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.

English Humour

IMG_0046I thought (and you probably hoped) that I’d come to the end of my posts about All’s Well That Ends Well, at least until the RSC’s new production opens later this season. However, their current production of Thomas Middleton’s play A Mad World My Masters has taken my mind back to a comment made about All’s Well by the critic, John Francis Hope, when writing for The New Age in 1921.  Responding to a staging that year at The Old Vic, he noted

[m]uch of these comic scenes are definitely and distinctly ‘smutty’ a characteristic quality of English humour; Parolles discussing virginity with Helena, for example, although expressing sound common sense in his reaction against ascetic ideals, is definitely playing for the guffaws.  We ought to be as shocked and amused as we are by, say George Robey, who embodies our national type of humour, which is Elizabethan not only in parody but in very nature… The scene is not merely illustrative of the frankness with which men and women discussed sexual manners in those days; it is comic, and is intended to be comic, in the grouty, fleshly English fashion.

We chewed over this quite a lot in class, partly, I think, because a number of people didn’t want to admit that it was true.  However, when you look at the history of English comedy through the mid and late twentieth century, which all of us could remember, it’s actually hard to deny.  George Robey, a comic of the early century music halls, has undoubtedly had his successors, in the clubs and on television, running up to and through the Millennium.

Well, we can argue all we like as to whether or not Hope’s comments are valid in respect of English humour in general and that of All’s Well in particular but I defy anyone to argue that it’s not true of A Mad World My Masters.  And if the play’s current adapters, Sean Foley and Phil Porter, were trying to do anything more than get the groundlings laughing then I have to say I missed it.

The play as it was presented in the seventeenth century, interweaves two plots.  Dick Follywit plays a series of tricks on his grandfather, Sir Bounteous Progress, in order to try and gain his inheritance and thus fund his riotous living.  Sir Bounteous, himself, is a spendthrift and something of a lecher, so, as far as morality goes, there isn’t that much to choose between them.

The subplot deals with Penitent Brothel’s attempts to seduce the wife of the obsessively jealous Master Harebrain, using as a go-between a notorious courtesan whom Harebrain believes to be a pious and Christian woman.

You can see the potential for ‘smutty’ humour.

The current production is clever in one respect; it has shifted the play to the Soho of the 1950s, a period when that area of London had a reputation that equalled anything you would have found in the capital of 1606.  Some of the names have been changed to make the point about the nature of the characters more easily apparent to modern audiences and although the directors state that 97% of the text is as Middleton wrote it, only about 75% of his original play survived the knife as they strove to make the meaning accessible to twenty-first century groundlings.

The trouble is that in doing this, as they admit themselves, they have robbed the play of most of its satire and consequently they have left very little that isn’t simply ‘smut’.

It has to be said that I am not noted for my sense of humour, so maybe I was not the best person to be watching this production and passing judgement on it.  In general I don’t find ‘smut’ funny, just as I don’t find slapstick funny either.   But, as someone in class pointed out, there is ‘smut’ and there is clever ‘smut’ and I suspect, because I don’t know the original text well enough to be sure, that what we’ve lost are all the ‘clever’ bits. What makes me say this is that there was one moment when a point was made that linked to the current banking scandals where I found myself thinking “now that was good – smutty, but witty as well.”  I do find wit funny.

Which leaves me with several questions.  Is Hope correct when he says that ‘smutty’ comedy is a characteristic of English humour?  If so, why don’t I find it funny?  Is this a sign of cultural snobbery in me?  Are we right in distinguishing different types of smut?  And, if that is the case what does or doesn’t make it acceptable?  Over to you.

A Passing Thought…….

globe-burningDSC04032smallI am going over to Stratford later to see the RSC in Thomas Middleton’s A Mad World My Masters and I’ve just realised that it is exactly four hundred years ago today since their predecessors’, the King’s Men, theatre, The Globe, burnt to the ground.  I’m in The Swan, which isn’t that big, so with luck I should be somewhere near a fire exit, but I will definitely be checking where the closest way out is as soon as I take my seat.

Making Sense of ‘All’s Well’ ~ The Two-Story Story.

dream-fable-fairy-story-love-story-Favim.com-451281_largeI am still battling away at All’s Well That End’s Well, specifically at the moment I am trying to work out why Helena is such a dynamic force in the first half of the play and such a shadowy figure in the second.  It’s almost as if you are dealing with two different characters.

