Weekly Fragments ~ December 1st

woman-reading-by-the-harbour-james-tissotI feel a celebration is in order simply because I’ve actually managed to reach this weekend in one piece.  I can vaguely remember looking forward to this Saturday and Sunday from the distance of a fortnight ago and not being entirely certain that I was going to make it.  But, here I am and all is well, if you don’t count the fact that I am now so far behind with my course on historical fiction that the course itself will be historical by the time I catch up and that I have two days in which to read On Chesil Beach for a reading group meeting early next week. This will be a third reading for me and having just looked over the first dozen or so pages I am very interested in how much my reaction to the text is altered by having discussed it with other groups in the past.  This is very much a book where every word is laden with meaning once you know where the author is going.  More than most it is a novel(lla) where re-capturing that first response is completely impossible.  I am going to have to temper my remarks when it comes to the meeting because the other members of the group haven’t read it before and consequently will have had a very different experience.

Part of what has made these last few days so hectic has been a rash of visiting speakers.  Some were excellent including the lecturer who started out by declaring that ‘common sense is wrong’!  That’s my sort of academic. However, the one whose topic appealed to me most turned out not only to be a poor speaker but to have set off to tell the world about his research before he’d actually done any, or at least not enough to have anything to say about it.  As always that was so embarrassing, especially when it came to question time, because it was difficult to ask anything that didn’t make his inadequacies even more apparent than they already were.  The thing with visiting speakers is that you don’t just have to put aside the time to listen to them, but also the time to entertain them and to see that they get back on their train safely – and it’s all good reading time.  You can see I’m not feeling very hospitable at the moment. I do try not to let it show.

But, I have got some reading done.  I finished Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk and loved every word of it.  We had a first rate group discussion and then the following day, quite by chance, I got into conversation with someone who had lived in Cairo for over forty years and said that the Cairenes who remember the city in the days with which the latter part of his trilogy deals say how accurate he was in his depiction of both the people and the atmosphere.  I really want to read the other two parts of his tale, but they are so substantial and there is so much else I want to read in the very near future that I’m afraid it’s going to be some time before I get round to them.

Another substantial read is the latest in Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series, Just One Evil Act.  Coming in at well over six hundred pages I’m beginning to think that this is too long and that it would really have benefitted from a good edit.  I normally gobble my way through George’s work, but I can feel my self getting edgy and wanting to push the narrative on.  I will finish it, if only to find out if the goodie really is going to turn out to be a baddie, albeit a misguided one, but I suspect I shall start skim reading before too long.

And last weekend was taken up with the theatre in one form or another. On Saturday I went over to Stratford to see the RSC’s Antony and Cleoptra, which has been slightly tinkered around with and re-set in the time of Napoleon with Rome transposed to France and Egypt to Haiti.  It sounds as though it shouldn’t work and indeed the critics were scathing, so I wasn’t expecting much.  However, I thought it was excellent.  The transposition really emphasises the contrast between the two cultures and the verse was beautifully spoken.  I came out having had a very much better afternoon than I’d anticipated – always a bonus.  I think it’s still running so if you’d been thinking about going but have been put off by the reviews you might want to think again.

Then on Sunday I went to see the NTLive streaming of Nick Dear’s version of Frankenstein and found that I was having precisely the opposite experience.  While I could see that Dominic Cumberbatch’s performance was a tour de force, the continued iteration of the evil of mankind was just too much.  There are some good people around and occasionally it would be nice to see that fact celebrated.

Looking forward, as well as the McEwan I have to read Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh for a different group and I’ve just picked up the new Sara Paretsky, Critical Mass.  Paretsky is my favourite of the American crime writers.  I love how she has not been frightened to let V I Warshawski age along with the series and thereby have to face the annoying frailties and limitations that come with getting older.  She is my role model and I can’t wait to get through all my prescribed reading in order to spend some quality time with her.

And then, of course, there is the little matter of the first book from Heywood Hill, which ought to be dropping through my letter box towards the end of the coming week.  The question is, will I have the courage to open the package and see what it is!

Weekly Fragments ~ November 15th

142004194470138886_zzjkurbS_fI’ve had a rather difficult week in some respects and so I haven’t really got as much done as I’d hoped I would the last time I wrote one of these Fragments.  I could really do with a picture of someone tearing their hair out rather than sitting reading as if there was all the time in the world to pour over the newspaper before gently contemplating what the world has to offer after that second cup of tea.  In part this was my own fault because for reasons I will tell you about in a later post I took myself off to London on Tuesday and by Wednesday had to recognise that this is a trip I no longer have the necessary stamina to undertake.  I still haven’t completely recharged my batteries and as a consequence I am yet again behind in my reading.

I have almost managed to catch up with the lectures for my Historical Fiction MOOC and will find some time later today to go over to our discussion site and add to the comments there.  I’m still bitterly disappointed by the choice of books set for this course and eventually gave up on Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.  Life is just too short and my time too precious to spend it reading a book that simply doesn’t catch my attention, especially as I had to work my way through another such novel for a reading group last week.  I said last time that I wouldn’t have picked up Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred Year Old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared off my own bat but was willing to give it a try because so many people had said it was worth reading.  Well, I’m sorry but I have to disagree.  When I think of all the excellent fiction there is out there just waiting for someone to come along and translate it I despair that novels like this get picked up and accorded so much attention. Given that it is advertised as an International Best Seller I recognise that I must be in the minority here, but to be truthful there wasn’t that much enthusiasm for it in the group as a whole when we met on Wednesday to discuss it.  Perhaps we all had the wrong sort of sense of humour.

