have to say that I’m not sure.  There has been so much expectation about this production, so much hype in the build up and, to be fair, a lot of really good reviews as well.  But, I’m not sure.  There are some lovely moments.  Michael Pennington manages to make John of Gaunt’s paean to England sound as if it’s being spoken for the first time and Oliver Ford Davis plays York as if it is the part he has been waiting for all his life. But it shouldn’t be the two Duke who light up the stage and draw all eyes whenever they appear, that should be Richard’s role and if it were not for the fact that it was David Tennant playing the part I’m not sure it would be.  His is a consistent view of the king, but for me it isn’t a complete view and when it comes to the end of the play I don’t feel that Richard has made any real journey of self discovery.  Without such a journey it simply becomes the story of the disposition of a ruler and Shakespeare’s play is so very much more than that.

Mind you, Tennant isn’t helped by some very poor staging in Richard’s last scene.  Large chunks of the audience can’t see what’s happening, which rather defeats the point of the changes that the director, Greg Doran, has made in respect of what occurs in the goal.  You change Shakespeare at your peril and what Doran has done here (and I’m being circumspect because I know that many of you will be seeing this at the cinema in the next couple of weeks) shifts the whole focus of the play away from Richard and onto the nature of the politics of leadership.  I can see how bringing the differing types of kingship manifest by Richard and Bolingbroke in to focus might be tempting but only if you are seeing the play as a forerunner of the ‘Henry IV’ plays and ‘Henry V’ and Doran was insistent when this production was first announce that he wasn’t going to do that.

So, all in all, I’m left saying I’m not sure, which is a very real disappointment.  Has anyone else seen this yet?  And if so, what did you think?

Measuring ‘Measure for Measure’

William_Hunt_Claudio_and_Isabella_Shakespeare_Measure_for_MeasureI really have over-committed myself at the moment and as a result I’m getting very little time for reading for pleasure.  Something is definitely going to have to be done about that, but not until this week is out of the way and I’ve met all my obligations in respect of teaching and leading discussion groups.  So a brief post today based around my thinking on Measure for Measure for a discussion group cum lecture on Wednesday.

I’ve always thought that Measure for Measure was one of the more difficult of Shakespeare’s plays for a modern audience to understand.  Not only is there a lot of legalistic and religious argument to pick over, especially in the first three acts, but some of the laws that relate to the various types of marriage contract make so little sense these days that the basic premise of the play can seem nonsensical.  Let’s face it, if a law that says a man can be executed for having sex before marriage were to be implemented today then we would be about to see a very drastic culling of the population.

In fact, when Angelo condemns Claudio to death for getting Juliet with child he is overstepping the bounds over the law in 1604 as well, the more so because the contract of marriage that Juliet and Claudio have entered into would actually have been made more binding by intercourse. However, there were people who were asking for strengthened laws in this area and in 1650 adultery was made punishable by death, so Shakespeare would have been exploring an area that the growing influence of Puritan sects had brought to the fore.

So, parts of this play can be difficult both to understand and to give credit to.  However, the more I’ve worked on the text and read around what the various commentators have to say the more I am amazed that no one seems to have picked up on a point that I feel should be blindingly obvious. In order to save Claudio’s life, Angelo demands that Isabella, Claudio’s sister, sleeps with him.  Now, in contrast to his sources, Shakespeare makes Isabella a novice and so the debate as to why she should not give herself in exchange for her brother centres around the question of her chastity.  To some extent it replaces the question of her honour, which has been the core of the debate in the source materials.  Commentator after commentator, picking up on the fact that Isabella displays the characteristic extremeness of the newly converted, points out that she has misunderstood the notion of chastity and that it is as much a spiritual state of mind as a physical state of body. In other words, if she was to give herself to Angelo in these circumstances her spiritual chastity would not be violated.

Fine!  Let’s hear it for spiritual chastity.  But, what no one seems to point out is that if she did what Angelo demands she would be walking into a room and allowing herself to be raped.  Because let’s not be in any doubt about this, rape is what Angelo is proposing.

As it happens, I find it very hard to warm to Isabella.  She is as unforgiving in her stance as Angelo in his and has little in her that accords with any sense of Christian forgiveness.  In many respects they are two for a pair and the city or country ruled by them or their like would soon know the horrors of the rule of the despot and the inquisition.  However, that is immaterial. Whether I like her or not makes no difference to the way I feel about what’s been asked of her and the fact that I can’t find any commentators who even mention the word rape appalls me.

