Sunday, 29 May 2016

Two households both alike in dignity

Plays at the Garrick: Meera Syal, Lily James, Richard Madden, Sophie McShera, Derek Jacobi

La dolce vita to Funeral sangue Mafia

Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh have fashioned a swift-paced Romeo and Juliet at the Garrick Theatre in London. Though the production begins in a holiday piazza with full skirts, sharp suits, sunglasses and the easy consumption of espresso and grappa in the Verona sunshine, by the time the play descends into the claustrophobic chambers of bedroom and tomb we know the Mafiosi on stage need serious family therapy. Michael Rouse’s incandescent Capulet, a bullying neurotic Mafia boss, shockingly straddles his daughter’s shuddering body as he threatens to give her to “my friend Paris.”  The overall atmosphere moves from chaotic street to silent tomb, from La Dolce Vita to Funeral sangue Mafia (The sweet life to Mafia Blood Funeral.)

The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love

Both Lily James and Richard Madden have good theatrical credentials (Lily, opposite, as Desdemona in Othello at Sheffield Crucible and Richard in Malorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses at the Royal Shakespeare Company.) They also have star pulling-power following Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones and Cinderella and they are credible as the “pair of star-cross’d lovers.” Richard Madden’s Romeo is an Andrex-puppy “dish-clout” (as the Nurse calls him) whose hormones are firmly located in his well-pressed trousers. He needs a job to distract him but is happy to mooch about and sponge off the elderly Mercutio. Being drawn casually into a fatal relationship is entirely in keeping with this Romeo’s laissez-faire approach to living until his inner male rage explodes on “I am Fortune’s fool” as he suddenly and devastatingly realises the mess he has made of his short callow life.
Outstretched hands mirror the lovers' journey

 It is easy to understand why Romeo falls for this Juliet. Lily James squirms with awkwardness when listening to advice, stamps her foot when trying to exert herself and allows us to witness her intimacy and vulnerability when she anticipates Romeo’s arrival on their nuptial night. She cartwheels, she swigs from a bottle of bubbly, she is giddy with excitement at the thought of escaping the clutches of her oppressive parents. This Juliet becomes horribly determined but equally fearful as she makes her dreadful decisions with Friar Laurence (first) and, finally, all alone when she has been abandoned by her protectors.

Susan and she were of an age

Marisa Berenson’s damaged Lady Capulet haunts the play as if recovering from an unspeakable addiction (from her thuggish husband, maybe?) It is clear that Lily James’s Juliet has been fed more than milk by Meera Syal’s feisty, funny, flirty Nurse; their joie de vivre and reckless outbursts have rubbed off on each other. But the Nurse in this production has taken the surrogate mother role to unhealthy extremes and in the early scenes eggs on Juliet in the direction of her deadly decisions. The joyful bantering between the Nurse and Juliet gives way to Juliet’s shock when the Nurse advises her to marry Tom Hanson's openhearted Paris. Meera Syal’s grief in the tomb when confronted with her own culpability is believably affecting. As the play ended there was a sense that the Capulet parents (and Montague senior) were mourning for the sake of onlookers but that the Nurse, in her own private grief, had lost her own baby Susan all over again. A very different performance to Meera's Beatrice in Iqbal Khan's 2012 production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Branagh, Jacobi, Madden, Colgrave Hirst, Syal, James

These hot days is the mad blood stirring

Samuel Valentine plays an unusually young Friar Laurence but his ginger youthfulness makes complete sense of the attempts he makes to unite the two families through the “alliance” of Romeo and Juliet; an older, wiser priest might not have been so reckless. An emphatic Benvolio by Jack Colgrave Hirst also fits well into the softly macho world that contrasts with the lurking Mafiosi represented by the older generation. Once a military cad, now a waspish dandy, Derek Jacobi creates a totally fresh (for me) Mercutio. He is like an Italian Maurice Chevalier, picking up the cheques for his young male entourage, who, it seems to me, remind him of the young soldiers he knew and lost – and still dreams of – on battlefields of yore. Jacobi’s Mercutio comes from a pre-Mafia generation who had sacrificed their youthful dreams “cutting foreign throats” and surviving “breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades.” Mercutio delivers the Queen Mab set-piece as if it were a post-traumatic stress dream. The shocking death of an older, frailer Mercutio seems more accidental than it often does, a turn-of-a-sixpence moment on a tragically boiling hot day. The logic of what follows therefore made more sense to me, with each death worth more as the tragedy unfolds; sometimes Mercutio’s death is the climax of a production but here, in Jacobi’s experienced portrayal, it becomes the unexpected first step in an inevitable narrative. 