Do you actually know the story?  As briefly as I can…..

Helena is the orphaned daughter of the physician at the Court of the Count Rousillon who has recently died.  She is obsessively in love with the Count’s heir, Bertram who is about to leave for the Court of the King of France where, being underage, he will be the King’s ward.  Bertram is unaware of her passion. Distraught at his leaving, she decides to follow him and offer her healing gifts to the King, who is mortally sick.  When she cures him she asks as a reward that she be given the hand of whichever of his wards she requests.  Of course, she chooses Bertram.  Bertram is horrified but forced to obey the King’s decree.  However, as soon as they are married he absconds, making off for the Florentine wars and leaving behind a letter that says he will not recognise Helena as his wife until she has got the family ring from his finger and carries a child of which he is the father.  That’s the first half.  How she manages to fulfil these conditions is the subject matter for the second half of the play.

But, as I say, the character that we see in those two halves seems to be two different people.  In the first she confides in the audience, actively seeks ways to get what she wants and is generally a positive and active force.  In the second she is much more passive, far less open about her thoughts and finds a way to meet the conditions laid down by Bertram almost accidentally.  And, I have been struggling to understand why this should be the case, struggling that is, until I realised that what we have here is a two-story story.  

Now I would imagine that this is a technical term that you haven’t come across before.  That would be because it was coined by one of my Year Six classes after we had been looking at a particularly interesting retelling of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  This specific version of the tale began with the expected markers of the onset of story, indicating, time, place and character and the inciting moment when the Bears decide to go for a walk to let their porridge cool.  However, the next section began in same way, only this time the character was Goldilocks and the inciting moment was her getting bored and opting to go for a walk.  After some discussion as to how they should describe this, the children decided that what had happened was that two separate stories had collided and then combined to become one and before we knew it the notion of the two-story story was born.

Of course there are many variations of the two-story story and any full length novel is likely to be made up of several stories that intertwine and serve to shine revealing lights one on the other, but I’m particularly interested in those where the different stories do actually collide in some way, especially after my problems with Jack and the Beanstalk.

When I was doing the research for my PhD the one story that really made life difficult was Jack and the Beanstalk.  It starts out as what Propp would call a lack liquidated story.  Jack and his mother are penniless and they need an income.  The hen that lays the golden eggs should solve that problem and so we should, at that point, have a happy ending.  (I am assuming, you understand, that there are no marauding foxes around and that there isn’t going to be an outbreak of fowl pest.)  However, what actually happens is that suddenly it is killing the giant that becomes the most important part of the story and it turns into a villainy vanquished tale instead.  I spent thirteen thousand words in my thesis explaining exactly how this comes about and analysing the markers that point the reader in the right direction.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to repeat the exercise here, not in relation to Jack and the Beanstalk nor in relation to All’s Well That End’s Well, even though it works in exactly the same way.

It’s generally accepted that All’s Well combines elements from two types of traditional tale, each of which is found in various forms in a multitude of cultures.  There is the story in which the dying King is cured by an unexpected healer and then the tale in which someone can only achieve their goal if they pass a number of seemingly impossible tests.  These are the stories in which Helena finds herself the leading character.  The trouble is that rather than being two separate narratives here they are combined in one and that gives us problems.  What happens is that the scene that should simply be the dénouement of the first story also functions as the igniting moment of the second.  Instead of Helena gaining the prize she has been promised for curing the King her reward comes to her in name only as Bertram marries her under duress and then kick starts the second story by leaving her and setting what appears to be a series of insurmountable tasks as the condition for their ever living together as man and wife.   The two stories collide.  Just like Jack it is a two-story story.

Unlike Jack, however, there is no continuity in the nature of the main protagonist.  There are innumerable Jack stories in British Folklore and the chief characteristic that they share is the cheeky optimism of the central character.  In All’s Well having screwed her courage to the sticking post in order to achieve her heart’s desire in the first half, Helena then creeps off and hides her light under the nearest bushel for the rest of the play, relinquishing her role as the most prominent female character to Diana and her widowed mother.  It may be at Helena who devises the means by which Bertram is brought to book in the final scene but it is Diana who carries out the plan and faces him with the accusations.  It is Diana who holds centre stage.