I shall certainly be bringing this up with my class on Wednesday afternoon to see if they think I’ve got this out of all proportion but I would be interested to hear what any of you think as well – preferably before Wednesday so that if I am going off on one without just cause I can be saved from making a complete fool of myself.

The Chasing of the Tail

woman-reading-by-the-harbour-james-tissotThe most popular pastime in our house this week has been that known as chasing one’s tail.  When I first retired my problem was not finding time to blog but rather finding things to blog about because suddenly I was left with a great deal of time on my hands and very little with which to fill it.  Isn’t it funny how things change?  Now I am running around witless, chasing said tail, because I have so much that needs doing that I don’t know how I am going to find the necessary hours and minutes in which to complete it all.  And, of course, just when I haven’t got time to deal with it, my main computer has died (RIP) so I can only hope that this missive, going out on a wing and a prayer, will reach you all.

Earlier this week, Stefanie, over on So Many Books, wrote a post about wanting to prioritise and if ever I needed to follow her good example it is now.  Which is why I am making time to write here because it will  help me sort out what has to be done, what ought to be done and what it would be a good idea to do if I possibly can.

There are some things I can’t shift.  So, I have to take myself off to Stratford in an hour or so and go and work with the students over there.  That’s a regular Thursday commitment during the Autumn and Spring terms and takes up most of the day.  I also have to prepare for the regular Shakespeare class that I teach for a local group, this term on Measure for Measure, and that takes considerable thought as they are working at Masters Level. Ideally, it should get a least two hours a day.  Aren’t ideals a wonderful thing!

Then it is my turn to lead the Bookworms reading group discussion next Wednesday and I haven’t even started the book, Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, let alone given any thought to how I’m going to shape the discussion.  At least I have got the two meetings this week, one on Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont  and the other on The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, out of the way.

Oh, and just for good measure, I’m starting a course on historical fiction, Plagues, Witches and War with Coursera on Monday and there is a considerable amount of preliminary reading that I have to do for that.

And this is before I even start to think about the things I ought to do, like getting the computer mended or replaced.

Looking at that list there are two things that simply cannot be allowed to slip whatever else does and they are the preparation for the Shakespeare group and Bookworms.  Other people are relying on me where those are concerned and so they have to take priority.  Then comes the historical fiction reading and only after that can I start to look at all the work on medieval history and culture that I promised myself I would get round to this Autumn.

Do you know, two sets of retired people told me yesterday how bored they were.  How do they manage it?  There are times when a bit of boredom would be a welcome distraction!  And now I’ve just looked at the clock and I really have to go.  Have a good day.

Let Slip the Dogs of War

imagesI’ve just come out of a very dramatic weekend, in, I hasten to add, the theatrical sense of the word.  On Saturday I was at the Birmingham Rep for the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of David Greig’s play, Dunsinane, followed on Sunday by the National Theatre’s Othello, screened around the country as part of the NTLive initiative.  Walking into The Rep on Saturday afternoon I hadn’t given much thought to any possible way in which the two plays might reflect on each other, but by Sunday evening I found myself deliberating about what each of them has to say about the nature of war and, more especially, about what military conflict does to those who are caught up in it.  It wasn’t just a dramatic weekend but also a war torn one.

I first saw Dunsinane two years ago when it was staged in the Swan Theatre at Stratford.  As the title suggests it has close ties to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, although part of what Greig sets out to do is give a more accurate portrayal of Scottish history at this time, which means acknowledging that Macbeth actually ruled for over fifteen years and that compared with a lot of his counterparts he wasn’t a bad king at all.  It also means that as the play opens Lady Macbeth is still alive and fighting to put her son on the throne rather than the English backed Malcolm.  The central dramatic interest is the relationship between Gruach (Lady Macbeth) and Siward, the commander of the English forces, with a cynical political commentary from Malcolm running alongside.