The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head

The overall production values are slick and professional with sensitive underscoring by Patrick Doyle and a strong supporting cast (a leonine Tybalt by Ansu Kabia and an appealingly bonkers Peter by Kathryn Wilder.) Like the design of The Winter’s Tale (which I blogged about last November) the designs here are beautiful with Howard Hudson’s lighting transforming Christopher Oram’s lightly-monumental pillars and abstract walls in flexible environments, convincingly indoor and outdoor, both claustrophobic and expansive.

What light through yonder window breaks?

Romeo and Juliet will no doubt be staged again and again in years to come but this version was an inventively-directed and compelling production in a atmospherically-designed world. The cast gave plenty of fresh line readings with moving and attractive performances.
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
Past Romeos clockwise: Leonardo di Caprio, Paapa Essiedu, Leonard Whiting, Freddy Fox, Douglas Booth, Richard Beymer (as Tony in West Side Story), Patrick Ryecart and Leslie Howard
Past Juliets clockwise: Claire Danes, Daisy Whalley, Olivia Hussey, Morfydd Clark, Hailee Steinfeld, Natalie Wood (as Maria in West Side Story), Rebecca Saire and Norma Shearer

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Harry's Last Stand

Harry Leslie Smith and the organisers of the Bradford Literature Festival, Syima Aslam and Irna Qureshi

Inspirational speaker

At Bradford Literature Festival on Monday 23rd May I was privileged to see, hear and shake the hand of Harry Leslie Smith, born in 1923, RAF veteran of World War II, carpet designer and importer and, in modern times, a campaigner for social justice. Harry attracted international attention following a speech at the 2014 Labour Conference which you can see and hear by clicking on the youtube link here.
Harry signs books after reminiscing about the UK before World War II

 Worried about The Divide
Like many, Harry is worried about the division between the top few % and the massive majority in terms of access to opportunities and a 21st century standard of living. He has an authoritative and historical perspective on what life in Britain was like in the 1920s and 1930s. Harry sees the Clement Atlee government’s achievements (1945 – 51) as too important to sacrifice to Thatcherite/Blairite politics that he describes, memorably, as “capitalism metastasised by greed.”

Harry stays positive because he believes that true democracy will find a way forward. I learned that he thought the UK would be better off staying inside Europe in the longer term (for global humanitarian-historical reasons) and that he thought Jeremy Corbyn’s presence on the scene could signal a new style of politics, if only the media and Blairite-disciples would listen and contemplate history’s darkest corners to see there is another way of organising society. Cameron and co are, Harry worries, leading us back to the society of the 1920s and 1930s – maybe our nostalgic obsession with Downton Abbey feeds into this narrative and why the series had to stop before we witnessed the Crawley family diversifying into the financial industry and the house being sold to the National Trust.


Harry is furious with people who boast that they don’t vote (or adults who shockingly have never voted.) The ruling elite (whether left or right, Labour or Conservative) who enjoy lining their own pockets rely on a low turnout and want the majority of adults to remain passive, which they do, largely through being (mistakenly) convinced it makes no difference. Harry believes that we get the politics we vote for but unfortunately he thinks that many post-Thatcher politicians are feathering their own nests before fighting for what’s best for the country. So his message is simple: vote. Vote every time. Try to understand the issues before you vote. Think through the consequence of the decision for which you opt. Don’t believe everything you read. Read the other side. Beware of spin. Beware of vested interests. But vote. Whatever you do, vote! I agree, Harry.

“I am history and I fear its repetition.”