I was also disappointed with the crime novel I’d picked out to leaven the work load.  I posted about Val McDermid’s latest Tony Hill novel, Cross and Burn, last weekend and explained there how I felt that this book had come out too soon and was still in need of a lot of work.  Those of you who know me will be aware that this is an increasingly anguished cry of mine because I’m convinced that popular authors are being pushed into publishing one book a year for the Christmas market whether said book is ready or no. This one wasn’t.  

However, just in case you think I’m in a real grump (I am, but I’m trying to find a bright spot) I did also read the new Ben Aaronovitch Broken Homes. If you haven’t read Aaronovitch’s crime fiction it’s rather hard to explain what it’s about.  I once saw it described as a cross between the police procedural and Harry Potter and that isn’t as far fetched as it might sound. This is the fourth in the series and I’m telling you now that if you don’t start at the beginning with Rivers of London you don’t stand any chance whatsoever of understanding what is going on, but I think it’s worth the journey.  As you get to know Peter Grant, a young PC who suddenly finds himself caught up in the London manifestation of a mythical and magical underworld linked through their alchemical heritage (the London practitioners are known as Issacs after Newton) to the past history of the capital, you learn with him just how much of that past is still potent and influential.  Of course, you are going to have to suspend your disbelief as you meet the spirits of the various London rivers and watch as Peter does battle with the Faceless Man, but at the same time Aaronovitch manages to conjure up the essence of London as it is today and patch the two together seamlessly.  I suspect these novels are an acquired taste but one that I am definitely cultivating.

So, what is on the cards for this week.  Well, I have to read the next book for my Historical Fiction course, Geraldine Brooks, The Year of Wonder. This is about Eyam, the small village in Derbyshire whose inhabitants agreed to seal the village off in 1666 to prevent the plague from spreading to neighbouring settlements thus condemning themselves to almost certain death.  I’ve read a number of Brooks other novels and enjoyed them, so I’m hoping that I’ll fare better with this than with the previous two selections.  However, I know Eyam very well and so I am going to be hypercritical, I’m afraid.  This is a true story and those courageous people deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, so I’m going to be demanding a lot where this set text is concerned.

Then I have my next book group read to finish for Wednesday.  This is Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Palace Walk, the first of his Cairo trilogy and a work influential in his being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  I’m about a quarter of the way through and I can see that it is a very well written book, but I’m finding it hard to sympathise with Mahfouz’s portrayal of Cairo society during the First World War.  I accept that it was a world where the men got their way in everything and ‘respectable’ women were incarcerated in the house for pretty much the totality of their lives, existing only to serve their husband’s will, but it does make it hard to sympathise with any of the characters and The Bears are having to frequently put their paws in their ears to block out my vitriolic comments as to what I would do to the main male protagonist should I get anywhere near him with a sharp knife.  I suspect that this is one of those cases where you need to read the whole trilogy to really appreciate the role of any one of the three books, but whether I shall have time to do that in the near future I very much doubt.

Where lighter reading is concerned I have the latest in Laura Wilson’s Ted Stratton series to begin.  The Riot is another London crime novel, this time set in 1958 and centred around the Notting Hill Riots of that period which grew out of increasing racial tension in the capital and the rise of Rachmanism – so maybe not so light after all.  The thing I love about this series is the detailed way in which Wilson captures the social history of the time.  The first book, Stratton’s War, is one of the best evocations of the London Blitz that I know as well as being a first rate crime novel.

And only one theatre visit this week, Tartuffe at the Rep this afternoon.  I don’t know much about the play or the production so I’m going with an open mind.  Some you win and some you lose – that’s my philosophy where the theatre is concerned.  I’m hoping this one will be a winner.

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?

Twelve Angry Men

12-ANGRY-MEN-POSTERThis is just a very quick post, aimed primarily at those of you in the UK, so apologies to everyone else.  I’ve just come in from seeing a production of Reginald Rose’s play Twelve Angry Men which is at the Birmingham Rep until the end of next week. It’s on a pre-West End tour and I know it’s also going to Malvern but I’m not sure where else it’s going to turn up.

If you get the chance to see it, either on tour or in London, where it’s at the Garrick, then don’t miss it.  I have been going to the theatre since I was two, so over sixty years, and I can safely say that even this early in its run this is already one of the most remarkable pieces of theatre I’ve seen.

If you don’t know the story then without giving too much away I can tell you that it takes place in a jury room in New York in the 1950s at the close of a trial for murder.  Eleven of the jurors are for a quick conviction but one, known only as Juror 8 and played in this production by Martin Shaw, thinks that they should at least test out the evidence in discussion.  He’s not saying that the accused is innocent, simply that they shouldn’t send a man to the electric chair without  some deliberate consideration. And from there the play, two hours in one set with only the characters we meet at the beginning, develops to its own electrifying conclusion.

I saw the Henry Fonda film when I was about twelve and I have never forgotten it, so clearly this is an exceptional piece of writing but this production is even finer than the film.  Shaw is brilliant, but almost better is Jeff Fahey playing Juror 3, a man who cannot leave his own family issues behind him when he comes into the jury room.  But then that is what the play is really about.  How is it possible for any of us to sit in judgement on another human without bringing our own situation and prejudices to bear?  How is it possible to be able to say that we do not have reasonable doubt?

Please, if you get the chance to see this don’t pass up on it.  And act now because the Rep was full this afternoon and I suspect that once it moves to London it will very quickly be playing to packed houses.  This is going into my list of all time great performances along with the National Theatre’s Ghetto, Derek Jacobi’s Cyrano de Bergerac and Antony Sher in Stoppard’s Travesties and I would hate for you to miss it because you didn’t know it was out there.

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.