In the Swan, which is a small theatre that draws audiences in and very much encourages involvement with the characters, what came over most strongly was the way in which the ‘common man’ was destroyed by the whim of those above him.  There is a choric figure, called simply the boy soldier, who speaks directly to the audience and who we watch becoming hardened through the course of the play.  Forced to acts of violence himself and seeing his comrades killed before his eyes, he soon loses the innocence of his opening monologue but nevertheless he is bound by his duty to his commander and the play finishes with his dogged obedience to Siward’s order that they go on searching for a child almost certainly dead, in the name of a cause they have both forgotten about.

The Rep is a much bigger theatre with a wide stage that is configured completely differently to that of the Swan.  Although the sight-lines and acoustics are superb it is still possible to be a very long way from the action and so, although this was the same production, by the same director and with almost the same cast, there were times when I thought I was watching an entirely different play.

What came through most strongly this time was the nature of war itself rather than the effect it has on the individual.  This time I found myself listening more closely to what MacDuff has to say about war in Scotland and by extension to any country where there are tribal groupings fighting for domination in a landscape that makes survival itself a battle.  When Siward suggests that it would be best if the English went home and left the Scots to live in peace, Macduff just laughs at him and points out that all the presence of the English has done is give the clans someone new to fight against.  If Siward withdraws the conflict will go on because the Scots will simply go back to fighting each other.  In tribally organised countries it isn’t peace that is interrupted by war but rather a continuing state of war that is very occasionally punctuated by a fragile peace.  Disturbing as this is as a concept when you look back in history it is hard not to acknowledge the truth of what MacDuff is saying.  Even more disturbing is the way in which it resonates with current conflicts.  I came out of the theatre even more unsettled by the thought of the damage done by Western intervention in overseas war-zones than I was before.

And then there was Sunday’s performance of Othello.  Set in the present day with all the main male participants in battle fatigues I realised for the first time that it is the fact of the army environment that is key to this play. When you have the constant reminder before your eyes that these are soldiers suddenly the motivation and the means that propel Iago’s plot make complete sense.  As Jonathan Shaw, Commander of the British-led Division in Basra, says in the programme notes trust is the basis of all soldiering and Othello himself tells us that he has known nothing but the life of a soldier since he was seven years old.  In all probability he and Iago will have found themselves in situations on the battlefield where it has been necessary to put implicit faith in the knowledge that each has the other’s back.  There will almost certainly have been occasions where each has saved the other’s life.  What hope does a marriage of a few weeks, an acquaintance of no more than months, have against a bond like this? Othello knows he can trust Iago, not just in his word but in his deed.  Desdemona doesn’t stand a chance.

And what of Iago and his motiveless malignity?  His trust has been betrayed as well.  He has every right to expect the preferment that instead goes to Cassio.  He has proved himself, not just as a fighting man but also as a comrade.  In a profession where promotion ought to follow merit that position as Lieutenant should have been his.  When he doesn’t get it, when Othello betrays his trust, he tips.  There was absolutely no overt suggestion of this in the performance, but I found myself thinking about the number of army personnel that we now know develop some form of mental health issue after years of service and in the light of that what Iago does seems not only completely believable but also completely understandable.    In fact, excellent as Adrian Lester’s performance as Othello is, this production belongs to Rory Kinnear’s Iago.  The menace of the man who can smile and smile and be a villain when seen in the dress of a modern day soldier is remarkable.

The other thing that the modern day setting emphasises is the dynamite that is the situation Othello finds when he reaches Cyprus.  He has set out thinking that he is going to be commanding troops in battle, a role he knows well and for which he is supremely suited.  What he finds instead is a war that is over.  Just like the Armada in 1588 the enemy has been drowned and as a result his role changes to that of overseeing a garrisoned force with not enough to do.  This demands the skills of a politician rather than those of a battlefield tactician.  Skills that Othello knows are not his strongest point.  When you are faced with a bunch of bored squaddies play fighting like a litter of growling puppies it is so much easier to appreciate the powder-keg waiting to explode.  And, to understand the fatal mistake that Cassio makes.  Officers do not go drinking with enlisted men.  You cannot do that and expect to retain the authority which is essential to army discipline.  If Cassio had had the years of experience that Iago has he would not have made such a basic mistake.  Othello has no option but to demote him.  Had he done otherwise military discipline would have fallen apart.  It is this which Desdemona completely fails to recognise.

