Thursday, 31 August 2017

Dance for me

The art world responds to the story of the dancing princess
Playwright in prison
On 11th February 1896, at the Comédie-Parisienne in Paris, Oscar Wilde’s play of the Biblical story of Salomé received its premiere. Rehearsals for an earlier production had begun in 1892 starring the famous celebrity actress, Sarah Bernhardt, but the London production was banned, supposedly because the Lord Chamberlain (the censor of the day) decided that it was blasphemous to portray Biblical characters on the stage. By the time the play was staged in Paris, Wilde had been imprisoned as a result of a series of tragic miscalculations and the fervid homophobia of late Victorian Establishment.
Aubrey Beardsley's original illustrations include Wilde in the moon (top right)

What the Bible says (Mark Ch 6: 14 – 28)
John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”
15 Others said, “He is Elijah.” And still others claimed, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.”
16 But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!”
17 For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married.
18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
19 So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to,
20 because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.
21 Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee.
22 When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.”
23 And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.”
24 She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?” “The head of John the Baptist,” she answered.
25 At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
26 The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison,
28 and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother.
Images copyright RSC taken by Isaac James. Actors: Matthew Tennyson, Ilan Evans, Jon Tranchard, Christopher Middleton, Simon Yadoo, Bally Gill, Johnson Willis, Assad Saman, Andro Cowperthwaite, Ben Hall

Influences and imaginative transformation
In crafting the play, Wilde:
  • takes the text (above) from the Gospel of Mark and the shorter version in Matthew’s Gospel;
  • considers the many classical paintings of the scene by da Vinci, Moreau, Rubens and Titian among others (rejecting some and admiring others);
  • and, like Shakespeare, steals phrases and rhythms from a number of other writings (Scheffauer, J C Heywood, Flaubert, Huysmans, Maeterlinck) and even
  • his own brother, Wiliam Wilde, who wrote a poem about Salomé in Trinity College magazine, in 1878.
What he does, though, is transform the story into something strange and ritualistic. The language is fluid and poetic, hypnotic and surprising. Salomé, in Wilde’s play, isn’t persuaded by her mother to demand the head of Iokanaan (John the Baptist), (as occurs in the Bible) but makes her own decision to do so and is explicit in Wilde’s play that she hasn’t consulted her mother. Thus Wilde’s Salomé is breaking free, growing up, upsetting authority, dancing on her own terms….
Isaac James photographs. Actors: Assad Zaman, Matthew Tennyson, Gavin Fowler, Suzanne Burden and Company
Owen Horsley’s production
It at first glance seems perverse to give a female role to a male actor in a 2017 Roman plays season at the RSC, given the few numbers of (textually) female roles available in Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus. But the decision absolutely works in the context of the rest of the production’s design and, in my opinion, gave Wilde’s play a frisson of repressed/unrequited/ambiguous/burgeoning love and sexuality that was wonderfully apt in this year of the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of gay (male) sex. Matthew Tennyson played Salomé with delicately eye-popping rage; he alternated between naïve expressions of desire, determined ferocity and intricate vulnerability. Standing up to his dementedly incestuous stepfather, Herod, played with lascivious cowardly torment by Matthew Pidgeon, Salomé was a heroic and tragic figure who struggled to know how to express her/his love. Circling them both was the accusatory Herodias played by Suzanne Burden with flamboyant gusto (often appealing to the audience directly and inviting us to judge what we were seeing.)
Isaac James photographs. Actors: Ilan Evans, Matthew Tennyson, Gavin Fowler, Matthew Pidgeon, Ben Hall, Bally Gill, Jon Trenchard, Christopher Middleton, Miles Mitchell, Andro Cowperthwaite, Robert Ginty, Byron Mondahl, Johnson Willis, Simon Yadoo

Total theatre
The moon hung over this beautifully-lit and evocatively-costumed production, literally and imaginatively as the Roman soldiers, the Jewish and non-Jewish revellers and the Roman ambassador were all mystified about how to respond to both the dancing princess and the muscular prophet, Iokanaan (John the Baptist played by Gavin Fowler), emerging from his cistern beneath the stage smeared in dirt and booming out his intense warnings. The executioner, played by Ilan Evans, got to belt out the songs of Perfume Genius, an artist I didn’t know before this production but whose anthemic, heavily-percussive music seemed to fit the awesome, longing, desperate, romantic atmosphere of this theatrical presentation of the pangs of transgressive love.
Variations of the play: film, opera, Berkoff's adaptation

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Raydan Wakes

No blog
On Thursday 31st July 2014 no blog written by me existed out there in cyberspace. Today (Saturday 26th August 2017) there are 172 posts and, although the original intention of always connecting everything to Shakespeare hasn't been fulfilled, the regularity has settled into a 5 a month pattern and I've got better at incorporating pretty pictures which some readers tell me are (quite truthfully) the best bits. I can live with that. I've learned to keep to my own deadlines. The dream of course was to write a novel....