Few, if any, modern politicians can boast direct memories of the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s and a decreasingly small number of people have memories of being adults who participated in the post-war reconstruction of Europe 1945 – 1955. Harry is one of those men. He spoke:
  • vividly about the gnawing poverty his family experienced (scavenging in the bins of the Midland Hotel in Bradford for food)
  • movingly about how his father had to move to a doss house after losing his job so Harry’s mother could enlist an employed pig farmer to be her new partner (to feed her children)
  • poignantly about his astonishment (during his WWII tour of duty) when he realised the governments on the continent (for example, in Belgium and the Netherlands) had prioritised affordable and civilised accommodation for poorer people prior to war breaking out
  • powerfully about his current fears for the welfare and education systems in Britain and the NHS in particular, worrying that they are being subjected to a market force philosophy which does not fit with their original concept
Were we kinder and more welcoming to refugees when the country was poorer?

Barbed with the thorns of a refugee crisis

The above subheading is not about today’s refugee crisis – it’s from an essay Harry wrote in The New Statesman about his memories of post-war Europe and how he was being reminded of it on a visit to the refugee camp in Calais:
The armistice was barbed with the thorns of a refugee crisis, with more than 20 million people swept away from their homelands because of the fighting, the threat of reprisals from foreign armies and the prospect of starvation. Seventy years on, I can recall with vivid clarity how the crisis flowed across Europe like a tidal surge of despair. I caught my first sight of the refugees from the back of an army truck: hundreds of civilians with cardboard suitcases, walking wearily beside the road. Some had fled the Soviet or German armies. Others were former slave labourers – desperately thin and wearing tattered prison uniforms and workers’ clogs – traipsing back towards the land of their birth or to a displaced persons’ camp. All were homeless, many were stateless, and each face I glimpsed seemed to carry an expression of terror.
It's easy to forget camps like Calais have happened before....
Moral, political and human responsibility
…..Exploring the (modern-day “Jungle” in Calais) camp, I eventually met a young South Sudanese man who told me about his journey to Europe. With dignity, he explained that he had left his country not for money, education or better clothes, but to escape death in civil war. In so many ways, he reminded me of my best friend, who had fled Poland to avoid being enslaved by the Nazis in 1939. Like the South Sudanese young man, my friend walked through many countries before he reached Britain in 1940.
….Before I left, I watched a young boy aged around 11, an orphan, kicking a football and laughing. Will he have the opportunity to live long enough to talk about his turbulent youth and the greatest refugee crisis to strike Europe since the Second World War?
     The world has changed since I was young. It has not grown harder: just more foolish and selfish. I have seen camps like the Jungle before – at the end of the war. But back then, there was a desire among ordinary citizens and their leaders to alleviate the plight of refugees. Today, it is different. The common will to do good, or at least maintain a decent society for all, has vanished. Our politicians – and we, the ordinary people – are ignoring our moral, political and human responsibility to be our brothers’ keepers. In the end, the only thing that separates us from those who live in the Jungle is luck – and any gambler will tell you that this can change at the turn of a card.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Would Shakespeare want us to leave Europe?

Great Britons

Shakespeare is one of the greatest Britons ever to have lived. He seems to be in the Top 20 of most lists I can find and in the huge survey conducted by the BBC in 2002 he sat comfortably at Number Five (after Winston Churchill, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Diana Princess of Wales and Charles Darwin.) Other writers who (in my opinion) make the list without question are Geoffrey Chaucer and Charles Dickens – I think of Those Three as the writers who forever transformed Poetry (Chaucer), Drama (Shakespeare) and Prose (Dickens.) Nudging them (in alphabetical order) I would include the following writers for a variety of reasons: Jane Austen, William Blake, the Brontës, Agatha Christie, Caryl Churchill, CS Lewis, JK Rowling, GB Shaw, JRR Tolkien, Oscar Wilde and William Wordsworth and there are, of course, many more vying for attention. We have a truly great national tradition of writing that changed the reading and literary habits of the world, as did, I think, the ones I’ve mentioned.
Great Britons

Would Shakespeare, as a Great Briton, vote Remain or Brexit on June 23rd 2016?