The Jack stories have run together over centuries of retelling and now blend so smoothly that unless you’re looking very hard you would never notice the join.  All’s Well is another matter.  This smacks more to me of a play that was cobbled together at the last minute without the time to make sure that there was continuity of character and action.  I’m back again at the proposition I put forward two or three weeks ago, namely that this was a text put together in a hurry to meet a theatrical emergency.  I’m not suggesting that the two halves were written by the two different writers, Shakespeare and Middleton, there is internal evidence that argues against that, but I do think one may have plotted the first half and the other the second and that they then failed to smooth out all the rough edges that arose as a result.  Two-story stories need a lot of care if they are to work well and writing to a deadline isn’t conducive to that, not even if you’re Shakespeare.

Doing Battle With ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’

imagesFor the past two weeks I’ve been engaged in what I can only describe as warfare with Shakespeare’s play All’s Well That Ends Well.

Do you know it?  Don’t worry, I won’t hold it against you if you don’t.  I’ve only seen three or four productions myself and remember I’ve been going back and forth to Stratford for over fifty years now.  However, it was one of the first plays I saw and as a consequence has always intrigued me.  I couldn’t for the life of me understand what Helena saw in Bertram when I was seventeen and more than forty years on I still can’t.  But then, of course, that is the nature of obsessive love, isn’t it?  And, if ever anyone was obsessed by the desired object it is Helena.

But, initially at least, Helena’s motivation wasn’t what was giving me sleepless nights.  As a character she certainly is one of the play’s many problems and I might come back and write about that another day, however my first difficulties lay with the nature of the play itself.  It just feels so piecemeal; none of the rough edges have been smooth out.

Of course, I’m not the first person to have felt this way and there have been many attempts to ‘excuse’ the less than perfect script that Shakespeare has left us.  For example, it’s been suggested that the play was first staged in the 1590s only then to be carelessly revised in the 1600s, and last year two Oxford academics, Emma Smith and Laurie Maguire, published a controversial paper proposing the theory that the play was actually the combined work of Shakespeare and his fellow playwright, Thomas Middleton.

This latter suggestion is in no way outlandish given that it was common in Shakespeare’s day for playwrights to work in collaboration and we do know that around the same time these two authors were working together on Timon of Athens,  however, it doesn’t really account for the rather slapdash nature of the text we have been bequeathed.  So, I have come up with my own theory.  I have absolutely no proof to back it up other than gut instinct and the memory of what happened back in the sixties when Paul Scofield was ill and the RSC had to cancel his King Lear at pretty much the last minute.  And what was that?  They rapidly threw together another production (The Comedy of Errors) in a matter of a couple of weeks.

Here then is my theory as to what actually occurred.  I think that the King’s Men had commissioned another playwright (forever to remain unknown) to write them a play, they had it fitted into the schedule, possibly even had the publicity for it ready, and then one of three things happened:

said playwright didn’t complete the play;

said playwright completed the play but when the company took it down to the pub for a read through they said the Jacobean equivalent of “not flipping likely”;

said playwright completed the play, the company took it down to the pub for a read through, liked it, sent it to the Master of the Revels to be licensed and he said the Jacobean equivalent of ‘not flipping likely’.

Whichever of these it was the company would suddenly have been left with a gap to fill in the repertoire and so they turned to their two leading playwrights and said “do something”.  Or more to the point, “write something”.  And All’s Well is what they came up with.

As I say there is no way at all of ever proving this but it would explain all sorts of peculiarities within the play.  For example, it would account for why there seem to be so many echoes in the first act of another recent play, Hamlet. Let’s rehash something that’s already worked.  It would throw light on the different characterisations of the main protagonist in the two halves of the story.  What do you mean you think she’s a feisty young woman, I’ve written her as a modest young maid.  It might even be the reason behind a title which doesn’t exactly sit easily with the play’s dénouement.   I don’t care what you want to call it, we’ve already printed the playbills.

What we should never forget when we study Shakespeare is that his primary motivation was to get the paying public through the door.  Allowing The Globe to ‘go dark’ for a couple of afternoons wasn’t an option.

No one is going to give my theory so much as a passing thought, but it has enabled me to begin to come to terms with this play and to find a way of elucidating some of the issues it brings with it for the class I’m teaching.  For the moment, I’m sticking with it.