No words
On Friday 1st April 2016 there were no words for a novel but that's the date I started dedicating three days a week to writing. There was the play set in a doctors' surgery. There was the screenplay set on the banks of a river. There were the poems about birth and childhood. There was the book about growing up Roman Catholic.... and there was the story of a red-haired teenager who suddenly realised his parents and the world around him were not what he thought....

Rhenium
On Monday 1st August 2016 it dawned on me that all the other writing projects had fallen away and Raydan, the red-haired teenager on the planet Rhenium, had become real to me and scenes I had written were having consequences in my imagination. And I had to write more. So The Akolyte Wars were born. The story became The Rhenium Wars. The over-arching story is currently Rhenium Tales and the first book is Raydan Wakes.
Tippy-tapping
On Sunday 7th August 2016 I finally started committing to the laptop and at 10:30am on Friday 25th August 2017 (yesterday) I finally printed the final chapter of my first draft for my first reader, Emily. It took me a couple of years of churning out blogs, 4 months of experimenting, a week of fear deciding whether or not Rhenium was The One, and then One Year And Eighteen Days to produce Draft One of 118,285 words divided into 15 chapters, each chapter having 3 distinct sections. (And bits that have been edited out are already waiting to be pasted into Book Two....) I have no doubt that the final word count will come down. The first version of Chapter 15 was 12,000 words, at New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon it became just over 8,000 words. Today it's 6,521 words. Editing's the way to go. But I'm feeling weird at the moment - half Superman and half petrified/embarrassed/confused. What next? Keep editing. Keep writing. Just keep going.
Superman picture credit: Sacha Goldberg

Saturday, 19 August 2017

There is a world elsewhere

Productions during the 2017 summer school
70th anniversary of the summer school
I’ve just finished attending the 70th anniversary of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Summer School. There are some attendees who remember seeing Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh perform in Stratford in Titus Andronicus in 1955. Four years later delegates saw a season including Paul Robeson in Othello, Charles Laughton in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Dame Edith Evans in both All’s Well That Ends Well and Coriolanus (the latter also with Olivier.) Imagine.
Faces of the RSC summer school 2017: Janet Suzman, Katy Stephens, Ray Fearon, Tony Byrne, Nia Gwynne, David Troughton, Erica Whyman, Chuk Iwuji, Dr Elizabeth Sandis, Miles Tandy, Penny Downie, Suzanne Burden, Michael Billington, Jacqui O'Hanlon, Dr Maria Evans, Matthew Tennyson, Prof Michael Dobson, Prof Russell Jackson, Gavin Fowler
31st anniversary for me….
My first summer school was in 1986, the year I married Sally, and the year The Swan theatre opened in Stratford-upon-Avon. I haven’t been every single year since then, but more years than not and, like with Shakespeare himself, there are surprises every year.

Roman season
This year it’s all about Ancient Rome. So all four of Shakespeare’s Roman plays are being staged: Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus at the moment and  Coriolanus later in the year. There is a spoof new play based on Plautus by Phil Porter, charmingly titled Vice Versa (or the Decline and Fall of General Braggadocio at the hands of his canny servant Dexter and Terence the Monkey) which can only be described as the love child of Carry On – Up Pompeii – Panto On Weed. Sitting between these offerings was a gay-focused version of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé with a male actor in the role of the dancing princess.

Decapitations, songs, stabbings, dances, neck-breakings, love scenes….
They say variety is the spice of life and the theatrical sights veered between grisly shocks and tender vignettes. All of the productions offered a new angle or fresh perspective on the characters or themes. Over it all soared the language of Shakespeare and Wilde (and the thumping doggerel of Phil Porter, acting like a satyr dance or bergomask to the season.) During the day lectures by people like the rigorous Dame Janet Suzman and the visionary Erica Whyman commented on the season, the plays, the RSC and the state of theatre and the world in 2017. As Coriolanus himself says, “There is a world elsewhere….” There were no overt attempts to make the plays relevant to today’s political upheavals but it was impossible to ignore the parallels and hear echoes of our current world. As Ben Jonson wrote in the First Folio,
“Soul of the Age!....
He was not of an age, but for all time!”
Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Exhibition

All time and all places
As if to underline the Shakespeare Everywhere theme, a new exhibition at The Birthplace explores active involvement in Shakespeare in a group of Asian countries. To some Shakespeare is all about the overthrow of tyrants; to some he is the epitome of justice and mercy; to others he is the key to unlocking the freedom of the imagination and creativity. He is, to me, all these things and many more – a body of work, a fascinating point in history, an explosion of language and dramatic situations.
He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.
Shakespeare Imagery: to Bard or not to Bard....

Saturday, 12 August 2017

The Great Garden at New Place

A place in inspiration, a place of rest
New Place (previous blog) is, for me, an emotional place to be. On the whole I think the development there has been an imaginative success. To me is seems to be a place of inspiration with its quirky nooks and the roofline of the Guild Chapel, with its ancient wall paintings, looming over it. It is also a place of rest, somewhere I imagine Shakespeare would have appreciated given the death of his only son, Hamnet, one year before Shakespeare bought New Place. The house would’ve, I imagine, signalled a new beginning, a new leaf, a new page, a new act.