I feel really privileged to have had the opportunity to see both these productions, but more especially to have seen them in such close order. Not only did the one play inform the other in terms of understanding how central to life the army and the fight can become to those who have known nothing else but also in combination they forced me to think again about the nature of warfare, the role of Western nations in the foreign field and the implications for society of the integration of military and civilian life.

Boy Players

3 Nikolai Petrovich Bogdanov-Belsky (Russian painter, 1868-1945)   Reading in the Garden 1915During this last week I’ve caught up with The Globe Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night curtesy of the wonderful system that allows those of us who can’t get down to London to see productions on the silver screen.  Appropriately enough, I went over to Stratford and saw the show in the very welcoming, tiny cinema tucked away down one of its side streets.  If I’m honest, I’m not actually enamoured of the work I’ve seen coming out of The Globe. I can appreciate the desire to replicate the conditions in which Shakespeare would have worked, but the productions I’ve seen make me question whether or not it will ever be possible to replicate the theatre practices of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, if only because there is no one around to verify the choices made.

Having said that, this production of Twelfth Night is undoubtedly the best of their work that I’ve seen, even though it is still what The Bears, with their enviable knack of finding the right word for the right occasion,  would call ‘eggy’; that is, like the curate’s egg, it is ‘good in parts’.  Perhaps predictably, the highlight is Stephen Fry’s Malvolio, never over powering in his self-aggrandisement, never pushed so far that he becomes ridiculous.  In fact, in a production that tries to milk the play for more humour than it allows, it is interesting that he is never made a figure of fun for the audience.  He is more sinned against than sinning; a man out of his depth but not aware of it until it is too late to retreat.  However, there are other first class performances, notably from Roger Lloyd Pack, superbly cast as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and James Garnon, who actually makes a real character out of the underwritten Fabian.

But, I’m not in the habit of writing theatre reviews here and this is going to be no exception because what I really want to consider is what this production has to say about the practice of using men to play the parts of women on the twenty-first century stage.  Now I know that this is what would have happened in Shakespeare’s day when women were not allowed on the public stage, but the Globe’s performance really made me question the wisdom of our trying to replicate the tradition in the light of the point I made earlier: there is no one to tell us if we are replicating the practice authentically.

There are three major female roles in Twelfth Night, the lady Olivia, her gentlewoman, Maria and Viola, who spends most of the play disguised as a boy and each of the actors concerned appears to have taken a different approach towards their portrayal.  Unfortunately, given that it is the main role, Johnny Flynn, as Viola, was the least successful.  He clearly wanted us to keep the three levels of identity in mind all the time and in theory, this is no bad thing.  However, in the end, you have to believe in the character as an integrated whole, if you are going to empathise with them and it was completely impossible to forget that this was a man playing a woman disguised as a man.  The make-up, particularly, said I am a man trying to appear to be an Elizabethan woman, even though I want all those around me to think I am a man and the voice wobbled all over the place.  I never saw him as anything other than an actor playing a role.

Mark Rylance’s Olivia was a much more convincing woman.  The problem here was one of age.  Rylance is in his fifties and so I was never certain whether or not I was suppose to see this as an elderly Olivia, a problem I wouldn’t have had with an Elizabethan company.  If this is meant to be an older woman (and I have seen the part played that way, albeit never quite that old) then why does Sebastian fall for her?  Especially when, as here, she is made a figure of ridicule with a huge number of cheap laughs gained at her expense.  I have to be careful about this because I don’t like Rylance as an actor.  I still remember the problems he had playing Hamlet at Stratford, although to be fair, those pyjamas were far too big for him.  Anyway, I need to be aware that I might be biased here but I did think he was playing to the groundlings in a role that isn’t intended to do that.

And then there was Paul Chahidi’s Maria, which was just superb.  I cannot pinpoint how he did it (which is as it should be) but while I never for one moment failed to recognise I was watching a man, I never for one moment failed to believe that I was watching a woman. The integration of the two beings was simply perfection.

So, I know which approach I prefer, but that still doesn’t answer the original question as to which is authentic.  And it doesn’t solve the problem that when I see a so-called authentic production my attention is being taken away from the play by the individual performances.  I’m not appreciating what Shakespeare wrote because an historical facsimile is getting in the way.

I don’t want to detract from some of the wonderful work The Globe does, especially in the field of education and research, but the more I see of their productions the less I feel I want to see.  Am I alone in this?  How do others feel?  I would be really interested to know.