I saw Cymbeline at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre recently and (one of) the villain(s) in that strange Romance is the thuggish Cloten who is definitely a Brexiter as he stands up to the Roman Empire by refusing to pay them tribute:
                            Britain is
A world by itself; and we will nothing pay
For wearing our own noses.
So is Cloten speaking for Shakespeare when he wants Britain to stand alone without paying out any money to any foreign power for trade rights and protection?
Current RSC Cloten Marcus Griffiths singing to Bethan Cullinane's Imogen, Anton Yelchin in the 2014 film of Cymbeline and Thomas Gorrebeeck's portrayal as the nationalist Cloten

Confirmation bias

As in the whole of Shakespeare’s work you can usually find a contradictory opinion because Shakespeare seems to see both sides of every human dilemma. The history play King John ends with lines that might well echo Cloten’s sentiments:
This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror….
….Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.
The King of France and two King John Philip the Bastards: Pippa Nixon and Rikki Lawton
But these words are spoken by a cynical (though appealing and persuasive) character, Philip the Bastard. Conversely,  in the final scene of the more popular and potentially patriotic history play, Henry V, Shakespeare writes about England and France ceasing their hatred and hopes
                     ....this dear conjunction (will)    
Plant neighbourhood and Christian-like accord
In their sweet bosoms, that never war advance
His bleeding sword 'twixt England and fair France.
So does Shakespeare wants us to stand alone (“England to itself”) or work together in a group (with “neighbourhood and Christian-like accord”)? Perhaps we hear what we want to hear when we listen to Shakespeare, just as we tend to read newspapers or go to websites that already confirm what our opinions are.
Henry V with Donato Giancola's painting of Agincourt, Olivier and Branagh - a Shakespeare king as patriotic hero, senseless warmonger or bringer of peace to Europe - potentially all three

European settings

As well as locations throughout England, Shakespeare presented many European locations on the Jacobethan stage, even if there is no evidence that Shakespeare ever travelled abroad. In the plays we travel to Actium, Agincourt, Alexandria, Antioch, Athens, Bohemia, Cyprus, Elsinore, Ephesus, Florence, Harfleur, Illyria, Inverness, Mantua, Marseilles, Messina, Milan, Mytilene, Navarre, Orleans, Padua, Pentapolis, Philippi, Rome, Roussillon, Sicily, Tharsus, Troy, Tyre, Venice, Verona, Vienna. (Those places cover Europe and north Africa pretty widely: modern-day Austria, Denmark, Egypt, France, Greece, Italy, Lebanon, Macedonia, Turkey, Scotland, Spain, Wales, Yugoslavia.) Shakespeare’s imaginative landscape was definitely outward-looking.
from Shakespeare Fangirl's Pinterest page

Saturday, 14 May 2016

True Lovers run into strange capers

True lovers run into strange capers: Audrey and Touchstone in As You Like It

The trouble with Shakespeare

The trouble with seeking answers in Shakespeare is that there is always a contradictory opinion. He always seems to present (at least) two sides to every aspect of life. Love is both a joy and a madness. Love can be comic or tragic, sometimes both in the same play. Despite calling it “the greatest love story in the world” Romeo and Juliet is anything but a great love story – the lovers are immature runaways, both prone to taking drugs and both commit suicide – they are NOT ideal poster-teens for love, even though they do say some wonderful things to each other:
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.
Should this really be called a great love story?

If music be the food of love, play on

Duke Orsino, in Twelfth Night, says that the “spirit of love” is “quick and fresh” and he wants “excess of it.”
On the other hand, one speech later, he seems to see love as a tormenting predator that he needs to escape:

O, when my eyes did see Olivia first,
Methought she purged the air of pestilence!
That instant was I turn'd into a hart;
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E'er since pursue me.
Imogen Stubbs as Viola and Toby Stephens as Orsino

Faithful or Giddy?

Orsino also sees himself as typical of male lovers as being absolutely faithful and devoted to his beloved:
For such as I am all true lovers are,
Unstaid and skittish in all motions else
Save in the constant image of the creature
That is beloved.
Only a few lines later, though, he contradicts this entirely, saying that men are notoriously fickle:
Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm,
More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn,
Than women’s are
Which is it, Orsino?

Big hearts kill what they love

Orsino boasts about the size of his heart and passion:
There is no woman's sides    
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion    
As love doth give my heart; no woman's heart    
So big, to hold so much….
Unfortunately his strength of feeling might cut off his nose to spite his face:
Why should I not, had I the heart to do it,
Like to the Egyptian thief at point of death,
Kill what I love?
Viola/Cesario with Orsino: Nell Geisslinger & Grant Goodman, Michael Sharon & Shelly Gaza

Each man kills the thing he loves

Shakespeare presents us with the sublime wonder of love and, in surprising places, sometimes within the same character, also presents us with love’s power to recklessly destroy. In The Merchant of Venice, Bassanio asks “Do all men kill the things they do not love?” Oscar Wilde, in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, famously altered that line with lines worthy of Shakespeare himself:
Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard.
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word.
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice and Oscar Wilde

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

What country should give you harbour?