William, Fulke and Hercules
The family who sold New Place to Shakespeare have a shady history. William Underhill who did the original sale to Shakespeare in 1597 died two months after the sale. History tells us Underhill Senior was poisoned by his son and heir, Fulke (why does no-one name their son Fulke any more?) History is less sure whether Fulke died of natural causes or was hanged for the murder, but it was Fulke’s younger brother, the flamboyantly named Hercules who confirmed all the paperwork to Shakespeare including the orchards behind the property which became known as The Great Garden.

The Great Garden at New Place
In my own “olden days” (1980s and 1990s) The Great Garden was my favourite place to sit in Stratford-upon-Avon. It used to have open access to the public and was a green oasis in the midst of the tourist bustle. Now you enter the garden as part of your (paid) entry to New Place but, in my opinion, it remains a lush and evocative oasis. It is still populated with the offspring of a mulberry tree from Shakespeare’s day and with the ashes of Peggy Ashcroft and with benches to sit and dream. But it now also has a marvellous tactile bronze sculpture trail by American Gregg Wyatt.

Family weddings
Both Shakespeare’s daughters lived with Anne and William in New Place until they were married:
  • Susanna, aged 24, to Dr John Hall on June 5th 1607
  • Judith, aged 31, to (“bad boy”) Thomas Quiney on February 10th 1616

And one man in his time plays many parts
Shakespeare is known in 2017 primarily as
a PLAYWRIGHT and ACTOR
In his own time he gained most cultural prestige as a writer of narrative poems and sonnets
a POET
But he had the most influence on his immediate contemporary world as
a SHAREHOLDER and THEATRE OWNER
a LANDLORD and LANDOWNER
a BUSINESSMAN and GENTLEMAN
(having bought a family coat of arms in 1596)
But visiting Stratford-upon-Avon as I do a few times each year and delving into the depths of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust properties, the Shakespeare Institute and the work of the Royal Shakespeare Company, I never cease to learn something new about Shakespeare as
a SON and GRANDSON
a BROTHER
a SCHOOLBOY and TEENAGER
a LOVER and HUSBAND
a FATHER and GRANDFATHER
a RETIRED GENT

living and loving (and dreaming and writing) in New Place and its Great Garden until the day he died.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

New Place

Hiding in plain sight
A recent visit to Stratford-upon-Avon revealed a few new angles I’d not fully appreciated before. Shakespeare’s final home, New Place, has in recent years been subjected to extensive archaeological exploration and refashioning for the modern age. Previously you had to enter through Nash’s House (next door) named after the Thomas Nash who married Shakespeare’s grand-daughter, Elizabeth Hall. Now you enter through a beautifully crafted wooden door in the same position as the original gatehouse.

Commuting to London
Germaine Greer’s superb Shakespeare’s Wife produced a brilliant account of the social history of Elizabethan and Jacobean domestic life in the Midlands. One of her central ideas demonstrates how many men in the Midlands would commute to London but live in smaller market towns like Stratford, especially in the winter. 375 years of traditional Shakespearean biographies have claimed that Shakespeare left Stratford for London and never went back until he retired. The evidence suggests otherwise. There is no reason to think Shakespeare was any different to other commuters. He only ever rented temporary lodgings in London.

Roots in Stratford
In his will Shakespeare named 25 beneficiaries. Of those, 21 were connected to his life in Stratford. He bought 107 acres of Stratford land for £302 in 1602 and three years later paid £480 for a share in the Stratford tithes, an annual tax from which he made £60 a year. These are not the actions of someone who didn’t feel he belonged to Warwickshire. Both his daughters married in Stratford and Greer’s biography of Anne Shakespeare (née Hathaway) (and the new archaeology at New Place) persuade me that Anne was a successful brewer and New Place was a thriving and productive hive of (potentially commercial) industry.

New Place
The biggest evidence that Shakespeare belonged to Stratford is of course New Place itself. It was the biggest house in the centre of town, built by the Clopton family in 1483. By the time Shakespeare bought it (for £120 – a schoolmaster’s annual salary was £20), the building had 10 fireplaces and a much greater number of rooms. The latest archaeology has been able to identify the house’s footprint and revealed it had three sides around a courtyard with a freshwater well. Facing the street was the gatehouse side with a long gallery above it; along Chapel Lane was the service block with a kitchen, laundry and brewery; and the main living block, including a Great Hall, angled slightly inwards, protected from the main street and with views over the gardens.

Warm at home, secure and safe
You’d think after at least 30 years of being a Shakespeare fanboy there’d be few surprises left for me. And yet…. if you put two and two together and realise that Shakespeare owned New Place for 19 years of his life (between 1597 and 1616 when he died) and for a good part of the year he lived there, it is inevitable that he would have done some of his writing there. I know this sounds obvious, but the prevailing impression has been that Shakespeare only wrote in garrets in London. Over half Shakespeare’s work was completed during the period he owned New Place. Writers write anywhere and everywhere. It’s inconceivable that his imagination didn’t soar and pour out at New Place.