‘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.

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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.

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!

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.