Reading Like Galileo

thelampOver on Novel Readings Rohan has just published a very interesting piece about Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. During the course of her discussion she suggests that the way in which we approach a text may well influence our appreciation of it, pointing out that if you consider certain passages as if they were poetry rather than prose you may end up assessing their quality rather differently.  Her fascinating post took my mind back to a seminar I attended last Saturday at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre about the links between the creative and the scientific minds.

As you probably know Shakespeare and Galileo were born in the same year.  If my maths is right then Galileo was the elder by about two months.  Clearly, both had minds capable of highly original thought, minds that could boldly go where no one had been before.  However, one of the questions that was being posed was whether or not those minds worked in similar ways and as a means of testing this an actor and an astronomer had been asked to undergo tests in an MRI scanner so that images showing the areas of their brains activated at any particular moment could be recorded.

While in the scanner they were each asked to read aloud a previously unseen passage from the new translation of Brecht’s Galileo prepared by Mark Ravenhill for this season’s RSC production of the play. Images of their brain activity were taken as they were doing this.  The results were remarkable in their differences.  While both subjects showed animation in the areas of the brain related to understanding, the actor’s brain in addition was calling on a number of areas not stimulated at all in the case of the astronomer.  The scientist strove to make sense of the words in front of him, the actor both to make sense and to communicate that sense to anyone listening to him.  There was also activity in those area associated with movement as if the player was already beginning to think in terms of where on the stage he might present the speech and how he might use gesture and physical repositioning to forge a bond of shared meaning with the audience.

This won’t surprise anyone who has ever read aloud to an audience, nor for that matter anyone who has ever been part of such an audience, especially if the reading has been uninspired.  It is one thing to understand a text for yourself, but another entirely to communicate not only the meaning but also the emotion behind the words to other people.  Any teacher reading to a class at the end of the day is very quickly made aware of their failings should they manage the first but fall short in respect of the second.  (And believe me, I speak from long years of experience.)

Neither should we be surprised at the links with those areas of the brain associated with physical activity.  I was always aware as a drama student that learning my lines was intimately associated with plotting my moves.  Once I knew where on the stage I stood the lines seemed to come automatically.  It makes sense, then, that someone who makes his living as an actor should begin immediately to consider not just what a speech means but how best it might be presented both in terms of delivering the language and in explicating its meaning through movement and gesture.

This, of course, is all well and good if you are the actor.  The implication is clearly that your brain is working at a far higher level of complexity than that of the astronomer.  And, the actor involved, who was at the seminar, while not gloating about the results was not complaining either.  However, the astronomer was not present.  He is coming to the follow-up session next Saturday.  It will be very interesting to hear his views on the  results. I wonder, for example, if he will consider it a fair test, the text chosen having come from a dramatic source?

Every now and then the RSC pop in fascinating discussions like this and I know how lucky I am to live close enough to be able to attend regularly.  I have a ticket for next week’s seminar and then I’m going to see the play, which has taken excellent reviews, in the afternoon.  I will report back.

From One Shakespearian Extreme to Another

Over the past weekend I’ve been from one extreme to the other where Shakespeare’s plays are concerned.  On Saturday I went over to Stratford to see the RSC’s current production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, which has had great reviews and which two friends had already seen and come home raving about.  I suppose I should have recognised that that was setting me up for a fall because,although I did enjoy it, I wasn’t completely convinced.  As the poster shows, it was a modern dress production, set among the county set.  Modern dress productions don’t bother me at all if they bring something new to my understanding of the play, or if they throw a light on some current political or social situation, but this didn’t do either.  This won’t make sense to anyone other than my UK readers, but I felt as though I was watching a Channel 4 soap opera and that isn’t a genre to which I would go if I was looking for an insightful examination of some particular societal concern, past or present.

To be fair, any production of Merry Wives is likely to be on a hiding to nothing where I’m concerned because I had the good(?) fortune to see the definitive interpretation the summer I was nineteen, when Terry Hands staged it at Stratford.  I can’t read the play without re-experiencing every nuance of that performance, which featured that supreme actor, Ian Richardson, as Ford.  That was an Elizabethan Merry Wives  and brought out the extreme dis-ease between the old nobility and the new phenomenon of the rising middle-class.  The latter were becoming increasingly important in England at this time and were tentatively beginning to challenge the notion that the aristocracy automatically had the right to demand whatever they wanted.  The added tension which that brought to the play gave the production a bite which I felt this more recent one lacked.  I know it is never going to be seen as one of Shakespeare’s more profound works, but I think it has more about it than simply a merry Christmas romp.