By the Pricking of My Thumbs

MACBETH by Shakespeare,Like several other bloggers, I’ve recently been to see the live screening of Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth, transmitted from the Manchester International Festival.  I really appreciate the opportunity to see theatre productions that I would otherwise be unable to visit in this way.  Some of them come to Birmingham, but I tend to drive over to the little cinema in Stratford, where, if I was an opera and ballet buff as well, I could have high class culture two or three times a week without ever having to set foot in either of the RSC theatres.  I’ve seen about half a dozen performances in this way now and inevitably, some of them work better than others so for me, while this was clearly a remarkable production of a very difficult play, it was possibly the least satisfactory in terms of communicating to the cinema audience the experience of actually being in the theatre.

In part this was probably because the performance itself wasn’t in a conventional theatre space.  Instead it occupied the nave and altar of a deconsecrated church with the audience on either side of the aisle.  This must have given the watchers in the auditorium a sense of action, especially with the fights that ranged up and down the aisle, to which they were very close and which was happening right in their midst.  Inevitably, even though the cameras were able to follow that movement, for those of us watching the relay, it wasn’t the same.

There are several real advantages to experiencing theatre in the cinema. For example, you get close-ups of faces and moments in the action that you might easily miss if you were sitting at the back of the stalls.  However, a big disadvantage is that you cannot choose where to look, which, for me, is one of the great benefits of theatre over film and neither can you always see the interaction of the cast, their use of space, their reactions, unless the camera chooses to give you a long shot.  Long shots looking up the aisle to the altar were possible here, but the long shot allowing you to see what was happening at either end of the aisle at the same time wasn’t and I felt I lost a lot as a result.

But, I shouldn’t quibble because this was the only way that I was going to get to see what was a very interesting production that almost lived up to its billing.  (Let’s get one thing straight here.  I have been seeing productions of Shakespeare now for well over fifty years and most of them have been in one or other of our great national theatres.  If I come out of a production lauding it with unadulterated praise you’d better ring the box office yesterday so I am not in any way intending to damn this with faint praise.) Branagh probably comes as close as anyone I’ve seen other than McKellen, to making Macbeth work.  As far as it is possible he made me believe that here was a man who, when we first meet him, is probably as good as they come, but who is weak enough not to be able to resist temptation when it is laid before him.  The problem with Macbeth is that he has too much unfettered imagination.  Eventually, of course, this leads to floating daggers and bleeding ghosts.  Initially it allows him to tinker around with the notion that he might really become king and convince himself that it is going to be a reality.  If Macbeth had lived in the age of the lottery he would have spent the jackpot every week before he checked his numbers.  What he doesn’t have is the strategical wherewithal to bring his imaginings into being.  Enter Lady Macbeth.

The problem for any actor playing Macbeth is that probably something like half of the play leading up to the killing of Duncan is missing. Compare Macbeth to Hamlet, Othello and King Lear and you will see what I mean.  If you play any of those texts as we have them in the First Folio you’re looking at three and a half hours if you’re lucky, four if you’re not. Macbeth, on the other hand, comes in around two hours and ten minutes. Shakespeare might have written about brief candles but he didn’t write brief tragedies.  Add to that the fact that many scholars believe that the Porter owes more to Middleton than the Bard and I think that what we have is a cut down playing version made sometime after the original to meet the by-laws that really did necessitate plays that adhered to the two hour traffic of the stage.  In other words, I don’t think we have everything Shakespeare wrote and that if we did it would be those early scenes that would offer the actor more in the way of deliberation to justify the path he eventually takes.

As it is we have to rely on Lady Macbeth to plan the campaign and push him over the edge.  I’m sure Alex Kingston was excellent, but she’s an actor I’ve never warmed to, in a part I don’t like, so I’m not the best person to judge.  The other member of the cast who I really did think excellent was Ray Fearon as MacDuff.  His despair when tested by Malcolm (who has to be the biggest prig in Jacobean literature) was superb and his intent to kill when finally he faces Macbeth, chilling.  At some point I’d like to see him play the title role himself.

So, all in all, a production worth seeing and I truly am grateful for the opportunity to experience theatre I would otherwise miss.  I’m just not sure that the medium really did do this particular performance true justice.