Romans in Britain, A Doll's House, Richard II, Behzti (Honour)

A play may be dangerous

Thomas Middleton’s words (in the sub-heading above) were true in Elizabethan and Jacobean times just as they can be true now: a play may be dangerous. Drama has always had the capacity to be contentious and provocative, although the Internet is the forum today where controversies are most easily stirred up. Shakespeare’s Richard II was banned in its day (because of the scene where the king is forced to abdicate on stage); Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was credited with women walking out on their husbands at the end of the 19th Century; the director of Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain was prosecuted under the Sexual Offences Act; and as recently as 2004 British-born playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti was forced into hiding following death threats after her play Behtzi (Honour) had to close after two days of violent demonstrations outside Birmingham Rep.

Turbulent times

An Act of Parliament in 1543, while Henry VIII was establishing the Reformation in England, forbade plays that explicitly explored religious issues. 100 years later in 1642 the parliament (who seven years later would execute King Charles I) banned stage plays altogether.
Between 1543 and 1642 current affairs were in a dangerous state:
  • Who would succeed Henry VIII?
  1. Would it be the young Edward VI, who was keen on his cousin Lady Jane Grey succeeding him?
  2. The pro-Catholic (Bloody) Mary I?
  3. The daughter of beheaded Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I? 
  4. (In the event they all did, albeit Jane for only nine days!)
  • Could the old Catholic forces and new Protestant Church of England find a non-violent accord?
  • Could the country manage the effects of the colonisation of the Americas (the New World)?
  • Would the economic boom and bust caused by new trade routes ever stabilise?
  • How would the population of England deal with the influx of migrants from the new trading partners abroad?
  • Could the racial and sectarian conflicts, especially in London, be quelled by the authorities?
  • Would the increasing social mobility give the lower and middle classes an inflated sense of their rights and influence?
  • Would Spain invade?
  • Would the pockets of civil disobedience spread out of control?
  • Would the plague destroy the whole of society?
Turbulent times indeed.
Turbulent times in Elizabethan and Jacobean England

Ian McKellen in Stratford-upon-Avon

I enjoyed (most of) the BBC2 broadcast of the Shakespeare Live! presentation from the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Company on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death – April 23rd 1616. One “act” that struck me as blindingly contemporary was Ian McKellen’s impassioned extract from Sir Thomas More. It’s astonishing that the speech McKellen delivered is the only known example of William Shakespeare’s own handwriting.
Shakespeare's own handwriting
When I saw Sir Thomas More in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2005 it was clear that a central section was indeed by Shakespeare – it had echoes of Coriolanus, King Lear and the Henry VI trilogy and vocabulary that was recognisably Shakespearean. Scholars agree the original work was by Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle but that at least three other playwrights contributed revisions or additional scenes: Shakespeare, Thomas Dekker and Thomas Heywood.

Judi Dench as Elizabeth I and Simon Callow as Sir Edmund Tilney in Shakespeare in Love

What country.... should give you harbour?

The Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney (played by Simon Callow in the movie Shakespeare in Love) is known to have banned the play unless major revisions were made – “Leave out the (riot) wholly” he demanded – a clear sign of political censorship. Within Shakespeare’s scenes is the climax of the May Day riot of 1517 when the character of Thomas More persuades the crowd to calm down by imagining the plight of the refugees and asylum-seekers:
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs, and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires....
....What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour?....
....would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth?
The text is timeless; Ian McKellen delivered the speech as if it were about 2016 not 1517; the sentiments and questions are as powerful now as they were in Shakespeare’s time. If you were an asylum-seeker or a migrant in another country, how would you hope to be treated? The crowd replies to Sir Thomas More:
Faith, he says true: let’s do as we may be done to.
Images of Thomas More (Paul Schofield, Anton Lesser, Nigel Cooke and "wretched strangers"