However, yesterday was a different matter altogether.  Yesterday, as a birthday present, a friend took me to see the National Theatre’s Timon of Athens, which was showing as part of the National Theatre Live programme, whereby they stream live performances of their shows to cinemas all over the world.  Watching Timon of Athens, as miserable and despondent a play as you could ever wish to encounter, might not seem like the best of ways to spend one’s birthday, but this was no ordinary Timon; this was Timon with Simon Russell Beale in the title role and this was magnificent.  I had to be almost forcibly removed from my seat at the end so riveted was I by what the production had to say not only about the play, but also about Shakespeare’s company and the way it was working at the time it was written.

As you will see, this was also a modern dress production.  Who could resist that in a time of banking crisis and monetary meltdown?  When this Timon has his breakdown and leaves his world of sycophantic followers behind him, he goes out not into a wood but into the world of the city’s homeless, brushing shoulders with members of the Occupy group that gathered outside St Paul’s last year protesting about the profligate ways of those at the top of large financial institutions.  There must have been a temptation to actually set it in Athens given the situation in Greece at the moment, but while it is called Timon of Athens there is little doubt that Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, who co-authored this play, had Jacobean London in mind.  Middleton, after all, was best noted for his city comedies which set out to lay bare the follies of the people in the very audiences for which they were written.  Given that this production was mainly staged for a London audience, the parallels are obvious.

Russell Beale’s performance was quite simply stunning, but what struck me most as I watched this play was the evidence it provides for what was going on in Shakespeare’s company at the time he was writing it.  As I said, this is a co-authored text and probably only an incomplete sketch for a play that may never have actually got onto the stage. I haven’t done the research to back up my speculations, but my feeling is that Shakespeare and Middleton had got as far as drafting out the plot line and Middleton had had a go at writing the first half, up to the point where Timon invites his false friends to a dinner (in this production) of dog turds.  I think that is when Shakespeare took over.  I suspect he wasn’t that interested in Timon when he was on the up.  What interested him (and remember he is writing Lear at about the same time) was what happens to him psychologically when his world begins to fall apart.  This is when the verse changes.  This is where you hear the great soaring speeches that you associate with Lear on the blasted heath.  And, this is where you get a long two-hander between Timon and the cynically philosopher, Apermantus.

I hadn’t thought about it before, but Apermantus would almost certainly have been written for Robert Armin, the actor who joined the company in the late 1590s to play the fool’s parts after Will Kemp left so abruptly.  Kemp had been a slapstick, acrobatic type of actor, a Nick Bottom or a Dogberry.  The first parts that Armin would have played were Touchstone and Feste.  You can see the difference.

Armin was an extremely intelligent man. By the time he joined the company he had already written his initial treatise on the art of fools, Foole upon Foole, and would go on to write a second, A Nest of Ninnies, published in 1608.  He and Shakespeare had a symbiotic relationship.  You only have to look at the parts Shakespeare wrote for him, culminating in the remarkable Lear’s Fool, to see how much the playwright was influenced by the understanding of the psychological role of the fool that Armin brought to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  However, if you compare the first edition of Foole upon Foole with the revised version Armin published some years later, you can also see how he has learnt from Shakespeare and how his own perception has developed and deepened through the time spent in the playwright’s sphere.

What struck me yesterday was that the long scene which Timon and Apermantus share is probably the most sustained exploration of the role of the fool in exposing the folly of others that Shakespeare ever wrote.  And, watching Simon Russell Beale and Hilton McRae probe and challenge each other’s positions, I felt as if I what I was actually watching was not two twenty-first century actors, nor two cynical and disillusioned  characters, but rather Shakespeare and Armin themselves, exploring and dissecting the world around them and finding what they saw severely wanting.

You are perfectly at liberty to tell me that I am being fanciful, but I think that when Armin arrived at The Globe, Shakespeare suddenly found himself in the company of a man who had an intellect equal to his own, someone who could challenge him and force him to grow.  I hope for both their sakes they were not as worldweary as Timon becomes, but I also hope that they each found in the other someone they could call a friend and value as a partner in the type of intellectual debate that leaves you perhaps a little battered but richer in your understanding of the world and the people in it.